Thomas Hardy in Judea

Why we read the book of Ruth on Shavuot.
Thomas Hardy in Judea
From The Story of Ruth, 1876-7, by Thomas Matthews Rooke.
 
Atar Hadari
Observation
May 28 2014 4:11PM
About the author

Atar Hadari, born in Israel and raised in England, is a poet and translator whose Rembrandt’s Bible, a collection of biblical monologues, was recently published in the UK by Indigo Dreams. He writes regularly for Mosaic.


It’s impossible to describe the sound of good preaching in Hebrew. It’s not like the sonorous English of the King James Version, and it doesn’t have the soaring voice or the roars and whispers of preaching in the Baptist tradition. But in the hands of a master preacher and teacher, the Hebrew language yields colors, textures: the fields of the Bible take on shades of red and gold, and the women in the fields have names.

I once heard such a master, Rachel Keren, teaching the biblical book of Ruth to a group of seminary girls. I was the only man in the room; I can’t now remember why. She spoke about the dangers the widowed Ruth, a Moabite, faced on behalf of Naomi, her Jewish mother-in-law, when she went in the dead of night to lie in a harvest field in Judea. She was there to try to persuade Boaz, a cousin of Naomi’s late husband, to marry her and impregnate her with an offspring, thereby continuing the family line and incidentally saving both her and her mother-in-law from death by starvation.

So far, so convoluted. But Rachel Keren taught the Bible as if it were a slightly scandalous novel for young women. In fact a novel by the great and not so pious Victorian novelist Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), set not in rural England but dry, rural Judea. There the color of the land was red or yellow unlike England’s green and brown, but scandal, hostile fate, and an ever-present chorus of gossiping neighbors were facts of life just as much as in Hardy’s fictional Wessex. There was also in Rachel’s version a full sense of the looming danger of rape or other injury as the young widow picked her way among the sleeping shepherd boys to the only one who counted, the one she had to marry in order to put her family history right. As Rachel told it, this was a living and immediate story that could have happened anywhere (but not, she gave the girls to understand, just between us, in Jerusalem where she came from, and certainly not if the mother-in-law had had her wits about her).

 

The story starts with Elimelekh, a rich man who leaves Israel at a time of famine. The rabbinic commentators ask: why? The answer: Elimelekh wasn’t leaving because he would starve, since he was too rich to starve. He was leaving because he didn’t want to meet his social responsibilities and help his neighbors. That’s not only why he left, but why he was wrong to leave, and why things went downhill from there.

It was in the days when the Judges judged
and there was hunger in the land
and a man went from Bethlehem in Judea
to stay in the fields of Moab,
he and his wife and his two sons.
And the man’s name was Elimelekh
and his wife’s name was Naomi
and the name of his two sons Mahlon and Kilyon
of the house of Efrat, in Bethlehem, in Judea.
And they came to the fields of Moab and stayed there.

And Elimelekh Naomi’s man died
and she was left there with her two sons.
And they married themselves Moabite wives
one named Orpah and the other named Ruth
and they settled there for ten years.
and they, too, died, both Mahlon and Kilyon
and the woman was left without her two sons or her man.

And she rose with her daughters-in-law and returned from the fields of Moab
for she heard in the field of Moab
that God had remembered his people to give them bread.
And she went out from the place where she was
and her two daughters-in-law with her
and they walked on the way back to the land of Judea.

And Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law,
“Go, return each woman to her mother’s house,
may the Lord deal kindly with you
as you have done by the dead and by me.
May the Lord give you something and find you rest
each woman in her husband’s home.
And she kissed them and they raised up their voices and wept.

And they said to her, “But we’ll return with you to your people.”
And Naomi said, “Return, my daughters?
Why should you go with me? Have I more sons in my belly
who could be husbands for you?
Return, my daughters, go
for I’ve grown too old to be with a man.
For even if I said I have hope
and this night could even be with a man
and then should bear sons too,
is it for them you’ll waste until they grow?
Is it for them you’ll be tied down, not being with a man?
Don’t do it my daughters for it is far bitterer for me than for you
for the hand of the Lord has come against me.”
And they raised their voices and wept more
and Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye. . . .

Up till now we have a fairly simple story of a man who leaves his home in Judea to “stay” in the province of Moab. He takes his wife and two sons. He dies and his widow chooses to extend the stay by settling in Moab when her sons take wives there. Then the sons die, and the three women start on the road back to Judea, the only place Naomi has anything left. And so far, it is a dog-eat-dog world that is exhibited. There are no social ties that bind, and the Almighty is not mentioned in the narrative until Naomi laments that He has struck her down. We are about to watch her be abandoned by the second of her daughters-in-law when the story takes an unexpected turn: 

But Ruth clung to her.
And she said, “Look,
Your sister-in-law is going to her people and her gods,
go back after your sister-in-law.”
And Ruth said, “Do not chide me to leave you,
to go back from following you
for wherever you go I will go
and wherever you sleep I will sleep.
Your people is my people and your God my God:
Wherever you die I will die
and there I’ll be buried.
So help me the Lord,
for only death will come between me and you:

This declaration of Ruth’s has been taken as the prototype of conversion to Judaism. But there doesn’t appear to have been a conversion in any sense understood by contemporary Orthodox Judaism. There is no rabbinical court before whom the convert makes a promise to obey the commandments. There is no ritual immersion. No subsequent adherence to Jewish practice is mentioned. So where is the conversion? The commentators find it in Ruth’s statement, “your people is my people and your God my God,” a contract sealed by her proceeding to take an oath using the Lord’s name—something that a non-Jew, the commentators observe, would not do. Ruth became a Jew by means of her statement, and as a Jew she took her oath, invoking the judgment of the Lord she had just invited to be her God, and knowing full well that He was not the easiest deity to get along with—as amply demonstrated by the experience of her mother-in-law.

What was in it for Ruth? To answer this question, you have to follow the story:

And she saw that she was firm to go with her
and stopped speaking to her.
And they both walked until they came to Bethlehem
and it was as they came into Bethlehem
all the city buzzed about them
saying, “Is that Naomi?”

And she said, “Don’t call me Naomi,
call me Bitter Woman
for Shadai has made me very bitter:
I went away full and the Lord brought me back empty.
Why should you call me Naomi
when the Lord bore witness against me
and Shadai repaid me ill?”

And Naomi returned with Ruth the Moabite her daughter-in-law
who had returned with her from the fields of Moab
and they came to Bethlehem at the start of the barley harvest.

These lines, at the end of Chapter 1, emphasize the problematic nature of Ruth as prototypical convert. Although she has taken an oath to join her mother-in-law’s people, she is still identified as a Moabite. And here we have the crux of the two women’s challenge. Ruth wants to join the Jewish people and Naomi wants a son, because only through a son can she eat. How will they achieve their goals? We still don’t know, any more than we know what role Ruth, in particular, is playing in the story.

Now Naomi knew a connection of her husband’s,
a great and noble man
of the family of Elimelekh and his name was Boaz:
And Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, “Let me go to the field and I’ll pick ears
behind whomever I take the fancy of.”
And she said to her, “Go, my girl.”
And she went and came there and picked in the field behind the reapers
and by happenstance she happened on the length of field
of Boaz who was Elimelekh’s relative.
And along came Boaz on the way from Bethlehem
and he said to the reapers, “God be with you.”
and they said to him, “God bless you.”
And Boaz said to his lad who was watching the reapers, “Who’s that girl with?”
And the lad watching the reapers replied,
“A Moabite girl who came back with Naomi
from the fields of Moab, and said, ‘Let me pick and gather between the sheaves
Behind the reapers,’ and she came and she’s been standing since dawn
and till now she’s hardly been home.”

