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Abraham, Kurds, and Refugees


Sermon Shabbat Lech Lecha 5780

There are times when current events and the Torah reading cycle seem to sync up in surprising ways, and this week is one of those times. At the beginning of our Torah portion of Lech Lecha, Abram, who was born in Ur in Sumeria, modern-day Iraq, is actually living in Harran, a city that today is in Turkey, quite close to the Syrian border. That area is primarily Kurdish and served as the staging area for the ongoing Turkish invasion of Kurdish-held territory in Syria. The capital of the region is a town called Sanliurfa, also know as “Urfa,” about 25 miles from Harran.

I was in Sanliurfa and the area of Harran about four years ago, and in view of its contemporary prominence I’m going to share a few observations from my visit to one of Abraham’s home-town areas.

I wrote, “Southeastern Turkey, where Sanliurfa is located, is heavily Kurdish. Kurds make up 20 per cent of the population of Turkey overall, which is far higher than I would have guessed, and they form a clear majority of the population in these parts. According to the people with whom I spoke Kurds have many more children, on average, than other Turks, and the Kurdish percentage of the population is growing. In Sanliurfa the Kurds appear to be traditional Muslims, and clothing here is much more conservative, with far more women veiled, than in Istanbul.

“I did a good deal of speaking to God while driving in Sanliurfa. That’s because no one around here appears to know how to drive an automobile, and most pedestrians aren’t clear on the speed and trajectory of oncoming autos either. People drive at all speeds from 5 to 55 MPH on the same road, with no apparent concept of how to steer or brake their cars properly. I suspect driver’s ed is not a high priority in the schooling experience of southeastern Turkey. Unlike Istanbul, where everyone drives aggressively and seems to know what he or she is doing, here there is a fetching obliviousness to most drivers. They look like they all just got their learners’ permits and are trying out this new skill.

“An additional interesting hazard is the combination of donkey carts and oblivious pedestrians on every street and highway. The donkeys are understandable, but you see individuals and groups blindly walk out into the street or onto the highway with no regard for the fact that vehicles weighing tons are barreling down on them.

Here in southeastern Turkey no one seems acquainted with such niceties as lane changing or signaling, or not parking on the highway or driving the wrong way on a road. The standard way to see if cars are coming appears to be to walk out into the middle of the expressway and look around.

“In any case, in addition to Gobekli Tepe, the oldest human sacred construction in the world, there are some very interesting Muslim holy sites in Sanliurfa, most prominently “Abraham’s Well” or “Abraham’s Cave.” Abraham is the one figure in the Bible who is considered similarly sacred and important to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In the Torah the patriarch Abraham was born in Ur of the Chaldees, Ur Kasdim, which most people believe was the Sumerian city of Ur in Mesopotamia, today’s Iraq. He later moved to Harran, a town about 45 kilometers south of Sanliurfa, and eventually migrated to Canaan, the future Holy Land. According to Islamic tradition, however, Abraham was born in Sanliurfa itself, and there is a cave and a well area that they believe was his birthplace. That spot is an important place of pilgrimage for Muslims, and around that small location they have constructed substantial facilities for pilgrims. There is a mosque complex and a variety of other buildings, courtyards and gardens to welcome pilgrims and provide places for their ritual needs. There is also a large “Pond of Sacred Fish”, based on another Islamic religious tale about Abraham.

“By Muslim tradition, when King Nimrod was informed that a boy would soon be born who would overthrow his rule and end paganism, he ordered that all boy babies be slaughtered. This Muslim Tafsir, roughly equivalent to a Jewish midrash, echoes similar stories in the Torah about Pharaoh attempting to kill all Israelite baby boys in Egypt, and in the New Testament about King Herod slaughtering all the innocents. In the Muslim story of the origins of Abraham, Abraham’s mother, named Nuna, was pregnant. She hid in this cave in Urfa, gave birth to Abraham here, and secretly snuck in to nurse him daily. According to another Muslim tradition, a gazelle nursed Abraham in the cave as well, and Abraham remained secreted here for the first 15 months of his life, during which he miraculously matured 15 years. Quite a story.

“Today Sanliurfa is an active little city, not particularly modernized, with a lively downtown, many small mosques and the appearance of a vibrant business district. The area around the Abraham’s Well site is quite large. This was clearly not the biggest time of year for pilgrims as there was literally no line when I went to the holy area to see the famous sacred place. After removing my shoes, I went in. The well itself is in a small cave, floodlit from below the surface of a floor made up of heavy glass. It is not much to see, but you can drink some of the water, which like the water at Lourdes is supposed to have special healing powers. It tasted like water.

