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.

 

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)

 

Pinchas: A five-act play about Jewish legacy

Dedicated for SHABBAT PINCHAS 2779 to my father-in-law, Philip Oliver Richardson, Z”L”

At first glance, Pinchas, like so many other weekly portions of the Torah, looks like a set of disparate pieces, thrown together with no particular logic. Some are boilerplate, others cinematically compelling. G-d rewards a zealot for a terrible act of violence and launches a war, but instead of taking us to the battle scene (the next week picks it up in Matot-Massei), a long, repetitive census interrupts the action. Five daughters provoke a revision in law and Moses dramatically transfers his power to Joshua, but a boring account of sacrifices deflate the end.

On closer inspection, though, Pinchas is a wonderfully coherent five-act play. Its hero isn’t a person but an idea, a revolutionary new concept of how a nation will transfer its legacy from one generation to another. In fact, at the risk of mixing metaphors, once we untangle (and then put back together) the threads, layers, cross-references, and perspectives on Israel’s legacy,  a complex shimmering 3D tapestry – a hologram[1] in which every part resonates with every other and every jot signifies the whole – comes into view.

The events of Pinchas take place as Israel is poised to enter the Promised Land.  It advances the theme, begun in Genesis, of a Divine Darwinian experiment to produce a holy species of human being through careful selection and breeding of transcendent traits. The Hebrews pass on their monotheism from generation to generation by choosing children with some unnamed trait that strengthens their receptivity to it (monotheism). Sarah over Hagar, Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, Rachel over Leah, Joseph over his older brothers, Ephraim over Menashah, the Hebrews again and again select ineffable merit over biological primogeniture. They skirt danger to protect it. They zealously avoid hybridization or commingling with pagans.

If Pinchas (and indeed the whole Torah, one might argue) is a hologram, we could start anywhere to see a representation of the whole theme of this revolution in transmission of legacy. But for simplicity, let’s take these five acts in order.

ACT I: DIVINE REWARD AND PUNISHMENT

In this opening act, G-d rewards the zealot Pinchas, grandson of Aaron and son of Elazar, for executing a Jewish man and Midianite woman in flagrante delicto.  G-d grants him a very personal peace covenant (“brit shalom”) and elevates him and all his heirs to the priesthood. Then we are told the names of the criminal couple, Zimri and Cosbi, and their identities as chieftan of Shimon and princess of Midianite. G-d  tells Moses to attack and defeat the Midianites because Cozbi tricked the Israelites to worship Ba’al Peor.

The portion splits this opening scene from its natural connection to the end of last week’s (Balak), when Pinchas spears an Israelite man and Midianite woman through their private parts while they copulate in front of the Israelites. Pinchas’ termination of the couple with extreme prejudice puts an end to a plague that kills 24,000 Israelites, presumably also for their immorality and idolatry. Strangely, though, the text only now identifies Pinchas’ lineage, and identifies the couple. Wouldn’t it have been more natural to identify the three main actors, especially Zimri and Cosbi, before Pinchas kills them back there in Balak? Why does the Bible put the cart before the horse?

At the literal level, it contrasts the reward to a righteous actor in the context of his lineage to the punishment of evil actors in the context of theirs. But as we will see, the Torah is announcing a theme as grandly as the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth, one that will repeat throughout the week’s reading: Identity and Reward! Lineage and Legacy!

By killing Zimri, Pinchas has zealously protected the honor – and more importantly the genetic and spiritual purity – of the Jews. Zimri is of the tribe of Shimon, one of Jacob’s twelve sons, his direct descendent. Ironically, Shimon (back in Genesis) led his brothers in a similarly zealous and bloody attack to wipe out an entire town to avenge the rape of their sister by Prince Shechem, also a pagan.[2] Shechem is also the name of the pagan city, as if to signify the confluence between an individual rape and the collective cultural attempt to violate Israel. Shechem plotted to destroy the Hebrews by transforming their prince’s rape of Dinah into a legitimate marriage and in parallel, absorbing all the Hebrews (and their flocks), settling, intermarrying and assimilating them. We know how that works out.

