What does “virus” really mean? A pandemic etymology

The etymology of virus has gone viral

According to the Internet god of all things virtually true, the word virus comes from the Latin root meaning “snake’s venom.”

snake-venom
From “The Fig Tree”

This viral etymology is repeated in one form or another on all the major sites about words –  wiktionary, dictionary, wordorigins, merriam-webster, etymonline, oxfordlearnersdictionaries. 

They’re all cribbing from the mother of all English dictionaries, the Oxford English Dictionary.

Virus: [L(atin) ‘slimy liquid, poison…] 1. venom such as emitted by a poisonous animal.”

It makes perfect sense as far as it goes. Viruses are sorta poison-spewing evil little animalcules, right? But all these free online sources are, like most thieves, lazy and simply repeat each other’s smash and grab larceny of the OED. No one owns words, but discovering their origins and sources is hard work. See “The Professor and the Madman” (2019). It’s free on Netflix. Thieves like free, right?

If we dig a little deeper – perform a more serious archeology on virus using the OED as our guide – we uncover in its sinuous history a message for our current coronavirus pandemic.

Virus and virtue

The second definition of virus in the OED is “path,” also deriving from the Latin. What’s the connection? It’s probably not the toxicity of snakes but a deeper shared origin having to do with their shape. A snake is shaped like a curvy path.

Sure enough,  if we wend our way next door to virus‘s neighbor word virtue, we see another clue: the original root of ‘virtue’ is vir, a Latin root for ‘man’. In ancient Rome, virtus meant courage on the field of battle. Virtue was inherently virile, masculine. Julius Caesar in Book I of The Gallic Wars, his macho historical narrative, advises that we should

Rely more on virtue than on artifice and stratagem.

But if you’re a logomaniac like me, you’re not content with a mere 2000-year-old source. You want to dig deeper beneath the Roman ruins to find the oldest possible origin. Where did that word come from? Why do those three letters come to mean something as elemental as ‘maleness’? [1]

So strip away yet another layer and you discover vir comes from an even earlier root, probably Hindo-Sanskrit or early Greek, for stick, twig, or rod. That’s the fundamental root connection: rod is a phallus or vice versa, and thus manly virtues like virility carry genital freight. The Latin word virga preserve this root: it also means rod. I will leave it to your imagination how it penetrated to the concept of virginity.

At the very root of language?

What etymologists fantasize about is traveling back in time to eavesdrop on the first burbling articulation by the first genius hominid who first invented the word they’re studying. Maybe – and this is a real fantasy – vir was the very first word, there at the aboriginal creation of language, of wording itself, where sounds came to represent and signify external things instead of only verbalizing hominid reactions to transitory events or warnings or coded warblings or states of existence.

So imagine with me a linguistic Adam and Eve alone in their grove. Fueled by the urgency of desire, a sound erupts from one or the other of them and she (or he) points at what they both want,

“Vir!” he (or she) said, nodding at it, and they look down and they smile in a flash of telepathy, for it was obvious that they agree this was a capital way to indicate that thing.

“Vir,” the other repeats, and “vir,” they would coo to each other from now henceforth, forever after referring to it in the kind of fond secret vocabulary that couples everywhere invent, pillow talk.

But somehow the secret gets out and catches on. Someone eavesdropped, the snake perhaps, and as it spread, this viral app of pointing with sound, especially this happy signifying meme, and folks applied it nimbly to other things like stick and rod, and eventually, surely by the time of the Latins, to snake. We’ve made the same slangy sling of meaning. Shlong means “snake” in German, to take only one of hundreds of examples of the conflation.

The essence of virus 

Language isn’t a computer code but a stew. Dictionaries shouldn’t be lists of algorithms any more than cookbooks are chemistry manuals. As the pot of culture simmers, convenience, contingency, inspiration, necessity and even humor throw in new ingredients and flavors. A good chef would never follow a recipe slavishly. Dictionaries are by definition definitive, making pronouncements on fluid meanings as if they’re fixed. We can see how the conflation between venom and virus creeps in. It’s not really an error, but a cluster of images and metaphors that crowd and seep – I might say infect – each other. A snake emits venom like the penis spews semen. A vir is the source of fluid essence, it is seminal. This is how we get to virus.

