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.

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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.

 

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.

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)

 

Why Does the Epikoros Lose His Soul?

What’s an epikoros?

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

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

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

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

Who was Epicurus?

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

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

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

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

Hell for Jews?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are the Sages too thin-skinned?

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

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

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

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

The rabbinical etymology of epikoros

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

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

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

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

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

Why is everyone purposely avoiding the plain meaning?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breaking the circuit between Heaven and Earth

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

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

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

The road to Jewish Heaven is paved by scholars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Route to Immortality is Paved by Rabbinic Intention

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

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

David Porush
San Mateo, CA
October 2019/5780

ENDNOTES

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[4] Sanhedrin 99

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Democracy or Theocracy? Korach’s Fourth of July Rebellion

(On July 4, 1992, Shabbat Korach and the Fourth fell on the same day. I delivered this as a drash in a Conservative shul in upstate New York (Agudat Achim in Niskayuna) before I knew a lick of Rashi or Talmud, so please forgive its incredible ignorance and naivete. Please note this has been edited from the original notes.)
Moses is not the leader of a democracy, as this week’s parsha shows. How does a good Jewish citizen of America choose between allegiance to democracy or to the harsh autocratic theocracy the Torah seems to demand?
Kippah + American Flag
(From Jewish Boston, photo by selimaksan/iStock)

Through a wonderful coincidence, this weeks’ parsha and the Fourth of July fall on the same day. Korach tells the story of a Levite, a leader among the Hebrews wandering the desert, who arises and leads a democratic-style revolution against the leadership of Moses and Aaron.

It is apparent that Korach is really disturbed that he has been cut out of priestly leadership, when by birthright, he should have been next in line, and brothers Aaron and Moses have kept it all to themselves. However, Korach didn’t read his Book of Genesis, for if there is one theme about the law of inheritance among our people, it is that the firstborn’s birthright (primogeniture) counts for very little. Abraham passes over firstborn Ishmael to name Isaac his heir. Isaac is tricked by Jacob into passing over the elder twin, Esau. Reuven is usurped by Joseph. Jacob literally switches his hands again when he blesses his grandsons Menashe and Ephraim. Over and over again the Torah tells us that it not your order of birth, the law of the land, but an invisible quality of merit that raises our leaders to their position.

Korach’s real motives may be selfish and motivated from a sense of birthright and a lust for power, but on the face of it his arguments against Moses’ rulership are ones that no democratic, right-minded citizen of America can resist, especially on the Fourth of July. In fact, Moses’ government was an absolute, totalitarian dictatorship supported by a nepotistic class system and backed by claims of divine authority. The very best we could say about Moses’ government over the Israelites’ material and civic lives is that there were some democratic instincts: the court system  – 10s, 100s, 1000s, –  established a partly representative government. But in the end, it was Moses’ word which was the ultimate and inarguable word of law, a rule by Divine Right. To the multitude, Moses was indistinguishable from any other pharaoh who claimed transcendent authority to arrogate power for him and his family.

Korach’s arguments are so persuasive even back then when there was no successful model for rebellion in all of history, except maybe Moses’ slave revolt against Pharaoh, that he convinces 250 other leaders to rise up against Moses. And after he loses his case in dramatic fashion – the earth instantly opens to swallow him and all his followers – all the other Israelites still complain to Moses that he is tyrannical and cruel. The only thing that should have mattered was their newfound freedom and the holy mission that was the deal for it, but they had proven over and over again that they were more concerned with their material comfort and safety than thundering miracles in the desert. They want cucumbers and garlic and fish instead of divine manna. They are afraid to enter the Promised Land. They are a rabble of newly-liberated slaves who can’t liberate their own minds from their bodily needs.

Given the choice of sides here, it’s confusing to us American Jews. Historically, democratization has always helped us. Throughout the world, we usually found our position improved whenever the concept of equality for all citizens under the law is established. The French Revolution overthrew a monarchy of the Sun King. It ushered in the age of Napolean, where Jews were granted first-class citizenship, at least de jure if not de facto. And in America, we seem to have found an enduring homeland under the banner of religious freedom and separation of church and state.

One could even argue Korach was a prophetic genius, since this is the first time in history we ever hear any document record arguments for universal equality under law – “You take too much power since all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them; wherefore then do you lift yourself above the rest?” –  a concept which Western culture wouldn’t re-discover for another three thousand years, until the Enlightenment and writers like John Locke in the eighteenth century.

Isn’t every Jew divine?  Who are you, Moses to rule us with this dictatorship of divinity?” Furthermore, unlike the spies and the rabble who want garlic and fish instead of the manna, Korach strikes a high note by acknowledging holiness and appealing to the divine mission of the Israelites. What gives you a corner on the market of holiness? Didn’t God say we are all a holy people?” Have we been freed from slavery from one pharaoh just to serve another?