Now Zimri consorts with a pagan and is also punished by a Jewish zealot. And Cosbi is not any ordinary harlot. A princess, she is leading a deliberate campaign by Midian and Moab to seduce, assimilate, and therefore dissolve the Children of Israel by luring them through sex into a particularly abominable form of idolatry that involves opening all their body orifices.[3] After all, why would a privileged royal family choose their own princess to play the whore and seduce an enemy prince, if not as an act of war? In Midian, Cosbi must have been viewed as a war hero who like Mata Hari is courageously engaged in sedition or “sexpionage.” And Zimri isn’t just having a furtive affair. He is flaunting his dissolution in a corrupting public spectacle of intercourse at all levels, including idolatry, with Midian.

For his extreme act on behalf of G-d, Pinchas gets a most personal and remarkable peace pact from Him and better, a priesthood for all his heirs. Though he is a Levite by birth, he had been denied it on technical reasons.[4] Getting the priesthood now by dint of his own actions requires the Supreme Judge to overturn the laws of strictly patrilineal priestly lineage. And Zimri and Cosbi have already gotten their punishment, but we now see how their violent, um, climax fits the enormity of their crime. Further the immediate declaration of war that follows, though not its depiction, makes sense.

When Israel follows G-d ’s demand to attack Midian, they are not just seeking revenge, nor are they just flexing their new-found muscle as a successful warrior nation, practicing for the conquest of Zion. Rather, they are waging war, on a grander scale than Shimon’s, to eliminate a genetic threat to the Israel’s purity and integrity and thus the Jews’ entire evolutionary project. Nor are they waging an unprovoked war of imperial aggression. It is a pre-emptive strike against a deliberate campaign of cultural sedition, an existential threat of assimilation to idolatry, orchestrated by their enemies, Midian and Moab. Thus G-d tells the Jews to both “bind” them [צָר֖וֹר] and “defeat” them [וְהִכִּיתֶ֖ם]. (Num 25:17)[5]

ACT II: APPORTIONING THE PROMISED LAND BY LEGACY AND LOTTERY

Moses and Eleazar take a census of the tribes so they can divvy up the Promised Land once they occupy it. In an extended passage, the Torah details the count and genealogy of each of the tribes and explains how the land will be divided proportionately by tribe (except the Levites) but by lot for individual families.

On the surface, the census is a rational way to apportion the Land of Israel to the tribes, but it does not disrupt the status quo of inheritances. But the census also implicitly tells a story about their fates in the forty years of wandering. First, the good news. Although they faced many trials and temptations, Moses has delivered them more or less intact after forty years. All the tribes report for duty as they are about to enter the Promised Land. Further, they have successfully preserved their genetic legacy from their ancestors in Genesis. The tribes have a ‘heh’ [ ה] appended to the front and a ‘yud’ [ י] to the end of their names. Rashi tells us this is G-d ’s name, a stamp or hecksher on their genetic purity which they maintained even through their years of slavery in Egypt (a “biblical DNA test.”[6])

Yet the census also paints a darker picture. The Israelites have not flourished. Almost the exact same number exit the wilderness as entered. Some tribes have shrunk and others have flourished. Some were led astray by their leaders (most notably the Shimonites because of the plague that has just struck). Some families disappeared through various misadventures: other plagues decimated them, snakes bit them to death, or the earth swallowed them. Some lost heart. Even at this last moment before success, some Benjamites returned to Egypt. 

In other words, those who lacked merit perished. G-d ’s Finger has still stirred the pot of selection and reward of the generations, even before they take the census. As we shall see, even in this actuarial exercise He is still tampering, though in a furtive way. Individual families within the tribes get their allocations of land through a lottery. Its full significance of which emerges in the next act.

ACT III: WOMENS’ RIGHTS TO THE LEGACY OF LAND

The five daughters of Zelophechad, a man who has died for a sin he committed in the desert without sons, petition Moses. If they – Noa, Mahlah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah – are denied their inheritance just because they’re women and the only descendants left, then their real estate will pass out of the tribe and go to another through marriage? Moses consults with G-d , since there is no precedent, neither among the Jews nor anywhere else in the history of the world, for women getting land inheritance. They win their case. G-d  amends or clarifies the laws of inheritance to extend to all daughters in the same circumstance, thus staging a quiet, but incredible feminist revolution.

