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.