Friday, January 19, 2018

Bo—False Starts


Rashi in Bereishis 1:1 (s.v..."Bereishis"!!!) cites the midrashic question as to why the Torah did not begin in this weeks parsha (12:1) with what is ostensibly considered to be the first mitzvah given to Bnei Yisrael: “This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months.”

The answer that is given is almost as oblique: “What is the reason, then, that it commences with the account of the Creation? … should the peoples of the world say to Israel, “You are robbers, because you took by force the lands of the seven nations of Canaan”, Israel may reply to them, “All the earth belongs to the Holy One, blessed be He; He created it and gave it to whom He pleased. When He willed He gave it to them, and when He willed He took it from them and gave it to us…”

Irrespective of the tenuous nature of theological claims in general, why even bring this up?  One only has to look at Rashi on Genesis 12:6, s.v. “ha’Kna’ani az ba’aretz”, to see who the real “robbers”/“occupiers”/“colonialists” were even in antiquity: “Th[e Canaanites] were gradually conquering the land of Israel from the descendants of Shem, for it had fallen to the share of Shem when Noah apportioned the earth amongst his sons…for this reason the Lord said to Abram “to thy seed will I give this land” — “I will in some future time return it to thy children who are descendants of Shem”.”  (The PLO at one time or another has tried to pass themselves and their people off as Canaanites.)

We were taking back what was rightfully ours in the first place!!!  Why even give credence in our own texts to hostile Judeophobic notions, even if as identifiably faulty premises?

I once heard from a salient pulpit that the message in the midrash wasn’t intended to be an answer from us to the complaining world at large;  12:6 would suffice as an answer for that.   Rather, the midrash is for us to answer ourselves, between ourselves, as a reassurance and a warning (it doesn’t want to mention that the land could be and/or has been taken from us).

I would take it one step further: that when it comes to Jewish prerogatives, Jews in particular should not be too quick to dismiss said prerogatives in the face of accusations of violating an ostensible universal morality, and especially not confuse said ostensible universal morality with actual morality, and certainly not Jewish imperatives.

For starters—said morality isn’t always.  Hence the reference to “robbers” in the midrash on Genesis 1:1—while we can easily make a non-theological case that we haven’t robbed any land, pace Genesis 12:6—we shouldn’t even have to bother.  The accusation is a prima facie false one.  (The analog to contemporary times should be obvious.)

For another—there is certainly no Jewish value in subverting one’s own principles for the benefit of mortal enemies of the Jews, even leaving aside theology.   Too many times recently certain mitzvos and principles have been used by theoretically well-meaning and some other obviously disingenuous characters to gaslight the Jews out of certain prerogatives, or for not putting others’ interests ahead of their own.  

One most recent example might be the misuse of Hillel’s dictum in Mishna Avot 1:14—“If I am not for me, who will be for me? And when I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, then when?”

Let’s forget that this dictum really has very narrow applications to begin with: for the overwhelming better part it refers to activity of a spiritual nature and the need to remain heavily communally involved, and that to attempt to garner “points” as it were on one’s own short-circuits the purpose of spiritual activity.  The universal application of this dictum to equalizing certain tenets of progressive social justice with Jewish imperatives is beyond a distortion.

Additionally, assuming that those who might have some—even if severe—misgivings about certain tenets of progressive social justice and their loudest practitioners and representatives are ipso facto “selfish”, “indifferent”, “persecute the foreigner”, “willfully blind and ignorant”, to name a few—while assuming that the side that professes the aforementioned tenets of progressive social justice do not engage in the same if not worse tactics—engages in the same level of “righteous indignation”, “arrogance” and “hypocrisy” they level at those who they deem to be “only for themselves.”

Furthermore, is the notion that some “can only be moved to speak out and act when that slight and wrongdoing is directed at “one's own kind”” axiomatic?  That might be more tenuous that the notion that some are “moved to speak out and act when that slight and wrongdoing is directed” at their own only if they can speak out about others at the same time, never mind those who have universalized dicta to the point that the “others” come before us.

(In this age of "whataboutism", let's put it in even blunter terms: the alternative to what is apparently considered by some to be an administration of gazlanim is a cabal of ganavim.  Maybe even ganavim bemachtaros.)

Even forgetting the more salient if theocentric interpretations of Avot 1:14, those who would universalize the mishna even get the order wrong:  "If [We] Are Not For Ourselves" always comes before "If [We] Are For Ourselves".

Leave the final word to Yoni Netanyahu before Entebbe:

“If we don’t do it ourselves, no one is going to do it for us.”

Friday, January 5, 2018

Shemos--Same As The Old Boss?


“’And a new king arose who knew not Joseph’--Rav and Shmuel: one says the king was new, one says his policies were new" [TB Sotah 11a]

Among other things inspired by the Trump administration, there have appeared attempts to draw from the Jewish experience attempting to find a salient analog for this administration.