This scene is the center and fulcrum of Pinchas. Why? Because the daughters’ petition, like any dramatic court case, brings two opposing positive values into collision. On the one side, there is the status quo inheritance followed everywhere else in the world, strictly a dumb biological matter: only male heirs get the goodies. On the other side, there is the merit of the daughters’ and their argument. First, they base their plea not on selfish reasons but for the greater good. If there are no male heirs, and women aren’t permitted to inherit the land, then it will pass from the tribe through marriage. Think of the gerrymandering if, for instance, a county in California was suddenly a legal part of Mississippi. The daughters’ case is also sort of based on the merit of their father, who did some bad things but wasn’t so sinful that he lost his share in Israel by participating in the Korach rebellion.[7])

And finally, as the sages note, women have a special love for the Land of Israel, whereas men lead rebellions and continually whine to go back to Egypt, and so women merit an inheritance, too.

To note the cosmically disruptive nature of the event, the Torah marks the final ‘nun’ of the Hebrew word for their petition. It appears heavier, larger, and elongated, reaching forcefully above and below the line:

משפטן

Perhaps the sign recognizes the special love of women – in Hebrew, nashim with a nun – for the land. [8]

Merit and not biology determines the daughters’ inheritance. Their revolution recapitulates Pinchas’ elevation to the priesthood. On the one hand, he should obviously have had it by dint of his genealogy – he is Aaron’s grandson and Eleazar’s son! – and is denied only because of a technicality. He finally gets it on the merit of his heroic prosecution of G-d ’s will. Your actions in your lifetime can balance the scorecard of blind law and transform it into true justice.

The daughters’ drama also sheds light on a peculiar part of Act II: land is parceled out to individual families within the tribes via a lottery (the throwing of a lot, the ‘goral’). But as Rashi points out, the Torah says al pi hagoral (Num 26:56), literally “on the mouth of the lot,” usually interpreted “by the voice/authority of the lot.” The throwing of the lot channels G-d ’s authority. Its “voice” is the Divine one. In other words, it would be too complex and contentious for humans to apportion the precious and permanent Holy Land among brothers or cousins. Divine will can be executed without hard feelings if it is disguised as dumb luck .

Finally, this third Act, like a well-wrought Shakespearean drama pivots – crosses the border – from genetic inheritance to meritocratic reward, framing the drama of succession that follows.

ACT IV: LEADERSHIP AND LEGACY

G-d tells Moses to ascend Abarim, near Jericho, to see the Promised Land he will not enter because he’s being punished for the incident with the rock. Instead he will die, albeit peacefully, “gathered to his kin as Aaron was.” Moses (selflessly) asks G-d to appoint a successor. G-d tells Moses to take Joshua and scripts several steps Moses has to take to pass leadership to him.

Moses has just brought the petition of the five daughters to G-d. They got a positive hearing. Wouldn’t it be natural for him now, of all times, facing his own death sentence and punishment, to plead his own case, to ask for a break on his own fate? You could argue that after forty years of embattled and painful leadership he deserves to be forgiven, to see the fulfillment of his mission. Others might say that G-d is provoking Moses to ask by taunting him with the view of a reward denied him, or perhaps testing him one last time. At least, you would think, it shouldn’t hurt to ask.

But instead of trying to ensure his own future, or even the future of his heirs, Moses selflessly asks G-d to ensure the future of his flock. His humility fills the moment with pathos and majesty.

In return, G-d grants Moses’ wish and scripts a six-step transfer of leadership.

  • Choose Joshua, a “spirited/inspired man”
  • Lean your hand on him (smicha – ordination)
  • Stand him in front of Eleazar and the community
  • Commission [charge/ordain/command] him
  • Give your authority (“glory” [הוד]) to him so all the Children of Israel will listen to him
  • And Joshua will stand before Eleazar to consult the Urim. By this “instruction they will go out and by this instruction they shall come in.”

Moses follows G-d ’s instructions precisely (except he lays both hands on Joshua). The public performance introduces yet another civilizing innovation into the world: the peaceful transfer of power from one ruler with more or less absolute – or at least ultimate – authority to another based on personal merit rather than pedigree or power. Joshua is preferred over Moses’ sons.  He hasn’t seized power by coup or conquest. Eleazar sanctifies his anointment by consulting the Urim, the jeweled device the high priests wears to tune to the channel of G-d ’s will.