And Boaz said to Ruth, “Do you hear, my girl?
Don’t go picking in another field
and don’t even wander out of this one
and that way you’ll stick with my girls.
Keep your eyes on the field they’re reaping in
and walk behind, because I told the boys not to lay a hand on you
and when you get thirsty go to the barrels and drink
from what the boys draw.”

And she fell on her face and bowed to the ground
and said to him, “Why have I found favor in your eyes
to honor me when I am a stranger?”
And Boaz replied to her and said,
“I heard all about what you did for your mother-in-law
after your husband died and how you left your father and mother
and the land you were born in
and went to a people you didn’t know
the day before yesterday.
The Lord will pay you your due
and may your full reward come from the Lord God of Israel
under whose wing you’ve come to shelter.”

And she said, “Have I found favor in your eyes, milord?
For you’ve comforted me and bucked up the heart of your poor servant
and I’m not even fit to be one of your servants.”
And Boaz told her, “At eating time
you come right here and eat some of the bread
and dip your slice in brine.”
And she sat to one side of the reapers
and he gave her a pinch of roast oats
and she ate and was filled and left some over
and got up to pick and Boaz told his boys,
“Let her pick between the bundles, too,
and don’t make her feel embarrassed.
And even let drop a few drops for her from the bales
and leave them for her to pick and don’t say anything.”
And she picked in the field until evening
and she sorted what she had picked
and there was about ten days’ worth of food.
And she carried it and came back to town
and showed her mother-in-law what she’d picked
and brought out and gave her what she’d left after eating her fill.

And her mother-in-law said to her,
“Where did you pick today, and where did you stay?
May whoever distinguished you be blessed.”
And she told her mother-in-law who she’d worked with
and said, “The man’s name that I worked with today
is Boaz.” And Naomi said to her daughter-in-law,
“Bless the Lord
who did not withhold His kindness from the living and the dead.”
And Naomi told her, “He’s our relation, the man is one of our redeemers.”
And Ruth the Moabite said, “Not just that,
but he told me—Stick with my boys till they finish all the harvest.”
And Naomi said to Ruth her daughter-in-law,
“That’s good my girl
because you’ll go out with his girls
and they won’t hurt you in another field.”

And she stuck with Boaz’s girls as they picked
to the end of the barley harvest and the oat harvest
and she settled with her mother-in-law.

Here at least there is a nod to the presence of the Lord as someone other than a legal authority and a harsh judge. When the text says Ruth happened to chance into this particular field and Boaz happened to come along just then on the road, we have a strong suggestion of what in the Bible turns out to be benign divine intervention and what in Thomas Hardy inevitably signals the workings of malevolent fate. Which way will this novel turn out: Judea, or Wessex?

And Naomi her mother-in-law said to her,
“My girl, haven’t I always been on the lookout for you to find a resting place
that’ll be good for you: and now isn’t Boaz our relation,
whose own girls you were out with,
sifting the barley grain right now, tonight?
Now you wash yourself and get yourself perfumed and put your best dress on
and go on down to the grain store.
Don’t let that man know about you till he’s done eating and drinking,
and when he’s lain down and you know where he’s lying
then come and uncover his legs
and lay yourself down
and he’ll tell you what to do next.”
And she said to her, “Whatever you tell me—I’ll do.”
And she went down to the grain store and did all her mother-in-law said.

This is the racy part of the novel, the part that reads most like scandalous Hardy. And in translating it I find the voice of Naomi coming through like one of those wise women in the blues, lamenting her woes and advising her sisters not to make the same mistakes she did. But we still can’t quite make out Ruth as she follows these worldly instructions. Why is she going to do what her mother-in-law tells her to?

And Boaz ate and drank and his heart was feeling good
and he came and lay down at the end of the pile
and she came softly and uncovered his legs and lay down.
And it was come the middle of the night that the man started up and reached out
and here was a woman lying at his feet.
And he said, “Who are you?”
And she said, “I am Ruth
your handmaid
now spread your cloak over your handmaid
for you are a redeemer.”
And he said, “God bless you my girl
you’ve done a better deed with your last than your first
by not running after the boys
neither rich nor poor: and now my girl you have no fear
all you’ve said I will do for you
for everyone who comes in the gates of town knows
that you’re a noble woman.
But now for all that I am next in line for redeemer
there is still a closer redeemer than I am.
Stay the night and come morning
ff he will redeem you, well shall he redeem
and if he doesn’t care to redeem, I’ll redeem you personally
I swear to God.
Lie you down until morning.”

And she lay at his feet until morning
and she rose before a man might know his friend
and he said, “Let it not be known
the woman came to the grain store.”
But he said, “Give me the kerchief about you
and hold it”—and she held it out
and he measured six measures of grain
and hung it about her neck
and he came to the town and she came to her mother-in-law
and she said, “Who are you, my girl?”
And she told her all that the man had done for her
and she said, “He gave me these six lots of grain
for he said, ‘Don’t come empty-handed to your mother-in-law.’”
And she said, “Wait my girl until you know how it falls out
for the man won’t rest without settling it all this very day.”

In this passage we have both an explicit and an implicit answer to our questions about Ruth. In her bold offer to accompany her aged mother-in-law back to her home and her people, Boaz sees something essential about her character. He perceives it as an act of pure kindness, an act from which Ruth has nothing to gain. Likewise, he perceives, she has nothing to gain from offering marriage to an older man rather than one nearer her age. Though she is a foreigner, the kindness she has shown to Naomi and the diligence of her work has made an impression, as he notes, not just on his own harvest boys but on all the people of the city.

Unlike Elimelekh, but like Abaraham the founder of Judaism, Ruth is a generous person who goes out of her way to find and perform acts of kindness for others. It was in response to Abraham’s generosity to guests that God both promised him a son and consulted him about destroying the wicked city of Sodom. Because she behaves like Abraham, Ruth is the prototypical convert: one who in Judaism is called a son or daughter of Abraham.

That is the explicit answer. The implicit answer lies in the curious transaction that takes place after Boaz both accepts and sets a condition on Ruth’s marriage offer. On the one hand, he insists on legality, saying he must first offer her to his cousin who is a more direct heir and therefore should be offered the chance to redeem her. But then he does a curious thing, asking her to hold out her kerchief and weighing out six measures of grain that he ties about her. And the next thing you know, when Ruth goes back to her mother- in-law, Naomi does not seem to recognize her. What does this mean?

In giving Ruth the grain, I suspect Boaz has made a type of kiddushin, a betrothal—something the Talmud tells us can be done with a ring, a coin, or a gift of specific value. And why does Naomi not recognize her? I think it is because Ruth is no longer the same person.

Evidently, when she married Naomi and Elimelekh’s son back in Moab, Ruth did not thereby become connected either to the Lord or to other Jews. Then, later, she voices her wish to join her mother-in-law’s people and swears by the Lord. Her conversion is indicated by the declaration and the oath; but only now, in Chapter 3, does the text acknowledge her personal transformation. The declaration lies far behind, and the wedding is still to come, but in some mysterious way Ruth becomes a different person when Boaz weighs out those grains and gives them to her. With this betrothal she has truly joined the Jewish people as a Jew betrothed to a Jew who is connected to other Jews. So deep is the change, her mother-in-law doesn’t recognize her for a moment. I can find no other explanation for Naomi’s question, “Who are you, my girl?”