Those who haven’t compared Trump outright to Haman [if not Hitler] have occasionally made him out to be a modern Ahasuerus with Stephen Bannon playing the role of Haman himself.

Bernard-Henri Levi has actually drawn the most direct analog between the changing or changeling Pharaoh of this parsha and Trump [find the quote].

It is eminently possible—pace Levi—that Trump’s mercurial temperament may eventually lead some of his most ardent supporters to experience a painful disillusionment akin to Exodus 1, particularly if his oft-stated penchant for the “Ultimate Deal” forcefully overrides his ostensible sympathies for a permanent Jewish presence over the Green Line.

However, not only are none of the aforementioned analogs salient, but one can find better ones in the literature, some not far off.

Start with the Pharaonic.  There are several hints scattered around the text in Genesis that the “previous” Pharaoh may not have been as Hebrephilic as might be assumed by the “melech chadash”.  To wit: Pharaoh actually hands almost all administrative power of attorney to Joseph, simultaneously absolving him from the wrath of a possibly angry and restless and starving populace when austerity measures are imposed.  (“And the people cried to Pharaoh—go to Joseph….”)

(This is also reminiscent—conversely—of the relationship between Ahasuerus and Haman as described by Yoram Hazony in “The Dawn”, his classic political study of Megillas Esther: spooked by Bigtan and Teresh’s assassination attempt, the King takes all decision making out of the political system and concentrates it in Haman’s hands.  It is possible that Pharaoh had the same idea by handing power of attorney to Joseph, and would have given himself the royal privilege of executing him—like Ahasuerus did Haman—if royal prerogatives were threatened.  (One might notice a few linguistic parallels between Miketz and Esther that the writers certainly made use of: “yafked pekidim”, for one.]

(We also might mention the ethnic tension that exists even under this ostensibly benign regime: even before Joseph gets out of jail, the pejorative references to his Hebrew origins by Mrs. Potiphar and the wine steward; even after Joseph has come to power, there’s the blatant refusal of the Egyptians in his court to eat at the same table as the 10 Hebrew tribes.)

Additionally, in Vayechi, when Joseph has to negotiate directly with Pharaoh to bury his father back in Hevron under suspicions of dual loyalty (maybe the earliest Biblical example thereof), Yosef has to threaten to blow the lid off of Pharaoh’s veneer of omniscience (“I keep my oath to my father, or I reveal that you don’t know Hebrew”), we get a glimpse that the relationship is more tenuous than a casual glance at the text reveals.  (If one removes the possible Hebrephobic context, one also reveals a natural tension and mistrust between a #1 and his #2 which is otherwise endemic to politics.)

In the end, using either Pharaonic narrative—pre- or post-Joseph—probably does less to illustrate how to gauge the “Jewish” relationship with Trump, from either angle. 

Even more forced would be an analogy to Ahasuerus, who TB Megilla describes as being nearly as anti-Semitic as Haman: celebrating (erroneously) the perceived non-fulfilment of Jeremiah’s prophecy of return after 70 years, and punctuating said celebration by profaning the Temple hardware; putting a halt to the previously greenlit rebuilding of the second Temple (maybe he wasn’t so sure he had the count right, after all); and, finally, letting Haman craft and promulgate the genocidal edict he always wanted to issue but never really could bring himself to.   So—very much unlike our current President—this King assumed his office with clearly Judeophobic inclinations, and his policy bent that way from the get go, particularly with regards Jerusalem.

The better example?

Darius, the son of Ahasuerus and Esther herself, who reverses his father’s edict halting the rebuilding of the second Temple that his predecessor Cyrus has initially greenlighted.  As noted in TB RH 3b-4a, the esteem in which Darius was initially held “soured” (as the Talmud puts it); one reason given is that he gave specific construction edicts vis a vis the Temple, so that in case the Jews proved disloyal, he could dismantle it forthwith.  Yet everything eventually turned out mostly better than it had been prior to his reign: he was no Cyrus, but he certainly wasn’t his father.

The possible lessons?

For the harder “Right”:  Rav Shimon Schwab was known to say the Americans are not our enemies, but they are not our friends.  Before one attaches willy-nilly any reflexively Judeophilic intentions to even a benign ruler—even one who makes some very clear reversals of a predecessor’s hostile policies—one would be behooved to remember “Al tivtechu bindivim” and “Al tisvada larashus”.   One should definitely be thankful that the administrational alternative didn’t come to pass; but don’t be too quick to “marry” oneself to all its initiatives.  Bannon's dispensability should be proof enough.

