Friday, December 11, 2009

Brothers And Others

There is a old saying about Torah, which is deceptively cautionary: "Turn and turn in it, because everything is in it." When I was very young, I immediately loved the image evoked by this saying--of doing somersaults in a pool of serious words--though the Montreal rabbis (or, as they called themselves, "clergy") who taught me the saying meant it--so I sensed with growing dismay--as a demand that I simply exalt the people that has given us so many Nobel prize winners, or at least surrender to our received strictures.

Anyway, I reentered the pool a free man in my thirties. And the more I thought about this saying, the more it seemed to me far more of a warning than a brag. If everything is in Torah, then--as I implied in yesterday's post--nothing of clear value can be received. The only important question is, who is diving in? With what questions do you turn? Just as important, if a person has a political agenda--and who doesn't?--then quoting Torah only becomes an occasion for showing one's hand. The authority of Torah becomes a prop in agitprop.

LAST WEEK, JEWS in synagogues the world over read the portion in Genesis depicting the fraught meeting between Jacob and his older twin Esau many years after Jacob had tricked Isaac (with Rebbecca's collusion) into bestowing the birthright on himself. The whole story, from their birth to this moment, is a marvel of observation. You can read the whole portion here. Being a younger brother myself, the passages that always moved me the most are these:

Jacob looked up and there was Esau, coming with his four hundred men; so he divided the children among Leah, Rachel and the two maidservants. 2He put the maidservants and their children in front, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph in the rear. He himself went on ahead and bowed down to the ground seven times as he approached his brother.But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept. Then Esau looked up and saw the women and children. “Who are these with you?” he asked. Jacob answered, “They are the children God has graciously given your servant.” Then the maidservants and their children approached and bowed down. Next, Leah and her children came and bowed down. Last of all came Joseph and Rachel, and they too bowed down.Esau asked, “What do you mean by all these droves I met?” “To find favor in your eyes, my lord,” he said.But Esau said, “I already have plenty, my brother. Keep what you have for yourself.” “No, please!” said Jacob. “If I have found favor in your eyes, accept this gift from me. For to see your face is like seeing the face of God, now that you have received me favorably. Please accept the present that was brought to you, for God has been gracious to me and I have all I need.” And because Jacob insisted, Esau accepted it.

NOW, I REALIZE these are shepherds from the Iron Age speaking in a kind of code. But what is the plain meaning here? Enter Rabbi Benjamin Lau, who turned on that meaning in last week's Haaretz. Read it and try to follow it. I hasten to add that Lau is considered one of Israel's more liberal rabbinic figures. It is also important to know that Esau has been transformed by rabbinic tradition into the father of Edom, Israel's tribal enemy, and as such, Lau writes, this was only the first of many meetings. (Note: for those of you who linked to the Lau's column, and quickly gave up trying to make sense of its code, you are missing a chance to understand something important about the politics of this country.)

In any case, my wife, the Hebrew University's Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi, who has appeared before in this blog, offers this rejoinder (a shorter version appeared as a letter in Wednesday's Haaretz):

Read literally, Genesis 32-3 is one of the most eloquent examples in “western” literature of reconciliation as the alternative to vengeance. Jacob cheated his older twin brother Esau twice: first out of his birthright and then out of their father’s blessing. Returning to the land of his birthplace after twenty years of working for Laban, Jacob prepared for a confrontation with the brother he had wronged, who had in the meantime established himself in the region of Edom. “And Jacob raised his eyes and saw and, look, Esau was coming, and with him were four hundred men.” Jacob arranged his children and wives so that the beloved ones were in the least vulnerable position at the rear. He then “bowed to the ground seven times until he drew near his brother.”

We all know what the wronged brother did. He ran to meet Jacob “and embraced him and fell upon his neck and kissed him, and they wept.”

The rabbinic interpretations of this explicitly conciliatory passage range from grudging acceptance to downright misconstrual–-in order to preserve Esau, in his various historical incarnations, as the demonic other. It was with the usual trepidation, therefore, but also some hope that I approached the column this week by Rabbi Benjamin Lau, who, I have heard, adds a refreshingly progressive voice to the chorus of rabbinic rabble-rousers in Jerusalem (“Brotherly Love—and Hate,” Haaretz, Dec. 4).

Rabbi Lau takes us through seven encounters (by his count) between Jacob and Esau and their presumed descendants, the children of Israel and of Edom. He demonstrates the poisonous power of free-floating symbols: the psalmist in Babylonian exile remembers that the Edomites, who had not allowed the tribes of Israel to pass through their territory on their way to Canaan, were now in league with the Babylonians. The famous vow to “remember Jerusalem” in Ps. 137 ends with a vision of return that is a pledge to vengeance, culminating in smashing the babies of 'Bat-bavel' [i.e., Edom] against the rocks...

Rabbi Lau acknowledges the vengeful pledge but leaves out the part about the babies.

Then, rather than teasing out the obvious implications of this form of memory, he tells us that Edom was, from an early period, identified with--wait for it--Christendom. (He admits, but never mind, that Israel heaped curses on Edom in the nefarious final verses of the Hanukah song maoz tzur—and that those verses were excised from most Jewish prayerbooks out of fear of offending the Church.)

Lau's argument concludes by telling us that, today, these two “brothers,” sons of Israel and Edom (read: Jews and Christians), come with peace in their hearts but are thwarted by some “third brother from the East, who also has a monotheistic belief.” That is, instead of valorizing the common identification of the Arabs with Esau as well as Ishmael; rather than deploring the culture of vengeance that ancient grievances engender and that periodically take hold of post-traumatic Jews, Rabbi Lau concludes by telling us that the Jews and the Christians are now cozy allies offering an olive branch to each other so they can “form an alliance” against the nefarious other brother who comes from the “East.”

