Friday, December 23, 2022

The True Meaning of Christmas, for Jews


Christmas and Chanukah decorations in Berlin

(Photo credit: Leonhard Lenz December 11, 2020

What is the true meaning of Christmas?

This question is the topic of numerous holiday sermons around the world. To sincere Christians, the materialism of the shopping season undermines Christmas, so the devout shift their focus to the spiritual message of the holiday. But for American Jews, Christmas has a very different meaning, complicated by history and demographics.

In medieval Europe, Christmas was a time of fear and loathing for Jews. During the rest of the year, the Jews were an embattled minority; on Christmas, they were absolute pariahs. The Chaumont Christmas play of the 1200s depicts Jews as true devils, and antisemitic attacks often occurred in and around Christmas. For example, blood libels took place on or around Christmas in Fulda, Germany in 1235, in Judenberg, Austria in 1312, and in Le Puy, France in 1321, and a steady stream of Christmas related riots and pogroms continued through the Middle Ages.

Jews responded to this outpouring of hatred with bitterness. In Yiddish, Christmas Eve is known as “Nittel Nacht,” which is derived from the medieval Latin "Natale Domini." On Nittel Nacht, many Jews would play cards instead of studying Torah. This custom is intended as a spiritual boycott of Christmas, a way of preventing one’s Torah study on that day from inadvertently being considered a spiritual merit for the founder of Christianity in the divine court above.

The United States is the polar opposite of medieval Europe and has by and large been a true refuge from antisemitism. But Jews found that being accepted into a largely Christian society created new tensions. The public celebrations of Christmas, which were commonplace in schools and town halls until the 40s and 50s, challenged Jews to find inventive new ways to fit in. Janice L. Booker recalls the customs of Jewish public-school students in 1930’s Philadelphia: “Anunwritten, unspoken agreement among the Jewish kids was that when we sang the carols, lustily and with pleasure, we kept our lips sealed when the name of Jesus Christ was mentioned. To my knowledge, no parent ever asked for this, and no one discussed it; it just was.” How can you be Jewish and sing a Christmas carol? Just cut out part of the lyrics.

This “solution,” which is neither here nor there, epitomizes the uneasiness and uncertainty many Jews have felt about Christmas. In 1958, the United Synagogue Commission on Education published a pamphlet entitled "Our December Dilemma," about the social pressure that Jewish children feel during the holidays. Written by Rabbi Abraham Karp, a leading Conservative rabbi, it included a set of scenarios that Jewish children in public schools might confront during the holiday season and advised the students how to politely avoid being drawn into school Christmas celebrations.

Karp’s answers are rooted in a discomfort with Christmas that has profound theological roots. Medieval rabbis debated whether or not Christianity is considered to be idolatry; if it were categorized as such, it would, among other things, forbid Jews from selling holiday supplies to Christians before Christmas. And while a consensus later emerged to consider Christianity as monotheistic, many held certain restrictions in place. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein ruled that schools should not close on Christmas or even for the following week, because that would acknowledge Christmas as a holiday. He even advised people to avoid making weddings and Bar Mitzvahs on Christmas Eve. (Rabbi Feinstein’s ruling has changed the school schedule of many day schools, which now have a “Yeshiva break” in the winter.)

For most American Jews, the December Dilemma is not just about theology. Jews at Christmas feel like an uninvited guest at a party, the man stuck outside in the cold pressing his face against the window. Hanukkah has become the Jewish Christmas with plentiful presents; and, many Jews embraced the Hanukkah Bush, essentially a Christmas tree repackaged with a Hebrew wrapper. (The Maccabees, warriors against Hellenism, would not have been amused). In 1895, even after publishing The Jewish State, Theodor Herzl had a Christmas tree in his home. In his diary, he records that a prominent rabbi, Moritz Gudemann, came to visit, and expressed criticism of the tree. Herzl responded, “I was just lighting the Christmas tree for my children when Gudemann arrived. He seemed upset by the "Christian” custom. Well, I will not let myself be pressured! But I don’t mind if they call it the Hanukah tree— or the winter solstice.”