For the progressive “Left”:  Stop trying to apply “Esav sonei es Yaakov” and other “machmir” interpretations of governmental Judeophobia to this administration.   For one thing, any Leftist “chumras” are almost mezuyafin mitocham: one might think them as cute as counterintuitive, but they actually look and sounds ridiculous.  Furthermore, there might have been a time where anti-Trumpers could attempt to make a prima facie case that this administration was either hostile to Jewish initiatives, or at least, not any “different” than their WH predecessors, which the overwhelming majority of leftists celebrated and protected.  Assertions of that WH “having our backs” were more than arguable then, and are almost entirely indefensible now in the wake of the new Jerusalem policy.  

They kept trying to say—and still try to say—“pen”.  Apparently, the answer is “ken”.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Vayigash—Diplomatic Protocol

Yehuda had learned the lessons the hard way.

He learned them in ways his forebears may not have, the painful nature of of their travails notwithstanding; it’s one of the major reasons the enduring messianic kingdom is ultimately established through him.

What did he do that they didn’t?  And where was he effective where they might not have been?

One irony of the Yehuda narrative is that unlike the ostensible mistakes of his ancestors, which usually involve midrashic amplifications of what textually seem like minor infractions but are exegetically revealed to be actions that carry heavy spiritual consequences, Yehuda’s warts are blatantly narrated and are otherwise apparently exegetically blunted.

Starting with the sale of Yosef, his primary role in deceiving Yaakov and temporary loss of prestige as a result, going through his become an eminent personage among Canaanites, his sons’ rather sordid deaths, and the entire episode with Tamar.

Meanwhile, he has forced himself into a corner by essentially pledging himself as a surety for the return of Binyamin, in part as a penance for the sale of Yosef, but in part because, as the enforcer of the code of silence regarding the sale, he hasn’t left himself with a lot of room to maneuver.

However, starting with his admission in Chapter 38 and now with his effective carrot-and-stick approach with Yosef, Yehuda—having made his own mistakes—avoids the ones his ancestors made and not only succeeds in his mission but also catalyzes the first tribal reconciliation.

What mistakes did his forebears make?

Often in the interests of peace, they may have been too diplomatic; too much carrot, not enough stick.

Avraham and Yitzchak are criticized by Chazal for giving away too much in their dealings with the Avimelechs and the Philistines, who are portrayed as taking a lot more than they gave, even as both Avraham and Yitzchak recognized the extractive if not rapacious nature of the populations they were negotiating with.

Yaakov himself goes a step further before he meets his brother for the first time.  He prepares on three tracks: prayer, militarism, and diplomacy.  In fact his approach exemplifies almost the ideal response, even to the point that he is almost as worried that he will be forced to kill others as much as he or his over ones might be killed.  Yet—while the material flattery detailed in Chapter 32 isn’t criticized—Yaakov’s self-reference as “your servant Yaakov” to Esav is viewed as a positive, if only because the diplomatic balance is tipped ab initio: Yaakov is presenting self-effacement before he can show strength.  

[One wonders whether Shimon and Levi’s ostensible”overreaction” after Dina’s rape and the surreptitious manner in which they subdue the entire populace—even given the ultimate justification for the action—is to preempt a possible overture that might be deemed too diplomatic, which might be borne out by the exchange with Yaakov at the end of the Chapter after Shechem is wiped out.]

Even Yaakov’s sending Yosef to look after his brothers in the middle of Chapter 37 after having himself referred to the hostilities between the brothers [a possible angle to interpret “shamar es hadavar”?] indicate a somewhat misplaced faith in diplomacy.

It might no be accidental that Yehuda learns his most crucial diplomatic lesson and where to draw lines from his erstwhile daughter-in-law Tamar, who has seduced him in response to his essentially rendering her an agunah despite the fact that his sons were at fault for their demise.

When Tamar forgoes the explicit naming-and-shaming even at the possible cost of her life using material evidence and coded language that only Yehuda could and would understands, she actually exemplifies the best of diplomatic traditions even more than a knee-jerk adherence to pre-Sinaitic notional of halbanah: knowing that both she has taken advantage of Yehuda’s blind spots and on the cusp of fulfilling a messianic mission, she invites him to now consent to the mission he’s been avoiding.  What she DOES manage to by not making it personal is keeping said mission under wraps, even from him, until this very moment.  Making it personal by embarrassing him might save her life but would cancel the mission for both of them, and somehow she’s seen enough to count on her triggering an epiphany of his part.

[In fact—at the risk of violating a certain level of moreh halacha lifnei rabbanim—anyone who uses Tamar as the paradigmatic example of avoiding embarrassing someone even at the cost of ones own life—STOP IT.  There’s SO much more going on in the Yehuda-Tamar narrative; making the ostensible halbanah its sole locus and then generalizing it as a teachable moment for tinokos shel beis rabban ensures that understanding the maaseh never gets past that level.  It’s frankly….embarrassing.]