Snake down the path to yet another neighboring word in the Oxford English Dictionary, virtue, and the hidden route to virus appears.

OED’s very first definition of “virtue” is

the power or operative influence inherent in a supernatural god or being

Virtual means “to be possessed of the power to influence, to have the potential to affect.” Caesar’s exemplary man influences us to manliness by his valor. Divinity influences us to virtue metaphysically.

From here it is now one more small step to that other kind of invisible influenza, organic virus and virulence. The very word flu is a contraction of influenza. We now know that a microscopic pocket of weaponized genetic material causes flu pandemic. It sits astride the limbo between living and not, helping all-too-many souls to cross it, ubiquitous but invisible like G-d Himself. Through most of history, to most humans, it must have seemed metaphysical.

Pandemic as transcendental flu

Millions of words have already been written about the terrible virtues of this virus, how nature or the divine is exerting its superior influence over human affairs through the invisible Covid-19 flu pandemic, correcting our hubris, changing civilization in the blink of an eye, forcing us to inspect and re-evaluate assumptions about work, play, family, love, even self. Even if you cannot be persuaded that this – or anything else – has metaphysical origins, you have to admit the coronavirus pandemic is doing a good imitation of what a metaphysical being would do: making us consider the meaning of virtue as if we had indeed lost our path.


NOTE:  This is an extension of the etymology of virtual  that I wrote a few years ago: Almost Really Real: How the word “virtual” deconstructed itself and what its curious etymology tells us about the future of virtual reality and truthiness

 

Too Many Aarons

Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it, and they offered before the LORD alien fire, which He had not commanded them. And fire came forth from G-D and consumed them, so they died in front of G-D. (Lev 10:1-2)

Rosh Chodesh Nissan, 1312 BCE: It’s one of the most mystical days in our calendar. Kabbalah tells us it’s the anniversary of G-d’s very conception of Creation. The trans-dimensional portal that enables Him to visit us, the mishkan, is complete. Moshe, Aaron and his sons have tested it for a week. Everything works. It’s show time.

In an excess of wine-induced ecstasy or zeal or chutzpah, these two princes enter the most transcendent and dangerous place in the cosmos to offer that most esoteric of sacrifices, incense. Rather than accepting the incense as it did two verses before, G-d’s fire instead eats their souls, leaving their bodies still in their tunics. Moses tells Aaron, with what feels like incredible sangfroid, “G-d warned us this is how His glory works to bring us near,” and commands Aaron not to mourn his sons openly.

Was it a Divine kiss or punishment? Did they transcend or transgress? At this miraculous interface between the supernal and mundane, all is beyond comprehension, suprarational.

I began writing this on Nadav and Abihu’s yahrzeit 2020. In these days of plague that will include Pesach, our mystical calendar is talking to us across the millenia. Too many have become Aarons, enduring the unimaginable pain of burying loved ones without proper mourning.

Yet, perhaps there’s solace for us. The function of the mishkan was to sublime the physical into transcendent holiness. Today, while we wait to rebuild it, its invitation to elevate matter into spirit through sacrifice is everywhere, if we look for it.

Joseph at the Crossroads: Torah’s Godot Moment

There’s a murky encounter between two strangers in the middle of the Joseph story. It comes at a pivotal moment in the drama of Joseph and his brothers, but it’s really weird and begs us to shed light on it.

Two men in field foggy
Joseph meets the angel Gabriel in a field outside Shechem

Continue reading “Joseph at the Crossroads: Torah’s Godot Moment”

The First Media Revolution in Egypt and the Finger of God

If you don’t accept the story of miracles and divine intervention as the reason, then on sheer rational grounds it’s hard to explain why Pharaoh lets the Hebrew slaves go. When else in history has a powerful ruler let his slave population leave in the middle of a large public works project, one dedicated to his glorification, no less? Imagine the impact on the economy, let alone the damage to his public image and vanity.

If you do believe the central story has some roots in historical events – and accumulating archeological evidence shows some mysterious population emerged from somewhere to conquer Canaan around 1200 BCE – then what awesome event could possibly have compelled Pharaoh to submit to Moses’ demand to let his people go?