 

And so we reach the end, with its momentary shock of suspense before the final resolution: 

And Boaz went up to the gate and sat there
and along came the redeemer Boaz spoke of, passing by.
And he said, “Turn aside and sit here, man who shall remain nameless,”
and he turned and he sat.
And he took ten men of the elders of the town
and said, “Sit here”—and they sat.
And he said to the redeemer, “The section of field
that was our brother Elimelekh’s
is for sale by Naomi who’s come back from the fields of Moab.
And I said I’d have a word in your ear
to say, ‘Buy it’ before those sitting here and before my elders.
If you will redeem, redeem
and if he who should redeem will not redeem
tell me so I know
for there is none but you in line to redeem
and I am after you.”
And he said, “I will redeem.”

And Boaz said, “The day you buy the field from Naomi
and Ruth the Moabite, the dead man’s wife,
you buy also to raise the dead man’s name on his estate.”
And the redeemer said, “I could not redeem for myself
lest I ruin my own estate.
You redeem for yourself what I would redeem, for I cannot myself redeem.”

And this was in the days of old in Israel
when to redeem and to exchange and seal a deal
a man would slip off his shoe
and give it to his fellow
and this was the contract in Israel.
And the redeemer said to Boaz, “Buy it yourself,”
and slipped off his shoe.
And Boaz said to the elders and all the people,
“You are witnesses today that I have bought
all that was Elimelekh’s and all that was Kilyon and Mahlon’s
from the hand of Naomi.
And also Ruth the Moabite, wife of Mahlon,
I’ve bought to be a wife for me
to raise the dead man’s name on his estate
so the dead man’s name shall not be lost among his kin
and from the gate of his town
you are witnesses today.”

And all the people at the gate and all the elders said,
“We are witnesses:
Let the Lord make the woman entering your house
like Rachel and like Leah who built the house of Israel
and do well in Efrata and make a name for yourself in Bethlehem
and may your house be like the house of Peretz whom Tamar bore for Judah
from the children the Lord gives you by this girl.”

And Boaz took Ruth and she was his wife
and he came to her and the Lord let her be with child
and she bore a son and the women said to Naomi,
“Blessed be the Lord who did not still your redeemer today
and may his name be renowned in Israel
and may he be a balm and succor for your old age.
For your daughter-in-law who loved you bore him,
who’s been better to you than seven sons.”
And Naomi took the child and put him in her lap and was his nursemaid.
And the neighbor women called him by name
saying, “A son was born for Naomi.”
And they named him Oved,
who is the father of Jesse
father of David.

When Abraham makes his contract with God in the book of Genesis, it is a contract to behave in a certain way. People who behave badly, for instance in Sodom and Gomorrah, bring down devastation upon themselves. Even Lot, who behaves decently but chooses to live in the wrong place, brings devastation on his family. In the book of Ruth we have a picture of Elimelekh who is selfish and chooses to live in the wrong place and brings devastation on his family.

Ruth, by a series of acts of kindness, restores the connection between Elimelekh’s family and the land of Israel, and indeed with Judaism. She helps Naomi return to the land, she gives her a child, and by her kindness builds the house of Israel, not coincidentally producing its greatest king: a king who survives everything because, whatever else he does, he loves the Lord and walks in his ways.

 

The question then arises: why is this particular book read aloud in the synagogue on Shavuot, the holiday that celebrates the giving of the Torah? After all, nowhere in the entire book of Ruth is there any mention of the Torah.

The story is read on Shavuot because receiving the Torah is not enough. Ruth’s accepting the Lord as her God and swearing by Him: that is a theoretical business. Only when she performs an act of kindness, the act to which Boaz responds with a betrothal, does the contract become binding. By not acting like a Jew, Elimelekh had severed himself and all of his family from Judaism. It takes Ruth to come along and right that wrong. In the divisive times of the Second Temple, Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel, a leader of the Jewish people—and one of Ruth’s direct descendants—would put it succinctly by saying that the world stands on three things: Torah, worship, and acts of kindness.

__________________

Atar Hadari, born in Israel and raised in England, is a poet and translator whose Rembrandt’s Bible, a collection of biblical monologues, was recently published in the UK by Indigo Dreams. His previous essays in Mosaic are “The Preacher’s Air” (on Ecclesiastes), “Esther in Des Moines” (on the book of Esther), and “The Love of Their Youth” (on the Song of Songs), all accompanied by original translations.

More about: Biblical commentary, Book of Ruth, Shavuot, Thomas Hardy, Translation

 

Jacob, the Innocent Con Artist

Was Jacob born to greatness, did he achieve it, or did he have it thrust upon him by his mother?

Jacob, the Innocent Con Artist
Jacob Deceives Isaac by James Tissot, 1902. Wikiart.
 
Atar Hadari
Observation
Nov. 20 2014 12:01AM
About the author

Atar Hadari, born in Israel and raised in England, is a poet and translator whose Rembrandt’s Bible, a collection of biblical monologues, was recently published in the UK by Indigo Dreams. He writes regularly for Mosaic.


This week’s Torah portion of Toledot (Genesis 25:19 – 28:9) is about the costs and benefits of obedience, or of emulation if you will. Where Abraham’s story begins with God’s demand that he leave his father’s house and go wherever the Almighty wants him to go, this story is about three men, none of whom really wants to leave his father’s house, and one woman who sees to it that her sons do what God requires. The story is about staying, not going, and the price exacted by each.

But these are the annals of Isaac son of Abraham, Abraham fathered Isaac.
And Isaac was forty years old when he took Rebecca daughter of Betuel the Aramean of Pedan,
sister of Laban the Aramean, as his wife.
And Isaac entreated the Lord when he found his wife was barren
and the Lord assented to him and Rebecca his wife conceived.
And the children rattled about inside her and she said, Why am I like this?
And she went to inquire of the Lord and the Lord told her,
Two peoples are in your belly and two nations will part from your loins
and one nation will fortify the other
and the elder will make offerings to the younger.

A key question at this point is just what is meant by “the elder”? Many commentators have justified Rebecca’s subsequent actions as being intended to fulfil this prophecy by seeing to it that her firstborn son Esau will make offerings to his younger twin Jacob. Her actions do fulfil the prophecy, but in exactly the way she does not want. Yes, they allow Jacob to assume the role of firstborn, but they also drive him from his father Isaac’s house, only to return many years (and several Torah portions) later to make offerings to his “younger” brother Esau in recompense for having stolen the birthright and their father’s blessing. So what does this story mean?

But the boys grew and Esau became a man skilled in hunting, a man of the field,
and Jacob was an innocent man who lived in tents.
And Isaac loved Esau for the game in his mouth, but Rebecca loves Jacob.
And Jacob stewed a stew and Esau came from the field and he was tired
and Esau said to Jacob, Give me a mouthful of that red red stuff now
for I’m tired (that’s why they called him Red).
But Jacob said, Sell me your birthright today,
and Esau said, Here I am going to expire—what do I need the birthright for?
But Jacob said, Swear to me today
and he swore to him and sold his birthright to Jacob
and Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew
and he ate and he drank and he rose and he left.
And Esau scorned the birthright.

Two more details as the story sets its traps. The description of Jacob as an innocent man who dwells in tents is left like a loaded gun in the middle of the stage. First, in what sense is he innocent? I always assumed the Torah was being profoundly ironic here—just for starters, Jacob is hustling his brother for the birthright only two lines later—but I’ve been forced to conclude otherwise.  Jacob, I think, is innocent in the way the third son in the Passover Haggadah is innocent (both texts use the same Hebrew word). There’s a wise son who has faith, a wicked son who voices doubt, an innocent son, and lastly one so simple he can’t even ask questions. Jacob is like the innocent son in not really considering the consequences of his actions. He does not behave in such a way that a rabbinic court might consider him, for legal purposes, a grownup.

