VAYIGASH: Wagonloads of Poetry

רַב עוֹד־יוֹסֵף בְּנִי חָי  (Gen 45:28)

The story of Joseph and his brothers is one of the most novelistic passages in the Bible, filled with hidden motives, deep emotion, staged revelations, ambiguous plots and a happy – if portentous – ending. After Joseph finally reunites with the eleven brothers in Egypt after their kabuki, he can’t wait to see his father, so he sends his brothers back to fetch him.

COLORFUL+WAGON+(1)

The Bible lavishes ten verses on Pharaoh’s and Joseph’s eagerness to get all of the Hebrews to Egypt. They load donkeys and wagons with clothing and goods and gold to bring back the families and Joseph’s father, Jacob.

To sweeten the deal, they reserve the fattest part of Egypt to settle the whole tribe when they come – the land of Goshen down river towards the Nile delta where the soil is rich. We can spend a lot of time delving all their motives. The plain sense is that Joseph wants to see his father and secure the future of his family in Egypt, especially as they face a famine in Canaan also. Pharaoh is all too eager to secure the permanent service of his magical CEO Joseph and, perhaps, genuinely wants him to be completely comfortable. But we know how that goes for the Hebrews. We read the scene a little like a horror story when we know the ghost is lurking in the closet and we want to shout to the characters, “No! Don’t!”

Nonetheless, when the brothers return to Canaan and tell Jacob the good news, his “heart goes numb.” The brothers give him CPR with reassurances, Joseph’s fabulous story, and showing him the wealth Joseph sent. When Jacob sees all the stuff and hears their story, his first reaction is, “רַב עוֹד־יוֹסֵף בְּנִי חָי.”

The Hebrew has so much feeling and hidden meaning it should be a song, maybe a Jewish anthem, and I want to pay it tribute. While the usual translation captures the sense –  “Enough! My son Joseph still lives!” – the poetry and depth is lost. The Hebrew eye might immediately notice the repetition of three words for abundance in a row:

  • rav רַב – is translated as an exclamation “enough,” but it really means much, many, great
  • ohd, עוֹד – an adverb that seems to modify “live” as in “Joseph still lives” but beyond continuance (still) also implies besides, again, more and directly modifies Joseph as in “more (still, yet) Joseph …”
  • Yosef יוֹסֵף – Joseph’s name is prophetic. It means He will add.

Together the three words express “much more greater enlargement.” This is gobbledygook, but it seems to be calling for our attention.

Much more greater enlargement

Jacob knows the wagons are symbolic of Joseph’s essence and exclaims it. His favorite son’s very presence, even as a young boy, seems to make life bigger and more extravagant. His lavish coat is just outward expression of his unrestrained charisma. He brings fantastic dreams to life and they become true. Joseph’s whole life is the story of bursting the bounds of one adversity after another: snake-filled pits, slavery, jail, marooned in a strange country. Everywhere he goes, he expands the borders of life itself. He brings fabulous fantasies into reality. He is the source of survival and abundance for his adopted nation, Egypt, and his own tribe, the Hebrews. The wagonloads of goodies symbolize his lavish success.

Jacob evokes this enlargement of reality that Joseph brings to the world: “My son adds so much more life.” Jacob sees the spiritual reality, not the material illusion. He isn’t swayed by the lavish riches in front of him. He’s not toting up the wealth in front of his earthly senses, but what it evokes in his heart. He is rich in material things, but the loss of his beloved son has dug a pit of loss in his soul.

And then, in case we thought we were just kanoodling around with wordplay, there’s a clincher: the prior verse calls Jacob by his birth name when he’s resuscitated: “the spirit of Jacob revived.” But here in the next verse he is “Israel,” the prophetic name gets after winning a wrestling match with an angel. Israel is the father of the twelve sons who go down to Egypt as a tribe of seventy and emerge two hundred some years later as a mighty nation of literate slaves bearing his name. In short, the verse is altogether prophetic. Jacob suffers a mini-death and is resurrected as Israel by his son Joseph’s spiritual largesse. He must know the prophecy of exile that awaits his family and their descendants, yet immediately embarks on the fateful journey.

Now if we read it sideways, the whole verse says, “And he said, ‘Israel to have much more life must go down to my son before I (Israel) die’.” They will go to Egypt to survive the famine as a re-united family, endure a spiritual famine, and emerge as Israel.

Rashi reads the poetry of the scene

Then Rashi tells us there’s yet another secret message encoded in the wagons. The word for wagons – ahgalot – contains a pun for eglot – calves. They may even be etymologically related at a deep level to the primitive root for turning, circling, wheeling (as Strong and Brown-Driver-Biggs dictionaries tell us).  Just as calves cavort by running in circles, wagons run on wheels that turn round and round. In that pun, Jacob sees the last law in the Torah father and son studied before Joseph disappeared: the eglah arufah.

On the surface, Rashi’s neat detective work forms a nice sermon (never mind the anachronism of father and son reading the Torah before Moses brings it down from Sinai, a tradition of the Sages).  All those verses elaborating the stagecraft – loading the eleven wagons with stuff – we now see as a double message, one dramatically apparent, the other encrypted –  from prodigal son to grieving father that only the two of them would understand. “These wagonloads prove the existence of the son who enlarges the material world by connecting it to the spiritual world.

To prove this, Rashi’s genius sees more than a mere pun. What is the law of the eglah arufah? If a corpse is found in the wilderness between two cities, one or another city must take responsibility for burial and pursuing justice. (Deut 21:1-9). The priests of the closest town must go into the wilderness, sacrifice a calf by breaking its neck, send it over a cliff, and thus cancel the bill for an unsolved injustice and guilt that would come due to innocent townsfolk.

The Rebbe reads the Rashi

The Lubavitcher Rebbe expands our understanding of this ritual. Though he doesn’t refer to Rashi explicitly, he deepens our reading even more. He calls the neck “the precarious joint.”

In the Torah, he notes, “the neck is a common metaphor for the Holy Temple.” It links “heaven and earth, points of contact between the Creator and His creation. … G-d, who transcends the finite …  chose to designate a physical site and structure as the seat of His manifest presence in the world …. The Sanctuary, then, is the ‘neck’ of the world … the juncture that connects its body to its head and channels the flow of consciousness and vitality from the one to the other.” (See “The Neck,” Chabad.org)

Jacob reading the wagons is a lesson in reading Torah

There’s one more point, a meta-point, about this scene. Just as Rashi says the wagons signify how Jacob taught Joseph to read Torah, Jacob here also exemplifies a lesson about how to read Torah. Layers of meanings and cross-references within the text and outside it deepen rather than interfere with one another. The means to deciphering the scene before us is not only through our senses but by then short-circuiting our rational, empirical senses and opening up to the mysteries inside the poetry, the associative, artistic, aesthetic resonance of the images and words acting together, as in one of Joseph’s dreams-to-become real. The result creates a channel, a precarious joint, from the spiritual realm to the material one. This transcendent punning enlarges the domain of reality and life. The original Hebrew, without vowels or punctuation is Moses’ transcription of God’s one long transcendent utterance atop Sinai and virtually demands that we approach it with openness.

I’m no prophet, but I imagine this is how it must work, and why the prophets are such great poets: they are seized by a sudden flooding expansion of their senses, a wheeling, prophetic perception of past and future unfolding in the fateful moment. We can get some small taste of this if we read the poetry in the Hebrew: Israel, summoned by a secret sign from his son, sings a song of extravagant overflowing joy and in that moment can’t wait to go down to Egypt.

 

Perpetual Chanukah: A Sermon in the Prepositions

For my son, Avraham Benjamin, who was born the first night of Chanukah.

Perpetual Chanukah

This Chanukah in particular, 2019, Jews are struggling with the growing sense that it’s happening again. Less than eight decades after the Holocaust, anti-Semitism is again on the rise in the West. I don’t need to recount the litany of current events and the fear they’re causing.

I find both succor and armor in Chanukah. The lights and prayers give not just psychic comfort and hope, but are the actual tools to resist the dark tide of history.

Here’s what I mean. On the first night of Chanukah 1st night chanukahwe say a third prayer, the Shehecheyanu, thanking God for bringing us “to this time” (lazman hazeh). This prayer always gets me whenever I say it. Its message is for anyone: be grateful for all the things good and bad that occurred to you, because they brought you to this lovely intersection of fate. Every moment is a miracle.

The second prayer, recited every night over the candles, rhymes with this third. We say bazman hazeh – “in this time” – implying ‘this season on the calendar when we remember what God did for us on Chanukah 22 centuries ago’: letting one night’s worth of oil keep the lamps lit for eight nights after the Maccabees regained the Temple from the Greeks.

There’s a profound lesson in the prepositions, from bazman – in this season repeated every year – to lazmanto this very moment – this particular personal intersection of fate. We’re being told this isn’t just a nice commemoration of history. It’s still happening. We still are in history, or history is brought to our doorstep, at this very moment. That’s why we’re supposed to display the menorah, even putting it out in front of our homes for everyone to see.

The rest of the Jewish calendar repeats the same sermon as this one hidden in the Chanukah prayers. Our holidays is a survival kit, not just Chanukah but Purim and Passover (and Succot and Shavuoth and Tisha B’Av and Lag B’Omer and …), they are rehearsals of past success but they also summon the forces to win the future.

And it is war. Chanukah was a contest over who would rule the Temple, and we celebrate that our nationalists won, re-occupied the Temple, cleansed it of idolatry, and re-asserted monotheism symbolized in a miracle. But it was also a war for what beliefs would rule over the hearts, minds and souls of individual Jews, a war over what kind of world we inhabit, a war over nothing less than how we see reality itself.

Pythagoras and the Greek Religion

The war of the Maccabees against the Greeks was brewing for centuries, even before Alexander occupied ancient Israel in the fourth century. We can find its roots in the essential differences between Greek and Jewish thought.

Pythagoras (570-490 BCE) is considered the father of Greek philosophy, and is even credited with inventing the word. The son of Greek nobility, around the age of twenty he travels around the Middle East and Mediterranean for twelve years. He visits Egypt. On his way back, he stops at Mt. Carmel to visit Elijah’s cave for several weeks. He then journeys to Babylon at a time that would have coincided with the Jewish exile.

Inspired by the wisdom and mysticism of these other cultures, he returns to Greece and founds a mystic-scientific-cosmological-communal brotherhood preaching an ascetic view of the cosmos and our personal role in it. Pythagoras operates it like a leader of a cult or mafia. He is even supposed to have had a star pupil, Hippasos, murdered during a symposium cruise for expounding on the existence of irrational numbers like √2. Pythagoreans communicated via a system of secret signs, numerical codes, and hand gestures which they used while enforcing their famous discipline of ascetic silence.

Pythagoras preached that reality is only that which can be measured and understood through rational numbers. This is a pure abstraction of a material worldview so profound and powerful it later inspires among others, Plato (ca 425-ca 328 BCE) and Epicurus (341–270 BCE). Plato believed that the universe was static, made up of perfect, ideal forms. The highest activity of the human was to contemplate the universe using reason – rational thought – and discern how these ideal forms project themselves onto the material world to create the shadow play of reality. Greek philosophy is a religion that worships the rational human mind, much as modern secularism and our scientific culture.

Epicurus preached that there is no afterlife, no Divine Creator, and that we should lvie the best life we can while we have it. Today we think of an epicurean as a sensualist, but the Greek philosophy designed an entire ethical way of balancing gratification with the avoidance of pain and creating a positive civic life. He gives his name, at least apparently, to the archetype of the Jewish heretic, the epikoros. The Talmud singles out the Jew who denies the authority of the rabbis and mocks them personally. Dante reserves a ring of hell for Epicurus and his followers, whose punishment was to burn in their graves until the dead are resurrected, at which time they would be left behind and never re-unite with their souls.  Even in the 20th century, no less a philosopher than my bubby Dora used a Yiddish variation of his name as a curse. “Apikoyris!” she would spit when another Jew offended her sense of what a mensch should be.

The Second Chanukah

Chanukah celebrates our allergy to the Greeks and the events of 167 BCE. The Talmud reinforces it by issuing a prohibition against teaching our sons Greek (Sotah 49b). This is mysterious. By the time of the Talmud, Greek was considered high learning.  Even Shimon ben Gamliel, the great Sage (50 CE) boasts, “There were a thousand pupils in my father’s house; five hundred studied Torah and five hundred studied Greek wisdom.” But the antipathy to Greek, its potential for destruction, is illustrated in a story which the Talmud tells to support its ruling, a second, darker Chanukah.

76-67 BCE – Aristobulus and Hyrkanos, great-grandnephews of Judah HaMaccabee, split the kingdom. Hellensim again creeps back to dominate Jewish culture a century after the original Chanukah story. Hyrkanos leads the urbane, progressive Seleucid [Greek] faction. Assimilated Jews resist turning back to the old primitive rituals and politics. They must have thought of themselves as liberal cosmopolites, sophisticated moderns. The Greeks have put their stamp on a new and irresistible view of the world for centuries now. Why cling to benighted old traditions and superstitions? Judah Maccabee was, after all, a religious zealot, a fundamentalist survivalist from the backwaters. We would do well to finally put his bigotry and the old Civil War behind us in favor of more enlightened, urbane culture of the Greeks. 

In the spirit of his grand-uncle, Aristobulus leads the conservative Pharisees, trying to preserve the purity of Jewish ritual and the Temple. He seizes Jerusalem and the Temple to protect it.  So Hyrkanos besieges Aristobulus. An old man inside the walls betrays the Pharisees by using “Greek wisdom” to send secret, coded messages to the enemy, who then trick the Pharisees into bringing up a pig in a sling. The desecration literally shakes the foundations of Jerusalem and can be felt throughout Israel. It breaks their spirit. Rashi explains that “Greek wisdom refers to a set of cryptic expressions or gestures understood only by the paladin (palace dwellers or the nobility), not by common people.” The Pythagoreans communicated via a system of secret signs, numerical codes, and hand gestures which they used while enforcing their famous discipline of ascetic silence. No doubt this code was brought forward, just as our split-fingered sign of the kohanim in the Temple survives.

One could see how the Seleucid Jews would find assimilation so attractive, and why Jewish thinkers and students could be seduced, even from within the walls of Jerusalem itself. The Greek worldview, in one form or another, must have seemed, and continues to seem, the essence of enlightenment and modernism. of scientific rational thought. Yet, to the rabbis of the Talmud, Greek wisdom, the secret Pythagorean code, was the essence of assimilation. In their wisdom perhaps they say how it would continue to threaten Jewish existence.