The sum total of all these lessons—his and his forebears—were not lost on Yehuda in crunch time.  And—like the texts that until now seems to scrutinize him more than the exegetes—this time, the textual narrative in Chapter 44 is very diplomatic/carrot, but the subtexts are very….stick.  [“I’ll kill you and your master.”]

And while the instant effect looks perplexing—Yehuda didn’t know who he was talking to—the ultimate effect almost mirrors the midi kneged mida in reverse that Yehuda experienced when Tamar subtly called him out and he admitted that she had the mission correct: this time, Yosef assuages Yehuda, telling him that there was a mission to complete that he was unaware of, but that this time he did everything he was supposed to.

And finally, Yosef, by revealing himself and letting his brothers know that this stage of the mission has been completed and even giving them credit for helping bring about the completion—also tells them that, in way, this was all pre-game: the real contest hasn’t even begun yet.

Which is why it’s Yehuda who gets sent to Goshen to lay the groundwork.




Monday, December 18, 2017

Chanukah—Another Day, Some Other Way

It might be that the real backstory of Chanukah is the one they don’t want to tell you.  

In this age of “whataboutism”, it might be time they did.

A recent facebook “debate” centered around a thesis proferred by the late Christopher Hitchens—as a “religious” atheist if there ever was one—for whom the paradigmatic beta noire of a holiday was Chanukah, "the original victory of bloody-minded faith over enlightenment and reason”.

In fact, some who are otherwise not reluctant to celebrate Chanukah publicly and ignore the implication that the holiday ostensibly represents a “victory of faith over reason” have nevertheless been bothered by three specific facets of the narrative:

1] That the holiday might centers around the first civli war in Jewish history where the victory of one side over the the other is celebrated; usually, where there is civil strife in the classic literature—for example, Tu b’Av as a coda to Pilegesh b’Givah—the reconciliation, and not a/ther victory, is what gets celebrated;

2] That the victors achieved victory through two means that might have been decried even then, certainly now: religious coercion and guerrilla warfare;

3] And that the victors—as they were primarily from the Preistly caste—ultimate shattered the Israelite Torah version of “separation of powers” that had been a central operating principle in religious legislation.

In fact, as the celebration has become as established as it did, there is no reason to diminish it and hide the ostensible “warts”, but real them for the lessons they teach.

For one thing, it should be easy to dismiss Hitchens, and Yoram hazy and others do just that.  To wit: Greek philosophy was based on the notion that it has been revealed by the oracles; the fight, then was between two “faiths”, rather than between faith and reason.  In fact, the Greeks derided Judaism as too rational and not sufficiently revelatory.

In which case: the coercion started with the Greeks, and the Jews who joined them weren’t just looking to be “frei”—they were actively taking sides against their own.  One might even argue that the Maccabean coercion wasn’t coercion “lishmah”: it was a hora’as sha’ah to keep other Jews from switching sides or turning in their own; almost a way to avoid killing quislings who might otherwise have killed you.  

That gets you to the first point: sometimes being extreme is necessary.  But to paraphrase Rabbi Norman Lamm—one can be extreme, but being extremist is certainly not ideal.  One might want to maintain a high level of spiritual commitment, and might be tempted to utlliize the same extreme tactics to maintain those levels that were forged in crises.  But it’s JEWISH history that instructs us that such approaches are less than sustainable.

There are two other examples aside from Chanukah that hint at this narrative of caution.  One is Pinchas.  It was in these pages where an attempt to cast Pinchas’ action against Zimri and Kozbi as extreme rather than extremist appeared some time ago.  To further exemplify the pitfalls of zealous approaches, Pinchas himself ostensibly comes into play twice later on in Tanach; once when he refuses to make accommodations to allow Yiftach to undo his thoughtless vow, and he can’t prevent the internecine mass bloodshed and national crisis that results from pesel Micha and Pilegesh b’Givah.

Another is Chizkiyahu.  Unwilling to commit to procreation because of visions of the inevitable corruption of his offspring until forced to, he imposes a very effective national system of education—at swordpoint. [Why link the two?  Consider: like Yaakov, Chikiyahu feared extremist tendencies: knowing what his son might be like and what he might have to do to keep him in line, it might have come out instead on a national level.]  What’s often quoted about this pedagogical method is the tangible results: children of both genders knew hilchos tumah v’tahara.   What’s often not pointed out is: the precipitating factor wasn’t so much a perceived lack of knowledge as it was a war of extermination being waged by Sancheriv, who had already conquered the other ten tribes; Chizkiyahu likely rightly feared that the tendency to fervently pray for deliverance would overwhelm educational prerogatives, to the spiritual and mortal detriment of his nation.  Either way, it worked at the time, but the rapid moral and spiritual descent of the nation after his passing is stark.