The “Hanukkah Bush” became popular in the late 19th and early 20th century among assimilated Jews. But even more traditional Jews still find the siren song of Christmas too difficult to resist. Cindy Chupack proclaimed in a 2006 article in The New York Times that she decided to celebrate Christmas because she was overwhelmed by a desire for Christmas Decorations and Stocking Stuffers, mainstays of a holiday virtually every other American celebrates. Chupack reminds us that the December dilemma is actually a year-round dilemma: How will Jews maintain their identity in the face of a seductive and embracing culture? Ironically, a religious tradition that has heroically triumphed over persecution and oppression is finding it ever more difficult to overcome acceptance and tolerance.

The “December Dilemma” belongs most to Jews who take the middle road. Deeply Orthodox Jews find no need to concern themselves with someone else’s holiday; some even continue the custom of “Nittel Nacht,” treating 21st century America like medieval Europe. More liberal Jews increasingly accommodate Christmas; a 2013 survey found that 32% of American Jews have a Christmas tree. It is those, who, to use the words of Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, are “a part of the world, while at the same time standing apart from the world,” who must consider how they will respond to Christmas, and what direction they will give their children during this time. I believe that there are two lessons that Jews need to remember over Christmas. The first is darkei shalom, ways of peace. This is a Talmudic principle that Jews are required to embrace their responsibility to the larger community, and to treat everyone with kindness and friendship; one can even put aside certain halakhic prescriptions to do so. I believe that the obligation of darkei shalom is even more significant today, in 21st century America.

American Jews must be grateful that we live in an era like no other in Jewish history, where they are fully embraced as citizens, and have taken leading roles in this country. And we should share that gratitude with others. In an article in the New York Times several years ago, several Jewish professionals explained that they cover extra shifts on Christmas and New Year’s to enable their colleagues to celebrate Christmas at home. Dr. Robert van Amerongen, an Orthodox Jew who was at the time director of pediatric emergency service at New York Methodist Hospital, told the newspaper that“although he is senior enough to be able to take Christmas off…. he always works. 'That just infuses good will,' he said.”

Good will, or darkei shalom, is something precious. And for Jews who live in peace in countries that practice the ways of peace, good will is certainly part of “the true meaning of Christmas.” The second lesson, which takes the concept of darkei shalom a step further, is Kiddush Hashem, sanctifying God’s name. As Samson Raphael Hirsch points out, living in the Diaspora offers Jews daily opportunities to be a light unto the nations. Each day, Jews can sanctify God’s name with acts of kindness. And there’s no better time for this than Christmas.

Rabbi Berel Wein tells a powerful story he heard from an editor at the Detroit Free Press. During the Great Depression, the editor’s mother, a recently arrived Irish woman, got her first job as a housekeeper with a prominent Orthodox Jewish family. The family went away on vacation, leaving behind their new housekeeper; they were due to return on December 24th. The housekeeper, who had never met any Jews before, decided to make sure that her employer’s home was set up properly for Christmas, so she went out and bought a Christmas tree and decorated the home from top to bottom. Arriving home, the family was stunned by what they saw. What would their friends think? The father, however, responded differently. He took the new housekeeper aside, and in a gentle voice said to her: "In my whole life, no one has ever done such a beautiful thing for me as you did." He then took out a $100 bill, a remarkable sum at the time, and gave it to the housekeeper. Only later did he sit down and explain to her that Jews do not observe Christmas. The Jewish man’s dignity and kindness made such an impression, that the housekeeper’s son continued to tell the story forty years later.

This is what Christmas can teach us about being Jewish. During the holiday season, Jews can dedicate themselves to helping others, like the elderly Holocaust survivor I knew who each Christmas would distribute blankets to the homeless. We can do small acts of kindness and charity for those in need. And maybe, if Jews rediscover their mission of being a light unto the nations, Christmas lights will not be a challenge, but rather an opportunity.

