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”.

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