Who, then, should inherit Abraham’s blessing: the driven but dangerously “innocent” Jacob, or the rightful heir who is so unfit to inherit that he’ll trade his birthright to fill his stomach?  So far, our story seems to present us with an impossible choice.

The second key detail is the description of Jacob as a tent-dweller. Unlike Esau, an independent creature soon to defy parental authority by choosing his own wives, Jacob will go from his mother’s home to his uncle’s, and will take his wives where he’s been told to by his parents; it will be another 20 years before he finally strikes out on his own with his own family. Jacob is conflicted: between the drive to acquire greatness at any cost and the impulse to conform with what is expected of him. Is that the kind of person we want inheriting the family mission?

As if to parallel the dilemma, the narrative now interrupts itself to catch us up on the story of the boys’ father, Isaac:

But there was a famine in the land, apart from the first famine in Abraham’s day
and Isaac went to Avimelekh king of the Philistines, toward Grar
and the Lord showed Himself to him and said, Do not go down to Egypt,
fix in the land that I’ll tell you, migrate to this land and I’ll be with you and bless you.
For to you and your descendants I’ll give these lands
and I will fulfil the oath I swore to Abraham your father. . . .
And Isaac sowed in that land and realized in that year a hundredfold
and the Lord blessed him, and the man became greater . . .
and the Philistines envied him.
And all the wells his father’s servants dug in his father Abraham’s day
the Philistines had blocked and filled with dust. . . .
But Isaac went from there and pitched his camp at the Grar river and settled there
and Isaac settled and dug the water wells they’d dug in the days of his father Abraham
that the Philistines blocked after Abraham’s death
and he named them by the names his father called them. . . .
And he went up from there to Beer Sheva and the Lord showed Himself to him at night
and said, I am the God of Abraham your father.
Do not fear for I am with you and I will bless you and make many your descendants
For the sake of my servant Abraham.

 

This episode contrasts two modes of receiving and then transmitting the divine blessing. We have already seen Jacob hustling and chafing at the reins, but here we see his father following meticulously, assiduously, in his father’s footsteps. When faced with a famine, he does what Daddy did and goes down to Grar to Avimelekh, but the Lord appears and tells him explicitly that his mission is different from Abraham’s—he is a preserver, not a creator. He is not to go down to Egypt, but rather to hold onto and strengthen the claim of Abraham on these lands. Isaac re-digs wells and reclaims them with the same names his father had given them.

Isaac is the second generation, consolidating the wealth of the initial money-maker. Nearly all cultures have a version of the expression, “from rags to riches to rags in three generations.” If it is to be the story of this family, it won’t be Isaac’s fault. He’s holding on.

But there is a price to pay for being obedient. The blessing Isaac receives and has to transmit is not really “his”—everything the Lord does for Isaac, after all his filial service, is done for the sake of Abraham. Isaac is just a place holder before the advent of the next creative spark, the one who will think outside the box. Who will it be, and what will he pay for the privilege?

And it was when Esau was forty years old that he took to wife
Judith daughter of Be’eri the Hittite and Basmat daughter of Eilon the Hittite
and they were the bane of Isaac and Rebecca’s spirit.

Bane or no bane, Isaac still wants to bestow the blessing on Esau, not Jacob. He initiates the process by telling his favorite son to go hunt some game, “so that I’m alive to bless you before I die.” But, fatefully, Rebecca intervenes:

And Rebecca spoke to Jacob her son, saying, Look
I heard your father talking to your brother Esau,
but now my boy listen to me about what I’m telling you—
go now to the goat pen and get me two nice kids
and I’ll make them tasty things for your father
the way he likes, and you bring them to your father for him to eat
so he’ll bless you before he dies. But Jacob said to Rebecca his mother,
Since my brother Esau is a fuzzy man and I am a smooth man,
maybe my father will feel me and he’ll see me as a fraud
and I’ll bring a curse on myself, not a blessing.
But his mother told him, Your curse be on me my son,
just listen to me and go get them for me.
And he went and he took and he brought them for his mother
and his mother made tasty things as his father liked.
And Rebecca took the clothes of her big boy Esau,
the finery that was with her at home,
and dressed Jacob her little boy,
and the pelts of the kid goats she pulled over his hands
and over his exposed throat,
and she put the tasty things and the bread she made in the hand of Jacob her son.
And he came to his father and said, Dad,
and he said, I’m here. Who’re you, my son?
And Jacob told his father, I’m Esau your firstborn,
I have done as you told me,
get up now and sit you down to eat my game
so you’ll live to bless me.
But Isaac said to his son, What were you so quick to find, my son?
And he said, Just what the Lord your God chanced before me.
But Isaac said to Jacob, Come on over and let me feel, my son,
if you are he, my son Esau, or not.
And Jacob went over to his father Isaac and he felt him and said,
The voice is Jacob’s voice but the hands are Esau’s hands.
And he didn’t recognize him because his hands were fuzzy like his brother Esau’s,
and he blessed his son, but said: Is it you my son Esau?
and he said, It’s me,
and he told him, Serve me and I’ll eat my son’s game
so I’ll bless you while I’m still alive.
And he served him and he ate and he brought him wine and he drank
and he went over and kissed him and he smelled the smell of his clothes
and blessed him and said,
Look, my son smells like the smell of a field blessed by the Lord.

 

The drama of this scene is unequalled by anything outside of Shakespeare. Again and again, Isaac’s instincts tell him that this is not the son he wants to bless; again and again, Jacob holds his breath thinking he’s going to be discovered; again and again, he has to lie. Commentators note that after the scene where Esau sells his birthright to Jacob, the text never refers to him as the firstborn. It keeps hammering home that one of the two is older and one younger, one bigger and one smaller, but never that Esau is the firstborn: that is, the presumed heir. Which is one reason it’s such a shock in this scene to hear our hero lying to his father, who clearly loves Esau dearly.

And then, no sooner has Isaac finished blessing Jacob than Esau enters. Now the father is confused:
Who was it then who hunted game
and brought it me and I ate it all
before you came, and I blessed him, and blessed shall he remain?
As Esau heard his father’s words he cried a great and most bitter cry
and told his father, Bless me too, Daddy.
But he said, Your brother came by wiles
and took your blessing.
And Esau bore a grudge against Jacob over the blessing his father blessed him,
and Esau said in his heart, The days to mourn my father are nigh,
and I’ll kill Jacob my brother. And Rebecca was told the words of Esau her big boy
and sent to call Jacob her little boy
and told him, Look, Esau your brother
comforts himself with the thought of killing you,
but now my son listen to me and get up and flee for yourself
to my brother Laban, toward Haran, and you’ll settle with him a few days
until your brother’s fury wanes
until your brother’s rage falls away from you
and he forgets what you did to him
and I’ll send to take you from there.
Why should I lose both of you in one day?

But losing them both is exactly what she has caused to happen. Rebecca will die before Jacob eventually comes home, and her machinations alienate her from Esau. Having caused Jacob’s exile, she now puts in motion a formal dissociation of Esau from the inheriting line of the family:

And Rebecca said to Isaac, I’m at the end of my tether from these Hittite girls.
If Jacob takes himself a wife from these Hittite girls, from these girls in the land
Why should I want to live?
And Isaac called Jacob and blessed him
and commanded him and said, Don’t take a wife from the Canaanite girls,
get up and go to Padan Aram the home of Betuel your mother’s father
and take yourself a wife from there, from the daughters of Laban your mother’s brother.
And the God Shadai will bless you and make you fruitful and make you many
and you shall be a host of peoples and he’ll give you the blessing of Abraham. . . .
And Esau saw that Isaac blessed Jacob
and Esau saw that the Canaanite girls looked bad to Isaac his father
and Esau went to Ishmael and took Mahlat daughter of Ishmael son of Abraham
sister of Nevayot over his wives, to be his wife.