To delve the mystery, let’s look at the third plague, which is the first hint of victory for the Hebrews in their prolonged struggle against Pharaoh. Continue reading “The First Media Revolution in Egypt and the Finger of God”

A couple of small questions about science and religion: Is a Cosmic Consciousness Involved Every Time an Egg is Fertilized? Can science and religion fertilize each other?

“A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton,” – Charles Darwin on God
 “We should not immediately refute any idea which comes to contradict anything in the Torah, but rather we should build the palace of Torah above it.” – Rav Avraham Yitzchok Kook, the first chief Ashkenazi rabbi of Palestine

Moment of fertilazation
“Moment of fertilization,” from 123rf.com

The fertilization tango

When does human life begin? Are there divine implications in the process? Before you make up your mind, how much do you know about what really happens when an egg is fertilized? It’s almost beyond belief in its complexity and mystery. When we delve it, right down to the part that gets mysterious, it invokes a metaphysical explanation.

Continue reading “A couple of small questions about science and religion: Is a Cosmic Consciousness Involved Every Time an Egg is Fertilized? Can science and religion fertilize each other?”

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!”

Continue reading “VAYIGASH: Wagonloads of Poetry”

Uncloaking the Transcendent Textuality of the Torah

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

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

The Joseph story in brief

Jealous of the fact that Joseph is Jacob’s favorite son (he gets a multi-colored coat) and, even worse, that he’s a vain, grandiose “dreamer,” his brothers throw him in a pit. They consider murdering him, but instead sell him into slavery to the Ishmaelites. After the brothers are rid of Joseph, they dip his torn coat in goat’s blood and present it to their father, to imply that Joseph has been eaten by wild beasts. Jacob responds by tearing his own garment (which becomes the Jewish sign of bereavement forever after) and he cries.[1]

941px-Diego_Velázquez_065Joseph’s Coat, by Diego Velázquez (1630)

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

This neat story has all the makings of a beautifully coherent literary gem. We can see the movie version spun out on a big screen. However, the screenwriters adapting the book would probably cut a couple of problematic parts and its apparently crazy digressions. One is a nonsensical one about Joseph wandering around lost in Shechem looking for his brothers, until a stranger gives him directions. Another is a more interesting and lurid sub-plot about one of Joseph’s brothers, Judah. It doesn’t seem to advance or even connect to the main narrative. But let’s look at it, because it cloaks a couple of interesting features.[2]

Judah and Tamar in brief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beged, the MacGuffin

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

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

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

Veiled meanings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What article of clothing implies disguise and deceit? A veil. What does “the entrance to Enaim” mean? Literally, ‘the opening of the eyes’.[4] That would make a fine verse in a poem about appearances here.

The word billows out

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

A tangled web of deception

The thread of beged brings the play between clothing, disguise, and treachery to center stage. It unlocks the deepest genealogy of the patriarchal family, and makes us look at a destiny that goes to the most complex moral paradoxes in the origin stories of the Hebrews. The treachery of brothers begins with the snake in the Garden of Eden. Cain slays Abel and denies it. Treachery runs through Noah’s family after the flood (his sons uncover his nakedness). It echoes between Abraham and Lot, and becomes the fulcrum of Jewish history as God chooses Isaac over Ishmael. Laban tricks Jacob into laboring for him for 20 years so he can finally wed his true love, Rachel. Joseph’s brothers commit a terrible deception to wipe out the whole city of Shechem after its prince abducts and rapes their sister, Dinah.

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

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

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

The evolution of beged and elaborate design throughout the Torah

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

The only place in Exodus where beged retains its sense of ‘treachery’, before it disappears forever, occurs soon after the events of Joseph. It is a law in Exodus 21:8 describing divorce:

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

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

A measure of holy justice and honesty

The word beged then does something even stranger. By the time we reach the fifth Book of Moses, Deuteronomy, it seems to disappear entirely. There is just one remarkable exception:

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

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

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

What author had this much wit?

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

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

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

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


ENDNOTES

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

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

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

[4] Rashi on Torah.

[5] Midrash Rabbah Bereishit,


ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

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

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

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. Continue reading “What is a Jew? (short)”

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. Continue reading “Are Jews a race, religion, nation, ethnicity, tribe, or … what?”

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. Continue reading “Jacob and the Cosmic If”