The story of this second Chanukah comes at the end of tractate Sotah a famously dark prophesy of the total collapse of Jewish world called Yeridas HaDoros – the Descent of the Generations. Yeridas HaDoros recounts in dismal detail for long pages and in great detail the complete corruption of Jewish values, family, civil respect and religious observance.* When the hoof of the swine touches Jerusalem’s walls,” says the Talmud at the end of its story of the betrayal of Jerusalem in Sotah,“the entire foundation of Israel itself shakes.”

Incompatible Views of the Cosmos

Pythagoras’ vision of perfectionism and purity of form still holds sway today. Indeed, Pythagoreanism is the foundation of Western culture. It connects the Hellenic culture of the 5th c BCE of Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle with Roman culture. It connects Roman philosophy that dominated in the time of the destruction of the Temple with the Holy Roman Empire, the Catholic Church. The strict belief of Western science in rationality branches out fifteen centuries later into science along with the Reformation, the Enlightenment and the origin of the other branches of Christianity. Pythagoreanism represents a continuous tradition of the perfectibility of humans and the rational basis of the universe and everything in it. The cosmos is a rational, deterministic, ideal machine governed by unified laws we can elucidate with our minds.^

Contrast the static Pythagorean philosophy of being to our Jewish cosmology of an ever-blossoming, ever-unfolding, complex, imperfect and ineffable world of becoming. God’s Face is always receding and hidden, yet God’s attention continuously creates the cosmos. Even the method of Jewish discourse to arrive at the truth contrasts sharply with the Greek. You need only compare a page of any conventional Western book with a page of the Talmud to get the idea. One signifies a simple, clear stream of letters marching in lines across the page as the story proceeds in orderly fashion from beginning to middle to end.

The Talmud plunges you into a hypertextual jumble: a noisy symposium capturing voices and commentaries and commentaries on commentaries separated by centuries and thousands of miles and cultures. The choppy sea of Talmud exemplifies what Plato scorned as chaotic, subjective aesthetika and rhetorika as opposed to his orderly logos. The quintessential Greek text is the algebraic proof. Like Pythagorean theorem, it leads to a single, clarifying answer: the way and the truth no one gets to except through the one. The Jew’s is an argument leading to more questions.

Not just an academic debate

The fundamental incompatibility between these two cosmologies leads to a perpetual Chanukah. Jews are always suspended between the b’zman hazeh and l’zman hazeh. The Talmud burns in Europe, and then so do the Jews.

This is not just an academic exercise in philosophy. The twentieth century begins with work by Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell, Principia Mathematica, “showing” that all thought can be reduced to mathematically rigorous logic. They also say, “Modern philosophy is nothing more than a footnote to Plato.” Later, in his History of Western Philosophy (1945), Russell declares Pythagoras the greatest of all philosophers.**

In the 1920s, Martin Heidegger reinserts Pythagoreanism, an updating of the Greco-Christian Being vs. Becoming duality, into the heart of philosophy. Without going into his extraordinary influence over the twentieth century, including postmodernism and deconstruction, suffice it to say that virtually every thinker and theorist since has had to grapple with Heidegger and has been influenced by him. He was also an official member of the Nazi party.***

Nazism has its link to philosophies of materialism, constructivism, deconstruction and moral relativism that lead to the mechanization and disregard for the sanctity of human existence. We’re all just stuff, at the end, the soul an illusion. It is the same Greek wisdom that lies in the heart of the traitor of Jerusalem and is the source of ongoing Jewish assimilation to Western culture.

This year when I hold the flaming candle, I’m thankful for getting to this moment with my family and having the weapon in my hand to prevail in the long struggle.

David Porush, San Mateo, 2019


ENDNOTES

Thanks to classmates Boris Feldman, Josef Joffe, and Sam Tramiel, and special thanks to Rabbi Yitzchok Feldman, who inspired the first version of this piece in 2014 for a siyyum hasefer. I’m also grateful to my chavrusa Ron Kardos, Pinchas Gardyn, Yael Esther Berenfus whose input improved this immensely. However, all foolishness and errors in fact and judgment are my own.

^The Rambam, in Guide for the Perplexed, calls Aristotle, heir of Plato, half a prophet. Why half? Rambam says Aristotle fell short because he equated human nature with rationality alone. Aristotle’s ‘thinking being’ strives to rule the world through subjugation and calculation; Rambam’s “praying being” can be king of the world by elevating it. “When there’s nothing higher than intellect, intellect has no guiding light.”*Between the second century BCE and second century CE, during the era of the Talmud, Pythagoreanism enjoys a huge revival in Roman culture, what we now call neo-Pythagoreanism. Cicero, the famous Roman senator, and his good friend in the Senate, Nigidius Figulus, lead the revival around 50 BCE. Nigidius writes a 27-volume treatise of mathematics, grammar, astronomy and magic that becomes a classic, along with Cicero’s work, for centuries.

*In the first century CE, the sect of neo-Pythagoreans construct a Pythagorean Temple underground, at Porto Maggiore in Rome. It combines elements of paganism and Christianity. It is the site of secret sacrificial rites, necromancy, and is filled with images of the Greek gods. At the same time, it has an apse and nave, a new architectural form built with the Pythagorean ‘golden mean’ like the Acropolis, but meant to represent the cross, the same architecture we see in the great cathedrals of the Christian Europe and even in the humblest wooden Baptist churches today. But the connection is more than architectural.

**Interestingly, Russell’s last act, literally, in his life, is meant to shake the whole land of Israel. Though a pre-State supporter of Zion, his final political statement, read the day after his death in 1970 in Cairo, condemns Israel’s aggression against Egypt in 1967 and demands retreat to pre-1967 borders.

*** Victor Farias, in Heidegger and Nazism (1987) and Emanuel Faye in Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy (2005) show how Heidegger, who was an unapologetic and avowed Nazi, introduced Nazi violence into the scene of contemporary Western philosophy. His chief heir and leader of the Yale school of deconstruction, Paul DeMan, was exposed as having been a Nazi collaborator and writer during WWII. The monumental French thinker Jacques Derrida, himself an Algerian Jew, rose to DeMan’s defense in a shameful chapter in the history of postmodern thought.

 

Uncloaking the Transcendent Textuality of the Torah

“God works through great concealment”- R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, Daas Tevunos 146

The biography of Joseph is a kind of familiar picaresque tale about a boy of hidden noble birth who is orphaned in the world, claws his way out of adverse circumstances, and rises to grandiose heroism, like Tom Jones. But the fabric of the text, the words of the original Hebrew, reveals a hidden warp and woof of hidden cross-references so intense that it feels like a transcendentally-talented artist of wordplay and allusion, a super John Donne or T.S. Eliot or James Joyce, wrote it.

The story in brief

Jealous of the fact that Joseph is Jacob’s favorite son (he gets a multi-colored coat), and worse, he’s a vain, grandiose “dreamer,” his brothers throw him in a pit, consider murdering him, but instead sell him into slavery to the Ishmaelites. After they’re rid of Joseph, they dip his torn coat in goat’s blood and present it to their father, Jacob, to prove that Joseph has been eaten by wild beasts. Jacob responds by tearing his own garment (which becomes the sign of Jewish bereavement forever after). [2]

941px-Diego_Velázquez_065
Joseph’s coat, by Diego Velázquez (1630)

Meanwhile, the Ishmaelites carry Joseph to Egypt and sell him. His new owner, Potiphar recognizes Joseph is gifted and elevates him to be his CEO. Unfortunately, Joseph catches the eye of Potiphar’s wife. She grabs at his coat and begs him for sex. He refuses. As revenge, she gets him thrown in jail, claiming he tried to rape her. He gets out by interpreting the dreams of his cellmates, Pharaoh’s butler and baker, in prophetic manner.

This neat story has all the makings of a beautifully coherent literary gem. We can see the movie version spun out on a big screen. However, the screenwriters adapting the book would cut a couple of problematic parts, its crazy digressions. One is a nonsensical one about Joseph wandering around lost in Shechem looking for his brothers until a stranger gives him directions. Another is a more interesting and lurid sub-plot about one of Joseph’s brothers, Judah. But it doesn’t advance or even connect to the main narrative. But let’s look at it, because it cloaks a couple of interesting features. [1]

Judah and Tamar in brief

Judah has three sons. The eldest marries Tamar but dies. The second, Onan, fulfills his legal obligation to marry his brother’s widow, but because he knows any children will not be counted as his or because he doesn’t want Tamar to spoil her figure through pregnancy, he “spills his seed,” for which God kills him too. The third son, Shelah, is too young for marriage. Judah tells Tamar to stay in the house until Shelah grows up and then leave when he is of age. Judah worries that if Tamar marries Shelah, his last son will also die.

But Tamar is being deprived of her rightful betrothal to the surviving brother-in-law that will save her honor and guarantee her material support, called a levirate marriage . She disguises herself as a whore, snares Judah on a road trip, and gets pregnant by him. Judah doesn’t have cash on him, so leaves a signet ring and a staff as collateral. Three months later, when she is showing, she is hauled before the court. Judah is the chief justice. She is about to be sentenced to death by burning for her harlotry when she confronts him with the signet and a staff. He admits his responsibility and praises Tamar for seeking justice.

This is also a nice story with ironic twists.  It could make a cool movie on its own, maybe shorter than Joseph’s, but a neat 90-minute romcom. It even has a happy ending. But what’s it doing here?

The literary coherence of the story of Joseph in a single word

The Torah is notoriously frugal with its description and gives few extraneous details. But on closer inspection, the literary eye sees a remarkable oddity within this odd detour. Because there’s so little other color, when props are brought on stage, they get our attention. In fact they unavoidably seem like metaphors or symbols of … something else.

The props in Joseph’s story are his coat and all the other articles of clothing. Joseph’s coat is the object of his brothers’ envy and symbolizes everything they think is wrong with him: his grandiosity, his preening, his many talents, his favored status which he lords over them in his prophetic dreams.  (And yes, as if to prove the point, it even becomes the title of a Broadway musical, and then movie, “Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”) The brothers bring the torn, bloody coat to Isaac.

The props that stand out in the digression about to Tamar and Judah are also wardrobe items that might be found in any good Canaanite clothing department. But then there’s Tamar’s disguise. The Torah takes the time to tell us Tamar “takes off her widow’s clothing” in order to don a prostitute’s costume and veil. She later puts her widow’s garb back on to testify against Judah.

Beged, the macguffin

When the Torah returns to the second part of Joseph’s story, the prop for the story is again an article of clothing. Potiphar’s wife lusts after Joseph so much she “grasps at Joseph’s coat.” He flees so quickly, he leaves it in her grasp. Again, like any good plot device, the coat returns as she stages it for Potiphar, arranging it by her bedside, proof of her claims Joseph tried to rape her.

Screenwriters call this a MacGuffin,” an object with little clear intrinsic value that they use to advance the plot (like the titular black statue in the 1941 movie, “The Maltese Falcon” or the letters of transit in Casablanca or the rug in “The Big Lebowski”).  Now that we see it, we re-read the whole story with new eyes.

As we unpack its imagery, the Torah story starts looking like a vaudeville trunk: open it, stand it on its side, and you get a whole wardrobe of costumes.

One of the Hebrew words for clothing is beged [בגד – B-G-D]. It rings like a bell through the story. Jacob tears his beged (Gen 37:31-32). Tamar takes off her widow’s beged (Gen 38:14) to play the whore. She then puts it on again to testify against Judah. Potiphar’s wife tears Joseph’s beged off him in lust as he flees, then arrays it next to her bed when she plays the injured party to prove Joseph’s guilt. In all, Beged recurs six times just in this part of the chapter (Gen 39:12-18), and twelve times throughout the weekly reading called Vayyeshev. As words go, it’s a real lexical macguffin.

Veiled meanings

Sure enough, lurking inside the word lies the key to a transcendent understanding of the Torah’s intention: beged means both ‘clothing’ and ‘treachery’ (as in ‘cloaked motives’, ‘deceit’). As the word rings through these verses, it explains why the interruption about Judah and Tamar, far from being a mere digression from the story of Joseph, may actually explain it.

Once we see it, the theme of treachery ripples out to embrace and tie together larger swaths of the chapter. Joseph’s brothers commit an act of terrible treachery when they first consider murdering Joseph, then sell their brother into slavery. They then heartlessly deceive their father into thinking his favorite son is dead.

Judah cheats Tamar by shielding Shelah from marrying her. She repays him by deceiving him.

Potiphar’s wife is doubly treacherous, too. She first begs Joseph to commit adultery and then lands him in jail on false charges.

We can’t help but notice the bedroom comedy between Potiphar and Joseph episode mirrors Tamar’s ruse in the preceding story. But where Tamar has justice on her side. Potiphar’s wife’s trick is a lie. Yet it works to land Joseph in jail. The two stories are flip sides of an allegory of justice perverted. Hold that thought. We will return to it later.

In each incident, the occurrence of the word beged signifies both an article of clothing and its metaphorical twin, deceit. In fact, the word beged is self-referential: it exemplifies the capacity of a word to veil, like words that cloak hidden meanings. It’s a pun on punning, a turn on turning a phrase, a trope on the tropics of textuality. [3]

Once we tug at this thread, we unravel entanglements with other double and triple meanings that weave the text together. Here is a sentence describing the source of Tamar’s grievance

So she took off her widow’s garb, covered her face with a veil, and, wrapping herself up, sat down at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah; for she saw that Shelah was grown up, yet she had not been given to him as wife. (Genesis 38:14)

What article of clothing implies disguise and deceit? A veil. What does “the entrance to Enaim” mean? Literally, ‘the opening of the eyes’. [4] There’s a fine line in a beautifully-wrought poem about appearances here.

The word billows out

Eyes open, we now see treacheries involving garments billow out to implicate other events, not just in this portion, but in the rest of Genesis. As a result of her tryst with Judah, Tamar gives birth to twins. She uses another article, a red string, to mark the twin that emerges first. It seems obvious she is trying to avert a repetition of the drama of contested twinship that lurks in their legacy from Jacob, their forefather. Jacob emerged from Rebekah grasping the heel of his twin, Esau, and we saw what mischief spun out from there. (The word for “heel” is another pun on “treachery.”) But fate in the Hebrew family is stronger. Just as Tamar ties the string to avoid getting entangled in God’s apparent script, the first twin is pulled back and the second twin emerges first, tangling things again. The Torah, to paraphrase Mark Twain about history, doesn’t quite repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

A tangled web of deception, disguise, and punning woven in a word

The thread of beged brings the play between clothing, disguise, and treachery to center stage. It unlocks the deepest genealogy of the patriarchal family, and makes us look at a destiny that goes to the most complex moral paradoxes in the origin stories of the Hebrews. The treachery of brothers begins with the snake in the Garden of Eden. Cain slays Abel and denies it. Treachery runs through Noah’s family after the flood (his sons uncover his nakedness). It echoes between Abraham and Lot, and becomes the fulcrum of God’s history as He chooses Isaac over Ishmael. Laban tricks Jacob into laboring for him for twenty years so he can finally wed his true love, Rachel. Joseph’s brothers commit a terrible deception to wipe out the whole city of Shechem after its prince abducts and rapes their sister, Dinah.