Are we to understand that this “other brother” who is disturbing our Judeo-Christian peace, is the one whose babies we are enjoined—with impunity—to dash against the rocks? Is it not an embarrassment to write such things when,
in Sheikh Jerrah and Silwan, neighborhoods unilaterally annexed to Jewish Jerusalem after the Six Day War--and just a stone’s throw from the synagogue in the Greek Colony where Rabbi Lau preaches on Shabbat afternoons--the putative descendants of Esau and Ishmael are being violently evicted from their homes by the descendants of Jacob—presumably, so that there will be no Arabs to disturb our exegetical acrobatics and our “peaceful world”?


Potter said...

He demonstrates the poisonous power of free-floating symbols

Bill Moyers, more than 10 years ago had a very interesting TV series "Genesis" and in chapter 8, a group of academics/clergy, including Stephen Mitchell and Elaine Plagels discuss interpretations of the story of Jacob and Esau. I listened again inspired by these comments. I think these stories are meant to be interactive (!!!)- so each interpretation brings forth what is in one's deepest heart -exposed. And when this is pointed out and shared in discussion with others who are open it's amazing what arises out of a story- a simple story as told to a child, but one with so much potential for adults.

As to Lau's (and other such) interpretations that validate an obvious harmful path, the work is to counter with a much more appealing (hopefully) interpretation.

Thank you both.

ariel said...


In your blog Brothers And Others dated 11 December 2009, in which you explored the theme of revenge versus reconciliation, I think you have to dig deeper into the Jacob/Esau story so that these two apparent opposites can be dialectically “aufgehobt” on another level of symbiosis. It relates to The Hebrew Republic and your perspective on the secular technocrats as the salvation of Israel and the religious right as its source of threat.

When Rebeccah was pregnant with both Jacob and Esau and is the first figure in the Torah to initiate direct contact with God (see Rachel Adelman, “Kol Isha” commentary “From Veil to Goatskins – The Female Ruse” in the Jerusalem Post earlier this month), even though she waited twenty years for this pregnancy, she, like Job, comes to wish she had never been born given her adumbration what the tumult in her belly was going to bring forth for millennia thereafter. God tells her that the older will come to serve the younger. And if that is the case, then both Christianity and Islam, both identified with Esau, are not the younger children but are older than Judaism itself but, in some sense, will come to serve the descendents of Jacob, presumably when peace will come to reign on earth. Rebeccah never tells Isaac about this revelation.

According to my daughter’s interpretation, the explanation goes back to the time when Rebeccah first met Isaac and Isaac spots the camels but Rebeccah seeing Isaac falls from her camel (Genesis 25:63-64) because she both saw his holiness but also foresaw what he did not and therefore knew that she knew and understood more than he did. Holiness and mindblindness were related. Here was a holy man but one who loved Esau because he had a taste for game.
[This might suggest to you that Rabbi Lau and the other rabbis who see Arabs as simply a threat and instigate violence in protection of that threat are really lovers of the hunter rather than the shepherd and have more kinship with Esau than they can own up to.] On God’s will, however, the future way went through the tent-dweller, the soft-skinned rather than the hairy one. But to win the succession, Rebeccah had to help Jacob appear hairy while, in reality, he was not a fighting man. One message may be that the true peacemaker and reconciler must go forth in a warrior’s garb.

[to be continued in the next comment] ...

Howard Adelman
64 Wells Hill Ave.,
Toronto, ON.
M5R 3A8
416 533 5012

ariel said...

But that is too sketchy to translate into policy. Let me cite another of my daughter’s Jerusalem Post articles, “Jacob’s Night Vision and the Foundation Stone of the World” when Jacob fell asleep in the same place where the akeda took place (Rashi) and had his famous “ladder” dream of angels ascending and descending a ramp and Jacob wakes up to name the place the Gate of Heaven. Now the place Abraham brought Isaac and bound him was a place of displacement, where animal sacrifice replaced the sacrifice of children. Now if all wars are based on the willingness of their elders to sacrifice their grown children for a higher cause, there must be a place where the symbol of the sacrifice and the link between heaven and earth can be located so that humankind can continue to live on a horizontal rather than a vertical plane, a place which can become a repository of fear so that one can live a peaceful life in brotherly love. Jacob recognizes the need for a palliative of fear and there fuses twelve stones into a united nations which God made into the foundation stone that would be the navel of the world for it is there that God will stay the hand that holds the dagger.

Against this background of Isaac seeing only camels while Rebeccah foresaw the future, including the man who would become her husband, the story of Jacob’s return and meeting up with Esau once again is NOT a story of reconciliation. Instead of reconciling by depositing his fears at the pace where the foundation stone of the world was sunk, Jacob continued to fear his brother. Esau embraces Jacob. Jacob does not embrace Esau. Jacob comes with his fears intact and sets out to appease his elder brother. Afterwards, he will move on again because he still continued to fear his brother. So I disagree with Sidra that this an eloquent story of reconciliation. Rather, it is a story of appeasement. The choice is not between na├»ve brotherly love (the iconic Christian turn) or a warrior approach (the iconic Muslim turn), but the need for everyone to come together and recognize that they must first deposit their fear of one another on a common foundation that connects earth and heaven. Only then can the secular horizontal culture prosper in peace. The latter, in contrast with your thesis, requires the former, a holy place, a temple where fears can be deposited and heaven and earth meet.

Howard Adelman

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