Adding to the confusion of us American Jews is our bedrock ideal of the separation of church and state. In every country where Jews have lived during the diaspora, we were a minority — and eventually a reviled — religious people. Sooner or later, the fact that ours is not the official religion of the state catches up with us. When ruled by others, the usual results are our tragic history: Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome, Spain, France, Italy, England, Russia, Germany, every Moslem state … . It is not until Western civilization evolves to recognize the equality of every individual under the law, independent of religion, that this cycle of state-sponsored persecution and discrimination is broken.[1] In other words, it is not until the separation of church and state becomes an ideal of nationhood that Jews find refuge. Yet, in Moses’ system, Aaron and Moses are the sole, nepotistic proprietors of the Holy of Holies, and Moses’ word is the final law. Moses’ government in the desert is an autocratic theocracy. Punishment for violations are almost always death on a mass scale, as Korach and the death of the spies and the incident of the Manna Revolt, when God kills hundreds of thousands of Israelites, proved. We would call it genocide.

I don’t have a good answer to the challenge posed by Korach. While Korach himself is dishonest, he raises issues that cannot be ignored.  I do, however, have the glimmer of a way out of this dilemma.

The first suggestion is for the problem posed to our secular selves. For us, totalitarian theocracies are repugnant. We have seen plenty of evidence throughout history that they universally operate to oppress and murder their citizens, most recently in Iran under the Ayatollah. On this Fourth of July, we should be grateful for living in the U.S., which enshrines three ideals into its constitution: equality under the law, freedom of religion, and separation of church and state.

The second solution, though, is for the part of our selves that showed up here to shul on Shabbat, the part that aspires to be ruled by the laws of God. The key to this solution is privacy.  If every person is autonomous and equal under the law, then each of us has the right to a different set of beliefs as long as it doesn’t motivate us to behave outside the secular law. The state has set limits on itself: there are some places into which it cannot pry. It cannot look into a person’s heart, force confession to the secrets there, put those on trial, and demand conversion to this or that belief and compel the behaviors that follow from them, thank God. It cannot spy into someone’s home, or heads, or hearts…. nor if they are guided by it, their souls. The Rule of Man stops at the limits of body and soul. At that slippery border, this parsha tells us today, the Rule of God reigns. Internalize the Rule of Law, the Rule of God, and aspire to give it absolute authority. In the internal empire of our spirit, where most of us are wandering in a wilderness, we should aspire to be governed by the Totalitarian. The Israelites in the desert have struggled, and failed apocalyptically so far, to learn this awesome and difficult ideal. As the spies and the rabble and now Korach and his followers prove, they can’t quite do it. The protagonists all die. The rest are now doomed to wander for another thirty-nine years,

I dare say, most of us rehearse the Korach-Moses drama in our lives as we try to negotiate the demands of a secular life with our soul’s yearning and aspiration.


ENDNOTES:

[1] The tension is still there, though, isn’t it? This week we read about the surprise Supreme Court decision which upheld and reinforced the separation of church and state. The case stemmed from an incident in Rhode Island at the graduation ceremony attended by a young Jewish girl in 1987. A Baptist minister asked the assembly to rise and thank the name of Jesus for their graduation. The Supreme Court found this activity offensive, as would anyone else who has suffered religious discrimination. [NOTE: A reference to Lee v. Weisman, 1992]:

 

It can turn on a dime

My father used to say to us, “It can turn on a dime.” He saw American hospitality to the Jews as a thin veneer, like Germany’s. It could be stripped away at any moment to reveal the anti-Semitism he was sure lurked beneath the surface. He was convinced any nation that suffered us to be their guests long enough would sooner or later turn on us, even this land where religious freedom was enshrined.*  And you couldn’t bet against his paranoia. He had history on his side, 100-1.

I guess I inherited some of his dark vision and even afflicted my children with it. I still tell them half-jokingly, “Keep your passports active.”

Destruction of Secomd Temple
“Destruction of the Temple” by Francesco Hayez, 1867.

Dad served as Gen. MacArthur’s mapmaker on the voyage of the USS Missouri to accept Japan’s surrender in 1945.  In 1947, he led his army buddies in Brooklyn to gather guns to smuggle to Israel for the Haganah in their fight for independence from the Brits.

My grandfather would tell the story (over and over) of how he and my grandmother, Pop and Bubby,  huddled awake all night guarding the hundreds of M1 rifles and handguns Dad had deposited in their small apartment. They waited for a knock on the door that meant they were busted, or men had come to carry the illicit armory out to the Brooklyn shipyards.