“Next to the well itself is the Mevlid-I-Halil Mosque, dedicated to Abraham, facing toward Mecca, of course. It is a nice, airy room, not very large but with particularly beautiful tile work throughout. A startling plaque on the outside in Turkish, English and Arabic explains that ‘This has been a holy site for many generations: first it was a pagan temple, then a synagogue, then a church, and finally it became a mosque.’ The process of supersession in holy sites is explicit here, each religious tradition using the same exact site but relabeling it to serve its own needs.

“The areas around Abraham’s Well are all associated with Muslim traditions about Abraham affirming the oneness of God in the face of persecution by King Nimrod, the attributed ruler of the Urfa area in that time, 3,800 years ago. According to one Muslim story, Abraham was to be thrown into the fire, like Daniel in the Bible, but the coals were miraculously turned into birds. There are still many birds fluttering in the courtyards here, and they are protected against molestation by the memory of this tale.

“In another story, King Nimrod’s own daughter Zeliha rebelled against his pagan polytheism and told her father that Abraham alone was right about God’s oneness. In a fit of anger, Nimrod threw her into the fire to burn to death, and her tears miraculously formed a fountain and a sacred pool, called Aynzeliha, “Zeliha’s Tears.” The fish that swim in this pool are considered holy and cannot be eaten. Today, there are lovely cafes surrounding this pool, and it is filled with particularly active fish that the local boys delight in feeding. There is a kind of festive air to this area, situated below the Ottoman castle of Urfa high above, with vendors walking past selling pastries and couples strolling through the park.

“I must admit that when I hear stories from other religious traditions that are based on my own Jewish tradition, but which differ dramatically from our ancient texts, I feel like I am experiencing one of the ‘Fractured Fairy Tales’ from the old Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. That is, the characters are familiar, but the story is fouled up somehow.

“In spite of that, this is a pleasant, interesting place, beautiful and filled with sincerity and piety. It demonstrates one of non-radical Islam’s most appealing qualities, the ability to accept more ancient monotheistic religious traditions’ holy people and places as having innate sanctity and value. This has been a part of Islam for many centuries, and it has allowed it, at its best, to show respect and reverence for Jewish and Christian religious figures in a way that Jews and Christians find very hard to do for one another—let alone for Muslims.

“This is not always the case, of course, and we have had many examples of destructive acts perpetrated by the insane aspects of Islam afoot in the world today. But a place like Abraham’s Well shows that this radicalism is far from the way Muslims have traditionally thought about the world, or the way most Muslims think about it now.

“A final note about Sanliurfa and Harran. Literally hundreds of thousands of refugees from the brutal Syrian civil war have been housed in Harran, in temporary structures, by the Turks.

“Among all the countries beings swamped with Syrian refugees now, Turkey has done a particularly good job of trying to be both supportive and humane, within the limits of its resources. It has built caravan cities to house them, supplied water and sanitation and electricity, and has tried to set up a decent, temporary life for them. This is in keeping with its national character. Turkey, like America, has always been a place of refugees: from Abraham nearly four thousand years ago, to the Greek colonies founded throughout ancient Turkey, to the Turkic invaders of Byzantium who made it their new homeland, to the Jews at the time of the Expulsion from Spain, to the many immigrant groups who contributed so materially to the success of the Ottoman Empire. By necessity many outsiders have come to Turkey and made it their home. They still do, and they are treated with quite generous hospitality.”

Quite a mixture: complicated ancient midrashim of various religions and contemporary refugees—Sanliurfa, and Harran, in Abraham’s time and back in the winter of 2015.

But we return to today, to the fall of 2019. Of course, over the past few weeks, after US troops were withdrawn, President Erdogan ordered the Turkish Army to attack the Kurds who had been actively, and successfully, fighting ISIS in Abraham’s old backyard. Some of this must be attributed to the fact that Kurds are a large and potentially separatist part of the nation of Turkey, and although all reasonable people can agree that they should have had their own country long ago, Erdogan has no desire to see them get that country if it means taking some of Turkey, especially the part with a majority of Kurds like Sanliurfa and Harran, along with it.

It seems that even countries with a long history of accepting refugees can become bitterly opposed to self-determination today.

You know, we Jews date our migratory patterns to Abraham in this week’s parshah of Lech Lecha, Abraham being the first of our fathers to be a “wandering Aramean” as the Haggadah puts it. We truly know what it is to be Wandering Jews—as does our congregation!—and of the great value of finding nations and places that welcome and accept us.

May we always remember that this is an innate characteristic of our religious tradition, and of our people, and demonstrate understanding, respect and empathy for refugees. We Jews were in exactly their place throughout our history. They need our support today.