Friday, December 11, 2009

Brothers And Others

There is a old saying about Torah, which is deceptively cautionary: "Turn and turn in it, because everything is in it." When I was very young, I immediately loved the image evoked by this saying--of doing somersaults in a pool of serious words--though the Montreal rabbis (or, as they called themselves, "clergy") who taught me the saying meant it--so I sensed with growing dismay--as a demand that I simply exalt the people that has given us so many Nobel prize winners, or at least surrender to our received strictures.

Anyway, I reentered the pool a free man in my thirties. And the more I thought about this saying, the more it seemed to me far more of a warning than a brag. If everything is in Torah, then--as I implied in yesterday's post--nothing of clear value can be received. The only important question is, who is diving in? With what questions do you turn? Just as important, if a person has a political agenda--and who doesn't?--then quoting Torah only becomes an occasion for showing one's hand. The authority of Torah becomes a prop in agitprop.

LAST WEEK, JEWS in synagogues the world over read the portion in Genesis depicting the fraught meeting between Jacob and his older twin Esau many years after Jacob had tricked Isaac (with Rebbecca's collusion) into bestowing the birthright on himself. The whole story, from their birth to this moment, is a marvel of observation. You can read the whole portion here. Being a younger brother myself, the passages that always moved me the most are these:

Jacob looked up and there was Esau, coming with his four hundred men; so he divided the children among Leah, Rachel and the two maidservants. 2He put the maidservants and their children in front, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph in the rear. He himself went on ahead and bowed down to the ground seven times as he approached his brother.But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept. Then Esau looked up and saw the women and children. “Who are these with you?” he asked. Jacob answered, “They are the children God has graciously given your servant.” Then the maidservants and their children approached and bowed down. Next, Leah and her children came and bowed down. Last of all came Joseph and Rachel, and they too bowed down.Esau asked, “What do you mean by all these droves I met?” “To find favor in your eyes, my lord,” he said.But Esau said, “I already have plenty, my brother. Keep what you have for yourself.” “No, please!” said Jacob. “If I have found favor in your eyes, accept this gift from me. For to see your face is like seeing the face of God, now that you have received me favorably. Please accept the present that was brought to you, for God has been gracious to me and I have all I need.” And because Jacob insisted, Esau accepted it.

NOW, I REALIZE these are shepherds from the Iron Age speaking in a kind of code. But what is the plain meaning here? Enter Rabbi Benjamin Lau, who turned on that meaning in last week's Haaretz. Read it and try to follow it. I hasten to add that Lau is considered one of Israel's more liberal rabbinic figures. It is also important to know that Esau has been transformed by rabbinic tradition into the father of Edom, Israel's tribal enemy, and as such, Lau writes, this was only the first of many meetings. (Note: for those of you who linked to the Lau's column, and quickly gave up trying to make sense of its code, you are missing a chance to understand something important about the politics of this country.)

In any case, my wife, the Hebrew University's Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi, who has appeared before in this blog, offers this rejoinder (a shorter version appeared as a letter in Wednesday's Haaretz):

Read literally, Genesis 32-3 is one of the most eloquent examples in “western” literature of reconciliation as the alternative to vengeance. Jacob cheated his older twin brother Esau twice: first out of his birthright and then out of their father’s blessing. Returning to the land of his birthplace after twenty years of working for Laban, Jacob prepared for a confrontation with the brother he had wronged, who had in the meantime established himself in the region of Edom. “And Jacob raised his eyes and saw and, look, Esau was coming, and with him were four hundred men.” Jacob arranged his children and wives so that the beloved ones were in the least vulnerable position at the rear. He then “bowed to the ground seven times until he drew near his brother.”

We all know what the wronged brother did. He ran to meet Jacob “and embraced him and fell upon his neck and kissed him, and they wept.”

The rabbinic interpretations of this explicitly conciliatory passage range from grudging acceptance to downright misconstrual–-in order to preserve Esau, in his various historical incarnations, as the demonic other. It was with the usual trepidation, therefore, but also some hope that I approached the column this week by Rabbi Benjamin Lau, who, I have heard, adds a refreshingly progressive voice to the chorus of rabbinic rabble-rousers in Jerusalem (“Brotherly Love—and Hate,” Haaretz, Dec. 4).

Rabbi Lau takes us through seven encounters (by his count) between Jacob and Esau and their presumed descendants, the children of Israel and of Edom. He demonstrates the poisonous power of free-floating symbols: the psalmist in Babylonian exile remembers that the Edomites, who had not allowed the tribes of Israel to pass through their territory on their way to Canaan, were now in league with the Babylonians. The famous vow to “remember Jerusalem” in Ps. 137 ends with a vision of return that is a pledge to vengeance, culminating in smashing the babies of 'Bat-bavel' [i.e., Edom] against the rocks...

Rabbi Lau acknowledges the vengeful pledge but leaves out the part about the babies.

Then, rather than teasing out the obvious implications of this form of memory, he tells us that Edom was, from an early period, identified with--wait for it--Christendom. (He admits, but never mind, that Israel heaped curses on Edom in the nefarious final verses of the Hanukah song maoz tzur—and that those verses were excised from most Jewish prayerbooks out of fear of offending the Church.)

Lau's argument concludes by telling us that, today, these two “brothers,” sons of Israel and Edom (read: Jews and Christians), come with peace in their hearts but are thwarted by some “third brother from the East, who also has a monotheistic belief.” That is, instead of valorizing the common identification of the Arabs with Esau as well as Ishmael; rather than deploring the culture of vengeance that ancient grievances engender and that periodically take hold of post-traumatic Jews, Rabbi Lau concludes by telling us that the Jews and the Christians are now cozy allies offering an olive branch to each other so they can “form an alliance” against the nefarious other brother who comes from the “East.”

Are we to understand that this “other brother” who is disturbing our Judeo-Christian peace, is the one whose babies we are enjoined—with impunity—to dash against the rocks? Is it not an embarrassment to write such things when,
in Sheikh Jerrah and Silwan, neighborhoods unilaterally annexed to Jewish Jerusalem after the Six Day War--and just a stone’s throw from the synagogue in the Greek Colony where Rabbi Lau preaches on Shabbat afternoons--the putative descendants of Esau and Ishmael are being violently evicted from their homes by the descendants of Jacob—presumably, so that there will be no Arabs to disturb our exegetical acrobatics and our “peaceful world”?