But the word first occurs in the Torah in the earlier drama between Jacob and Esau. This event originates the calculus of deception that seems to be working itself out like an algebraic proof through the generations after these twins.

Jacob is able to fool Isaac into cheating Esau of his blessing because Rebekah, their mother, has dressed Jacob for the part. She cooks Esau’s best recipes for venison for Jacob to bring his father and then disguises Jacob in Esau’s finest clothes: begado (Gen 27:15). To prove the deceit worked, when the real Esau comes too late to Isaac to get his blessing, the blind old man is inspired in that blessing by the smell of Esau’s clothing (begadiv). The Sages are alert to the duality of the word. “Read this not as ‘clothes’ but as ‘betrayers’,” they say. [5]

In the end, though Jacob and Esau reconcile in an elaborate display of peacemaking, they are irreconcilable. They embrace, but must live far apart. This mutual exile leads to the first word of this portion of the Torah, Vayeishev: ‘and he settled’: The flavor of the original Hebrew implies that Joseph dwells in the land where his father had to live as a foreigner because he was avoiding Esau and all his descendants, the Edomites. Their elaborate. perverse tribal genealogy is recounted just before this chapter begins.

The evolution of beged and elaborate design in the fabric of the rest of Torah

The cycles of deceit and family drama among Abraham’s seed don’t end until Moses takes the stage. It’s as if only receiving the Torah can heal the pathological family structure of the Hebrews. Whispering about this transformation in its own small way, beged’s meaning changes as it moves from Genesis to Exodus. When beged appears dozens of times throughout Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, it is only to signify the holy garments of Aaron and his priestly descendants, or garments that need to be washed to be holy or purified, or regal clothing signifying elevation, or garments with fringes on their corners (tzitzit) that Jews are commanded to wear in order to control lust (Recall Judah. Now recall Joseph’s restraint with Potiphar’s wife). The word mysteriously gets simplified, shedding its alternative, cloaked meanings.

Beged’s other sense as ‘treachery ‘only occurs once more, soon after the events of Joseph, before it disappears forever, in a law describing divorce:

“If she please not her master, who has betrothed her to himself, then he shall let her be redeemed: to sell her to a strange nation he shall have no power, seeing he has dealt deceitfully with her.” (Exodus 21:8)

We are subtly reminded of Vayyeshev. A man cheats a woman under his control out of what’s owed her by marital rights, as Judah did Tamar. The verse also singles out an odd example of the many ways a husband might cheat a wife out of her due, by selling her to a foreign nation, which happens to be exactly what Joseph’s brothers did to him.

The word transmutes into a measure of holy justice and honesty

The word beged then does something even stranger: by the time we reach the fifth Book of Moses, Deuteronomy, it seems to disappear entirely, with only one remarkable exception:

“You shall not pervert the justice due to the stranger, or to the fatherless; nor take the widow’s raiment as pledge (collateral).” (Deuternonomy 24:17)

The word calls out here nakedly, without adornment: Beged. It has long ago shed its alternative meaning of ‘disguised motives’ or ‘treachery’. Now, though, it is transmuted, elevated to a fundamental symbol of justice. The Torah warns judges: apply justice evenhandedly, to the stranger and the orphan. Show mercy: don’t take collateral from the widow. “The widow’s raiment” calls back loudly and clearly to that other widow from four books ago, Tamar

This one recurrence of the word, by its singularity, seems to trumpet a moral evolution through the other four Books of Moses. We have left the first family treacheries behind us way back there in the Book of Genesis. We have been instructed elaborately on the mechanics of holiness and purification, especially involving clothes, in three books that follow. And now, through a solitary instance in the final book, we understand the ultimate obligation is to activate those aspirations by connecting the divine to humanity through justice.

What author had this much wit?

What author had the wit to devise this complex and subtle web of signification woven across so many chapters? How did that author layer so many puns, echoes, cross-references, intertextual reflections, and doubled meanings on one word? Or hide so many clues so deeply that they may never have had any hope of being discovered without a concordance and a computer?

When every fragment of a whole seems to contain all the information of that whole, we call it a hologram. How did that author show such great artistry, to grow and alter the meaning of the word itself, to lose its furtive duality, to evolve its significance in parallel with the much broader arc of the Children of Israel as they evolve from idolatrous Hebrew nomads to a holy nation? Who devised this hologram? Why does one word seem to multiply across Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, but then seem to be forgotten in Deuteronomy except for one, exquisitely resonant occasion that ripples back and colors all its predecessors?

Are these all signs of inconsistency, proving the Torah was stitched together by many authors across centuries? If it was, who maintained the secret for those centuries so it could be ultimately manifested?

Or is it proof of such incredible subtlety and coherence in the composition of the Torah that only a single transcendentally gifted Author could possibly have held it in His mind?


ENDNOTES

[1] Rashi, among many other commentators, flags this intrusion, “Why is this section placed here thus interrupting the section dealing with the history of Joseph?” (Genesis Rabbah, 85:2).

[2] The sages *almost* make the connection that Joseph’s torn clothing makes between parts 1 and 2 of the Joseph story: “A savage beast devoured him. This is a reference to Potiphar’s wife, who would attempt to seduce him.” Midrash Rabbah 84:19.

[3] The technical word for this is “paronomasia.”

[4] Rashi on Torah.

[5] Midrash Rabbah Bereishit,


ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

I am grateful, again, to my neighbors Michael Morazadeh, Jonathan Choslovsky, and Ron Kardos, members of my informal chavrusa, who challenged me to take a hard look at the Documentary Hypothesis (that the Torah was written by many authors across several centuries instead of by God and Moses). This blog and several before and after were inspired by their challenge. I am also grateful to Rabbi Yale Spalter of Chabad Northern Peninsula for noting what some of the sages had to say about these matters.

The direct inspiration for this treatment of beged came during a celebration of the 19th of Kislev at Chabad of Palo Alto (where I was also accompanied by R. Spalter and Messrs. M, C, & K.). Rabbi Menacham Landa of the Novato Chabad was darshening about Joseph’s incident with Potiphar’s wife and it occurred to me that Joseph seemed to have a habit of losing his clothing in dramatic circumstances. Rabbi Levin of Chabad Palo Alto said, almost off the cuff, that the word beged had a weighty meaning worth looking into.


AUTHOR’S NOTE

What is a Jew? (short)

Last week, President Trump extended Title VI protections to Jews on campuses that receive federal funding, alongside other students of race, color or national origin. This kicked off what the media called “a firestorm.”  It was actually two controversies for the price of one. First, do Title VI rules restrict freedom of speech (which only came up as a protest when Trump protected Jews, even though it’s a 1964 ruling). And second, are Jews like the other protected classes? What are Jews, exactly?

Are we a race, a nation, an ethnic group, an extended family, a religion, or just a bunch of folks who like bagels and lox? All of these fit some Jews, but none of these fit all Jews, so what is going on? Jews themselves debate it.

There is a document that defines Jewish identity, a charter for membership in the gang. It’s called the Torah, and it insists it originates in a divine ideal of what people and the world can be. Jews call this concept “holiness,” but the word is too loaded. For now, call it an essence.

A Jew is someone who knows that God gave Jews this contract. Whether you believe it is literally true or not, the proposition that the Hebrew Bible originates from a Divine author has good explanatory power for the persistence of Jews. Something mystical seems to be going on that preserves the Jews against all odds, even as it singles them out for persecution, which is also beyond all rational explanation (though we all have our own favorite rational explanation). The fact that this essence doesn’t fit any of the usual categories may also explain why Trump’s move is both so fulfilling and right and troubling and dangerous at the same time.

But here are the rules of the contract that makes a Jew a Jew:

  • You don’t get to sign the contract at birth. If your parents signed the contract, you are a Jew. It’s your birthright. Technically, only your mother has to be Jewish.
  • Whether or not you want to live up to your end of the deal or how much you do is all on you. But you’re still a Jew no matter what. Almost all Jews sort of know that what they are supposed to believe in. Almost all Jews sort of know the Torah is the source of the beliefs and contractual clauses. However, some, maybe most, have never read it cover to cover especially in the 21st century. Others build their lives around it intensely, reading it and following its advice.
  • There isn’t a Jew who perfectly fulfills his or her end of the Torah’s bargain. Some fall very, very short. A few may have entirely lost the knowledge that there is a contract. Many were never given the chance to read it. Others are unable to appreciate it if they do. Some don’t want to be part of the contract at all and walk away from it. Some are even actively hostile to it. All these Jews, except the few technical heretics, are still Jews.

However, history shows that the descendants of Jews who don’t claim their inheritance more than likely will not be Jews within a few generations. We know it in our bones, even if we want to deny history. The 2013 Pew Study proved it again for our generation:

 “Jewish adults who have only one Jewish parent are much more likely than the offspring of two Jewish parents to describe themselves, religiously, as atheist, agnostic or nothing in particular. In that sense, intermarriage may be seen as weakening the religious identity of Jews in America.”

Intermarriage is higher among Jews who already have a weak religious identity.

  • At the same time, the Jew club is open. If you’re not born into it, you can become a full-on Jew by showing you’ve read, understand, and signed the contract. It doesn’t make a difference what your ethnic, racial, national or religious heritage was. Furthermore, if you choose Judaism, you will probably know a lot more about it than most born Jews.
  • The “nationality” of the Jew is indeed a part, but not all, of the contract. The nation of Israel was promised to Jews by God. Call it Zionism 0.0. A lot of the Torah is a utopian design for the nation of Israel, explaining how to behave as citizens in a society where everyone is utterly responsible for everyone else. Even when Jews don’t own the land of Israel as their Jewish nation, or Jews live outside it, the vision of Israel as this Divinely ordered utopia gives Jews a national identity and that they have hereditary rights to it.

This is why the equation between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism holds water. The identification of the Jew with Israel the real geographic nation is intimate and inseparable, even if an individual Jew isn’t a Zionist or is an anti-Zionist, or rejects the equation between being a Jew and being pro-Israel or fights against it actively or deeply, sincerely questions how it translates into political reality or how it accommodates other people who live there. But when critiques of Israel single it out for special condemnation or critique because it is a Jewish State, they only reinforce the equation.

  • And finally, even if you don’t believe that God is the Party of the First Part, what has kept the Jews going is to debate the proposition that the contract has divine absolute authority. That’s why what has preoccupied the Jews forever is arguing over how to apply the contract in our world and our times. Case law.

The terms of the Torah’s deal inform virtually every scene, every verse, and some would say every word and letter of the original document. When it’s not explaining the do’s and don’t’s of the bargain, it is dramatizing how to transmit it and enforce its terms. Abraham and Sarah choose Isaac over the elder Ishmael, breaking tribal convention. Abraham carefully ensures Isaac’s mate comes from his own family.  Jacob tricks Isaac into giving him the Hebrew inheritance – this abstruse idealism of the future Jews and the promise God made to Abraham – rather than his own twin, Esau, proving that the Jew thing is not genetic. Isaac sends Jacob to uncle Laban to find a wife, even though Laban is an idolator and a crook. Jacob’s sons annihilate Shechem after tricking them into circumcision in order to avoid polluting their breeding program after their prince, also named Shechem, rapes their sister, Dinah. It ain’t pretty, but it is necessary. The genetic purity of the Hebrew essence has to be preserved, even at the expense of honor.

We can summarize these stories on one foot: the Hebrew species evolves through the selection of transcendent traits of fitness. The narrative clearly is telling us that God is evolving a Jewish essence, a Jewish soul.

The Torah is filled with the stories of failed human beings who carried the mission from God forward nonetheless. So the point is to fail forward and continue to strive to fulfill the mission defined in the contract. 

One scene (among hundreds) helps define this. Jacob has married Leah and Rachel and grown a vast tribe while serving Laban for twenty years. He is returning home and has reunited and apparently reconciled with Esau, though he grievously cheated him in order to ensure the integrity of the Torah’s breeding program and continuity of its mission. Esau offers to accompany Jacob’s tribe down to Seir. But Jacob begs off:

 “’My lord knows that the children are frail and that the flocks and herds, which are nursing, are a care to me; if they are driven hard a single day, all the flocks will die. Let my lord go on ahead of his servant, while I travel slowly, at the pace of the cattle before me and at the pace of the children …’.” (Gen 33:13-14)

When else in history do people let the children set the pace, especially as they pass through hostile territories? The Hebrews are fierce warriors (see Shechem, above) when they need to be, yet they tenderly nurture the gentler, invisible traits of character, disposition, inclination, soul.

In the rough tribal world of the second millennium BCE, maybe during most of the rest of history, selecting for gentleness and domesticity probably hasn’t been an obvious winning strategy for survival. It may even arouse violence in others by signaling weakness. Though Jews sometimes barely cling to survival, they survive nonetheless. The transmission of their civilizing, domesticating program to the rest of the world suggests they’re doing something that works. It has required allegiance to a deal with God that has always been massively unfashionable in a materialistic world. If you’re uncomfortable calling it holiness, then call this the essence, the very definition of the Jew: once you sign the contract, your soul has special obligations defined by the Torah.

Are Jews a race, religion, nation, ethnicity, tribe, or … what?

This week, President Trump extended Title VI protections to Jews, alongside other students of race, color or national origin on campuses that receive federal funding. This kicked off what the media called “a firestorm.”  It was actually two controversies. First, do Title VI rules restrict freedom of speech (which only came up as a protest when Trump protected Jews, even though it’s a 1964 ruling. No comment). And second, are Jews like the other protected classes? What are Jews, exactly?

This is a debate even among Jews: Are we a race, a nation, an ethnic group, an extended family, a religion, or just a bunch of folks who like bagels and lox? All of these fit some Jews, but none of these fit all Jews, so what is going on? The question is particularly poignant because whatever Jews are, they keep popping up on the stage of history for over 3500 years.

There is a document that defines the essence of Jewish identity, a charter for membership in the gang we call Jews, if you will. It’s called the Torah, and it insists it originates in a divine ideal of what people and the world can be. Jews call this concept “holiness,” but the word is too loaded. Whether you believe it is literally true or not, the proposition that this document originates from God explains the transcendent power and persistence of Jewish identity, even among Jews who reject it. Something mystical seems to be going on that preserves the Jews against all odds. The fact that this essence doesn’t fit any of the usual categories may also explain why Jews are also so persistently reviled and persecuted among other nations.

