Sunday, November 21, 2010

Jacob's Sophie's Choice

I've always found it puzzling why Jacob divided his camp into two parts so that "If Esau come to the one camp, and smite it, then the camp which is left shall escape." (Gen 32:8-9). This never made sense to me, since when the meeting with Esav is about to transpire, Jacob abandons this strategy. One commentator presumed that the division involved only his servants and property, and not his family. Of course, this creates its own problem, as it suggests that Jacob's primary concern was with preserving his wealth over the safety of his family.

So what is the new strategy? Jacob ranks his wives and children in order of his regard for them! Bilhah and Zilpah with their four sons are most at risk as they go to the front lines, then Leah with her six sons and daughter, and finally Rachel with Joseph (Gen. 33:2) at the rear. We are mostly not privy to the inner psychological world of biblical characters so we are free to assume that Jacob did this with much anguish, and possibly lived afterward with some guilt (probably not too much since everything eventually worked out well.) But just imagine your family having to face a presumed murderous enemy and your father puts you in the front of the line - not because you are the most capable of protecting the family, but because he loves you less than some of your siblings! That was how three of Jacob's wives and eleven (Dinah went in front of Joseph) of his children must have felt.

In general, the author(s) of the Genesis stories generally chose to leave the stories fraught with ambiguity, a style that allows for great embellishment and interpretation by later commentators. Unfortunately, this has often resulted in overly simplistic characterizations of both the villains and the heroes. Esav is looked at as intrinsically evil from birth (indeed even prenatally!), and he ultimately becomes the archetype for all of the historical evil perpetuated against the Jews. On the other hand, Jacob - and most of the "Jewish" heroes (forefathers/foremothers/tribal heads) - are often depicted as perfectly righteous beings on par (or even above) the level of angels. In both cases, apologetics - often as aggadic/midrashic glosses - serve to minimize either the positive qualities of the former (Esav's only redeeming quality - honoring his father - is often mitigated by claims that it was motivated by purely ulterior goals) or to suggest, for the latter, that what seem to be very blatant human flaws are in actuality deeds done for the sake of heaven, and at worst relatively minor mistakes that are judged more severely because of the greatness of the personalities involved. A recent example that comes to mind is Reuven sleeping with Jacob's concubine, Bilhah, which is reinterpreted as an "as if". That is, interfering with Jacob's sleeping arrangements after numero uno wife Rachel died was done to preserve his mother Leah's honor, but is treated by the Torah "as if" he slept with Bilhah. The earliest commentary on this story, however - Jubilees 33 - understood Reuben's misdeed literally.

It seems obvious that Jacob did not learn from the mistakes of his father, Isaac, who preferred Esav the hunter to Jacob the simple. (And it is not unreasonable to presume other family dysfunction in a family headed by a man who was almost sacrificed by his father. There is certainly no indication that he and Abraham had any kind of personal relationship after this event.)

Jacob repeats the mistake by showing preference to one son, Joseph, the first born of the woman he truly loved. (As an aside, note that the Torah suggests that Jacob was initially attracted to Rachel for a very understandable yet superficial reason - basically she was pretty hot!) We are all well aware of the tragic results of this preferential behavior, regardless of the "after-the-fact necessity" for the progression of Jewish history - or at least the mythos that surround it.

Jacob is like the woman who - abused as a child - ends up with an abusive spouse. Both are victims of a traumatic upbringing and caught up in a self-destructive cycle. Jacob doesn't seem to learn this lesson even at the end of his life when he gives preference to the younger child of Joseph.

The Choir Apologia may be singing fortissimo by now, but I find the Torah infinitely more meaningful when the heroes are viewed as having the same strengths and flaws as "ordinary" human beings. And doesn't moral ambiguity make for far more interesting analyses and lively discussions?

Monday, November 8, 2010

What's Not Bothering Rashi?

Did Abraham or Isaac "name" Beersheva?

Genesis 21: 29-31.
And Avimelech said to Abraham, "What are these seven ewe lambs, which you have placed by themselves?" And he said, "For these seven ewe lambs you shall take from my hand, in order that it be to me for a witness that I dug this well." Therefore, he named that place Beersheva, for there they both swore.