And he shall stand before Eleazar the priest, who shall inquire for him by the judgment of the Urim before the LORD; at his word shall they go out, and at his word they shall come in, both he, and all the children of Israel with him, even all the congregation. (Num 28:21)

The language of this one verse reveals the complexity and depth of the succession drama. First, it neatly ties together the whole act, pointedly repeating the language of Moses’ earlier plea to provide a leader…

…who may go out before them, and who may come in before them, and who may lead them out, and who may bring them in; that the congregation of the LORD be not as sheep which have no shepherd (Num 27:17)

Second, it connects Joshua’s leadership to the Divine mission: Moses has already transmitted his hod – authority or majesty – to Joshua by laying hands on him. (Its intimacy reminds me of the Vulcan mind meld in the Star Trek series[9]). But it ensures that all the people see that this investiture is not merely human: it comes through Eleazar the priest picking up the phone to get G-d’s assent.

Third, it resonates with Act I and brings its theme forward. Remember, Act I first seemed artificially severed from the sequence in Balak, but it separates G-d ’s investiture of priesthood in Pinchas from the bloody narrative. Now we see its full meaning. Although by heredity Pinchas should already have been a kohen (but missed out on a shaky technicality), he still requires a personal exemption, an anointment, by G-d. Moses, too, anoints Joshua, but the human transfer of power in front of the whole nation, however intimate and majestic, still requires Heaven’s imprimatur. What Pinchas earns through zealotry and violence, Joshua earns by peaceful excellence.

Finally, Act IV frames Act V, providing a smooth segue to the detailing of sacrifices to be brought to the priests. More importantly, it reveals the essence of Israel in the new world it is about to enter under Joshua’s command, a dream of Zion. Israel’s national center and source of power, integrity, and meaning is not in its military or political identity, and not in its mere physical occupation of a Promised Land apportioned to the tribes. Rather it lies in the holy confederated activities that connect all the people to G-d by the priests in the Temple in its spiritual capital, Jerusalem. Holy federalism trumps and invests meaning in divisive state (tribal) claims to the land.

ACT V: THE KOHENS’ LEGACY

This final act details the daily offerings and those for Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh, Pesach, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Succot, and Shemini Atzeret.

This parsha is read more frequently than any other in Torah. It is brought out for every occasion it describes except the daily offering. It wouldn’t be dignified if it was just an afterthought at the tail end of a disparate collection of events. Instead, this play has begun with a dramatization of the merit and investiture of a single priest and ends with the merit of all priests, tying together a poetic composition about a new, Jewish idea of legacy. After all, what could be a more essential and poignant lesson to drive home to the tribes as they are about to born into a nation?

A census apportions the Promised Land to the tribes fairly, though they haven’t even entered it.  It’s another utopian promise to the Children of Israel about their future national identity. The Levites get no land. Instead, they are counted differently and their inheritance is the most precious of all: they get the Temple and its sacrifices. They enable the common man to take part in the holy. They are interlocutors between the physical and the metaphysical. The first, often-overlooked part of the sacrificial instructions, the daily offerings, emphasizes this. How can every Israelite bring a daily offering, especially given the vast extent of the land which has just been divvied up to the tribes? They can’t. Instead, the priests perform this transaction for everyone. They are avatars for all Israelites individually to earn their portion – their cheilik – in the World(s) to Come.

In this manner, the final act, far from being an obligatory coda about sacrifices in the Temple, brings the coherence and power of the whole Pinchas play to a magnificent finale. If every part of a hologram represents the whole, all parts are equal. But this may make Pinchas more equal than others. It defines, in fact, the entire character of Israel as it sits on the border of the land it has not yet occupied and its national destiny.

The constitution – the essence – of the nation-to-be is transactional, political and metaphysical all at once. It is personal and universal, bloody real requiring war and violent zealotry, and yet ineffable. Like all good deals, all parties benefit. People of the tribes get land, even orphan daughters. The priests get the most precious allocation as well as a portion of everyone’s wealth. Every citizen gets a line to G-d. Israel is thus transformed into a communal, if not communistic, theological democracy of shared inheritances, legacies, and successions. Pinchas shows these are transferred the old worldly way of the rest of the nations, by genetic heritage, when it is good to do so. But it is also transferred by merit, a new innovation in the history of civilizations, when it is good to do so. And in all matters, legacies are allocated by Divine decree. Either G-d ’s voice tells Moses directly, or the voice of the lot or the voice of the Urim tell us, or His Finger stirs the pot of history as it did in the forty years trek to this point, as the census told us.