The Origin of the Hebrew Species by Selection of Transcendent Traits

This definition of identity sews together the entire Five Books of Moses, which in part reads as the story of how the Hebrews emerge, flee slavery in Egypt, get the Torah, evolve into Jews, and conquer Israel. The unifying theme is how they protect the purity of that identity, even if it’s an ineffable, hard-to-define one, and it infuses virtually every scene, every verse, and some would say every word and letter in the Hebrew Bible. Even if we pick just one section of Genesis (the weekly reading about Jacob called Vayishlach) we can see dramas of how the Hebrew patriarchs and matriarchs protect this essence, sometimes racially, sometimes culturally, sometimes through family inheritances, and sometimes with the help of divine intervention. Together, these show that their idea of themselves transcends any of the usual definitions.

  • Sometimes diplomacy keeps the Jews from interbreeding and assimilation

The Hebrews often protect their transcendent self-definition by delicately negotiating their relations with the tribes that surround them to avoid interbreeding while still remaining peaceful.

The Book of Genesis describes an elaborate kabuki between Jacob and his twin Esau. Jacob is returning home after twenty years working for his uncle Laban, where he amassed a huge tribe including wives Leah and Rachel, concubines, children, goats and sheep. He wrestles with an angel, who re-names him Israel. He left home because he cheated his twin Esau out of their father’s blessing, Esau threatened to kill him, and Jacob dreads their confrontation. Sure enough, a scout tells him, Esau is coming with an army of 400 men. Jacob takes all possible precautions: he prepares for war, splits his wives and possessions to minimize damage, sends elaborate gifts and emissaries ahead, and prays for deliverance from his brother. As he approaches, Jacob bows and scrapes in an elaborate ceremony of submission and apology.

His preparations, gifts, and obsequious approach seem to work. The twins kiss and weep on each others’ shoulders. Esau offers to have his tribe accompany Jacob on their journey back.  Jacob politely declines.  Esau then offers to provide some men to escort Jacob’s caravan and even promises to go “at his own pace.” Jacob begs off again, and promises to meet him down by Seir. They part ways and Jacob seems in no hurry for their next reunion.

Obviously, Jacob is worried that his brother still might get revenge along the way. But Jacob’s pretext actually betrays his deepest concern:

“’My lord knows that the children are frail and that the flocks and herds, which are nursing, are a care to me; if they are driven hard a single day, all the flocks will die. Let my lord go on ahead of his servant, while I travel slowly, at the pace of the cattle before me and at the pace of the children, until I come to my lord in Seir’.” (Gen 33:13-14)

Jacob’s reaction – “if they are driven hard a single day all the flocks will die” – at first seems overdramatic, but it expresses his deeper fear: the complete extermination, or at least absorption, of his legacy, livestock, and children. Though they are twins, Esau and Jacob have completely inimical spiritual characteristics and the harder one threatens to obliterate the gentler. (This is also prophetic of Jewish history: Esau’s tribe and nation, in Jewish tradition, is collectively known by his nickname, Edom: ‘red’, or ‘bloody’. According to the parallel mystical genealogy of nations, he is the progenitor of Rome and by extension, the Catholic Church, Christianity, and the West which are all called “Edom.”)

  • Sometimes it takes total annihilation of the threat to their identity

Sometimes the Hebrews did what they had to do by whatever means necessary, even if it means with violence and subterfuge. All is fair in love and war, and the next scene has both.

Leaving Esau, Jacob moseys on down the road to the city-state of Shechem. He buys land from the king there, Chamor. Chamor’s son, also named Shechem, sees something he wants and, as spoiled princes are wont to do, just grabs it; he abducts Jacob’s young daughter Dinah and rapes her.

After raping her, Shechem has fallen in love with Dinah, and wants to marry her. Dinah’s brothers are incensed and seek revenge. But they propose a deal that seems to resolve the crisis by merging their two tribes, which might on the face of it also condone and make legal Shechem’s violation of Dinah. Jacob’s sons agree, but on one condition: all the men of Shechem have to be circumcised. The solution also has a nice symmetry about it: Shechem raped Dinah when he was uncircumcised. By getting circumcised, he adopts the Hebrews’ irrevocable sign of purity – now that’s commitment! – so he and the whole of Shechem might rectify the crime on some cosmic scale of karma. Maybe. The irony and symbolism of the fact that the entire people and their rapacious prince share a name is not lost on us.

Chamor and Shechem, eager for the deal, ask their townsfolk to go along with this painful M &A by appealing to their greed:

[The Hebrews’] cattle and substance and all their beasts will be ours, if we only agree to their terms, so that they will settle among us.” (Gen 34:23)

In the calculus of these things it seems like it will eventually work out: the pagan tribe will absorb the Hebrews who not only are wealthy, but have a proven record of prospering. As Canaanite pagans, what is another religious ritual, however strange and painful? It won’t change their characters, and ultimately they’ll just settle and assimilate the nomadic, weaker, but attractive Hebrews and avoid war.

But the goal of both Shechem and the city-state of the same name is explicitly to absorb and nullify the Hebrews. The violation of Dinah by the putrescent Shechem is metonymy for the larger intention of the city to assimilate Jacob’s tribe. It can only be rectified by sterilizing the contamination thoroughly. If anything, circumcision mocks the idea that a physical act of contrition will compensate for the transcendent crime of violating and polluting Jacob’s line. And as the Jews have learned again and again all through history, assimilation is just conquest by a slower means than war, a recipe for slow annihilation and dissolution. It is the sub-text of the scene between Jacob and Esau we just read: if Esau doesn’t eliminate Jacob’s brood by force he will do it by companionship.

So Shimon and Levi, sons of Jacob, are really plotting revenge. On the third day, when the men of Shechem are most debilitated by the pain of their recent surgery, they attack the city and annihilate it. 

It’s one of the most troubling episodes in the Bible. But we can understand it in the context of the Hebrews’ self-definition and the broader arc of the Torah narrative. This is a pre-emptive war, a war of self-defense against an existential threat.

  • The Bible shows the Jews ARE a genetic race created through selective breeding

The Bible is like a sequence of billboards on a highway about this. One of Noah’s sons becomes father of the Semites, Shem. Another of the Canaanites. Abraham carefully selects Isaac’s mate from his own family by sending Eliezer on a mission far away to identify a bride from the offspring of his brother, Nahor. Eliezer discerns the kindness, generosity and virtue of Rebekah that qualifies her to be Isaac’s wife. Isaac sends Jacob to uncle Laban to find a wife for himself, even though Laban is an idolator and a crook. The genetic purity of the Hebrew essence has to be preserved over marriage to the children of even righteous Canaanites.

  • The Jews are NOT a race: Sometimes the Jew is defined through selective transmission of the contractual heritage against all norms

But much more frequently in the Bible, Jews preserve their essence by selective transmission of the contract they’ve made with God.

In virtually all tribes and nations through history both before and after the events of Genesis, even into the 19th century in England, custom or law mandated that the eldest son gets the father’s inheritance even if he was a scoundrel. This is called succession through (patrilineal) primogeniture. And in the rough wider world for most of human history, selecting for gentleness and domesticity probably wasn’t a winning game plan.

But the Hebrews perceive some transcendent trait in their offspring that is expressed through the favored wife-mothers Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel. Sometimes this inheritance – this whatever it is – is delivered over the protest, inclination, or even knowledge of the fathers even as they do it. In some instances, the mothers wrestle primogeniture away from the men in favor of matrilineal selection of invisible subtleties of superior “fitness” (as Darwin would put it), traits of character, disposition, inclination, soul. Though the Jews are fierce warriors when they need to be, Judaism is matrilineal in its essence. Clearly, at least at face value, the favored son is the gentler and more domesticated one.

Sarah casts out Ishmael to ensure her son Isaac will be the one who continues Abrahams’s heritage and the Divine blessings and promises that came with it. Rebekah chooses the grown, studious Jacob over his rough hunter twin Esau. She tricks, or perhaps secretly colludes, with Isaac to switch them in order to make the Hebrew destiny work out.

Later, the Jacob-Esau dialectic shows both this bias for domestication and also shows that the Jews are not a race. After all, Jacob and Esau are twins, undeniably of the same genetic heritage and race. And yet they represent opposing idea of what humanity is meant to be according to be.  One has this ineffable essence; the other doesn’t. And we don’t need to delve here how many Jews, even in the Bible, are converts, drawn from completely different genetic stock and races. Yet, to take just the most obvious instance, King David, from whose lineage the Messiah will spring, is a an heir of Ruth, a convert.

And here’s a clincher: if Dinah had children from her rape by Shechem and had they been raised by Jacob’s tribe, they would be Jews, or at this point at least, Hebrews. In fact, later Jewish tradition says that the Hebrew Shaul (listed in Gen 46:10), offspring of a “Canaanitish” mother, is really Dinah’s son fathered by Shechem.

In the next generation, Jacob then favors Rachel’s sons, Joseph and Benjamin, especially Joseph, over the ten brothers from Leah and her concubine.

Joseph becomes the most powerful man in Egypt and brings his brothers to settle there during a famine. When he asks his aged father Jacob to bless his sons, Jacob, recapitulating his own sibling drama, switches his hands over Joseph’s protests to select the younger Ephraim over the elder Menashe who become tribes of Israel.

  • The Jews ARE a Nation called Israel

The brood of Abraham and his selected descendants have a deal with G-d: Keep My Torah, He says, and you will be a great nation [and also] get a land to call your own, Israel.  Despite many ups and downs, the deal defines their destiny. The Israelites are liberated from Egypt, get the Torah, wander the desert, and then conquer the Promised Land and give their name to it. The fifth book, Deuteronomy, is largely Moses’s reiteration of this pact with details of how the nation must conduct itself in order to be a utopian and Divine society in the Promised Land. They and their land are mystically conjoined and inter-fertilizing.

This is an essential and unusual three-way relationship between a geographical entity, the ancient and transcendent document that promises it to them and tells them how to live there, and Jews. The eternal (though not universal) longing by Jews for Zion is a desire to live there and a desire for the utopian values which it represents and Jews are supposed to manifest in their behavior wherever they live. Israel is THE Jewish State. The UN’s equation between Judaism and Zionism – and anti-Zionism with anti-Judaism – recognizes this. When Israel is singled out for double standards of judgment or condemnation for actions that other nations commit, or Jewish students on campus are accused of being part of that State (whether they are or not) that is an equation for anti-Semitism. As much as anything, this Zionism, both national and supra-national, defines the essence of the Jews.

  • The Jews are NOT a nation

Yet, both by definition and by historical fact, this identity between Jews and Zion also paradoxically shows clearly they are not a nation in any conventional sense. They were a whatever they are before they entered the geographic sliver of land called Israel, and they remained Jews when they lost their land and entered their Diaspora in Babylon (586 BCE). They were  Jews when they re-entered fifty years later, and also remained Jews when they were scattered across the globe by the Roman conquest of Israel (70CE – present). And they are still Jews today even as they live both inside the borders of their own nation, Israel, and outside of it in America and 100+ other nations.

  • Sometimes it takes Divine Intervention to protect the Jews’ identity

When all else fails, G-d Himself intervenes dramatically and violently to purge those humans, and then Hebrews, and then Jews, who pollute the transcendent identity He is trying to bring into the world.

He sends a Flood to wipe away generalized abomination from humanity, preserving only the righteous Noah and his family. He eradicates Sodom and Gomorrah. He winks Aaron’s priestly sons out of existence just because they offered sacrifices in some way only He saw was wrong. He opens up the earth to swallow Korach and his rebels. He sends plagues and snakes and fire, especially when Jews break the contract, like when they consort with the Midianite women sent by Bilaam. Some tribes wander off. Feckless spies are purged. The herd is being culled for fitness by a divine hand.

Torah’s Darwinian Project

Once we see it, the entire Torah appears to be a pursuit of this experiment to select a group of people and evolve their metaphysical “fitness” in the world. The selection principle exists even before they arrived on the scene with Abraham. A fundamental principle of the universe, what philosophers would call its metaphysics, manifests in Jewish essence: make distinctions between this and that with often invisible, inexplicable, or ineffable differences, like pork from cow or clean from unclean, in order to achieve a higher sometimes indefinable purpose in G-d’s mind.

The opening scene of the Bible announces this theme as thunderingly as Beethoven’s Fifth: G-d separates heaven from earth, light from dark, sky from water, water from land, plants from land, animals from plants, man from beasts, woman from man, paradise from pedestrian reality. Then He selects a son or daughter from a nearly identical sibling in every generation, distinguishing between brothers and sisters, even twins, to carry the mysterious trait or traits that enable Him to evolve the Hebrews towards some transcendent goal.

The evolutionary theme in Genesis swells through the rest of the Five Books into the separation and redemption – the selection – of this group of people. Eugenics is a dirty word after the Nazi horrors, but it literally means “good breeding” by artificial selection.  The Torah is the manual of divine eugenics.

When the Hebrews get their constitutional charter, it is filled with commandments for them to imitate G-d’s distinction-making: You must distinguish clean from unclean in your own body and in the bodies of others, in animals, in clothing, homes, utensils and in what you eat. In your private lives you must separate life from death, kosher from unkosher, work from rest, holy from unholy, sacred time from the mundane. You must acknowledge the difference between the physical and the spiritual and recognize it in yourself and every other human.

Anah’s Mule and the Transcendent Abhorrence of Mixing Species

Dividing good from bad during Creation is the essence of the “good” that G-d pronounces in satisfaction. Humans, made in His image, are to emulate this good by separating good species from bad, and they are definitely not to try to create new species by mixing them. The species in the natural world, like the Jews, are much more than expressions of genes and physical attributes, Rather they represent foundational, immutable categories in G-d’s mind.

One of the next scenes in this section of the Bible illustrates the principle: While Jacob dawdles in fulfilling his promise to re-join Esau, Esau’s tribe has had the time to interbreed with the tribe of Seir down there not far from where Sodom and Gomorrah used to be.  The Bible, like many ancient epics, gives an extended genealogy of these two families. It tries to untangle a thornbush of Esau’s progeny that have interbred, often through incest. It also lists the eight kings of what now is called the kingdom of Edom (Esau) and their offspring, a seemingly anti-climactic end to an otherwise dramatic portion of the Bible

However, in the middle of the dry account of begats and sires, one comment sticks out:

“The sons of Zibeon were these: Aiah and Anah—that was the Anah who first found mules in the wilderness while pasturing the asses of his father Zibeon.” (Gen 36:24)

Nobody else is singled out for an achievement of any kind. No heroic acts or territorial conquests or deaths in battle are mentioned. The remark adds nothing to advance the narrative. And there’s nothing about mules in the rest of the Five Books of Moses.

