Hamilton and The Stories of Our Patriarchs

I ask every Bar or Bat Mitzvah to suggest a topic for my sermon for their ceremony. Recently, Levi Weinstein asked me to talk about his favorite musical, Hamilton, and so my challenge was to weave this groundbreaking show with the stories in Genesis that we were reading during those weeks.

Most countries have what is called a
foundation epic, the artistic depiction of
the beginning of the nation. England
has King Arthur and his Knights of the
Round Table; France has the Song of
Roland, and so on. I’ve always been struck that the
United States of America has never had some book or
movie that patriotically describes its beginnings. In a
way, the movie The Ten Commandments, ending with
Moses turning into the Statue of Liberty, tried to be this.
The musical 1776 tried in its rollicking way to be this. In
a sense, maybe the Declaration of Independence is our
epic, our founding document.
Now let’s say that you’re a person of color and you’re
watching the musical 1776. All you see is a lot of white
males, some of whom were slave owners. You see the
debate about slavery, and you see those who were against
it buckling under southern pressure to allow slavery in
the new country. So how do you find your place in a founding
epic that treated your ancestors as less than human?
America of 2019 is very different, thank G-d, from the
America of 1776. The America of George Washington
was different from the America of today. We’ve come a
long way. We have a very long way to go, but we’ve come a long way. Still, how do we overcome the distance if we
want to celebrate and honor the creation of our country?
We can denigrate our Founding Fathers and call them
racists and worse. Or we can do what Lin-Manuel Miranda
did with his musical Hamilton. The big deal about Hamilton:
An American Musical is not that it is a sung and rapped
account about the life of American Founding Father
Alexander Hamilton that incorporates hip hop, R&B,
pop, soul and traditional-style show tunes. The big deal
is how it consciously casts non-white actors as the
Founding Fathers and other historical figures.
Miranda said that the portrayal of Hamilton, Thomas
Jefferson, George Washington, and other white historical
figures by black and Hispanic actors should not require
any substantial suspension of disbelief by audience
members. “Our cast looks like America looks now, and
that's certainly intentional,” he said. “It's a way of
pulling you into the story and allowing you to leave
whatever cultural baggage you have about the founding fathers at the door. We're telling the story of old, dead
white men but we're using actors of color, and that makes
the story more immediate and more accessible to a
contemporary audience.” The casting of Black, Latino,
and Asian American leads allows audiences to literally
view America as a nation of immigrants, with the intention
of showing how irrelevant the Founding Fathers' whiteness
is to their claim on the country. Miranda said: “Hamilton
is a story about America, and the most beautiful thing
about it is...it's told by such a diverse cast with a such
diverse styles of music. We have the opportunity to
reclaim a history that some of us don't necessarily think
is our own.”
Miranda creates a myth for Hamilton by celebrating him
as a symbol of immigrant inclusiveness and egalitarianism.
Historically, it’s a stretch, but theatrically, it’s genius.
The show has been called, “an achievement of historical
and cultural reimagining.”
The word “reimagining” is what I want to focus on. Every
week, we read from the Torah. During these months, we
read from the Book of Breisheet, the Book of Genesis. We
read about our Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Just as we have serious problems with some of the things
that our American Founding Fathers did from our modern
perspective, we have serious problems with some of the
actions of our three forefathers. But through the ages, we
have re-imagined our forefathers. We either forgave them
for being so human and for living in their ancient times,
or we found ways to see the stories differently.
A recent sedrah was Toldot, which means “Generations.”
If Judaism is, as a wise man once put it, “a conversation
between generations,” then Toldot/generations means
that our generation has the right and the need and even
the obligation to find our perspective on the past, to find
our way into the stories of our ancestors, to make them
look like us. In that sedrah, Jacob deceives his father
Isaac by pretending to be his older brother Esau and
receives a blessing that will determine the future of our
people. If our forefathers acted in ways that were acceptable
in their time but not in ours, we have the right and the
need and even the obligation to tell the truth but also to
re-imagine what the truth could have been.
In another recent sedrah, Vayyetze, we see Jacob running
away from the anger of his brother. We see Jacob as very
human; someone who has done something that has serious
consequences. Our forefathers were very human like us,
and we can learn from their errors.
But then we see that Jacob has the dream of a ladder that
connects earth and heaven. He says, very beautifully,
“Surely G-d is in this place, and I didn’t know it.” We see
Jacob changing, growing, and understanding more about
G-d’s world. Maybe I am re-imagining Jacob, super-imposing my personal passion for growth onto his story.
But such re-imagining allows us to read about our ancestors
and to be inspired by their greatness, by their courage,
by their ingenuity, by their will to survive and carry our
people’s destiny into the future, so that we could be here
right now talking about it. Re-biographing our ancestors,
re-imagining them as moral exemplars that can be our
models, are necessary and productive. Jewish tradition
through Midrash and commentary has been re-imagining
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob for thousands of years.
And so we pray to the G-d of Abraham, the G-d of Isaac
and the G-d of Jacob, and to the G-d of each one of us.
Just as we re-imagine our patriarchs and their relationships
with G-d, we are constantly re-imagining our own
lives. So for me, the musical Hamilton, in re-imagining
the birth of America, and turning that America into what
we want America to be, gives us a vision of the past that
can give us a vision of the future. The musical Hamilton
is filled with actors who are African-American, Hispanic
American and Asian American. And because it reimagines
the past in order to envision the future, it is also very
Jewish.
Rabbi Scolnic