As Jonathan Swift wrote, "We have taught enough religion to hate each other but not enough to love each other." The world today is consumed by strife, a lot of it religiously induced. If religion, as the argument goes, exacerbates the problem, might it also be able to ameliorate it?
Remember the Esperanto movement? It called for a universal language which, in theory, is not a bad idea. After all, says Dr. Phil, the problem with relationships is lack of communication, and isn't much of the world's woes really a relationship problem writ large?
An underlying principle of Esperanto is that it is neutral – it carries no cultural bias. So I ask: Is there a place for Esperanto spirituality?
When asked his religion, Mahatma Gandhi responded that he was a Hindu, a Buddhist, a Muslim, a Christian and a Jew. In a word, "esperanto." I would submit that this approach is akin to Lavan's in the portion this week.
Lavan – remember him? Allow me to quote from the Haggadah: "Pharaoh wanted to destroy the males of the Jewish people, but Lavan wanted to uproot the entire people." Who is Lavan? The father of our matriarchs Rachel and Leah, and father-in-law of Jacob.
Why is he deemed by the tradition to be so nefarious?
To fully appreciate him, we need to explore the context, text and subtext of something that will play out this week.
Context: Jacob, having fled from Esau, has been living with Lavan for 20 years. Lavan has changed the terms and conditions of Jacob's work innumerable times. He even changed his wife the first time.
When Jacob decides to return home with his family to Israel, he does so surreptitiously. Lavan, learning of this, runs after him decrying the deception. Ultimately, detente takes place and they make a pact.
Text: Listen to the words that Lavan uses to woo Jacob. "The daughters are my daughters and the children are my children … so now come, let us make a covenant … this mound is a witness between me and you today … " And then Lavan speaks these significant words: "May the God of Abraham and the god of Nachor judge between us – the god of their father."
Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky has brilliantly deciphered this text. Speaking to Jacob, Lavan invoked the G-d of Abraham; speaking about himself, he invoked his local, regional god; and speaking about his daughters – the mothers of the Jewish people – he merged the two. In essence, he declared that both "your God" and "my god" will become "their god." Jacob, sensing that this was a stealthy attempt at religious attenuation, responded by invoking the name of the God of his father Isaac.
How did Lavan try to "uproot the entire Jewish people?" By trying to dilute the purpose of the Jew. In a word, he attempted to foist on Jacob, Rachel and Leah – and, by extension, the future Jewish people – a form of Esperanto spirituality.
Subtext: What does Lavan's approach suggest? You really can speak the same language. You can be pareve about your religious and cultural commitments, said Lavan. You can be a disciple of Buddha and Buber, of Mohammed and Maimonides, of Jesus and Judaism.
And Jacob's response: I affirm the God of my father Isaac and the God of my grandfather Abraham. We have a tradition and we have a path. We will not merge or meld.
Jews believe that the God of Abraham is universal, but the religion of Abraham is not. Respect for other religions and cultures can only come from a posture of respect and love of one's own. One cannot be a Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Christian and Jew at the same time. In God's world, there is not one language, there are 6,000 languages. Let's become fluent in ours.
Rabbi David Gutterman is executive director of the Vaad: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.