So why mention Anah and his mules?

Maybe the Torah is calling out Anah because he was a kind of mad scientist, winner of the Nobel prize of his age. In a nomadic culture, finding out how to breed mules would be like inventing the automobile in an era of horse and buggies. But there’s something transgressive about it, too. It’s unnatural, disruptive. A mere human tampers with God’s handiwork, and succeeds in creating a new species (albeit one we know, like all other hybrid animals, is sterile)! Why would the Bible single out this contradiction to its own fundamental sense of cosmic order?

The Talmud explains that Anah is one of the only characters in the Bible whose name is mentioned twice in the same sentence. Why? Because Anah has a dual identity. He is the bastard offspring of an incestuous relationship between a son (Zibeon) and his own mother.  Zibeon is both Anah’s father and his brother; Anah is his own uncle. The sages get to the essence of the matter by putting the two strange items, mules and Anah’s bastard status, together:

“He [Anah] mated a donkey with a mare, and it gave birth to a mule. He was illegitimate, and he brought illegitimate offspring into the world.

Why were they called יֵמִם (signifying “dreaded beings”)? Because their dread (אֵימָתָן) was cast upon people.

What is the source of this dread? Far from being a fabulous innovation in nature, Anah’s mule violates a fundamental law against crossbreeding any species.

The charge the Children of Israel receive on Sinai mandates that they must abhor interspeciation: grafting trees, yoking oxen to donkeys, crossbreeding animals, or even hybridizing seeds (kilayim – כלאים). They’re forbidden to wear clothing of two fabrics, wool and cotton (shatnes). Vineyards must be planted with no other species in-between the rows of vines to avoid cross-pollination. And violating these incomprehensible rules is punishable by death. Further, it’s called a chok, a statute, only partly, if at all, comprehensible ­- as opposed to a more commonsense law, like “Do not commit adultery.” The rationale for a chok transcends human understanding, yet it is essential to order in the Jewish cosmos.

So what is this essence of the Jews?

The Torah’s horror of the mixture of species is the negative pole of its positive gravity. Hybridization, intermarriage, abominable crossbreeding, dissolving boundaries between this and that, us and them, is the Torah’s counter-theme, its anathema.

The story of Anah’s mule and the tale of Jacob and then Jacob’s sons protecting the purity of their tribe seem completely disconnected, but they are essentially connected.

Must be something in the water down there by the Dead Sea. Anah’s abomination is a symbol for the entire land of Seir where Esau chooses to dwell and wants Jacob to “meet” him. Jacob’s evasion of Esau after their reconciliation may look like personal cowardice, but Jacob fears for the physical and metaphysical survival of his heritage and future mission.

The brothers’ deceit of Shechem and Chamor and their annihilation of the city may come from outrage at the prince’s violent assault on their sister, but even more so defends against the transcendent contamination, the pollution, of their descendants and the dissolution of their spiritual mission into paganism. If the Hebrews don’t protect their purity, they will go down in Seir and suffer the sterility of hybrids.

The definition of the Jewish species is a categorical ideal in G-d’s mind.

Eugenicists and cattle breeders select for physical traits like strength or size or appearance, and Nazis may have surrounded their quest for Aryan racial purity with all sorts of mystical Nordic nonsense, but their primary obsession was with the outer signs of racial purity: blonde hair, height, etc.

By contrast, the Hebrews seem fixated on completely invisible traits that have nothing to do with race or genetics, or even something invisible but measurable like IQ. Their methodology for strengthening their stock is opaque and mysterious, occult. The defining features of their species is a categorical ideal in G-d’s mind.

As the narrative of Genesis proceeds, it’s clear the generations-long project of careful breeding  protects their character, their gentleness, their domestication. Genesis is a manual for creating a brood that will fulfill the ethical and spiritual destiny that God has planned for Abraham’s progeny: evolve a set of behaviors in stark contract to the muscular, warlike aggression of their neighbors and kin.

This seems a slim and abstract premise for family planning, and the pillow talk between the matriarchs and patriarchs must have been pretty delicate, but the project is deliberate and sustained for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

The sages, in commenting on the incident of Anah, tells this cosmic story: Rabbi Yosei says:

“The thoughts of two phenomena arose in God’s mind on Shabbat eve [the last night of Creation], but were not actually created until the conclusion of Shabbat. At the conclusion of Shabbat, the Holy One, Blessed be He, granted Adam, the first man, creative knowledge similar to divine knowledge, and he brought two rocks and rubbed them against each other, and the first fire emerged from them. Adam also brought two animals, a female horse and a male donkey, and mated them with each other, and the resultant offspring that emerged from them was a mule.”

But another rabbi demurs: mules didn’t come until much later until that Edomite bastard Anah, roaming the wasteland, brought the abominable hybrid into being. They place the idea of the mule in Creation, and then reject it for the abomination. The message is clear: species are immutable, transcendent categories. The species of people (not racial or genetic but cultural) we call Jews is one of these categories. Their immutability is protected then and still protected and preserved today by individual human choices in the face of complex relations with others.

The Torah is both the story of how the Jews preserve their essence while they pick their way across the seething landscape of history, an instruction manual for doing so, and a transcendent vision of how that essence is connected to the Divine idea of the cosmos itself. Whether or not you believe G-d wrote this definition, it has the same force, the same persistent efficacy and has sustained the Jews inexplicably just as if it had in fact sprung from the mind of an omniscient, universal Being.

The Two Floods, Double Rainbows, and the Cosmic Limitations of Engineering

On double rainbows in Noah

A few years ago, my daughter showed me a viral video of a stoned guy blissing out on a double rainbow in Yosemite. “It’s … it’s a double rainbow!” He moans. “Oh my G-d, oh my G-d,” he repeats over and over, “It’s so bright.  Ohhhh, it’s so beautiful!” He breaks down in full-on sobbing, crying in a seizure of ecstasy. “What does it mean?” he asks, his mind blown.

I’m not sure, dude. But one thing you missed in your rapture is a curious phenomenon: look carefully and you can see that the colors of the second rainbow invert the usual order: VIBGYOR.

Double Rainbow
“Double Rainbow” by SlimJones123

As early as 1520 or so, the Jewish sage Sforno[i] noted that even by his time, the double rainbow was already a cliché.

“Scientists have already tired of trying to explain why the various colors of the second rainbow appear in the opposite order of the colors in the original rainbow.”[ii]

Nonetheless, he uses it to explain the rainbow following Noah’s flood. Since the ordinary rainbow already existed at the time of Creation, Sforno reasons, the actual rainbow displayed after the Flood must be this second rainbow, a much rarer and more startling sight (as our ecstatic friend saw in Yosemite). The reverse order of the colors are a warning:

 “When this rainbow appears it is high time to call people to order and to warn them of impending natural calamities unless they change their ways.”[iii]

Sforno’s insight made me think of another secret duality in Noah: there’s really not one but two floods in this weekly reading. I believe they’re connected.

The two floods

The first more famous flood is obviously the one of water. Nature itself was corrupted, the Sages say. Animals and humans alike preferred abominable stuff to trying to reproduce. So the flood washes all life on earth clean, vegetation included. It’s a bio-disaster.

G-d chooses Noah because he’s the right man for the job. The book on Noah is that he was only outstandingly righteous for his generation, and we Jews sort of damn him by faint praise. But I think he gets a bad rap. Go ahead. You try being the most righteous guy in the room, let alone your generation. And despite whatever flaws, we know he’s an excellent boatbuilder at least. But he also had to have been an expert zoologist, entomologist, herpetologist, ornithologist, and botanist to identify male and female of all the species, and identify and preserve seeds. On the ark, he had to be a great veterinarian. And after he lands, he shows he’s even an oenologist.

What is Noah’s special merit and the secret to his success? As God’s chosen caretaker and intimate, he’s a scientist who also knows that the natural world is not merely mechanistic and physical, it is meta-physical. After all, he’s talking to G-d; he knows there’s another dimension to the cosmos. He knows what’s coming and the cosmic reasons why. So he is the only man who can ensure the biome’s survival.

But after the first Flood, Noah’s brood gets busy repopulating the earth as G-d commands them. A few generations after the deluge, united and inspired by their common tongue, all the cousins gather in Babel to “make a name” for themselves. They build a tower so grand, it will have its “head in Heaven.” G-d punishes them for their hubris,[iv] which must have shocked the hell out of them. He tumbles their tower and confuses them by “confounding their language,” multiplying the number of tongues. Unable to communicate, they can no longer unite with one mind and one purpose so they scatter.

This is the second flood, a deluge of languages. And whereas our first crime was more a bestial transgression against the natural order, the second one is harder to define. It seems at once quite human and admirable, stemming from our godlike intellects. Where’d we go wrong?

What were the engineers of Babel after?

Beyond the plain sense of trying to storm heaven itself with a tower of bricks, what were the engineers of Babel – all of humanity, really – after? Why are they punished for their demonstration of human ambition, unity, and ingenuity?

Ramban suggests that they’re after the Tetragrammaton – that most awesome four-letter Name of G-d, but also the one particularly associated with Creation. He gestures at dark depths by suggesting that only students of the Kabbalah will fully understand the mystical meaning of their ambition.

We can guess what he’s implying, though: humans hoped to dominate the cosmos by challenging G-d and replacing Him with their own grandiose engineering. R. Bachya is expansive on this point: “The people of that generation were very advanced in matters of philosophy and even technology,” he writes. “However, they used their intelligence in a sinful manner” by staging a Divine coup.[v]

It’s all about the bricks

But even the original text hints that their crime is overestimating their engineering prowess. As they plot to build the tower …

They said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and burn them hard.” Brick served them as stone… [Gen 11:3]

The Torah seems illogically focused on the bricks. Just in case we miss the point, it redundantly hammers the point home in the next sentence: “The bricks served them as stone.” When we turn to the Hebrew, we see it’s really emphatic. What it says is more like “let’s burn them til they’re burnt” or “let’s super-burn them” [V’n’S-R-P-H, l’S-R-P-H; וְנִשְׂרְפָה לִשְׂרֵפָה]. The words just before this are another pair that  pun on the word for brick, נִלְבְּנָה לְבֵנִים [n’LBNH LBNH]. Most translations render the first word as white, perhaps referring to the super-heated bricks in the kiln. But the letters might also be trying ot imply something like ‘the brickness of the bricks’.[vi] In any case, the pride they take in their mastery of super-brick engineering is emphatic. They wax poetic and pun twice in a row [נלבנה לבנים ונשרפה לשרפה].

But still, so what? Why the sudden obsession with the bricks? And why call attention to the obvious fact that bricks “served them as stones?

The first, plainest sense is it fits with the idolatry the Talmud accuses them of. The Babel generation turned to idolatry, worshipping stones. More to the point, independent of any interpretation, they are plainly in love with and united around the structure they’re making from their artificial stones to supplant G-d in heaven, maybe encouraged by their conviction that their artificial ones are even better than nature’s.

Or perhaps the Torah is looking forward to the only other time it mentions bricks: when the Hebrews are slaves in Egypt. The message echoes back to us from this future: folks are now enslaved to their delusory engineering ambitions. They worship their belief that they can storm Heaven and overthrow the G-d with their own handiwork.

Fittingly, G-d scatters them in a flood of confusion.

Biology and the second rainbow

Seven hundred years later, we are still suffering from this hubris, maybe more so. Computers and other technological artifacts of our sciences, like bricks, convince us of our transcendent power to conquer nature’s limits, to parse the physical world without the need for metaphysics.

Biology, to take one instance of the sciences, is devoted to providing mechanistic descriptions of the processes of life. Its fundamental ‘theological’ conviction is that life is simply a matter of matter, a complex system of material actions and processes. Ultimately, once we get the technical manual of nature written, human handiwork will imitate life. The same goes for human consciousness, which is simply a product of biology and the complexity of the brain.

This mythology of artificial life and artificial intelligence is ironically deadening. It sucks the life out of biology, as if the science is committing a form of parricide, trying to kill the vital phenomenon after which it is named. The mythology is also ubiquitous. It grips our popular imagination in movies and images and books about robots, artificial super-intelligences, clones, and cyborgs. New companies and new sciences spring up betting on them. The sense is these are inevitable, and the premise that we can replace life with our own works feels like a foregone conclusion. And we’re encouraged by our incontrovertible success. Creating artificial humans is a new Tower of Babel, just as global and just as unanimous. Whether you speak Chinese or Hebrew or English at home, on this we’re of “one mind,’ united by a scientific ambition.

Thank G-d biology works. It’s saved my life and the lives of my loved ones many times. But it is not omniscient nor omnipotent, as any doctor will tell you. And as it falls short of its ambition, it echoes the crash of Babel and its ensuing noise.

This would just be an academic discussion of an old dualism, except that as we choose the wrong side, our modern secular, scientific, rational calculus seems to be quietly eroding the transcendent value of human life, especially at its end and beginning, with real effects on real lives.

I didn’t choose to pick on biology at random. I believe the two floods roped together in the narrative of the Bible address the idolatry in biology specifically. The first flood erases the corruption of life. Noah, the ultimate naturalist, ferries the biome safely across from the old washed-away world to a new one. Then the new generation achieves a utopian state of global unanimity never seen before or since. It’s ironic, because in some senses they achieve the pinnacle of global civilization. G-d punishes their more sophisticated, civilized crime with a more subtle flood, a flood of languages. Call it one of LOGOS (for word or language). He floods their minds with the noise of different languages. Together, the two floods spell BIO-LOGOS, biology, and biology holds the key to understanding the coherence of the two floods.

But from a metaphysical view, even with unalloyed human cooperation on a scientific project and perfect mutual communication, we still can’t get it right. This time, the latter generations didn’t corrupt life with bestiality but rather the very purpose of being human itself. They deploy language to achieve great things, like super-fired super-hard bricks that are better than natural ones, but then erect an idol to their own ambition, and proceed to serve it slavishly, with the collective delusion (and implicit violence) only mobs attain.

Our scientific age deserves a double rainbow. Science explains what causes the mysterious inversion of colors in the secondary one. But it may not be getting the celestial message that more than ever it should remind us of the ways we lose our way and the dual pact between G-d and humanity: Yes, the world is indestructible, the first rainbow promises. But nature will fully yield its treasures to our ambitions only when we acknowledge, with a helpful reminder from double rainbows, that the world is continuously vitalized by Divine attention. Together, physics and metaphysics suffuse the cosmos with spectral radiance.