I find this passage almost as heart-breaking as Esau’s desperately sad cry to his father to bless him, too. This urge to please his parents by marrying again, and then going disastrously to the family of the bypassed Ishmael to do so, reminds me of the moment in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman when the desperate younger brother Happy tells his  mother: “I’m gonna get married Mom. I wanted to tell you,” and she says, “Go to sleep, dear.” And he says, “I just wanted to tell you,” but she still isn’t listening.

The truly awful thing about this story is that Esau is clearly unworthy of the blessing of Abraham. As if the early incident with the stew were not enough, he has twice gone off without consulting his parents and married the wrong person, which is what Abraham spent the entire previous week’s reading (Genesis 23:1 – 25:18)  making sure Isaac wouldn’t do. So it clearly cannot be Esau who will continue the family story—but why does it have to be so painful? And why has Isaac had to spend his life following in Abraham’s footsteps only to be told that God has put up with him only for his dead father’s sake? And why, despite his own love for Esau, must Isaac go through the bedside charade over the blessing?  Whatever Isaac’s own preferences may be, he always bows to Rebecca’s aims, recognizing that when Jacob leaves home to do her bidding and marry the way he himself did at his father’s command, the blessing will go with him. Blessed he shall be.

And the blessing, finally, is a burden. What Abraham did out of a deep and developing relationship with the Almighty, Jacob does out of a mixture of innate ambition and familial imperative. Neither he nor Esau is ever addressed directly by God. Rebecca engineers it all. It is only once he is cast out of his father’s house that, in next week’s reading, God appears to him. And only when he returns to confront Esau as a well-to-do and independent pater familias will he encounter and wrestle with the mysterious entity in the night.

In the end, it is difficult to say whether Jacob, the “innocent” con artist, was born to greatness, achieved greatness, or had greatness thrust upon him by his mother.

But he has no choice now. He wanted it, and it’s all his. Rebecca’s parting words to him—“flee for yourself”—deliberately contain an echo of God’s initial word to Abraham—“go for yourself.” But it is one thing to go, and another to flee. For an awfully long time, the family mission that Jacob sets out on will look like a road to rags, not riches. One thing that fulfilling the divine will does not guarantee, in Jacob’s case, is a life of ease.

If anyone profits materially in this story, it is Esau, the one who has also lost the most emotionally. But nobody wants to leave home. And nobody in this story is loved by God as much as He loved His servant Abraham.

More about: Esau, Isaac, Jacob, The Monthly Portion, Toledot, Torah

 

Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist

A just-reissued classic explores an unfamiliar realm of Jewish experience—and is a great American tale besides.

Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist
Rabbi Meir Kahane, leader of the Jewish Defense League, stands in the midst of protestors in Washington, March 20, 1977. AP Photo/Charles Tasnadi.
 
Observation
Nov. 18 2014 12:01AM
About the author

Michael Weingrad is professor of Jewish studies at Portland State University, and the editor and translator of Letters to America: Selected Poems of Reuven Ben-Yosef (forthcoming from Syracuse University Press). His essays and reviews have appeared in the Jewish Review of Books, Commentary, and elsewhere, and he also writes at the website Investigations and Fantasies.


For anyone interested in modern Israel, Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation (2013), by Yossi Klein Halevi, has been widely praised as essential reading (though some reviewers, including Ruth Wisse in Mosaic, have offered cooler appraisals). In my own generally positive review of the book, I expressed the hope that its success might win some attention for Halevi’s first two works, both of them autobiographical narratives that I find more engrossing than last year’s sprawling epic of the socialist left and the religious right in the Jewish state.

Now the first of those earlier books, Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist (1995), has been republished with a new foreword by the author. In it, the American-born and -raised Halevi tells the story of his youth in the 1960s and 70s as the son of a Holocaust survivor; his activist participation in the movement to free Soviet Jewry; his involvement in and break with the extremist Jewish Defense League (JDL); and his eventual emigration from the United States to make his home in Israel.

“My father lived in a hole,” Memoirs begins, in a dark parody of the opening line of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. But the childhood tales on which Halevi was raised were not the stuff of Middle Earth fantasy but the dire chronicle of his father’s escape from Nazi cattle cars and the year he spent with two other Jews huddled in a six-by-eight-foot pit dug in the forest. After the war, having left Hungary and made his way to Brooklyn, where he married and where Halevi was born in 1953, the father sought to impart the truths his son would need to know in order to negotiate a world eternally hostile to Jews. “The most innocent details of our lives,” the boy learns, “contained awesome lessons for survival.” Among these lessons: the ever-suspect nature of Gentiles and the persistence, even if sometimes disguised, of their hatred.

This “Planet of the Jews,” as Halevi calls it, was the shadow opposite of the great mainstream, suburbanizing world of American Jewry in the 1950s and 60s; indeed, that world was the real target of his father’s contempt. To him, these truly “American” Jews were the comfortable and the complacent, anxious only when it came to preserving their still-fragile place in American society. During the war, they “didn’t try to save the relatives they’d left behind in Europe because they didn’t want to draw attention to themselves with a noisy rescue campaign, jeopardize their assimilation into America.” After the war, they were the Jews “who were embarrassed to be ‘too’ Jewish, who laughed when a Yiddish word was mentioned in a joke as if that were itself the punch line, who turned an identity we’d been martyred for into vaudeville.”

“An identity we’d been martyred for.” With the emphasis on that “we,” Halevi writes that he internalized the severe conclusions of his father’s experience as if they and that experience were his own. “Though born in America, I was no American Jew. I would never assimilate, become a spectator to Jewish suffering.”

And so the conundrum of Halevi’s youth—and the central rift described in Memoirs—was how to reconcile his father’s view of the world with the incommensurately different reality of postwar America. His father’s “main teaching” was “to know the world without illusion.” Yet postwar America, seen without illusion, looked to be exceedingly hospitable to its Jews. Even his father insisted on the country’s fundamental goodness, its exceptional character. But his pre-adolescent son could not accept the contradiction. “My father’s love for America,” he writes of his boyhood convictions, “was a classic case of Jewish self-delusion, of refusing to see the world as it is.” Not for this youngster the mistake of Jewish naiveté that had doomed European Jews in the war. And so the son set out to find menace and threat, and to confront it boldly.

 

As became increasingly apparent during the 1960s, there was in fact a major Jewish population in danger of destruction. Not America’s, and not Israel’s (or at least so it would seem in the victorious wake of the Six-Day War), but the millions trapped in the Soviet Union and subject to an insidious campaign of persecution. Here was a crisis suited to Halevi’s youthful understanding of Jewish history. His early involvement in the movement to free Soviet Jews was, as for other young activists of the time, a signal of his distance from an American Jewish mainstream that was inveterately slow to act, uneasy about dramatic protest politics, and highly trusting of American administrations, especially Democratic ones, to make the right policy decisions.

All of twelve years old, Halevi became active in the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry (SSSJ). Memoirs describes his encounters with Jacob Birnbaum, the founder of the vanguard youth organization, Glenn Richter, its indefatigable organizer, and Shlomo Carlebach, its de-facto bard, and portrays the group’s early marches and demonstrations. Yet by the early 1970s he had become hungry for redder meat, and soon discovered it in Rabbi Meir Kahane’s Jewish Defense League.

