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