Friday, December 09, 2022

The Courage of Ordinary People


Rembrandt, Jacob wrestling with the angel, 1659, oil on canvas

For centuries, antisemites have libeled the Jews as cowards. During World War I, rumors circulated among the German public that the Jews had refused to fight on the front lines. In October 1916, the German Military High Command announced a Judenzählung, “A Jewish Count,” to examine these charges. (When it turned out that a remarkably high percentage of Jews had volunteered for combat duty, the report was shelved.) Jews went to great lengths to disprove the image of cowardice. Peter Gay, in The Cultivation of Hatred, writes about the duels popular among German university students in the late 19th century. The goal of the duel was to get injured, and the schmisse, the wound received while fighting, was considered to be a permanent record of one's courage and honor. Gay explains that Jewish students, eager to disprove the antisemitic libel that they were cowards, were four times as likely than others to engage in these duels.


Jews have a complicated relationship with courage, and Jewish jokes often adopt the stereotype of the “cowardly Jew” as well. One joke tells of two Jews who are walking at night and come across two thugs in the street. One says to the other, "We'd better make a run for it. There are two of them, and we are alone."


Another joke is told about Sid Luckman, the famed Jewish quarterback who played for the Chicago Bears. One day, Luckman invited his father to a game; his father, an immigrant who was ignorant of the rules of football, watched the game nervously. On one play, Luckman went back to pass, and the defensive line began to give chase. Luckman's father jumped up and shouted: "Sid! It's not worth it! Just give them the ball!"


This joke is particularly interesting; while it finds humor in the immigrant father's cluelessness, it contains a cynical edge, an unwillingness to embrace popular attitudes towards courage. Does it really make sense that a person would be willing to get crushed by a pack of hulking giants rather than hand them a small piece of pigskin? Does it really make sense to have your face sliced up in a duel, just to prove how brave you are?


The unusual perspective Jews have on courage begins in this week's Torah reading. In a single night, Jacob is transformed; or so it seems. On the way to visit his brother, Esau, an angel attacks and wrestles with him; Jacob eventually defeats his supernatural foe. As the morning arrives, the angel tells him “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”


This new name declares that Jacob is a new man, a courageous hero rather than a crafty coward. Jacob had always lived in the shadows, afraid of confrontation. He is born grasping at Esau's heel, a desperate also-ran; he is even named for the heel, which is a constant reminder that he came second. Now he is powerful, confronting his attacker and fighting him off. Afterward, like a cinematic hero, Jacob limps away into the sunrise, soldiering on to his next engagement. He is Jacob no more.


Several commentaries highlight this transformation. Seforno explains that the gid hanasheh, (the sciatic nerve), which is where Jacob was injured, is forbidden as a gesture of indifference. The injury meant nothing to Jacob, who just shrugged it off and moved on; we symbolically recreate this moment of resilience by ignoring the sciatic nerve and refusing to eat it. The Sefat Emet and Shem Mishmuel interpret the name Israel (Yisrael) as an anagram for 'I am the head' (li Rosh); Jacob, who until now has a name that declares he is at the very bottom, at the heel, is now Israel, at the very head of humanity.


But what remains a puzzle is this: If Jacob is now a new man, a man of courage, why does he appear so timid and weak in the confrontations that follow? The next morning, when Jacob sees Esau, he is obedient and flattering, constantly calling his brother “my master.” Later, when it comes time to confront Shechem over the rape and capture of his daughter Dinah, Jacob does nothing; when his sons destroy the city of Shechem, Jacob objects by saying: “You have… made me obnoxious among the inhabitants of the land…and since I am few in number, they will gather themselves together against me and kill me. I shall be destroyed, my household and I.” Not only does Jacob not join the battle, he also objects to his sons' attack, seeing it as too dangerous. Jacob seems no more courageous after the wrestling match than he did before; he does not sound like an "Israel," a proud warrior, at all.