Finally—in an almost Chekovian fashion (“Any fool can face a crisis; it's this day-to-day living that wears you out”), we have the 8th day Chanukah laining, an almost spiritual rush of the last five korbanos nesi’im, and the beginning of Beha’alosecha almost as an afterthought…or is it?  Is that why the day to day of hatavas haneros involves Aharon, to indicate the importance of the day to day and not necessarily the sustained high?

Sometimes, even if one has been on a “right" “way”, one might have to find another “way”.  

Sometimes one will be forced to find that “other way”.   The deflection isn't always a reflection of a spiritual defect more than might be indicative of unfulfilled potential.   While that knowledge might not necessarily make such an ostensibly forced shift any less painful, maybe the ability to make that distinction might help better meet such a challenge when it arises.






Friday, December 1, 2017

Vayishlach--Anu Chnyukin ve'Hen Chnyukin

Bereishis 36, detailing the Edomite lineage, is ostensibly out of place in the Genesis narrative.

So much that, when Chazal underscore the degree of opprobrium cast at those who might consider any verse [or letter, for that matter] of Torah shebik'tav to be "trivial or silly information", and find a paradigmatic figure exemplifying this kind of rishus, it's no accident that, as detailed in TB Sanh. 99a, they trot out the idolatrous king King Menasheh and his tendency to [pace the Soncino translation] "examine [] verses to prove them worthless", with 36:12 in this week's parsha ("v'achos Lotan Timna") as his first such targeted verse.

It's also no accident that a larger message can be gleaned from characters ostensibly separated by degrees but united by a tendency to use a public display of following amplified religious strictures for personal gain, usually as a power play.

Let's start with the forefather of Chapter 36: Esav himself.

Two weeks ago, Rashi and the midrashim sprinkled a few examples of Esav's public religious displays, even those in parallel with his less than thinly veiled sociopathies, as how he married at 40 to emulate his father as a "rehabilitation" from decades of serial rapine.  However, the paradigmatic example given is how he would demonstrate both his "piety" and "scholarship" simultaneously by asking his father how one "tithes" straw and salt.

Last week, Rashi and the midrashim note that Esav sends his son Eliphaz after Yaakov on a mission of murder.   Various reasona re given as to why, when he finally does catch up with Yaakov, why he does stay his hand, but his "plea" to Yaakov is telling:  "What shall I do about Father's command (tzivui shel abba)?", as if he can convince his uncle that he still has a mitzvah to fulfill--which his uncle helps him fulfill by allowing his nephew to rob him.

Eliphaz' daughter Timna--the subject of the enigmatic 36:12--decides that one way or another she is going to attach her self to the Abrahamitic faith ["better a handmaid to that nation than a noble of this one"].  Rejected by Avraham--possibly because of her mamzerus, possibly because her language echoes that of Pharaoh when he forces his princess daughter Hagar out of the palace to join Avraham's retinue [see Rashi on 16:1] and Avraham remembers too well how THAT turned out--she liaises with her own father and produces Amalek, literally and figuratively the ultimate bastard in all of classic Jewish literature.  [While TB Sanh. 99b does note that maybe Avraham was too forceful in his rejection of Timna and the mida-kneged-mida result was Amalek, other commentaries justify Avraham's rejection both before the fact--discerning ulterior motives on Timna's part--and certainly after, as one bastard begets another, further casting light on Eliphaz character and his "spiritual" DNA.

Needing further study is how Menashe himself actually uses spirituality as a power play several times in Perek Chelek.  Noted for his erudition by Chazal, Menashe feels compelled to reveal himself in a dream to Rav Ashi to prove his scholastic bonafides; and he also "convinces" G-d to accept his ostensible "penitential" prayers: "If He answers me, fine.  If not, He is just like the others..."

Also needing further study is a possible connection between Esav's son Korach--who fought against the Jews with his father as a legendary Canaanite warrior--and Korach who I have referred to in these pages as both a "religious Stalinist" and "religious democrat" (in the North Korean tradition of "democracy").  That Korach used his religious bonafides--best example being how he and his followeres shunned their ertswhile wlly On ben Peles when his wife uncovered her hair--to further his power play is well-nigh indisputable.  Whether Korach ben Esav portayed any of his father's or half-brother's false pieties is as of yet unknown to the author.  However, as the root of both of their names signify "baldness", it might follow that the "spirituality" of a Korach might lack roots.

There's a further lesson beyond just being attuned to the danger of false piety as a power play.