San Mateo, 5780


ENDNOTES

[A shorter version of this was originally published online in the Jewish Journalhttps://jewishjournal.com/culture/religion/torah_portion/table-for-five/306419/weekly-parsha-noach/ (Oct 3, 2019). I am grateful to Salvador Litvak, editor of the Accidental Talmudist, for his prompt, and the discipline of boiling down my ramblings to 250 words. I also thank Marcos Frid, Yael Esther Berenfus, Eddy Berenfus, Ron Kardos, for their suggestions which vastly improved this piece.]


[i]  Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno, Italian, 1475-1550

[ii] https://www.sefaria.org/Sforno_on_Genesis.9.13.2?ven=Eliyahu_Munk,_HaChut_Hameshulash&lang=bi

[iii] See his comments on Bereishit 9:17; https://www.sefaria.org/Sforno_on_Genesis.9.17.1?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en

[iv]  Literally their hyperambition (the words hubris and hyper have the same root). They propose to go beyond themselves, to exceed their mortality.

[v] Rabbi Bahya ben Asher, commentary on Gen 11:4 (1255-1340, Spain): “The people of that generation were very advanced in matters of philosophy and even technology. However, they used their intelligence in a sinful manner. …The reason G’d had to scatter them was because they planned to nullify His world order.” https://www.sefaria.org/Genesis.11.4?lang=bi&with=Rabbeinu%20Bahya&lang2=en

[vi] Most translations relate the first word to the whiteness [LBN = white] of a super-heated brick, emphasizing the heat of the fires they create. Sforno (see n. 2 above) says one of their ambitions was to challenge G-d by “taming fire.” But the original without vowels might also refer to the “brickness” of the bricks.

Jacob and the Cosmic If

Esau’s Clever Pun

Genesis doesn’t have many witticisms. It has ironic laughter (“What? Am I going to get pregnant at the age of 90?”) and defensive sarcasm (“What? Am I my brother’s babysitter?”) and passive aggression (“What’s 400 shekels between old friends like us?”). But witty wordplay is rare.

So it’s surprising that one of the more brooding and athletic characters, Esau the bloody hunter, gives us a great instance of eloquent punning, and in a moment of high drama, too.

Esau comes into Isaac’s tent looking for his father’s blessing, only to learn that his twin Jacob has cheated him out of the firstborn’s inheritance. He weeps wildly and bitterly. Like a Shakespearean tragic hero, Esau’s heartrending plea propels him to a new level of eloquence and pathos:

“Is it because of this he was named Jacob so he could cheat me twice? First he stole my birthright and then he stole my blessing. Haven’t you reserved a blessing for me?” [Gen 27:36]

There is a clever play on words in there, but only in the original Hebrew. So before I untangle it, let’s review the story.

Screen Shot 2019-12-02 at 2.36.49 PM
“Let the devil take the hindmost!” Phantom of the Opera

The twins are always at war, even in Rebecca’s womb. At birth, as Esau emerges first, his brother grabs him by the heel [AKAIV – עקב in Hebrew] and so is apparently named for that act, Yaacob  [יַעֲקֹב]. Years later when they’ve grown, Esau comes in from a hunt famished and begs Jacob for something to eat. Jacob says he will feed him if he sells Jacob his birthright, which he does for a paltry meal of lentil stew and bread.

In Esau’s mind, Jacob tricked him or at least blackmailed him. But the sages rightly ask, if Esau held it so dear, why did he let his birthright go so cheaply? Nonetheless, Esau has never lost his self-justifying view. Now, Jacob’s deception to get Isaac’s blessing only confirms it. Esau’s feeling of being victimized inspires him, in his grief and acrimony, to an eloquence that is especially clear in the original Hebrew.

With different vowels the same three Hebrew letters for heel, עקב, are pronounced “AKOB,” which means treacherous or deceitful. Esau turns it into a whole sentence in one word – vaYKBayni [וַיַּעְקְבֵנִי]. With a prefix it adds Jacob (he) as the subject and with a suffix adds himself (me) as the object or victim: “Hachi shemo Yaakob, vaYakbani zeh pamaim?” Esau protests. “Is this why you named him Jacob, so he could cheat me (vYKBayni) twice?”

It’s not only an instance of high wordplay, it’s the only time in the Bible the word occurs in that form, so it begs us for even deeper exploration.

The Prophecy in Jacob’s Name

On the first level, Esau is suggesting that Jacob’s name is a kind of prophecy, and for sure names in the Bible have a prophetic quality. They often capture some inner essence of a person’s character and destiny. Yaakov’s father is named Yitzchok, from the root word for “laugh [tzaw-chak צְחַק],” at first glance because Sarah laughs in disbelief when she hears she will get pregnant and bear a son to Abraham. But on closer look, it’s also a prophecy about Isaac’s attitude to life. The YUD in front of the root denotes future tense: Yitzchok means “he will laugh.”

Similarly, “Yaakov” doesn’t mean “[he grabbed Esau’s] heel” or “[he’s a real] heel!” but again, future tense around a verb: “He will heel [Y-K-B עקב]” whatever that means. Esau’s accusation stings at first and seems just: “Is this why you named him Jacob, because he’s a cheater in his essence which you perceived even at birth?”

But as we will see, the word implies something quite different.

Jacob’s birth on its face suggests he has a preternatural ambition. Grabbing his twin’s heel is like a sneak attack, an ambush. “Let the devil take the hindmost!” goes the old English expression. Which bring us to the central problem. Is Esau right? Is Jacob, the patriarch of the Jews, treacherous in his very essence? Is this the man whose name is changed to Israel from whom the entire nation of Israel springs? The enemies of the Jewish people have used this story against us as a pretext for terrible persecution throughout the diaspora. It is the source of an aboriginal grievance by Christianity against Judaism, as Esau becomes Edom, the Roman Empire, and then the Holy Roman Empire, the Catholic church. The apologetics of the sages and commentators rationalizing and explaining away Jacob’s deception still don’t completely satisfy those who can’t get past the plain sense. Even Isaac indicts his son: “Your brother came with treachery and took away your blessing,” he tells Esau.

Is the character of Israel, the man and the people, at its core deceptive, sneaky, treacherous?

The If at the Fulcrum of History

But the three Hebrew letters hide yet another, even deeper meaning, one that may contain the key to untangling this single most problematic action by any of the patriarchs.

Add different vowels to Y-K-B and you get yet another word, AYKEB (or EIKEV – עֵקֶב ). A weekly reading in Deuteronomy is named for it, the second word in that portion of the Bible:

“And it will be, if you listen to these rules and faithfully obey them, the LORD your God will keep his promise to you and be merciful to you, as he swore to your ancestors. [Deut 7:12]

The most common translation of the word is if or because.  It implies a sense of conditionality or contingency, a quid pro quo, as in a deal or contract to be fulfilled in the future. If you will do this, I will do that. Or, Because you do this, I will do that as promised. In this form, we can detect an abstraction or aura or lingering sense of “heelness” or “hindmostness” alluding to the tail end of a deal. When you leave the womb or the room under normal circumstances, your heel is the last to exit. The result, the end of a contract, will be its fulfillment, the payoff. You do this and I will do that. Its non-fulfillment, the betrayal of the contract by one party, results in consequences or penalties by the other. Moses warns Israel as much a few verses later in with the same weekly reading as the negative quid pro quo:

“It will come to pass, if you ever forget the LORD your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I testify against you today that you will surely perish. [Deut 8:19] 

Esau’s indictment of Jacob in his clever pun unintentionally calls out this secret prophecy and also foretells the destiny of Israelites. Far from implying a treacherous ambush, the heelness in Jacob’s name points not to the last, least part but to the very end of history itself, its fulfillment. It embraces the contingency in Israel’s millenia-long ongoing relationship to G-d, and also hints at its end. As long as you keep your end of the bargain – follow the Torah and don’t chase after other gods – I will fulfill Mine.

This deal, the covenant itself, is a big, bright thread that stitches the entire Torah together into one coherent drama that runs throughout the Five Books: G-d promises Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, then seals his contract, the Torah, with their descendants. Along with all else it is, the Torah is a document about itself. G-d, sometimes directly and sometimes through Moses, re-iterates over and over the terms of the deal. As they wander the desert and then get ready to enter the Promised Land, He proves to them over and over His seriousness about it, sometimes reaching His Hand into their history with an intervention (think Korach). The deal is simple, clear, clean. The entire message boils down to the one word of contingency latent in every contract: If…

Armed with this penetrating arrow of meaning shot through Jacob’s name, the rest of the story of Jacob and Esau becomes clear as a prophecy of what will happen, illuminating the entire destiny of the Jews. Isaac does in fact find a mighty blessing to give Esau, one filled with promises about the nations that will spring from him:

“Your land will enjoy the fat of the earth and the dew from heaven. You will live by the sword and serve your brother, but when you start getting restless, you will break his yoke from your neck.” [Deut 27:40]

These promises come true. Esau becomes Edom. Edom inherits Italy, truly one of the fattest and most sensuously blessed countries on Earth, one that continues to this day to cultivate beauty, art, great food, and the aesthetic rewards of the physical world. Edom also become the morphing empire that periodically through the millenia “throws off the yoke” of Israel and then afflicts and subjugates it: first Rome, then Christianity, then Europe, then the idea of the West.

The if-ness of everything

Every second of every moment in life is a contingency, an if at the crossroads of destiny between the reality of what just happened and the infinite possibilities of what might happen next. If we miss the bus, we then miss the job interview and our life changes radically from what it could have been. If Polonius didn’t hide behind the curtain, Hamlet would turn out quite differently. If fog hadn’t rolled in on Aug. 22, 1776, Washington might have lost the Battle of Long Island or even been killed, and Americans would still be eating bangers and mash. If fog had rolled in, Hiroshima wouldn’t have been bombed. I’ve written about this elsewhere. If we understand the world as a well-written narrative rather than as a machine, we get at a more profound truth of the nature of the cosmos.[1] Trivial events lead to enormous consequences. Reality and history are “sensitively dependent on initial conditions” – the so-called Butterfly Effect, as the science of chaos dubbed it. In novels, there are no coincidences, just well-plotted incidents woven by the author’s hand to produce dramatic outcomes. The ifness in Jacob’s name points to this way of framing his story. Consider the alternatives:

How would it have turned out if Jacob had not bought Esau’s birthright? If Isaac had given Esau instead of Jacob his first blessing? If their roles were reversed and Jacob lived under Esau’s yoke in his lifetime. What would the world look like if the West was ruled by Rome alone without the Jewish worldview in its origin and surviving on its margins? It beggars the imagination.

The name of Jacob – soon to be Israel – evokes not past treachery but the whole future history of his people and the deal they made with the Author weaving their destiny.

Toldot 5780


ENDNOTES

Thanks to my friends for corrections and comments that improved this terrifically: Marcos Frid, Michael Wulfson, and Ron Kardos. Special thanks to Rabbi Yossi Marcus for catching serious errors in interpretation and opening a new vista of meaning in this parsha.

[1] I call it “the epistemological potency of fiction.” See “Fictions as Dissipative Structures: Prigogine’s Theory and Postmodernism’s Roadshow,” Chaos and Order: Complex Dynamics in Literature and Science, Ed. N. Katherine Hayles (U Chicago Press: 1991)

 

Thanksgiving and the Jews

Jews in America are especially lucky on Thanksgiving. Who else gets a choice of turkey or brisket, stuffing or kishkes?

As the quintessential American holiday, it somehow also feels more Jewish than any other.

Pilgrims as Jews
Is that a yarmulke he’s wearing? [“The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth”, Jennie A. Brownscombe., 1914. Wikimedia Commons]
That may be because the very name “Jew” stems from the word for thanks (Judah). Or maybe because the first Thanksgiving might have had its roots in the Jewish fall harvest festival, Sukkot (which started on October 1st in 1621). But it also, obviously, resonates with Passover: big family meals, political debate, too much wine, and then a boisterous game of pinochle (at least that’s the way we celebrated). I think the stakes were a penny a point. Oh yeah, and celebrating gratitude for our miraculous liberation from slavery.

The original pilgrims fled religious persecution on the model of the Exodus from the Bible. The Puritans believed the Catholic Church had introduced too many impure practices and sought to return Christianity to its “purer” roots in the Jewish Bible. America in their narrative was the Promised Land. They were consciously imitating the Jews in trying to establish both a Holy Land and earthly utopia, free from tyranny. In their worship, civil life, and ideology they were more attached to the Torah than the New Testament.

A standard Puritan greeting was, “You’re a good Jew!”

They also imbibed the message of the Torah: the souls of Jews are enslaved to no earthly power. As the Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe said:

“All the people on the face of the earth must know this: That only our bodies have been sent into exile and the servitude of (foreign) rulers. But our souls have not been exiled or enslaved.

“We must say openly before all, that in all matters relating to our religion, the Torah, the commandments and the customs of Israel, we Jews have no one who can dictate to us, nor may any pressure be brought to bear against us.”

In this week’s reading of the Bible, Toldot, a powerful king of the Philistines/Palestinians in what is now Gaza (sound familiar?) has been harassing Isaac by stopping up every well he digs. Nonetheless, Isaac continues to thrive and grow wealthier. Avimelech eventually “comes to Isaac” to ask for a peace treaty.

The lesson is clear, the stuff of Hollywood: The small and brave who stick to their mission will have the huge and powerful bow to their superiority. On this Thanksgiving, my personal thanks is that my soul still yearns to be free and in bondage to no physical, terrestrial power.

Except maybe my wife’s transcendent brisket.

Why Does the Epikoros Lose His Soul?

What’s an epikoros?

In the 1950s, you would think Crown Heights was populated by a gallery of rogues, scoundrels and losers with terrific names like shikker, shnook, shlepper, shmendrick, shnorrer, shlemazel, goniff, mamzer, or my favorite, vance.  One of the most chilling, because I wasn’t sure what it meant but it was always muttered darkly, was epikoros. My grandmother pronounced it with her thick Polish inflection, chapikoiyris, but you could also hear apikoros or apikorsis.

Gustave Dore 6th ring Dante Inferno
Hell for Epicureans: Gustave Dore, 6th Circle, Dante’s Inferno (Paris: Hachette, 1861) from Open Culture

Over time, I realized the word referred to Jews who actively flouted any Jewish observance, a heretic or at least someone who went off the path – the derech as they say in Hebrew – in a serious way. But the word had a long history before it hit the streets of Brooklyn.

Epikoros originates as a Jewish curse at least as far back as the Talmud. The sages single out the epikoros as one of the three kinds of heretics, Jews who lose their immortal souls, an eternal death sentence. But the word sticks out because it doesn’t sound like anything Hebrew and doesn’t have any precedent in Aramaic. It obviously seems to refer to the great Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BCE).

Who was Epicurus?