And the Ultimate Party to this deal, what does He get out of it? He gets to savor the sweet smell ( רֵיחַ נִיחֹחִי ) of the sacrifices from his chosen people. Its incense gives Him pleasure, nachas, for sublime reasons beyond our comprehension.

David Porush

“Simchateo,” California 5779

 

(Thanks as always to my extended chavrusa for inspiring me and challenging my farfetched connections as well as catching and amending my many errors in logic, fact, reference, and interpretation.)


 ENDNOTES

[1] Holograms work by recording interference patterns. If you drop a pebble into a pond, it creates a wave that ripples out eventually to every point in the pond. If you drop thousands of pebbles, those waves will all run into (interfere with) each other: some will become higher waves, some will get smaller. If you took a snapshot of this pattern of “interference” at any small subsection of the pond, you would be able to see the effects of every pebble that had been dropped into the pond, essentially getting a miniature picture of the entire rippling pond.

A hologram works the same way. If you shine a laser light through a smaller piece of a hologram, you get the entire image in miniature.

[2] Rabbeinu Bachya explains the importance of Zimri’s lineage as “prince of a father’s house of the Shimonites.” “He was one of five such princes of the tribe of Shimon (Ibn Ezra). Concerning him Solomon said in Kohelet 10:8: ‘he who breaks down a wall will be bitten by a snake.’ The ancestral father, Shimon, had killed the people of Shechem for treating his sister like a whore (Genesis 34,31) and now one of his descendants had himself become guilty of tearing down the wall of chaste sexual mores established and defended by his forebear (Tanchuma Pinchas 2).

[3] Worship of Baal-Peor, according to Talmud, which involved defecating in front of an idol. This was the same practice Bilam engaged in when he worshipping Baal on Mount Peor and thus the Talmud explains is a continuation of his goal to annihilate the Jews, this time by hatching the plan of sedition with the princes of Moab and Midian. Sanhedrin 64a.

[4] Which begs the question: Why does Pinchas need this confirmation if he is already the grandson and son of priests? Rashi explains: Although the kehunah [priesthood] had already been given to Aaron’s descendants, it had been given only to Aaron and his sons who were anointed with him [that is, at the time of the giving of the Torah] and to their children whom they would beget after their anointment. Pinchas, who was born before that and had never been anointed, had not been included in the kehunah until now. And so, we learn in [Talmud Tractate] Zevachim [101b], “Phinehas was not made a kohen until he killed Zimri.”

[5] See Rashi and Chizkuni who point to the inifinitive form of the verb “to bind.” They say it indicates an ongoing war against Midian’s corrupting influences (and by implication, remaining on guard against any kind of seduction and assimilation to a hostile culture). Or Ha-Chaim is expansive on this verse. Among many other ideas he finds in it, he explains the Israelites must both defeat and “harass” (or contain) them on an ongoing basis to guard against “the ongoing machinations of the Midianites to entrap the Israelites into worshiping Baal Pe-or and in indulging in acts such as had been performed by Kosbi. The Israelites had to hate the cause of the sin not merely the sin itself. The reason the Torah singled out Kosbi was because she represented the additional allure of aristocracy plus the fact that she had engaged in her seduction publicly.” (Or HaChaim to Numbers 25:17)

[6] See Rabbi Gordon’s podcat, Pinchas II https://player.fm/series/daily-chumash-with-rashi-video-2105793/rabbi-gordon-pinchas-2nd-portion

[7] Rashi explains: Their father Zelophechad was the man who was slain for gathering wood on Shabbat but his act came from misguided zeal. He was allegedly trying to show not to light fires on Shabbat. https://player.fm/series/daily-chumash-with-rashi-video-2105793/rabbi-gordon-pinchas-3rd-portion

[8] Some hold that because the Hebrew letter nun stands for 50 this elongated nun is referencing the Kabbalah, which says there are fifty gates of wisdom (binah). Moses attained 49 but couldn’t penetrate to the 50th and so refers the case to G-d  and thus the extra reach and significance of the elongated, bold nun. See Targum Yonathan, Meam Loez

[9] Stars Leonard Nimoy (Mr. Spock) and William Shatner (Captain Kirk), and creator Gene Roddenberry of the legendary 1960s TV show and subsequent mythology were all Jewish. Leonard Nimoy allegedly also introduced the split-fingered sign of the kohen into the show.