The well known Lamentational midrashic maxim asserts: chochmah bagoyim ta'amin, Torah bagoyim al taamin.  It's possible that this hasn't been defined narrowly enough:  a good example might be the discussion surrounding the possibility that a non-Jew who keeps Shabbos is chayav misa and the possible conclusion that it would only happen if a non Jew would keep every last possible Sabbatical minutae to the degree that the Jews did that one week in the desert.

(A non Jew could be "yotzei" his "chilul Shabbos" by, as the joke goes, carrying where there's an eruv he's too "frum" to hold by.  In any case, le'masseh, a genuinely shomer shabbos non Jew might happen as often as a ben sorer umoreh or ir hanidachas, that is to say, never.)

However, the larger lesson might be this: if someone who wasn't given the Torah uses the Torah and its principles as a cudgel to beat those who actually received the Torah--particularly if they assert that they are "keeping the Torah better than the Jews are" and they use that particular claim in making power plays--that's when Torah bagoyim al taamin would apply.

One historical example might be the oft mentioned "Cusim".  After converting en masse were initially perceived to be more punctilious in their general mitzvah observance than the native born Israelites.   However, after it was discovered that they had kept their imported idolatry and attendant rituals and had even built a clandestine shrine on Har Grizim, Chazal perceived the completely political nature of their "Judaism" and retroactively vacated the conversions.

More contemporary examples abound on either side of the political fence, but more particularly nowadays when further left progressives lecture Jews (especially Zionists) upon their failures to uphold "Jewish principles" as they see them, and it's particularly nauseating to see Jews ally with them, and even more nauseating when visibly religious Jews ally with them.

(To maintain a veneer of bipartisan criticism, one must only remember how eminent conservative George Will took it upon himself to lecture Zionists about their Jewish failures in conducting the 1982 Lebanon War.  However, the most blatant current example might be the recent picture circulating of a young man clad in a black velvet yarmulke proudly posing in a photograph with Linda Sarsour after a recent "symposium on anti-Semitism" at the New School.  Ironically, Sarsour herself looked almost as nauseated in the photo as some of her detractors might have been just viewing the photo.)

But perhaps the lesson is simpler.

There's a family story about a seder before my time when a guest tried to explain [this was in the 1950's] how he could be both religious and a socialist.  After he'd bored the guests long enough, he finally said "well, after all, I'm no tzaddik".

To which my great grandmother replied:

"Nein, nein, du ist yuh a tzaddik...

"...A PEY tzaddik."

Don't be a pey tzaddik.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Vayeitzei—“Yatzanis” and Rape Culture

With all the sordid past history of nonconsensual activity recently being dredged up primarily at the highest levels of show business and government (never more has “show business for ugly people” been more appropriate) and the tendencies in some quartersnot all of them frum—to blame the violations on modesty failings on the part of the victims, it might be worth examining two examples of pre-Sinaitic “rape cultures” in the text and midrash, and whether or not the perception that the midrashic lit draws a strong correlational line between modesty levels and male rapaciousness is an accurate one.

Let’s start with an ostensibly tangential observation from last week’s parsha which, we will see later, bears on the questions raised here.  Rashi on 25:20 s.v. “ben arbai’m shanah” provides the midrashic calculation that Rivkah was 3 years old when she married Yitzchak.

A former mara d’sara once emphatically asserted from the pulpit that “Rashi doesn’t hold by Rashi.”

So let’s ask this question: was Leah really a “yaztanis”?

Let’s remember that the Rashi in next weeks parsha (31:1, s.v. “bas Leah”) that ostensibly hints that Dina was a “yatzanis” like her mother makes a retroactive reference to 30:16 in this weeks parsha, whre in the ma’aseh dudaim, Leah “goes out” to meet Yaakov [and, interestingly, the product of that night’s union is Yissachar, the tribe that embodies Torah scholarship].  And Rashi says nothing here about Leah’s ostensible “yatzanis” tendencies, when it actually happens; he waits until next week.

So was Leah really a “yaztanis”?

Let’s also remember that while the text and midrashim make several references to Sarah’s ostensible reticence (“ha-ohelah”, “hinei ba-ohel”), there are less (if any) such references to said reticence on the part of Rivkah and Rachel, both of whom are encountered for the first time in the text at the well, very much outside the tent.  (And should one mention Rashi’s comments on 24:16 about Rivkah’s sexual purity, it only underscores the point: a woman be outside the home is not therefore to be assumed a…“yatzanis”.)

And what was Leah doing the whole time Rachel was outside?  She was davening to not end up with Esav, “crying until her eyelashies fell out” (TB BB 123a)—and the prayers worked.  (Interestingly, next week we see that Yaakov went to so far as to hide Dina in a box to keep her from Esav, and the Heavenly response isn’t as positive to that move.)

Was Leah really a “yaztanis”?

Is it possible that—like in his reference to Rivkah’s age—“Rashi doesn’t hold by Rashi”? 