Pop was born in Jerusalem in 1899. His great-grandfather trekked with his two sons and wife, and a donkey, from Poland to Jerusalem in the early 1800s. In other words, Zionism ran like a hot current through my Dad’s blood.

Did he have dual loyalties, to America and Israel? Without a doubt.

Was he less patriotic than any other American soldier who served in WWII? Absolutely not.

Was he wrong about his fear about America and the Jews? For sure.

Or at least, he has been wrong so far.

Now the tide of the zeitgeist (I use the word for its, um, bitter flavor) may be turning, and he tragically may have been prophetic after all. In the past few months, something has changed in America.

Yes, most of us are alarmed about the new tolerance for – even encouragement of – flagrant anti-Semitism – in the “normal” media and even in Congress. Yes, we know what is happening on campuses and in Europe. Yes, the majority of Jews embrace secular atheism and express contempt for any religious belief, a generation before they may disappear as Jews altogether.

But there is a much greater danger. I am hearing Jews express hatred for other Jews like never before. There has always been simmering resentment and finger-pointing among us. Ask Moses about his stiff-necked rebels in Sinai. But now I hear Jews speak about other Jews as if they’d be glad to see them destroyed, or at least silenced. Even Jews who are otherwise glad to be Jewish reserve their worst animus for their landsmen.

I heard one affiliated and proud Jew call a whole other sect of Jews “vermin.” I heard another Jew repeating gleefully and spitefully the news that some Orthodox Jews are not inoculating their children, even accusing (falsely) someone I know well, a respected educator, simply because they are Orthodox. Agreed, not inoculating your children is a sign of suffocating insularity and ignorance, not least ignorance of Jewish law which demands you protect the health of your children and the community. It’s a stupid and deplorable sin.

But the accuser’s energy staggered me. I literally took a step back. His bias was no better than any other anti-Semite’s – or indeed any other hater’s. He painted all Orthodox Jews with his broad brush of bias, because of the actions of a few – albeit dangerous – members of the group. It was clear he felt he had proven the failure of all Orthodox Judaism to live up to civil standards. The contagion – the malicious influenza – of his prejudice is much worse than the measles.

The other day, a couple I love told me that when they announced their child was getting married to an ultra-Orthodox Jew, two rabbis of other brands of Judaism separately said, “Mazel tov – or should I offer condolences?” Three years ago, when I gave my pitch for Jewish unity to him, a rabbi said, “Agreed. If only the Orthodox would …” For sure, it’s a two-way street, and he had plenty of reason to be sore at rulings by Orthodoxy about the practices of other Jews, but who’s going to stop lobbing bombs over the fence first?

A long-time friend will no longer speak to me because I support Israel and I support America’s support for Israel. He thinks (wrongly) that by definition I must be rooting against his team in partisan politics.

“No one will fight for a community that is divided among itself.”  So writes Adam Garfinkle in  “The Collapse: Is this the end of American Jewry’s Golden Age?”  Although I don’t agree with all that he says, he is sounding an alarm. We’ve been here before. We Jews gotta clean our own house as we gird for this coming battle against anti-Semitism. Ben Hecht, arguably the most prolific, successful, and influential Hollywood scriptwriter, mounted a national campaign to convince FDR and the State Department to rescue Jews being exterminated by Hitler. He was turned away, partly because many prominent Jews and leaders of Jewish organizations were afraid that “Judaizing the war effort” would unleash anti-Semitism at home. We see how disunity in the face of the storm worked out.

The sages tell us that when Jews express widespread hatred for each other, transcendent danger looms. They said the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE because Jews talked evilly about other Jews.  At this moment, there are too few Jews in the world – maybe 14.5 million, or less than one-fifth of one percent of the world population –  for us to fight with and hate on each other. On Passover, we recall that in every generation, “they” rise up against us to try to destroy us. I pray we don’t become “they” to each other. I pray we don’t participate as accomplices in this prophesy by ploughing the field for the evil harvest intended by our real enemies.

Instead, let’s embrace – or at least stop talking trash about – all of our siblings and cousins and other more distant, even alien, Jewish comrades, however they dress or undress, whatever they believe or don’t believe. Our enemies surely don’t make such fine distinctions among us. In the spirit of klal Yisroel, let’s beat them to the punch and remember that we are a single people.

 

San Mateo, CA – Pesach 5779

We Are All Esther: Prophecy in Exile

The Talmud re-reads Esther and the Purim story to teach Jews in exile how to deal with false prophets.
Continue reading “We Are All Esther: Prophecy in Exile”

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.