The Four-Room House: Another bit of evidence for the entry of Jews to Israel in 1200 BCE and the historical accuracy of the Bible

In honor of my grandfather, Shlomo Zalman Porush, Z”L, whose yahrzeit is today. May his memory be for a blessing.

According to the Torah, the Jews exit Egypt in 1313 BCE. Moses brings down the Ten Commandments and writes the Book of the Covenant (the Torah itself) at Sinai seven weeks later. They wander the desert for forty more years, and then under the leadership of Joshua begin a campaign to take control of the Promised Land in 1273 BCE. By around 1060 BCE they have succeeded enough to elect a king, Saul, who is followed by David (1040-970 BCE) and then Solomon (1000-931 BCE).

Archeologists have debated for a couple of centuries whether these legendary figures actually existed and these events occurred, and if they did, how closely they hew to the traditional Jewish timeline. Yet, we keep discovering more and more convincing archeological evidence that the Torah is stunningly accurate both in the particulars of its account and  the fit between its timeline and history.

Four room home Ancient Israel
Four-room home from  from Izbet Sartah in the Judahite hill country of Israel, ca. 1100 BCE. Image from Yigal Levin, “Ancient Israel Through a Social Scientific Lens” [2]
One of the most recent of these discoveries is a singular bit of architecture, the four-room house. A distinctive home floor plan, it appears suddenly throughout Israel at precisely the same time as the Hebrews enter the Promised Land (according to the Torah, 1273-1050 BCE) and quickly spreads throughout the territories occupied by the twelve tribes of Israel (including the parts of Transjordan they occupied).[1]

It’s a simple but elegant design: an extended family’s home, separated into four major spaces. The sudden emergence and rapid spread of the layout was like the popularity of Sears modular homes in the early twentieth century or, even more, the Levittowns throughout suburban post-war America, beginning with William Levitt’s ingenious innovation on Long Island in 1947.

Sears four-room house
Sears four-room home (plus bathroom), ca 1910.

This curiously modern-seeming bit of ancient architecture appears nowhere else at the time. It springs into existence suddenly upon the settlement of Israel by the Jews. throughout the land. And no similar home layouts exist in any of the surrounding civilizations, remaining unique to the Jews for at least a couple of centuries. The repetition of the same layout is so prevalent, the craze begs for an explanation beyond mere fad or imitation of the Joneses (or Goldbergs).

The Levittowns, we know, were driven by the convergence of several factors all at once: returning GIs were eager to claim a share of the American dream; they were of the age to start families (giving rise to the Baby Boom); the GI Bill provided them with instant financing for new homes at a fraction of their costs; the automobile enabled these new families to live well beyond city centers where jobs and expensive homes were; and William Levitt applied assembly-line and modular construction principles to rapid homebuilding.

Levittown four-room house
Simple 1947 & 1949 Levittown four-room layouts

Similarly, the establishment of a kingdom exclusively for the Jews in Israel enabled them to erect towns and cities atop the ones they destroyed or in new settlements with this totally new design of the home. More importantly, though, the four-room home expressed a cultural shift, a new vision of how people should live together in family units. This new social and cultural order was encoded in their new, and transcendent contract with God, the Torah that they carried into Israel after their forty year wanderings through the desert. The family unit is central to the new idea of the cosmos encoded in the Torah, and the four-room home enabled the Jews to devote the care and attention to domestic arrangements it  mandated.

Particularly, the simple architecture – or as Avraham Faust elegantly calls it in a recent article, its “space syntax” – solved a spiritual problem. Faust shows how this new home set aside one of the four spaces for family members who were temporarily in a state of ritual impurity, such as women who are menstruating or men who suffer nocturnal emissions. Anthropology shows us that most traditional cultures have strong ideas of separating clean from unclean and ritual ideas of pure and impure. Yet all the other ones we know about universally sequester the impure in separate quarters. They’re removed from the family and quarantined, as Faust notes, “in separate houses, huts, tents, or even caves or rock shelters.”[4] usually in a “no-man’s land” outside the main settlement or encampment.

While this might have been a welcome vacation or break from family duties, and anthropologists report that there same-sex bonding and community news-sharing, imagine what this arrangement did to the average family, as mother or father or sister or brother had to stay away for what could be several days. We can also imagine what mischief or temptations it invited. The whole scheme courts trouble, or at very least, the loosening of familial bonds and integrity.