Unlike SSSJ, with its civil-rights model of peaceful demonstrations and consciousness-raising, the JDL was temperamentally of a piece with the apocalyptic 1970s politics of the Weather Underground and Black Panthers. In their campaign of direct and often violent action on behalf of Soviet Jews, JDLers attacked the Soviet consulate in New York, disrupted concerts and performances by visiting Soviet artists, and engaged in acts of terrorism like exploding a pipe bomb outside Aeroflot’s Manhattan office. In a case that haunts this book, a JDL smoke bomb thrown into the office of the impresario Sol Hurok, who promoted concerts by visiting Soviet performers, took the life of a Jewish secretary by smoke inhalation.

Halevi’s personal claim to JDL fame was his own brainchild: organizing a sit-in not in New York but in Moscow itself. Not yet twenty, he and seven other young Jewish activists managed to get into the Soviet Union during Passover 1973 with the intention of occupying the Moscow emigration office. Their hope was to create a public embarrassment for the Soviets and for Washington at a time when some American congressmen and Jewish leaders were questioning the need to pass the Jackson-Vanik amendment, a crucial piece of legislation that would make normal American trade relations with the Soviet Union conditional on the Kremlin’s granting exit visas to its citizens. Halevi’s recounting of this dangerous venture and its outcome is the book’s most riveting episode.

The later portions of Memoirs go on to describe Halevi’s disillusionment with Kahane and break with the JDL. As the 1970s proceed, we see him sliding into shiftless nihilism, depression, and drugs. The final chapters, rather than pointing to a single event that would signal his emergence from his father’s shadow and his youthful demons, are instead an accretion of various episodes that, without reaching a definitive conclusion, bring us to a sense of cautious uplift. Chief among the episodes are his father’s death, his relationship with a charming New England WASP who converts to Judaism and becomes his wife, and their decision to move to Israel. Attending Thanksgiving dinner at his future wife’s family home in Greenwich, Connecticut, Halevi is surprised to find how little he feels an outsider, and delivers a little encomium to America:

Somehow, I belonged in this house’s history. America had created the neutral ground on which Lynn and I could so effortlessly join, allowed a Christian girl to bring home a boy named Yossi without creating a family scandal. America had not only given equality to the Jews but to Judaism, which Lynn could explore with simple curiosity, ignoring the stigma of centuries. America had let me heal, let me work out my inherited trauma, and be as angry as I wanted, even at America itself.

 

It is instructive to read Memoirs alongside David Horowitz’s Radical Son (1997), another fine memoir of the American 1960s. Horowitz, too, tells of a burdened childhood, in this case as the son of Communists; of involvement in radical politics (the New Left and the Black Panthers); and of a final break with the left. Each of these two similar political journeys turns on the relationship between a father and a son. In each, the abstracting urgency of a grand ideological struggle slowly gives way to the realities of personal loneliness, individual moral choice, and the possibility of connection. And each describes a slow acceptance of the fundamental beneficence of America.

Both memoirs, for all their protagonists’ youthful anti-Americanism, are thus also quintessentially American stories. The new edition of Halevi’s Memoirs bears the subtitle, “The Story of a Transformation,” but the original subtitle, “An American Story,” was more accurate. As Halevi himself acknowledges, even his involvement in the JDL was, ironically, an expression of his inescapable Americanness:

The JDL offered me entry into both the danger zone of Jewish history and the fun house of America, allowed me to become at once my father’s contemporary and a Yippie. Indeed, the JDL was the most fully American of any Jewish organization, for it tested, without anxiety, the limits of American tolerance toward Jews. We relied on the basic restraint of the police even as we provoked them, trusted in the protection of the American government even as we threatened its interests.

But there is more to Halevi’s book than this. In his foreword to the new edition of Memoirs, Halevi tells us that when he began to write the book in the early 1970s, at the age of nineteen, he intended it as “a defense of Jewish militancy,” but that “[a]fter abandoning the project and then returning to it two decades later, what emerged was a repudiation, rather than a celebration, of Jewish rage.”

In truth, the value of the book derives from neither of these impulses. Most American Jews today, going about their business while a genocidally inclined Iran acquires nuclear capability with the blandest of rebukes from the American president most of them voted for, hardly require a brief against Jewish militancy. Rather, the significance of Memoirs lies elsewhere.

First, it explores a realm of American Jewish experience unfamiliar to many: Orthodox, still working-class in an era of expanding Jewish affluence, and oppositional in a more than merely gestural way to the mainstream synthesis of American Jewish identity achieved by the children and grandchildren of the great wave of Eastern European immigrants.

In some ways, then, Memoirs is still quite cognate with the classic “World of Our Fathers” trajectory of American Jewish experience: immigration, Americanization, and generational conflict of the kind chronicled in, for instance, Isaac Rosenfeld’s mid-century autobiographical novel Passage from Home (1946). But Halevi’s story deals with the second half of the 20th century, and with the foundational realities of Israel and the Holocaust. More than a mere updating of the classic story, it shifts that story in new directions.

And that is its second, and greater, significance. Memoirs departs from the assumptions that still shape much of American Jewish writing and the cultural understandings of American Jews. It is decidedly and even profoundly an American story, but its trajectory points toward Israel. Indeed, to the extent that it is a story about transcending Jewish rage, that rage becomes resolved not in America but in the only place on the globe where such resolution can fully occur—and where the burdens of minority consciousness can be finally laid aside.

The results of this process can be seen in Halevi’s second book, which is a kind of unacknowledged sequel to Memoirs. In At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew’s Search for Hope with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land (2001), Halevi explains that only after becoming an Israeli and living in a majority-Jewish society was he able to engage undefensively with the spiritual beauty of Judaism’s sister religions.

My point here is not that Memoirs is a Zionist book, but that it is both an American and a Zionist book, a work of Jewish American writing that bids America a grateful farewell. This stance is unlikely to displace the central tendency of mainstream American Jewish literature, whose arc extends from Ellis Island to suburbia to, these days, the fictionalized shtetls of the postmodern imagination. Yet it is interesting that the novelist David Bezmozgis, himself one of those Soviet Jews on whose behalf the young Halevi fought in the late 1960s and early 70s, should recently have asserted that the current mode of American Jewish writing may altogether be reaching a point of exhaustion, and that future vitality and distinctiveness are more likely to be found through a long-deferred engagement with Israel.

If Bezmozgis is correct, then Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist is not just a chronicle of the past but advance notice of things to come.

More about: American Jewish literature, Jewish Defense League, Meir Kahane, Yossi Klein Halevi

 

The Temple Mount: In Whose Hands?

The reason Jews can’t pray at Judaism’s holiest site.

The Temple Mount: In Whose Hands?
Aerial view of the Temple Mount. Wikimedia Commons.
 
Observation
Nov. 12 2014 12:01AM
About the author

Meir Soloveichik is rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York and director of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University.


The irony went largely unnoticed. On October 29, an Israeli rabbi and tour guide was gravely wounded in an assassination attempt several steps away from the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem. On the entrance walls to that building, boldly emblazoned, are these stirring words by the man whose legacy the Center honors:

Not by the right of might have we returned to the land of our forefathers but by the might of right. . . . And therein, all of its inhabitants, the citizen as well as the resident, will live in freedom and justice, in solidarity and peace.

