The Hebrew word for “kiss”, “vayishakehu,” has unique scribal marks above it; there is a dot above each letter. The commentaries ponder what these dots mean. Rashi, quoting a second century Midrash writes, "Rabbi Simeon ben Yochai said: It is a rule that Esav hates Yaakov; however, (these marks indicate that) at that moment Esav’s compassion was aroused, and he kissed Yaakov with all of his heart." Rashi’s phrase, "Halakhah Esav soneh l'Yaakov," "It is a rule that Esav hates Yaakov," has influenced the Jewish view of antisemitism ever since. In rabbinic literature, Yaakov and Esav are seen as archetypes, with Esav representing the Roman Empire and all subsequent Western civilizations; the actions of Yaakov and Esav foreshadow all future interactions between their descendants. If it is a “rule that Esav hates Yaakov,” that means that antisemitism is a metaphysical reality, and the spiritual heirs of Esav will always hate the descendants of Yaakov. Antisemitism will never end.
This idea is profoundly influential. It excludes the possibility of any rapprochement between Jews and non-Jews, and would see any attempt at mutual understanding as an exercise in futility. “Halakhah Esav soneh l'Yaakov" is an oft quoted phrase, and even referenced in multiple Halakhic rulings. Many Jews are pessimists, certain that antisemitism will never end.
This pessimism is not absurd. David Nirenberg, in his book Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, offers an intellectual history of how imaginary criticisms of Judaism, or anti-Judaism, were used through the ages as a way for people to make sense of their own beliefs and lives. He observes that within Western culture there is a recurring theme, one borrowed from generation to generation, that Judaism represents what is erroneous and corrupt. This interpretation is not all that different from “Halakhah Esav soneh l'Yaakov”; both see antisemitism as a perpetual reality.
Throughout Jewish history, pessimism has had a profound impact on the Jewish psyche. Commenting on Esav's kiss of Yaakov, Rabbi Obadiah Seforno, a 15th century Italian rabbi, writes that this section "is of great concern to us, seeing that we live among the descendants of Esav...Yaakov’s conduct vis a vis Esav teaches that the only way to escape the sword of Esav is through subservience and gifts." Centuries later, in March 1977, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein used “Halakhah Esav soneh l’Yaakov'' as the basis of a halakhic ruling. He wrote that it would be wrong for the British Jewish community to sue their government in court for day school subsidies, because that will anger the government. One must avoid causing animosity among non-Jews, because Esav can easily be provoked to hate Yaakov. A few weeks earlier, in two letters responding to the renewed interest in Jewish-Catholic dialogue after the Second Vatican Council, Rabbi Feinstein makes his pessimism clear; to him, religious dialogue is simply antisemitism by other means, an attempt by the Catholic Church to lure Jews into conversion. Pessimists treat non-Jewish society warily, keeping a careful distance. They often prefer to keep quiet and stay safe.
But pessimism can turn into activism as well. Theodor Herzl became a Zionist because he had arrived at the conclusion that antisemitism would never end. He had seen the crowds roar in support of Karl Lueger, the viciously antisemitic mayor of Vienna. He had seen the crowds chant “Death to the Jews” at the trial of Alfred Dreyfus. Herzl realized that the Jews needed to escape the antisemitism of Europe immediately; he noted bitterly that “Everything tends, in fact, to one and the same conclusion, which is clearly enunciated in that classic Berlin phrase: "Juden Raus!" (Out with the Jews!).” I shall now put the question in the briefest possible form: Are we to "get out" now, and where to?” Herzl recognized, well before anyone else, that the Jews in Europe needed a safe haven.
Herzl’s Zionism was the product of pessimism about antisemitism. And for much of the 20th century, the pessimists were right. Ruth Wisse relates a quote from a friend of hers: "We used to say that there were two kinds of German Jews: the pessimists who went to Palestine, and the optimists who went to Auschwitz." Not all pessimists were sheepish and passive; some recognized that they had to take matters into their own hands, and find a home of their own.
Optimists offer a very different reading of Esav’s kiss. Both the Netziv and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in their commentary on this passage, see the kiss as a moment of reconciliation - and both see it a harbinger of peace, of a future time when antisemitism will finally come to an end. R. Hirsch writes: "This kiss and tears show Esav, too, as a grandson of Abraham... Esav too, will gradually lay down his sword; more and more he will make room for humaneness..." Rabbi Feinstein’s older colleague, Rabbi Yosef Eliyahu Henkin, wrote in a 1968 sermon that "it is a criminal sin that those prattling, preachy sermonizers constantly expound that it is ‘a rule that Esav hates Yaakov,’ and that is an eternal hatred. This is against the truth, against rabbinic literature, and against what the Biblical text says…'' Instead, he argues that with kindness, one can turn an enemy into a friend. In an earlier Yiddish lecture, he notes that the Torah says, “Thou shalt not despise an Edomite,” even though we are commanded to destroy Edom’s close relative Amalek. This, he says, should guide Jewish reactions to offers of forgiveness and rapprochement from Chancellor Adenauer and the German government; hatred of Nazis should not lead to hatred of Germans. R. Henkin's statement is particularly dramatic, given it was made at a time when most Jews wouldn't touch a German product or speak to a German person. Optimists have always believed that humanity can transcend the antisemitism of the past.
Pessimism holds one advantage over optimism: a pessimist is never disappointed, while optimists are disappointed all the time. For those who are long term optimists about antisemitism, (and I must include myself among them), the last few years have been particularly painful. We have endured the largest mass murder of Jews on American soil at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, followed by other acts of anti-Semitic bloodshed in Poway, Monsey and Jersey City. On campuses, students are bullied by an insidious antisemitism, which hides under the guise of anti-Zionism. Nirenberg, at the end of his book notes, "We live in an age in which millions of people are exposed daily to some variant of the argument that the challenges of the world they live in are best explained in terms of “Israel.” Israel has become the Jew among the nations, the obsessive focus of those who believe that humanity can be redeemed by dismantling the Jewish state. It is incredibly disappointing today to be an optimist about antisemitism.
Yet, I feel it is critical to remain an optimist about antisemitism. In January 2011 my synagogue in Montreal was vandalized, along the several others, in an anti-Semitic attack; late one Saturday night, someone threw a rock through a large synagogue window. My initial reaction was a common one in the Jewish community. I thought to myself that this attack was something minor. A broken window is just a headache, several hundreds of dollars in damage and a five-minute cleanup. Many of us shrug off petty attacks like this all the time, realizing that they don’t even merit a footnote in the history of antisemitism. And my initial thinking was as a pessimist: we need to accept occasional harassment as the cost of being Jewish. But when I got home I changed my attitude. I sat down for breakfast, with my children running in and out of the room, and I realized that this broken window is a lot more than any other broken window. The perpetrators of this attack threw rocks at synagogues because they hated Jews, including me, my wife, and my children. I still shudder to think of what these perpetrators would have done had they found one of my children alone in a dark alley. I realized then that pessimism is wrong; we cannot allow the story of “Esav hates Yaakov” to be our children’s story. We must confront and condemn antisemitism, and at the same time, advocate and educate for mutual understanding. We cannot give up.
I am still unsure if Esav will ever love us again; but we have hugged and kissed before, and with hope, perhaps we can do so again.