Epicurus taught that death was the end of both the body and the soul. He insisted that only the material world is real, and he denied the existence of God or Heaven on rational grounds.[1] After all, what kind of supreme being would introduce so much pain and misery into the world? For what purpose? Anyway, no one has ever brought a shred of proof of an afterlife where the soul receives reward or punishment. All we get, Epicurus taught, is this one go-round in the material world, so we better make the best of it. That meant seeking pleasure and avoiding pain, especially the physical and psychic suffering that attends death. Today we call his followers “epicureans,” folks who pursue refined pleasures of the body, (gourmands or wine snobs, for instance).

That’s the cartoon version. In fact, Epicurus had a sophisticated philosophy for how the cosmos works without any metaphysical explanations or invocations of Divinity. Far from just urging self-indulgence or licentiousness, he said people must behave civilly and educate themselves, ennoble their spirits and enrich their lives while alive because being good is intrinsically rewarding and satisfying. It also enables society to support us peacefully in creating the best possible lives. He also fought any hint of cosmology from other philosophers, like Plato or Democritus, that required irrational or metaphysical assumptions. In short, Epicurus was the very archetype of the relentlessly rational heretic, a dangerously sophisticated atheist.

At first glance, it seems obvious that the rabbis’ idea of a heretic and their use of the Greek philosopher’s name refers to him or his followers. But they refuse to admit it. Perhaps they are reluctant to acknowledge Greek sources. (Elsewhere the Talmud warns against teaching Greek: see Perpetual Chanukah in the West – or – Why the Pythagorean Theorem is More Than Just Math). Greek philosophy was especially dangerous, since its intellectualism and soaring embrace of the cosmos was naturally appealing to the Jewish mind, just as science and philosophy are today. Surely Epicureanism seduced many Jews over the centuries and continues to do so.

Or perhaps the rabbis were simply following their policy of building a self-contained Jewish epistemology without acknowledging Greek influence or its competitive view of the world. So how do they explain the term and its origin? Exploring their etymology uncovers both the profound world view of the Talmud and important distinctions between received ideas of the afterlife in Western culture and purely Jewish ones.

Hell for Jews?

Jews don’t really have a hell, at least not in the sense of the fiery, eternal torture chambers Dante elaborately portrays in The Inferno (1321).[2] Instead, they have a very Jewish idea of eternal punishment: call it hell for stiff-necked, skeptical folk who really distrust authority.

All Jews, the Talmud says, will be resurrected for the afterlife, unless they do one of three things:[3]

  1. Deny that the Resurrection of the Dead is promised in the Bible [Torah]
  2. Deny that the Bible’s author is Divine
  3. Be an “epikoros”

Go there and they’re dead meat. They lose the possibility of being re-connected with their souls when the Messiah comes.

When we first encountered this list, my classmate in Talmud study, Dr. Jack Brandes, noted that the list doesn’t make much sense. Denying that the resurrection of the dead is promised in the Torah seems like a petty infraction compared to denying the the resurrection deal altogether. Accepting that our mouldering bodies will be revivified and reunited with their souls is a much higher hurdle for belief in the first place. For that matter, denying that God wrote the Torah (#2) seems much more fundamental. Than #1 and should come first logically.

And then, what the heck is an epikoros anyway? Why does it have its own word, one that hardly occurs anywhere else in Talmud and seems to be named after a Greek philosopher?  After all, when we arrive at this discussion of how to lost your eternal soul, at the end of Sanhedrin, we’ve just come from pages of the Talmud that discuss rebellious sages and false prophets. Those bad boys seem much more worthy of eternal punishment than a common garden-variety sensualist or atheist, yet they are only condemned to mortal death. The epikoros, by contrast, faces eternal death. Where’s the equity here? “Lo fair!” as my son’s classmates used to shout in kindergarten in Israel, “No fair!”

Worse, when the rabbis finally get around to describing the epikoros nine long pages of Talmud later,[4] they seem to have saved up their greatest outrage for him in a self-serving festival of indignation. What does the epikoros do that’s so bad?

Are the Sages too thin-skinned?

Why, he has the chutzpah to make fun of those same rabbis and Torah scholars. The epikoros mocks them for being useless or self-serving, or he questions the absurdity of their rulings. He disparages them for making senseless rules that make life harder just to keep themselves busy (“They forbade us the raven but let us eat dove”). He may only insult them in front of others, or maybe just make the wrong face or ask a question that has a little passive aggression in it, maybe. Wow, are these rabbis thin-skinned!

The over-sensitivity of the sages to even the merest slight leaves plenty of room for cynicism and almost invites the epicureanish behavior it condemns, to the point it feels like the sages constructed a great, self-serving Catch-22: if you make fun of us and our authority you are going to die an eternal death.

Yet, by contrast, the discussion (Cheilik – “Portion”) has some of the most elegant, monumental flights of exegesis and story-telling in the Talmud. The rabbis’ eloquence is warranted. They aren’t just adjudicating civil or capital penalties in this world, they are describing awesome cosmic events like the resurrection of the dead, when the Messiah comes, and the ultimate fate of your immortal soul and its share (thus “portion”) in the world to come. So maybe when they come to the discussion of the epikoros, we should look at their condemnation as more than just an extended fit of self-serving peevishness and self-aggrandizement.

Indeed, if we delve this strange word more closely, it tells a deeper story, one that reveals a startling unity to these seemingly mismatched list of three big sins. It uncovers a hidden sophistication, informed by theological power, of faith in authority.  While on the surface it invites a cynical view of the rabbis as a bunch of racketeers protecting their turf, I think by delving their subtlety, it only enhances our admiration for these learned mortals who have undertaken the dauntless task of trying to read the Divine Mind.

The rabbinical etymology of epikoros

When the sages consider the meaning of epikoros, they avoid any mention of the connection to Greek philosophy. It seems pretty tenuous bit of avoiding the elephant in the room. Indeed, they pun around it, as if to cover its big tracks. And later commentators seem to contort themselves to follow the Sages’ lead and construct a completely non-Greek and much less plausible etymology:

  • Talmud (ca 300): After its first use here (Sanhedrin 90), they later use an Aramaic word with similar spelling and Greek sound – apkayrousa – to define an irreverent Torah student (Sanhedrin 100a).
  • Rashi (1040-1105) expands the Talmud’s version by saying it alludes to epkorousa – אפקרותא – disrespect.
  • Meir Abulafia (1170-1244, known as the Ramah) claims the word derives from hefker, abandoned property that’s up for grabs.
  • Maimonides (1138-1204, known as Rambam) agrees with Ramah. Their agreement is even more ironic because Ramah called Rambam a heretic for, ironically, denying the Resurrection of the Dead.

Rambam goes on to explain this non-obvious derivation of the word most completely: “The word epikores is Aramaic,” he insists. “Its meaning is one who abandons (mafkir) and denigrates the sages or a specific Torah scholar or denigrates his teacher.”[5][7] 

We can see where he’s coming from. Both words share three root letters: P-K-R, פקרMafkir comes from hefker. By connecting these words for abandonment with disrespect for a teacher, it gives a new and profound sense of walking away from your half of a teacher-student relationship that has transcendent duties. Indeed, in his next sentence, Maimonides gives more examples of heresy, and then just a few sentences later he announces his Thirteen Principles of Faith, one of the most influential codifications of Jewish belief ever written.

Is it possible they ALL were unaware of the popular Greek philosopher of pleasure?

Why is everyone purposely avoiding the plain meaning?

Epicurus continues to this day to be one of the continuously most influential of the Greek philosophers, rivaling Plato and Aristotle. Romans Plutarch and Cicero wrote about him in the 1st century CE. In the 3rd century CE, contemporary with the rabbis of the Talmud, he’s treated in a bestselling work, The Lives and Opinions of the Greek Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius, and he was well-known throughout the Medieval period (witness Catholic theology and Dante).

Maimonides was well aware of Greek philosophy in general as a follower of Aristotle. In fact, he mentions Epicurus several times in his Guide for the Perplexed (1190)! So no, it’s not possible the sages weren’t aware of the obvious etymology of the word. Instead, they insist on a hidden meaning of the word, purposefully ignoring the obvious, to get at something else. But what?

The answer lies, I believe, in going back to the original Greek name, surprisingly.

Have you ever sung a well-rehearsed song with others in a tight circle? You were probably moved beyond mere geometry to experience solidarity, intimacy, maybe even a feeling of spirituality or transcendence. Chasidim know this. The word epikoros evokes this, in the Greek χορός – chorus or koros – a circle of singers, probably part of an ancient ritual. In classical Greek theatre, it evolved into the group of players who stand together, sometimes in a ring, and dance back and forth across the stage singing verses of point and counterpoint to the main players or themes. Koros in turn is traced back to the Proto-Indo-European[6][8] root gher, meaning “trap” or “catch,” a core concept signifying the containment around something. It is easy to see how it also evolves into the Greek cognate of chorus, χόρτος – khórtos, meaning “enclosure,”[7][9] like a corral.

The other part of the name is more familiar, the prefix epi–meaning “on top of.” We use it for words that survive intact from ancient Greek like epiphany (a shining or appearance from above, a manifestation or revelation of heavenly presence), or in science for technical terms like epidermis (the top layer of skin) or epicenter (the point above the enter of an earthquake).

But the prefix can also carry a sense of contrast, opposition, something after, above, atop, or even against – in short, different from – the root. An epi-gone is an inferior successor, like Fredo, the weak brother in The Godfather, or like the imitators of the great artist Caravaggio to whom the term was applied.[8][10] 

Epikoros might well have chosen the name for himself to echo this sense of breaking from the herd. He was known as and branded himself as a radical who broke out of – superceded – the circle of Platonic belief. Indeed, the little we may know of him makes him sound like a compulsively self-aggrandizing rebel, rejecting his teacher Democritus and other predecessors, including Plato and Pythagoras, to claim he was self-taught.

So now back to the word in the Talmud: In his treatment of Maimonides use of the word from the traditional Jewish perspective, David Curwin, author of the brilliant Hebrew etymology website Balashon, notes

… hevker is related to bakar בקר – “cattle,” and was so called because cattle would graze in abandoned or ownerless land … this goes back to a general association between cattle and property[9]

Imagine cattle herded into a pen. One breaks out and gets lost, to wander ownerlessly. There’s our Jewish epikoros! Some wiser-than-thou guy opposes his teachers and breaks out of the closed circle of learning and faith to embrace a terrible fate. Like, Maimonides’ mafkir, and the original Epicurus, the epikoros acts willfully, intentionally.

Breaking the circuit between Heaven and Earth

The epicurean in the Greek sense cuts the circuit between heaven and earth. What you do on Earth has no consequences, he says, because there’s nothing else, so seek pleasure. He is the archetype of the radical denier, that wise guy who has to say that one other, defiant thing, the pathologically compulsive skeptic whose goal is to break the circle of belief in anything that he can’t grasp with his appetites or senses or material, empirical experience. His behavior, the rabbis are warning him, has led him to abandon his soul. So why aren’t the rabbis content to let this derivation stand?

I believe the rabbis are not disingenuous here but are knowingly digging deeper to get at this more ancient, resonant aura around the word epikoros. But how does that explain their fixation on their own pride and sensitivities? And though they are excellent linguists to be sure, how would they have gotten access to etymology pieced together only recently by centuries of painstaking archeology and philology?

One explanation goes to the root of the traditional foundation of Jewish rabbinical authority, undergriding the continuous project of interpreting Torah: they are transmitting knowledge preserved in the Oral Torah that Moses also received on Sinai, antedating Epikoros by 1000 years. When they invoke “epikoros” as derived from hefker, they do so to re-appropriate an oral tradition that is much deeper and older than mere superficial cultural allusions.  Their word play is more than a cynical effort to protect their monopoly on Torah authority. It’s an affirmation of first principles. It’s also a test of our status, too: either we are heretics, or we believe this tenet on which rabbinic Judaism rests.

The road to Jewish Heaven is paved by scholars

At first glance, the epikoros’ offense seems the least dire of the three Big Ones and the one mostly driven by the very earthly concerns of defensive rabbis protecting their turf.

But when viewed through this deeper meaning, the list of three offenders defines three versions of the same form of heresy: they all break the circuit of authority from God through Moses into the Oral and Written Torah and from thence into the Mishnah and to Gemarah (the discussions of the rabbis of Mishnah) that comprise the Talmud.

Who is the epikoros?  His transgression is the most personal, immediate, and pedestrian of the three Big Ones, but in some ways that makes his sin the most dreadful of them all. He diminishes, even in apparently slight ways – he slights – the authority and respect due the sages and teachers who interpret and transmit the Torah. Why is this worthy of the ultimate penalty? Because rabbinical authority has to be absolute, equivalent to the Torah’s Divine authority. The Torah, and the ongoing rabbinical authority that continues to nurture it and allow it to blossom as we evolve, resides on Earth, not in Heaven, with all the human frailty that implies.

To prove the point, immediately after describing offense #1, the rabbis put on virtuoso performances demonstrating the value their authority provides.[10] Offense #1 is to deny that the Torah tells us that the dead will be resurrected after the messiah comes. But scour the Torah, and the normal reader can’t find any such statement, at least in any literal way. Then how do we know?  We’ll show you! And they proceed to so do in a display of pages of exegetical brilliance.

In short, the sages’ job, and the project of the Talmud and all subsequent authoritative commentary, is to unfold the hidden meanings in the written text based on Oral Law, received also at Sinai. Though they are human and imperfect, as the varying interpretations show, they are acting in good faith. They’re pros at what they do, and their conclusions have the force of Divine Law. How do we know when a rabbi is authoritative and not just a rebellious sage or a false prophet? It’s complicated, but the Rebbe, R. Menachem Mendel Shneerson, had a good rule of thumb: less authoritative rabbis, probably the majority in the world, routinely compromise  laws to to accommodate the pressures of society. “But,” he said, “You shouldn’t sanctify the compromise!”[11]

By rejecting the superficial meaning of epikoros to invoke the deeper more ancient one, Rambam and Ramah and all those who follow are enacting the lesson, self-reflexively: the apparent surface meaning of the Torah doesn’t say anything about resurrection of the dead, but our elaborations show it does incontrovertibly. Epikoros sounds like it refers to a persuasive Greek philosopher, but it really means something else. Watch this performance of our skills … If you deny our reading, as arcane and incredible as it first seems, it is as serious as denying the Torah comes from God. And just as you must build a fence around the Torah, you must also protect not only the dignity, authority and majesty of our rabbinic project of unfolding its hidden meanings, but also our personal dignity, authority, and majesty, even if it makes us look like a mafia and even if we are only human.