The genius of the four-room house was that it resolved the struggle between two temporarily conflicting sacred commitments: to purity and family unity. The architecture enabled Jews to sequester in place: to quarantine the impure, separate holy from temporarily unholy, yet still preserve their other sacred duty to family cohesion. Further, the “spatial syntax” speaks of another subtle message, hidden in the stones: you may be impure, but you’re still loved, still a part of us, still a person, still integral to our well-being. Your temporary state has neither de-personed you nor made you abnormal nor severed family ties. You are not in a state of living death, only in a passing phase of temporary constraint. I imagine the enforced separation at home even invited a form of mindfulness about your relationships.

It is not uncommon for a conquering nation to put its stamp on new territory by building its own distinctive architecture and monuments on the rubble of the vanquished. The sudden appearance of the four-room architecture shows that the Jews did it when they transformed Canaan to Israel circa 1200 BCE. But this convergence of architecture, archeology, sociology, history, and metaphysics carries a much more breathtaking story. By giving us material proof of how the Jews suddenly entered the Land of Israel and transformed its living spaces, it confirms that the Torah is much more than a nation’s mythology, or even a stunningly accurate history. The four-room home embodied a new concept of family as metaphysical, where holiness, intimacy, mercy, fidelity, and love are all entwined. It transformed the new Israelite home into an abode for body and soul.


ENDNOTES

Thanks to Dr. Elliot Lepler, Marcos Frid, Liki Abrams, Dr. Gary Goldstein, and Gary Leight for their crucial suggestions and requests for clarification.

  1. See Herschel Shanks, “The Four-Room House: Ancient Israel’s Major Architectural Achievement,” Biblical Archeology Review July/August 2017.  See also Shlomo Bunimovitz and Avraham Faust, “Ideology in Stone: Understanding the Four-Room House,” Biblical Archeology Review July/August 2002.
  2. Yigal Levin, “Ancient Israel Through a Social-Scientific Lens,” Biblical Archeology Review Sept/Oct 2014.
  3. Avraham Faust, “Purity and Impurity in Iron Age Israel,” Biblical Archeology Review March/April 2019, p. 36. See also the accompanying sidebar by Shanks, p. 40.
  4. Faust, p. 38.

 

 The Mystery of Mysteries” Part 2: The Bible’s Darwinian Experiment


NOTE: This is Part 2 of a three-part series about the mule, the hybrid problem in science, and ways in which Darwinism and the Jewish Bible illuminate each other. You can find the other parts here:

“God is the source not only of order but also novelty.” – John Haught, God after Darwin (Boulder: Westview, 2000) p. 182

The Five Books of Moses often shows surprising literary coherence that is so subtle, it belies the notion that it was written across a millenium by many different authors. 

Some connections across the whole text are so well-hidden it seems improbable that an author deliberately placed them there for later discovery, although we could always argue they are the result of gazing at the text too long and over-interpreting it like obsessive graduate students. The traditional approach by Jews to reading the Bible even promotes it. Assume nothing is there by accident because its author is Divine and utterly intentional. Every word, every letter, the cuts between words, the rhymes and puns and cross-allusions, even the decorative marks on individual letters, carry meaning. Also the Torah is frugal. If something seems weird or extraneous, it’s up to us to figure out why. So when we discover hidden meanings and parade them as proof of a divine Author, a skeptic would argue it’s tautological: of course you did because you assumed they’re there.

However, there are some allusions and connections that are provably impossible. They couldn’t have been intentional because their meaning only become clear when we make new discoveries about the world much later than even the latest possible composition of the Bible. Some of these are archeological, like Merenptah’s Stelae describing the plundering of Canaan and of Israel that wasn’t discovered until the late 19th century. [1]

One of these is hidden in an apparently extraneous comment about a breeder of mules, tucked into an otherwise boilerplate genealogy at the end of a later chapter of Genesis, Vayishlach. As we understand it through modern evolutionary theory, it actually ripples out to embrace a theme that plays throughout the Bible.

Anah’s mule

Jacob (aka Israel) is heading for a reunion with his twin brother Esau after cheating him out of his inheritance from Isaac. Jacob placates Esau, they apparently reconcile, and Esau offers to accompany Jacob’s enormous retinue of sheep, goats, wives and children. Jacob begs off, and the two brothers part. Esau then goes down to Seir, where Jacob sort of agrees to meet him.