The victim of the attack has long advocated that both Jews and Muslims be allowed to pray, in freedom and peace, on the Temple Mount, a site sacred to both faiths and the locus of Jewish aspiration for millennia. In doing so, he has championed not might but right: in a Jewish state that serves as an island of liberty in the Middle East, why should Jews be the only citizens deprived of the right to pray at what is their faith’s holiest site?

Those who speak out on this matter have been labeled by some in the Israeli and Western media as “extremists” and inciters of violence. Meanwhile, the would-be assassin has been celebrated as a hero not only by Hamas, with which his family is connected, but also by the leader of the Palestinian Authority. Two days after the October 29 incident, Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel, reaffirmed his support for what is known as the “status quo”—the arrangement according to which Jews are allowed to visit but forbidden to pray on the Temple Mount.

As the days pass and the situation in Jerusalem and elsewhere in Israel has become more volatile—and more violent—other government figures, including Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, have reiterated that in today’s tense circumstances, Jews should refrain from visiting the Temple Mount. Yaalon’s concerns are understandably prudential. Still, as this latest chapter in a dispiriting story continues, it may be worth setting the issue of prayer on the Temple Mount in context.

 

The story begins, oddly enough, at Israel’s most triumphant moment. On June 7, 1967, Day 3 of the Six-Day War, the exultant cry of Lt. Gen. Mordechai (“Motta”) Gur—“the Temple Mount is in our hands!”—rang throughout the land. At war’s end, with the whole city of Jerusalem reclaimed and reunited under Israeli sovereignty, authorities faced the question of what to do about the Mount.

At the time, religious management of the site had long been delegated to the Jordanian clerical leadership known as the Waqf. Although Jewish religious law (halakhah) forbids Jews from visiting certain parts of the Mount—the most sacrosanct areas associated with the original Temple of King Solomon—the northern and southern portions of the current space atop the Mount are much later extensions, dating from the time of Roman rule.

Thus, in 1967, as many observers now agree, the most appropriate course would have been for the Israeli government to set aside, in one of these Roman-era locations, a dedicated section for Jewish prayer that would not interfere with Muslim worship. But that did not happen. Instead, Israel’s government handed the keys back to the Waqf. In this, it was abetted by the Chief Rabbinate, which posted a sign informing Jews that they were forbidden to ascend or pray on any portion of the Mount.

The government’s decision, one of the most misguided in Israel’s history, set in place a policy that resulted in the worst of all possible worlds. First, many Jews who continued to visit the Mount did so without any rabbinic guidance, entering areas where according to halakhah they should not have set foot. Second, Israel’s self-imposed ban on Jewish prayer persuaded both the Waqf and the Palestinian and Arab world in general that Israel’s leaders lacked any attachment to or reverence for the site. The Muslim authorities proceeded to destroy the physical evidence that Jews had ever worshipped God on the Mount.

Over the decades, the Waqf dug massive trenches on the Mount and dumped hundreds of truckloads of dirt and archaeological treasures into the Kidron Valley below. For this flagrant violation of the “status quo,” it earned little opprobrium from an Israeli government sensitive then as now to any controversy surrounding the site. In vain did the archaeologist Eilat Mazar argue that “The Israeli government doesn’t really understand that by turning a blind eye to the illegal actions undertaken by the Waqf and the Islamic Movement, it does not achieve the true quiet it seeks, since it only increases the appetite of the Muslim side, which notices that its acts go without punishment.”

In turn, this signal of Jewish indifference, as David Horovitz, the editor of the Times of Israel, has recently summed up, “ensured the resonance among Palestinians and the wider Muslim world of Yasir Arafat’s foul false narrative that ‘historically the Temple was not in Palestine’—and that, by pernicious extension, the Jewish nation has no historical sovereign legitimacy in this part of the world at all.”

 

Today, with the support of a diverse group of prominent rabbis from the religious Zionist community, more and more Israelis are embracing the cause of Jewish prayer on the Mount. They have come to realize the incongruity of annually celebrating Jerusalem Day, the anniversary of “the Temple Mount is in our hands,” even as the Hamas flag flies frequently there while Jewish prayer is prohibited. In the words of Tzipi Hotovely, a young Orthodox woman and rising star in the Likud party who now serves as deputy minister of transportation in the Netanyahu government, “Jews’ prayers must be heard on the Mount. This is the holiest place for the Jewish people and the status quo must change.” Hotovely and others are speaking the language not of might but of right, a right grounded, as Israel’s national anthem Hatikvah has it, in the “hope of 2,000 years.”

How Israel’s government will choose to balance pragmatism and principle, only time will tell. But the principle itself could not be clearer. In The Revolt (English edition 1951), Menachem Begin, the founding father of Hotovely and Netanyahu’s political party, recounts how British forces during the Mandate period prevented Jews from sounding the shofar at the Western Wall. At the time, many considered acquiescence to be the wiser course; by contrast, Begin insisted that the right of free Jewish worship in Jerusalem stood at the very core of the independence that Zionists sought.

“What our ancestors refused to tolerate from their ancient oppressors,” Begin wrote, “even at the cost of their lives and freedom, is tolerated by the generation of Jews that describes itself as the last of oppression and the first of redemption.” He went on:

A people that does not defend its holy places—that does not even try to defend them—is not free, however much it may babble about freedom. People that permit the most holy spot in their country and their most sacred feelings to be trampled underfoot are slaves in spirit.

Or, as Tzipi Hotovely has put it in the Knesset, “There is no Zionism without Zion; there is no Zion without Jerusalem; there is no Jerusalem without the Temple Mount.” The right of Jewish prayer on the Mount is linked to the soul of Zionism itself.

More about: Israeli politics, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Menachem Begin, Temple Mount

 

“Take Now Your Son”

How to understand the Binding of Isaac.

“Take Now Your Son”
From Sacrifice of Isaac, 1603, by Caravaggio. Wikimedia.
 
Observation
Nov. 6 2014 12:01AM
About the author

Jonathan Neumann, a 2011-2012 Tikvah Fellow, lives in London and writes on politics and religion.


The Binding of Isaac (Genesis 22), known in Hebrew as the akeidah and a centerpiece of this week’s reading in the Torah, is one of the Bible’s most challenging stories. It plays a prominent role in Jewish liturgy and thought; Christian and Islamic thinkers, as well as more recent moral philosophers, have famously grappled with it. But much of what has been written about this episode misses its essential message.

The story, one of the great examples of the Torah’s sparse and powerful narrative style, is straightforward enough: God appears to the patriarch Abraham shortly after his wife Sarah has given birth to Isaac, their long-awaited son. God then tells Abraham, “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go for yourself to the land of Moriah, and raise him up there as an elevation offering on one of the mountains which I will tell you of.” Early the next morning, Abraham rises to comply dutifully with God’s command. He and Isaac ascend the mountain, and there Abraham builds an altar, arranges the wood on which Isaac will be burned, and binds Isaac upon it. Then “Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son.”

At this very moment, an angel calls out from heaven: “Do not lay your hand upon the lad, and do nothing to him, for now I know that you fear God, and you did not spare your son, your only son, from me.” Noticing a ram caught in a nearby bush, Abraham “raised it up as an elevation offering instead of his son.”

And now the angel calls to Abraham again, with a new message from God:

For because you have done this thing, and not spared your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and multiply your offspring as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the seashore; and your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies; and through your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because you have listened to my voice.

 

The question that most perplexes modern readers is how God could ask such a thing of Abraham in the first place. The ancient rabbis were also perplexed by the story—but they were less concerned with the morality of God’s request than with His inconsistency. In rabbinic theology, God does not deceive or change His mind on a whim. Yet, if He did not intend for Abraham to kill Isaac, He surely played the deceiver. And if He did intend for Abraham to follow through on His command from the start, He must have changed His mind. No less perplexing, at the end of the episode, Abraham is rewarded, yet he has not really done what God demanded of him.

How did the rabbis resolve these contradictions?

One strand of traditional Jewish interpretation proceeds by rereading the story to suggest that Abraham actually did kill Isaac on the altar. Various midrashim (rabbinic homilies that embellish biblical narratives) refer to the “blood of Isaac” and “the ashes of Isaac,” even though the text makes clear that his blood is not spilled and his body remains unburned. One such commentary focuses on the end of the story, proposing that Abraham offers up the ram “after” his son rather than instead of his son, the implication being that Abraham sacrificed both ram and Isaac.

Others exploit an ambiguity in the text. When the angel appears to Abraham for the second time and says “Because you have done this thing . . . ,” what “thing” is being referred to? It might be his not-sparing Isaac, but it might be his sacrificing the ram. Or it might be both. Thus, one midrash has Abraham praying for the ram to be accepted as if it were Isaac; another suggests that the ram’s name is Isaac; and yet another infers that Isaac’s soul was transferred to the ram just prior to its sacrifice.

Such exegeses imply that something more than a simple substitution is taking place; instead, the sacrifice of the ram is tantamount to the sacrifice of Isaac. In this way, they resolve the problem posed by God’s reversal of His original orders, transforming the story from one about a sacrifice that did not happen into one about a sacrifice that did.

In so doing, however, these midrashic readings make the story even more unpalatable to the modern reader. That God asks Abraham to kill his child is bad enough. Why make it worse by having him actually kill the child, or even symbolically kill him? But with these readings in mind, we can now return to the original text for a closer examination of its message—a message as relevant today as ever.

 

Let’s start at the beginning. What exactly does God ask Abraham to do? “Take your son . . . and go to the land of Moriah . . . and raise him up as an elevation offering [olah].” The Hebrew word olah comes from the root meaning “to go up,” as does the verb I have rendered “raise him up.” It is variously rendered as “burnt offering” or “elevation offering.”

What does this have to do with Isaac? The olah offering is distinctive. Unlike most sacrificial offerings, which according to the laws of the Torah are to be eaten after a few parts are thrown on the flames, in this one the animal, after being slaughtered, flayed, and sectioned, is consumed entirely by fire on the altar (Lev.1:3-9). Indeed, the term most likely has its origin in the ascent of the smoke and flames from the burning. In other words, it is as if the animal is literally ascending to heaven.

But, according to the plain sense of the text, Isaac is not burned. So let’s go to another meaning of “elevation,” which could refer simply to the raising-up of the animal to the altar. Does this apply in any way to Isaac?

In fact, Isaac physically ascends over the course of his journey to the mountaintop, and in this sense Abraham does indeed, as he was commanded, “raise him up” or “cause him to ascend.” One midrash makes the point explicitly: in it, after reminding Abraham that he was told to bring Isaac up, God explains that he can now take him down again. But elevation is to be understood in more than a literal sense. In Hebrew, one always “goes up” to the Temple Mount or to the land of Israel (hence the term aliyah, “ascent,” commonly used for Jewish immigration to Israel). The phrases in question may thus refer not just to the altitude of the designated places but to their elevated sanctity.

Nor is Isaac brought up only to the mountaintop or to the altar; he is elevated by being consecrated to God. God has demanded Isaac’s life, and Abraham cedes it. In this reading, the original command is not that Abraham actually kill Isaac but that he elevate him through absolute surrender, an order that can be fulfilled only if Abraham misunderstands it to mean the literal forfeit of a life. The ambiguity is deliberate: Abraham must believe he is required to kill Isaac, for only thus can he demonstrate to God, himself, and the world his acceptance of God’s acquisition of his son.

As some midrashim point out, the final verse of the story states that “Abraham returned” but says nothing of Isaac. If we read the episode as a story of Isaac’s spiritual sanctification, the meaning becomes clear: Isaac remains in a state of spiritual elevation. On Moriah, his life has been given completely to God.

 

Here it may be worth noting another detail of standard sacrificial procedure. Prior to an actual sacrifice, the animal is formally consecrated, made holy. (The Latin root of our word sacrifice means the same thing.) Once consecrated, an animal may not be used for practical purposes—it is forbidden to yoke a consecrated ox to the plow, or shear a consecrated sheep. Nor can the animal simply be replaced with another animal; it maintains its consecrated status even if it develops a physical blemish that disqualifies it from being actually sacrificed.

Rabbinic literature makes much of this idea, contending that Isaac maintains a consecrated status throughout his life. The olah, as many commentators have noted, is the ultimate offering,  the animal being entirely consumed by fire. As such an olah, Isaac is given over entirely to God. As for his father Abraham, he has passed the test by consecrating him to God with the sincere intent of killing him. And as for God, He does not change His mind; rather, He intends from the start that Isaac remain alive. That Abraham (and most readers of the Bible) misunderstand God’s command is by design; God, for His part, is consistent.

And there is something else at play here as well. The blessings that Abraham obtains in reward for his actions confirm those he has already received earlier in Genesis: he will beget many descendants (Gen.12:1-3; 13:16; 15:5); they will inherit the land of Canaan (Gen.15:7); and they will be a byword of blessing to other nations (Gen.12:3). These blessings are meaningful only if he has a son who will live long enough to beget his own children. It is his very willingness to sacrifice the son on whom these blessings depend that earns Abraham their fulfillment.

This impression is bolstered by the final blessing—that  Abraham’s offspring shall inherit the gate of his enemies (Gen.22:17)—which is peculiar to this verse and to a subsequent one in which Rebecca, Isaac’s future bride and mother of his children, is blessed almost identically. The genealogy that follows the akeidah also describes the twelve sons born to Abraham’s brother, foreshadowing the twelve children of Jacob. These literary allusions to the next three generations of Abraham’s descendants (indeed, to the tribes of Israel) underscore the point that Abraham had to sacrifice his progeny to merit having them.

When viewed in context, the Binding of Isaac thus appears to be the climax of the Abraham narrative. The opening of the akeidah episode, when Abraham is told to “go for yourself to the land of Moriah,” echoes God’s original call to Abraham in Gen.12:1: “Go for yourself from your land. . . .”  Moreover, the cadences of that earlier verse, “from your land, your birthplace, and your father’s house,” are sounded again at the beginning of the akeidah narrative in the command to sacrifice “your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac.” In both cases, the destinations are unknown: in the first, Abraham is to go “to the land that I will show you”; in the second, he is to sacrifice Isaac “on one of the mountains which I will tell you of.” This internal mirroring, a characteristic of biblical style, links the two episodes as a way of indicating that the Binding of Isaac is a culmination of the narrative of Abraham; the subsequent chapters, dealing mainly with Isaac’s marriage, are the denouement.

The message of the akeidah, then, appears, to be that the Jewish people, the offspring of Isaac, are consecrated to God. As the Bible later explicitly declares, “For you are a people consecrated to the Lord your God. God chose you to be a treasured people of all the peoples on the face of the earth” (Deut. 14:2). Just as Abraham surrendered and offered up his son to God, so the Israelites must sanctify their lives, and those of their children, in His service. And just as Abraham was prepared to kill Isaac if necessary, so a Jew in extreme circumstances must be prepared for martyrdom. But God’s ultimate preference is for Isaac to live and, in life, serve Him. That service is the covenantal charge to the Jewish people, a living sacrifice to the God of Abraham.

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The author thanks Jon D. Levenson, upon whose scholarship this essay draws, for comments on an earlier draft.

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