In part, this question is the product of a myth, that of the classical hero. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik points out in his essay Catharsis that the classical view of heroism sees courage as an end in itself. He explains that the hero…. was a grandiose figure with whom, in order to satisfy his endless vanity, classical man identified himself with….The hero is an actor who performs in order to impress an appreciative audience. The crowd cheers, the chronicler records, countless generations afterward admire, bards and minstrels sing of the hero. Courage is a display, a public exhibition of one's power and strength. Public adulation makes the hero's actions worthwhile.


Soloveitchik explains that Judaism holds a very different perspective on courage. A true hero will at times withdraw, and step away from victory; as the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot teaches, "Who is strong? One who overpowers his inclinations." Heroism demands self-discipline and self-defeat as well; and at times, heroism is actually humbling.


That is why after overpowering the angel, Jacob doesn't glory in his newly discovered courage. Instead, he does everything to reconcile with his brother. Yes, Jacob may be groveling, but it was necessary to do so to repair his relationship with Esau. Jacob castigates his sons for their recklessness, and will later criticize them for their bloodthirstiness, in their battle with Shechem. Heroism in the pursuit of honor is worthless if it is irrational and immoral. Judaism rejects courage as an end in itself; what matters is not glory, but goodness.


Another aspect of the myth of the courageous hero is that heroism is a special endowment, the preserve of an extraordinary elite who are preternaturally fearless. Judaism rejects this and asserts even ordinary people can become heroes. Courage is born when an ordinary person, fearful and trembling, steps forward to ensure their destiny.


This is precisely what happens with Jacob. He wakes up in the middle of the night and moves all he has across a river; it is then that the angel comes and wrestles with him. But why did God send an angel to wrestle with Jacob? The Rashbam offers a fascinating explanation. He says that Jacob had decided to flee; he didn't want to confront his brother Esau, who was arriving with 400 men, and seemingly quite angry at him. As Jacob flees, God sends an angel to stop him; and the angel wrestles with Jacob simply to ensure that Jacob doesn't run away.


It is only after the wrestling match begins that Jacob gathers the inner strength to fight. Yet that belated bravery is enough to make him worthy of a new name, Israel.


The lesson is you don't need to be fearless to be a hero; what is important is to rise to the occasion when the situation demands it. Jacob teaches us about the courage of the ordinary man, of the lengths to which good people will go to ensure that goodness continues. Perhaps no one will make a movie about these small acts of courage; but it is precisely this type of courage that has allowed the Jews to survive and thrive.


My mother, who was a survivor of Auschwitz, would often point out to me that she never imagined she would find the strength to grapple with the horrors of the Nazi killing machine. She had grown up spoiled and sheltered; nothing about her or her upbringing would have predicted that she would respond courageously. Yet somehow, she found the fortitude to continue onward.


At the end of the war, my mother and her two sisters were forced onto a death march. In middle, her younger sister was starting to collapse, and it was clear that she wouldn’t survive the death march. So when the guards turned their backs, the three sisters escaped, racing away from the German soldiers and their attack dogs.


When I tell my children my mother’s story, I always emphasize this point: my mother never imagined she would be courageous. But when the time came, she rose to the occasion.


This is precisely the Jewish legacy of courage; a history of ordinary people doing what they must to pursue their destiny.

Friday, December 02, 2022

Marriage & Other Disappointments


Jacob and Rachel at the Well, c. 1896-1902, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot

(French, 1836-1902), gouache on board, , at the Jewish Museum, New York

Jacob’s family has more than its share of discord and dysfunction. Due to Laban's deception, Jacob ends up marrying two sisters, Leah and Rachel; this unwanted love triangle leaves all of them heartbroken.


Comparisons and competitions pull them apart. Like any family, there are imbalances. Jacob prefers Rachel. Leah has children, while Rachel does not. These differences stoke the flames of jealousy.


Each one of them pursues what the other has. Rachel wants children like Leah. Leah wants Jacob's companionship. Jacob wants Rachel's attention. All three are disappointed.