כט. וַיֹּאמֶר אֲבִימֶלֶךְ אֶל אַבְרָהָם מָה הֵנָּה שֶׁבַע כְּבָשֹׂת הָאֵלֶּה אֲשֶׁר הִצַּבְתָּ לְבַדָּנָה

ל. וַיֹּאמֶר כִּי אֶת שֶׁבַע כְּבָשֹׂת תִּקַּח מִיָּדִי בַּעֲבוּר תִּהְיֶה לִּי לְעֵדָה כִּי חָפַרְתִּי אֶת הַבְּאֵר הַזֹּאת

לא. עַל כֵּן קָרָא לַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא בְּאֵר שָׁבַע כִּי שָׁם נִשְׁבְּעוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם

There's a bit of a pun there, since the word "sheva" relates to both the seven lambs and to the oath. Regardless, the Torah states that Abraham was responsible for the name of the place.

A few chapters later we have Isaac in the starring role. After some quarreling over water rights, Isaac goes to Beersheva (so named - anachronistically? - in 26:23) and Avimelech meets him there to make a covenant.

Genesis 26:33:
And he [Isaac] named it Shevah; therefore, the city is named Beersheva until this very day.

לג. וַיִּקְרָא אֹתָהּ שִׁבְעָה עַל כֵּן שֵׁם הָעִיר בְּאֵר שֶׁבַע עַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה
This time, Beersheva clearly refers to an "oath at the well".

Each passage claims a different personality as being responsible for the naming of the city. One explanation from the traditionalist camp suggests that Isaac simply reconfirmed a name already given - and possibly forgotten - by his father, Abraham. A very unsatisfying answer that smacks of apologetics. It seems obvious that this is not the intention of the verses. I have highlighted the "therefore" (עַל כֵּן) in both passages since each one states an explicit reason for the origin of the name.

So why isn't Rashi "bothered" by this?

Needless to say, Bible critics love this one.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Modesty and Job Interviews

A question in "Living the Halachic Process: Questions and Answers for the Modern Jew" and posted on Hirhurim/Torah Musings, with a more realistic response. (Yep, that was an actual question. Really.)

Question: I am a young rabbi, and I have begun looking for rabbinical positions. I have tried to work on my anava [humbleness], but now people advise me to write an impressive resume and stress my talents to potential employers. Wouldn’t doing that make me be leading a double life, or is there some fallacy in my thinking?

Answer: The midda of anava is extremely important and, according to some, is the most important midda. We know that David referred to himself as a worm, Avraham said of himself that he was dust, and Moses referred to himself as nothing. A true anav would not be so chutzpadik as to suggest that he was on the madreiga of these tzaddikim. Therefore, you should imply on your resume that you have really accomplished nothing worthwhile in life except for the effort that you have applied towards your Torah studies (for Torah study is truly the only worthwhile pursuit.) Therefore, I would list your relevant experience, but insinuate that you have been unsuccessful in these various pursuits.

Reply: Thank you Rebbe.

Rebbe: Please come closer before you go. [Slap slap]. Fool! What the hell is wrong with you? Get your head out a gemara for once and think for yourself!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Wordle Madness

Wordle generates word clouds from text or blog feeds. It is a really fun time waster but also gives one insight into an author's focus. Check it out.

Here's a cloud of all of my 160 blog postings (as with all of the clouds below, I limited them to the top 50 words). Click on any image to view it larger.

The following are the clouds that wordle grabbed on 11/02/2010 when I supplied just a blog name; it then presumably uses only the most recent rss feeds.

Another Frum Heretic cloud (I simply can't view this one - when viewed larger - without seeing it in 3D with three separate layers. Very cool.):

The prolific Mr Dov Bear:

Scandal-monger Failed Messiah (some serendipitous juxtapositions: Rubashkin - FM's obsession - with "intense" and "evil"; Sholom with "mad"; Rabbinical with "molesting"; etc):

Hirhurim/Torah Musings (nothing surprising here):

Rambam takes center stage in Natan Slifkin's Rationalist Judaism (wordle allows one to select a Hebrew font!).

I would have loved to have done clouds for Gideon Slifkin's previous two blogs, but unfortunately XGH's latest - Ortho Moderndox - is pretty ho-hum:

And finally, one from the Jewish Atheist: