Saturday, November 25, 2006

Passion Plays in Shul

Another week of passion plays in shul as we make our way through Breishis. The rabbi just won't let up. Just a little while ago it was Ishmael, and this week it is Esav. This really feels like I am watching a medieval passion play. Here comes the good guy - Yaacov. He is perfect. Here comes the bad guy - Esav. He is evil. Boo, hiss...
I am sure it is heresy to say, but I just don't buy into the whole midrashic caricatures of these characters. Every possible character flaw has been heaped on these poor souls - idolaters, incestuous rapists, murderers. However, reading the text, none of this is even remotely suggested. In the pshat, they are all multi-dimensional human beings. The years of allegorizing had transformed them from normal families to some kind of soap operas - cue the bad organ music.
I am reminded of the time when the European authorities decided to assign names to Jews for census purposes. Often they would come up with demeaning or silly names - if a person was tall they would give him the last name of Klein (small), etc. Yaacov is supposed to represent Emes - truth. Yet if I had to pick one patriarch who uses deceit as a strategy, it would be him.

How far do we need to stretch the pshat? Is the benefit of this technique really so great. Do we need to make the "Other" as bad as possible to the point of absurdity?

15 Comments:

Blogger David Guttmann said...

You are 100% right. However there are more than one way of looking at the stories. Rashi gave us a clue in the first passuk in Breishit. To me it is an introduction to jewish history and explains some of the interactions with our neighbors in later periods. Eisav being edom and a constant thorn to Jews. It explains why there is such hatred between the neighbors. The proof that it is the context at the end of Vayshlach listing the Alufei Edom.

Taken in that context it has different meaning to me. A smart Rabbi could tell us how we can learn some geopolitical lessons and human interactions from these stories. The difference between long term visions and short term tactical moves. But you have to find those rabbis and they are not easy to come by. So learn Ralbag, Ramban, Radak, Rashbam and other Rishonim. Another good source is the Torah Shleima by Rav Kasher. You have a choice of Midrashim plus his insightful comments and articles in the back.

November 26, 2006 4:38 AM  
Blogger Shoshana said...

You're such an apikores. I'm reporting you ;)

I think it is human nature to make a bad guy our of those who aren't our friend, even moreso than he would naturally be. That being said, it's not right. Your questions remind me of what I've been told a million times whenever our Biblical heroes are criticized for their actions, such as you are doing here with Yaacov. That they were SO high and good that the smallest imperfections are blown out of proportion in the Torah to teach us lessons, but really they are being held to much higher and stricter standards than anyone would be today, and their mistakes were really miniscule. I don't know, that sounds like apologetics to me.

November 26, 2006 6:34 AM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

David,

Perhaps this is a flaw with the particular community I am in - but none of our rabbis seem to be able to present a more complex position than something you'd teach a third grader.

Shoshana,

Are you complicit in my heresy?

November 26, 2006 10:00 AM  
Blogger kishnevi said...

The lives of the Patriarchs do have a soap opera quality to them--Sarah forcing Hagar's banishment, the rivalry of Jacob and Esau, the whole story of Joseph.

And Jacob is presented as an honest person. Esau is not tricked in trading his birthright for the pottage; the business of the blessings is instigated and planned by Rebecca, and fulfills both a divine prophecy and the aforementioned trade of birthright for pottage; he resorts to trickery with Laban only to counteract Laban's trickery, and is tricked himself by Laban, and Rachel tricked both him and Laban when she conceals the family idols. And eventually, he is tricked into thinking Joseph is dead.

November 26, 2006 8:36 PM  
Blogger Shoshana said...

Yes, I think I probably am :) At least we'll be in good company.

November 27, 2006 3:37 AM  
Blogger Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

>To me it is an introduction to jewish history and explains some of the interactions with our neighbors in later periods. Eisav being edom and a constant thorn to Jews.

The irony, of course, that hating Edomites is a lo taaseh.

November 27, 2006 9:01 AM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

Kishnevi,

I am not saying that Yaacov instigates all the deceit, nor am I trying to impugn his reasons, just that if someone is involved in trickery, and dishes it out as much as he takes it, I would not use him as a paragon of honesty and truth. However, the whole porridge scene - I just cannot reconcile it as showing him in a positive light. Our rabbi made a point that Eisav did not care about his birthright enough to give it away for a bowl of porridge. I just don't see this in the text. What I see is that the man was starving - he literally says if I don't eat, I will die. So his twin brother blackmails him. How could a person growing up in this nomadic, patriarchal society not care about his primogeniture? It's absurd.

Mississippi Fred:

How about a post with details about how the link between Edom and Rome, and now Edom and Christianity came about?

November 27, 2006 10:12 AM  
Blogger Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

Sounds like a good idea!

November 27, 2006 1:26 PM  
Blogger Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

>What I see is that the man was starving - he literally says if I don't eat, I will die. So his twin brother blackmails him. How could a person growing up in this nomadic, patriarchal society not care about his primogeniture? It's absurd.

I disagree. Could he really have felt like he was going to die of starvation? How long had it been since he'd eaten, twn days? A week? I doubt it. I think the plain sense is that he was extremely hungry but not about to die.

>How could a person growing up in this nomadic, patriarchal society not care about his primogeniture?

Isn't that the point? At most you can say that you therefore can't believe this story really happened. Nu, you wouldn't be the first. It would not be a great leap to say that this story was inserted in response to the tradition about what Yaakov did to receive the beracha. It's your choice to accept that or not, but once you are accepting that it did occur then to me the proof is in the pudding: you can't use your disbelief that a person would "despise his birthright" as a sort of proof that Esav didn't do that but must have been blackmailed. What you have is an account of someone who did "despise his birthright," even if he was set up to do it. He wouldn't have done it even if he was famished otherwise.

November 27, 2006 1:33 PM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

Mississippi Fred said:
>Could he really have felt like he was going to die of starvation?

Perhaps you're right. I once read a book whose name I can't recall (written in the 50's by some physician) which had a convincing idea that Eisav suffered from a congenital endocrinological defect which in addition to presenting with extreme hirsuteness, also has the side effect of hypoglycemia. So according to this author, it was conceivable that a rapid drop in blood sugar would make the person feel like they are about to die.

November 27, 2006 1:56 PM  
Blogger Tobie said...

I think that it's useful to seperate the midrashim from the text. Midrashim were delivered with their own ulterior motive- inspiring and comforting the masses. And in a time when you're subjugated to a foreign power and generally in a bad shape, hearing about how evil their ancestor is and how cleverly your ancestor defeated them- that's pretty comforting.

As for the pshat, my sympathy for Eisav has always been limited. Selling the bechorah does not seem to have been justified by starvation or anything extreme like that- the text tells us that he was 'ayaif', which I don't think can be translated 'starving to death' and at the end, it specifically points out 'Eisav despised the birthright' (or however you'd translate vayivaz). That may be editorializing on the part of the Torah, but it's not midrash.

We also see that he doesn't complain about this trickery right away, or at any point until later it comes back to get in the way of his getting what he wants (if we presume the bechora and the blessing to be linked). And no matter how aggrieved he might feel, the planned fratricide does seem a bit extreme. I've always felt far more sorry for Yishmael than Eisav- he really doesn't seem to have done anything much, except being born to the wrong mother.

November 28, 2006 1:15 AM  
Anonymous mike said...

One interesting thing is to read the Orson Scott Card books on the Matriarchs. The story is forced at times and he can't write romance, but it is an interesting perspective on the stories such as why Isaac loved Esau.
Also the inheritance sale was almost certainly not a legal sale. There were no witnesses and the inheritance rights can't be transferred except with the Avraham path of gifts.
I think the time when the phenomena is worst is with David, Batshebam and Uriah. The verses paint Uriah as someone wrongly killed and somebody who was refusing to cover up for David. However, whenever the story is taught it is mentioned that Uriah was a traitor and deserved death.

November 30, 2006 11:20 AM  
Blogger Mike said...

In addition stories which in pshat refer to bad people doing bad things such as Eli's sons are often rehabilitated to be talking about tsadikim with high standards. I believe I have seen some drashim trying to assign Zimri a good motive.

November 30, 2006 9:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great.
http://www.greenpointshul.org

January 18, 2007 12:00 PM  
Anonymous GreenpointShul said...

great

January 18, 2007 12:01 PM  

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