Or possibly—Rashi was being ironic?  “Leah?  A yatzanis”?  C’mon.”

(As was mentioned in these pages previously, other commentaries didn’t assume Rashi was being ironic and just out-and-out didn’t hold by Rashi.)

So while we at least raised questions about Leah being a “yatzanis”, what does that have to do with rape culture?

Let’s go back a week:  Rivkah grows up in a rape culture, in a household that sets the tone for the local outrageous practices: Besuel, her father and the local prince, would—as per Massechet Sofrim 21—deflower all virgins upon betrothal as a ruler’s privilege; he was slain by an angel before he could deflower his own daughter.   (Furthermore—staying (very reluctantly) with the “age three” issue—the midrash nots that the “custom of the Arameans was to deflower all virgins when they reached the age of three”. Rashi’s comments on 24:16 about women being “shomer oso makom” once the mabul should be unnecessary to point out the particularly heinous nature of the Aramean culture of nonconsensual relations, if only to point out that the women were not at fault for it.)

And as we will see next week, the rape culture of Shechem emanates from the very top of the power structure, which lead several commentaries to justify Shimon and Levi wiping out Shechem’s entire male population.

Again, as mentioned before in these pages, while there is no direct source justification for the theory that Lavan shared his father’s rapacious tendencies, Rachel might have feared he did and facilitated the deception that allowed her sister to get Yaakov first and kept her from her father on one hand and the equally rapacious Esav on the other.

(Certainly, a look at the sequence of events in the latter part of Chapter 31 when Lavan catches up to Yaakov and his family indicate for his violent intentions, if not propensities (31:29, 43), his lack of respect for his married daughters’ space (31:33; and he persists despite her telling him “derech nashim li”); and his concomintant lack of boundaries in discussing his daughter’s married lives (“im te’aneh”, 31:50).  His drive to own everything he could get his hands on might not have stopped at his daughters’ persons.)

The real lesson from “yatzanis” here might be twofold:

First, if you pejoratively label either Leah or Dina as a “yatzanis”, you might very likely be wrong.   

Second, if you think ostensible “yatzanis” tendencies—no matter how you define it—in any way “explains”, never mind mitigates, any unwanted male attention of any kind, ever—you’re part of a much larger problem.


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Thursday, October 26, 2017

Lech Lecha: Free Agency?

"There's no point in direction; we cannot even choose a side"--
Peter Gabriel, "Here Comes The Flood"


More often than not, I was the last or second to last picked when it came to team sports.

In this week’s parsha, Avram finds himself cementing an ostensibly strange wartime alliance, in a way that the “side” is essentially chosen for him.

One might not initially be surprised that Avram would be fighting to save his nephew and against the Amraphelite coalition; after all, as Rashi (pace TB Eruvin) notes, Amraphel is Nimrod, who wanted Avram executed for his iconoclasm.

Yet Avram finds himself fighting on the side of a coalition that includes the “five towns” that will be utterly destroyed for their unfettered depravity in next weeks parsha; in fact, a hint is given in Rashi as to the character of the coalition’s ostensible leading monarch, Bera the Sodomite king: “רַע לַשָּׁמַיִם וְרַע לַבְּרִיּוֹת”, “evil towards God and evil towards mankind”; his coalition partners are similarly described.

Notwithstanding the Patriarch’s plea next week to possibly spare the towns’ destruction, Rashi pace the midrashim goes more out of his way to impugn the character of Avram’s allies, sparing moral opprobrium from his opponents other than Amraphel himself. In fact, Chedorlaomer, identified by Rashi as the בַעַל הַמַּעֲשֶׂה, is the king of Elam, named after the ostensible firstborn of Shem, who praises Avram after the battle in his official religious capacity (as per Rashi identifying Malkitzedek as Shem) being mevarech al hara’ah when his progeny is routed on the battlefield—שֶׁאֵין בְּלִבּוֹ עָלָיו עַל שֶׁהָרַג אֶת בָּנָיו (wouldn’t he be as inclined to come to their rescue as Avram did for Lot?)

And let’s look at the character of whom Avram is coming to save: Lot who chose to live in Sodom (“עַל שֶׁהָיוּ שְׁטוּפֵי זִמָּה בָּחַר לוֹ לוֹט בִּשְכוּנָתָם”, Rashi hinting that it was specifically FOR that reason); Lot, who said to himself “I want neither Abram nor his G-d”; Lot, who eventually actually became a judge in Sodom (though apparently he tries to buck the trend of blatant judicial perversion to the point where he loses a daughter and his own life in eventually threaten by his constituents).