Now we can see that the three ways to lose your soul forever not only make sense, they are really re-statements of one principle:

#1 Don’t question the authority of the rabbis because their authority is continuous with the Oral Torah and the Written Torah, which have Divine authority. Encroaching on their personal dignity impugns the truth of their sacred project.

In short, the sages’ bravura performance in Cheilek achieves transcendent coherence. It’s a meta-text that defines even as it demonstrates the meaning of Torah, its continuity and ongoing elucidation on earth through the agency of rabbinical authority.

The Route to Immortality is Paved by Rabbinic Intention

Mock the authority on which the belief rests, become too disputatious, and you’ve become an epikoros. Renounce ownership of your place in it, and your very soul will be destined to roam ownerlessly, orphaned in a desolate, unnamable space with no hope for redemption. Your road to immortality is paved by rabbinic authority.

The proper translation of Olam HaBah is not the static “World to Come,” but the dynamic “World that is Coming.” Heaven is unfolding, approaching, in process, and we’re always on the way to it. The Talmud and our earthly interpretation of Torah are the accomplice and mirror of an Olam HaBah that’s approaching us. The two are coming to greet each other on the road.

David Porush
San Mateo, CA
October 2019/5780

ENDNOTES

 

[1] See the entry on Epicurus in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophyhttps://plato.stanford.edu/entries/epicurus/

[2] Long footnote, excerpted from my earlier blogpost on Dante and Catholic theology’s appropriation of the Talmudic concept of epikoros:

In Canto X, Dante and Virgil, his tour guide, visit the sixth ring of hell. It’s filled with open graves where fires perpetually burn the still-conscious bodies in them. Dante asks why the graves are open, and Virgil says,

Within this region is the cemetery
of Epicurus and his followers,
all those who say the soul dies with the body.

After Judgement Day, when everyone else will be resurrected from the dead, they will be deposited here with the bodies they left behind on Earth. Furthermore, as one of the doomed tells Dante,

“…  our awareness
will die completely at the moment when
the portal of the future has been shut.”

In short, followers of Epicurus’ seductive philosophy die forever, just as they said would happen: the soul dies with the body. Dante even sees Epicurus himself on his tour. The only problem is that when they die, the Epicureans are shocked to find out they do have eternal souls, those souls go to hell, and instead of winking out of existence they are roasted agonizingly for a very long time in graves. Worse, those “awarenesses” have to live – or should we say die – with the knowledge that they got it all so very wrong. Finally, when the messiah comes – Dante calls that time by the euphemism “visiting Jehosephat” – those souls are judged. While other souls are reunited with their resurrected and refreshed bodies, Epicureans are consigned to be reunited with their rotted corpses and while others live eternally, they die forever. Ouch.

Dante’s Sixth Ring of Hell is based on a very specific discussion among Jews from a thousand years earlier. In the Talmud, (Sanhedrin), the sages discuss the ways Jews can lose their souls forever. They single out the “epikoros” for particular doom.  Yet, while Dante was friendly with Jews in his time, and no Jews appear in his version of hell, Dante did not know Hebrew or Aramaic and Dante never read the Talmud. So how and why did Dante echo such arcane Jewish theology? The answer is obviously that Dante really knew his Catholic theology, and it somehow transmitted this bit of arcane Judaism.

Certainly, Jesus was an expert Jewish theologian. And Judaism and Christianity had much more fluid conceptual entanglements in the early centuries after Jesus. As the Roman Empire became the Holy Roman Empire, and Catholic Church solidifies its control over the narrative, Jews become the owners of the “Old” Testament. Off and on (mostly on) are persecuted, killed, ghettoized. The Talmud, which preserves and evolves the core of Jewish tradition. Is eventually burnt. But, a few years before Dante is born, Pope Innocent IV called for the rehabilitation of the Talmud and had very select excerpts translated into Latin in 1245.

But where Dante takes the connection to Epicurus at face value, the Jews have a very different notion of hell, one revealed by their strange refusal to acknowledge Epicurus. The difference between the two versions illustrates two points: one is that the Jewish tradition finds its way into Dante. Epicureans are punished by losing their eternal souls. On the other hand, Dante’s version loses the subtlety of the rabbinical discussion of the epicurean heresy and in doing so illustrates the way the intricacies of Jewish theology are both borrowed and simplified by Christian doctrine. What’s remarkable is that they come to the same conclusion: heresy is denying resurrection of the dead and immortality of the soul and the punishment is to lose the privilege.

For more about the differences between Jewish and Christian concepts of hell, see J. Harold Ellens’ Heaven, Hell and the Afterlife [2013]; Alan Bernstein’s Hell and Its Rivals [2017]).

[3] Sanhedrin 10B; 90A et seq. Sanhedrin 99b-100a

[4] Sanhedrin 99

[5] Rambam on Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1. (https://www.sefaria.org/Rambam_on_Mishnah_Sanhedrin.10.1?lang=en

[6] The forebear of most European and Near Eastern language from the Early Bronze Age, about 4000 BCE

[7] https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/%CF%87%CE%BF%CF%81%CF%8C%CF%82#Ancient_Greek

[8] See https://www.telegraph.co.uk/art/what-to-see/caravaggios-imitators-pale-beside-the-painters-irresistable-geni/.

In the interim since I first posted an earlier version of this blog in October, 2018, Fredo has become a news item as a provocateur posted video of insulting a not-very sophisticated but famous newsman by calling him “Fredo.” The newscaster took the bait and threatened violence. Just sayin’.

[9] “According to Tur-Sinai’s note in Ben Yehuda’s dictionary…” David Curwin, “Epikoros,” in Balashon  https://www.balashon.com/search?q=epikoros

[10] They do so several times throughout Cheilek, as when Rabbi Yehuda shows that an apparently tainted bird (“a raven”) is kosher (“a dove”) and vice versa. (Sanhedrin 99b5)

[11] See R. Joseph Telushkin, Rebbe (Harper, 2014))

The Not-So-Hidden Future History of the Jews

When Jews of all peoples don’t realize they are in history, then they inevitably drown in it.

This week’s section of the Torah, Vayelech, the shortest of the year, lays it all out in front of us as a simple straightforward, unambiguous deal. It is Moses’ last day. He has been delivering his final, long speech to the Jews as they are about to enter Israel and conquer it. His passion and concern for the Hebrews transcends the pathos of his impending punishment: he is not allowed to enter Israel with the people he liberated and guided for forty years. His focus in his 35-day exhortation is on reminding them over and over of the terms of the deal: if you abandon G-d, then G-d will abandon you to the predations of other nations. To make it even simpler, Moses in this last day doesn’t demand obedience to all 613 commandments. He cautions against violating only one: worshipping something other than G-d. Betray Him, and He will stop paying attention to you with the special care He has shown you. He liberated you from Egypt, made you literate, gave you the Torah, fed and clothed you in the wilderness, and now brought you to this Promised Land, despite the many times you’ve tested His patience. He’s kept his end of the bargain. All you have to do is avoid worshiping the petty gods of other nations.

And then he’s done with his speech. But before Moses launches into his famous song, a soaring bit of inspired poetry and love song to the relationship between G-d and Israel, G-d takes him aside. He tells him, confidentially, I know these people. They are going to betray me and follow the gods of other nations, even ones they don’t yet know. 

וְחָרָה אַפִּי בוֹ בַיּוֹם־הַהוּא וַעֲזַבְתִּים וְהִסְתַּרְתִּי פָנַי מֵהֶם וְהָיָה לֶאֱכֹל וּמְצָאֻהוּ רָעוֹת רַבּוֹת וְצָרוֹת וְאָמַר בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא הֲלֹא עַל כִּי־אֵין אֱלֹהַי בְּקִרְבִּי מְצָאוּנִי הָרָעוֹת הָאֵלֶּה׃

Then My anger will flare up against them, and I will abandon them and hide My face from them. They will be easy prey, and many evils and troubles shall befall them. And they will say on that day, “Surely it is because our God is not in our midst that these evils have befallen us.”

וְאָנֹכִי הַסְתֵּר אַסְתִּיר פָּנַי בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא עַל כָּל־הָרָעָה אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה כִּי פָנָה אֶל־אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים׃

Yet I will keep My face hidden on that day, because of all the evil they have done in turning to other gods. [Deut 31:17-18]

The root of the words G-d uses to describe His exit from – or at least His disappointment in – His part of the deal – S-T-R – is very particular. It is used once in the first verse and then doubled for emphasis in the next. G-d will hide His facehastair astere [הַסְתֵּר אַסְתִּיר].  This root word and the image it conjures is used only six times before in the Bible, always to note something about a contract that has gone or will eventually go sideways:

  • Cain cries out when he realizes his awful fate for killing Abel: Cain realizes G-d will hide His face from him as he roams the Earth as a vagrant. (Gen 4:14)
  • As Jacob finally parts from his uncle after twenty-one years of deception, Laban, the paragon of deceit and distrust, erects a monument to make sure Jacob will hold up his end of their treaty, “So G-d will watch between you and me even when we can’t see each other.”
  • Moses hides his face on Sinai as G-d reveals Himself as the same One who made a deal with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. (Ex 3:6)
  • If a wife commits adultery “undetected” but her husband becomes suspicious, it initiates a serious breach in the social order (in primitive societies it is still the source of revenge or “honor” killings) that can only be healed by a special judicial process for the sotah. (Num 5:13)
  • G-d will send hornets to destroy those who hide from (abandon) Him, a poetically just punishment since hornets are so personal and particular when they sting. (Deut 7:20)
  • Hidden (private or secret) sins are [to be left] to G-d. (Deut 29:29)

Together these uses of the root “S-T-R” – hide – resonate with each other across the tapestry of the Hebrew Bible and the history of the Hebrews. Every partnership, relationship, marriage has an aspect of distrust in it. That’s the nature of relationships, and that’s why we have contracts and ketubahs spelling out responsibilities and penalties for not fulfilling those responsibilities. As in human relationships, the contract between Israel and G-d requires both parties paying attention to each other. “Hiding your face” and therefore your gaze from the covenant, turning to foreign gods and idols, breaks it. The consequence is G-d will hide His face from you.

This would be a mere academic exercise in clever wordplay around the root image, except that G-d’s use of the word transcends the text, and history, to prophesy the future unmistakably.  Until now it was sprinkled sparsely through the rest of the Torah, but now it occurs three times in two verses and twice, emphatically, together, like trumpet blasts demanding our attention. To what?

A secret vision is revealed to Moses, signaled in this word for hiding. The Talmud nails it. Rav Mattana tells his students that G-d is alluding to the events “involving Esther” and Purim centuries later.

“The verse states… “And I will hide [haster astir] My face on that day for all the evil which they shall have done by turning to other gods.”[1]

Though R. Mattana doesn’t elaborate, we see immediately what he means. Esther’s name derives from the same root, hidden. She’s a crypto-Jew. Even her own husband, King Ahashveros,  doesn’t know. Further. G-d Himself is famously hidden in the Megillah. He is never mentioned.

With this key, we see G-d sketch the entire story of the Jews of Persia for Moses. Haman has sent a decree to all the 127 satraps (states) of Persian Empire telling the citizens to kill all the Jews, man woman and child. We don’t tend to pay attention to it as we focus on the genocidal Haman, but the premise for his plot must be that the Jews were in fact living in all those paces, spread out across the Persian Empire.

In other words, if not completely assimilated, Jews were surely well-integrated and mixed with the host culture freely. And they were doing so willingly. Before the events of Purim, Cyrus liberated the Jews from their Babylonian captivity and sent them back to Jerusalem. He even helped erect the Second Temple there. By definition many, maybe the majority, Jews rejected Cyrus’ lovely invitation and chose to remain behind in Persia. They were too comfortable, too settled to go back to Zion. Was it any accident that after inviting them to leave, Persia threatens to completely eliminate them? Or is it fulfillment of G-d’s dire consequences to the Jews of forgetting their deal, one we see over and over again whenever we assimilate: “They will be easy prey …”? Disguised as the oldest, deepest hatred erupting in historical events, it may be hard to see G-d’s actions hiding beneath the surface, the Megillah and this prophecy in Torah tell us He’s there.

Whether by sloth or lack of spirit or lack of faith, Persian Jews broke the covenant with G-d. We don’t know how steeped in idolatry they were. We can only imagine. Epicurus, who invented the idea of a moral, secular atheism in sophisticated Greece, hadn’t yet been born.[2] So it is hard to imagine the Jews there just believed, as many do now, in no god at all. Even if it was just material comfort and assimilation they were after, they chased after other gods.

On the threshold of the fulfillment of His promise to the Hebrews, G-d brings Moses into His confidence and shows him a vista not only in space but in time. He predicts the far-flung, even eternally-recurring future drama of the Jews wherever they are in exile, not just in Persia. Esther’s hidden identity as a Jew foreshadows the status of Jews many times in the Diaspora, even in America. Here we find ourselves more free to identify as Jews anywhere ever since the fall of the Temple, except Israel, but too many of us simply don’t care to. By now, wouldn’t you think we’d know how this is going to work out for us?

When G-d hides His face from the Jews, we have no protection from the forces of hatred and Haman and Hitler that inevitably erupt in our host nations. History is the teacher here. We don’t need to resort to mystical explanations, or the rationalization G-d Himself predicts we will use: “Oh, He broke the deal. Our troubles came because He withdrew.”

As I write these words, it is the afternoon before Shabbat Shuvah, 5780. I am racing the clock. Yom Kippur is next week. So let me end on a note of redemption.

Purim and Yom Kippur are mystically connected, flip sides of the same spiritual coin. R. Joseph Soloveitchik notes the holidays are only superficially different. Beneath, they are the same:

 “Purim is a call for Divine compassion and intercession, a mood of petition arising out of great distress…. The pur, the goral of Purim and the casting of lots [for choosing the goats] on Yom Kippur both speak to man’s basic condition of vulnerability, insecurity, and fickleness.”[3]

The two holy days also speak to our ability to choose which way we turn our psyche. I hope and pray that individually and collectively we find the conviction, if not from transcendent words of Torah then from the lessons all around us, to turn back, to do teshuvah, to the covenant we made with G-d. The message of Yom Kippur is that it is never too late to turn our faces to Him so He will keep His loving, indulgent, forgiving face turned to us.

 

Porush

Simchateo, CA 5780


ENDNOTES

[1] Chulin 139b

[2] To this day, Persian culture doesn’t have a sophisticated idea of secularism. You are either Muslim, Zoroastrian, or identified with another religion.

[3] Quoted in R. Eliyahu Safran, “Purim and Yom Kippur: An Odd Couple?” OU [https://www.ou.org/holidays/purim/purim_and_yom_kippur/]