Jacob’s in no rush to get there. He doesn’t trust Esau, for reasons we will see. In any case, he and his expanding tribe have several adventures that delay them. His daughter Dinah is raped by the Prince of Schechem, his sons annihilate the city in revenge, and Jacob buries his beloved wife Rachel.

While Jacob dawdles, Esau’s tribe has had the time to breed many generations alongside the tribe of Seir. The Bible, like many ancient epics, gives an extended genealogy of these two families and the eight kings of Edom, a seeminglyanti-climactic end to an otherwise dramatic portion, Vayishlach (“And he sent”).

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

“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)

Continue reading ” The Mystery of Mysteries” Part 2: The Bible’s Darwinian Experiment”

“The Mystery of Mysteries” Part 1: The stubbornness of the mule problem in Darwinian science and Jewish cosmology.

This is Part 1 of a three-part series about the mule, the hybrid problem in science, and ways in which Darwinism and the Jewish Bible illuminate each other. You can find the other parts here:

“Evolutionary theory coincides with the lofty doctrines of Kabbalah more than any other philosophical doctrine.” – R. Avraham I. Kook (1921)1
“[We may bring proof] from natural scientists for it is permissible to learn from them, for God’s spirit speaks through them. ” – R. Israel Lifschitz (1842)2
” [Man cannot] search too far or be too well studied in the book of God’s word, or in the book of God’s works; divinity or philosophy; but rather let men endeavour an endless progress or proficience in both.” – Francis Bacon, Advancement of Learning, (1605) quoted as an epigraph to Darwin’s Origin of the Species
““The modern synthesis is remarkably good at modeling the survival of the fittest, but not good at modeling the arrival of the fittest.”3

Torah and Darwin share a mule problem.

Darwin admired mules in general and his own mule in particular, but as hybrids between horses and donkeys, like all other animal hybrids, they’re sterile. The apparently universal sterility of hybrids posed a fundamental challenge to his theory of how new species arise. Darwin stated the problem succinctly:

“How can we account for species, when crossed, being sterile and producing sterile offspring, whereas, when varieties are crossed, their fertility is unimpaired?4

If only two individual varieties of the same species can reproduce but two individuals from different species never can, then how does a new species ever arise? Combined with the other great paradox – that no “transitional” species had ever been observed – Darwin saw nearly-fatal gaps in his theory that even today continue to present insoluble paradoxes for evolutionary biology.5

Surprisingly, the Jewish Bible also struggles with the mule in remarkably similar ways. Though only one mention is made of mules in the Five Books of Moses, that single instance challenges its sense of cosmic order. The mere existence of the mule violates categories of order and acquires surprisingly powerful – and negative – transcendental significance. The Torah abhors mixing species and has several injunctions against it, including some that carry the death penalty. The very fact of the existence of the mule is so transgressive that later commentators in the Talmud tell the story that just at sundown before the very first Shabbat, in the very last moments of Creation, God considers showing Adam the idea of mule breeding along with other scientific secrets, but decides not to. The implication of the sages is that it is too abhorrent.

For both Darwinian science and traditional Jewish theology, the mule stands on the border between two versions of cosmic order. If God created all the different species and constrained them to be fertile only within their type (for good metaphysical reasons of His own), then the mule is a violation of this order. If, on the other hand, species emerge and proliferate over time on their own, interbreeding and evolving in order to create new ones without divine intervention, then how come hybrids like the mule are always infertile?6  Though the proliferation of species from earlier forms is obvious, evolutionary biology seems to stop at a wall erected by some force beyond what its current paradigm can explain.

As Darwin and Torah wrestle with their mule problem, they have some profound things to say to each other. After all, Torah and science share the same world and both are good faith attempts to explain it, and though they serve different premises about how that world exists and why. it should not be surprising that they have mutually illuminating things to say to each other.7

In what follows, I am not refuting or questioning evolution or its general picture of the evolution and proliferation of species. But I do focus on frailties and important unanswered questions about how, precisely, speciation occurs that leave the door open to considering an alternative model, one I address in Part 3 of this series of blogs.

Continue reading ““The Mystery of Mysteries” Part 1: The stubbornness of the mule problem in Darwinian science and Jewish cosmology.”