As detailed by Rabbi Dovid Green, there are arguments from both sides regarding the propriety of Avram having anything to do with Lot. But what further highlights the irony is that there was one prospective proselyte who came to Avraham of her own accord, unlike Lot who actively wanted to remove himself from Avram "kiruv" mission; yet she is rejected, and in her desperation to make any connection, she liaises with Esav’s son Eliphaz—her half-brother—and the resulting offspring is…Amalek.

The possible result of rejection as opposed to rescue.

And the result of rescue?

To further illustrate parallel ironies, Lot himself engages in incest with his daughters and the resulting offspring also manifest a level of Judeophobic hostility to the point that their male descendants are forever banned from joining the Jewish nation, although the females not only are NOT banned but are destined to produce the Messianic line. Either way, the Patriarch comes under Rabbinic scrutiny for some of his ostensibly less successful kiruv projects.

What conclusions can be drawn from all this?

First, while it may seem obvious, every political issue has some admixture of moral concern built in, which by extension means it can always be examined legitimately through a Judaic lens. (That almost NEVER means that a foregone conclusion is attached, which often seems to be a reflexive assumption, but neither does that invalidate the attempt—or more to the point, the necessity—of employing said lens. [Without delving into the socio-politico-philosophical implications of how the word is used, “hashkafa” contains the root used for “lens”, so no matter what one’s “hashkafa”, if there’s any Judaic consciousness of whatever stripe, the aforementioned examination might already be in the process of being administered, whether the examiner is aware of it or not.]

Second, even if one is on the right side of an issue and is for all intents and purposes working leshem shamayim, one shouldn’t necessarily assume that the lines currently drawn will stay that way in perpetuity, and sometimes alliances might have to be pursued even if cementing them is painful while necessary. A number of examples in the classic literature come to mind in addition to Avram’s dilemma, like these two:
  • Elisha is sent to facilitate the succession of the Assyrian line, even though he cries because of his simultaneous vision that the Assyrian heir “will do [harm] to the Israelite people: you will set their fortresses on fire, put their young men to the sword, dash their little ones in pieces, and rip open their pregnant women”; and the reluctance of Jonah to carry out his mission to Nineveh because it success would spell doom for his fellow Jews; 
  • Yoshiyahu haMelech, who, if he hadn't been specifically instructed by G-d through Yirmiyahu to allow Pharaoh Necho to pass through, would have otherwise been making the right call by standing up to the incursion that eventually did happen and cost him his life at Megiddo;
  • Rav Yochanan ben Zakkai, during the Churban and on his deathbed [see below].

A more contemporary example is described by Rabbi Yitzchak Adlerstein

“Growing up, I used to mock the idea of a “Judeo-Christian” legacy…Attempts to find their commonality could only be made by wearing lenses made to eliminate the vast majority of the spectrum. My thinking has changed…There is, indeed, a Judeo-Christian legacy. The Torah contributed it to Mankind, and – as the Rambam writes at the end of Hilchos Melachim – Christianity was one of the vehicles for spreading some of its content to the rest of humanity.”

[For the record—as a number of my previous pieces regarding the reflexive assumption that these socio-political alliances are ipso facto advisable illustrate, particularly this one—I think R Adlerstein’s provides a necessary baseline even while possibly oversimplifying the conflicts because, as he himself points out, “[s]ome of this owes to practical considerations. We find ourselves on the same side on important legislative issues, so we form alliances of convenience.” But in any case, the point stands: longstanding hostile relationships—even theologically hostile ones—can evolve.]

Even more instructive might be the story of Rav Yochanan ben Zakkai’s deathbed scene, as Rabbi Avi Weinstein explains:

“R. Yochanan asked for Yavne and its sages; [o]ther sages criticized him for not requesting that the Roman forces depart, leaving the city and the temple standing. R. Yochanan thought that asking for too much runs the risk of losing everything… According to [The Rav]…[t]hose aware of the complexity of questions of national significance which demand balancing competing ideals understand our lack of confidence in making such decisions. In fact, even years after the event, we remain unsure what the right decision was. For the remainder of his life, R. Yochanan ben Zakkai lived with the nagging question that perhaps he should have asked to save the city.”

Recently an embattled Conservative Rabbi in Atlanta was pressured to apologize for a Rosh Hashanah sermon that was perceived to be reflexively anti-Left. The Rabbi did acknowledge being too broad, but he stood by the substance of his remarks: “[A]s Americans and Jews, we must pick sides.” Sometimes the side is picked for us whether we realize it or not, whether we admit it or not. And sometimes “our” side will—switch sides.

The hidden “luxury” of having this fear is that it forces us to be ever vigilant—and allows us to be “free agents” in picking our “teams”. That’s something we should never forget we have, something we should never wittingly give up, and something we should not allow others--or our own, in many cases--to force us to give up.

(Postscript: The author is well aware of Mr. Gabriel's unfortunate and rather longstanding sympathy for BDS.)