Leah's frustration with Jacob's attitude is expressed in the names she gives her first three children. She calls her firstborn Reuben, because “the Lord has seen my misery. Surely my husband will love me now.” She continues this theme with her next two children, Simon and Levi, whose names mean “because the Lord heard that I am hated, he gave me this child too, ” and “now, at last, my husband will become attached to me, because I have borne him three sons.” (Genesis 29:31-35.)


Rachel, who is infertile, becomes jealous of her sister. In desperation, she lashes out at Jacob and says “Give me children, or I will die!” (Ge. 30:1.) She then asks Jacob to have children with their maidservant Bilhah; they will be considered Rachel's foster children. Rachel names Bilhah's first child Dan, because “God has vindicated me; he has listened to my plea and given me a son.” The reference to “vindication,” the Radak explains, is because of Rachel's competition with her sister Leah; with this child, God is leveling out the playing field. Similarly, Rachel names Bilhah's second child Naftali, because “I have had a great struggle with my sister, and I have won.” (Gen. 30:6-8)


Unquestionably, Jacob experiences the greatest disappointment. He had worked hard for seven years to marry the woman he loved, and then his father-in-law (and uncle) cheats him, and switches wives on him. Disappointment has a direct correlation to the size of one’s dreams; and for Jacob, his best-laid plans go awry, leaving him with seven more years of labor and a pair of marriages crippled by sibling rivalry.


This is just an outline of how Jacob, Leah, and Rachel found their dreams undone. But behind it all is an even greater disappointment: the failure of destiny.


Jacob arrives in Padan Aram with otherworldly expectations, because the backstory to his own journey foreshadows what will happen. His grandfather Abraham, when looking for a proper wife for his son Isaac, sent his servant Eliezer back to Padan Aram, to find a wife from his own family. Divine inspiration leads Eliezer to find Rebecca standing outside the well; after that, Jacob’s uncle Laban runs out to warmly welcome Eliezer into his home.


And so it happens with Jacob. First, his mother sends him to Laban's house and tells him to marry Laban's daughter. On the way, God appears in a dream and tells Jacob that He will watch over him. When Jacob arrives in Padan Aram, the local shepherds tell him that Laban's daughter is approaching the well; Jacob sees Rachel, and is immediately overcome by feelings of love. Then, as if on cue, Jacob’s uncle Laban runs out, welcoming him warmly. Jacob certainly knew his parents’ marriage story; and as he sees it replay in his own life, Jacob must imagine that he is about to meet his destiny. Jacob assumes that his match with Rachel was made in heaven, and truly "bashert."


Then everything falls apart. Destiny fails Jacob; and undoubtedly, Rachel and Leah, who knew the family stories, feel exactly the same way. Jacob carried this pain in his heart his entire life; when Pharaoh asks him how old he is, Jacob responds: "few and unpleasant have been the years of my life." (47:9)


Disappointment is very much a part of our daily lives. Our reach always exceeds our grasp; disappointment is a by-product of ambition. Much like this narrative, all marriages are prone to dissatisfaction, due to popular beliefs regarding "soulmates" and finding "love at first sight." The question each of us must answer is: how do we respond to disappointment?


For the Jewish people, this question is existential. How long can one people endure exile? How many times will the Messiah stumble on his way to redemption?


If Abraham is tested regarding his faith in God, Jacob and his family face a different test: the test of overcoming disappointment.


Leah and Rachel lead the way, and offer two responses to overcoming disappointment. Leah ultimately reconciles herself to the shortcomings of her situation. When she has a fourth son, she names him Judah and exclaims ‘this time I will give thanks to God' (29:25)


The Talmud remarks: "from the day the Holy One, Blessed be He, created the world, no one thanked the Holy One, Blessed be He, until Leah came and thanked Him." Centuries of commentaries have been astonished by the statement; is it possible that the spiritual giants who lived before Leah never thanked God?


I believe the answer lies in this: Leah was thanking God for His kindness, despite her own continuing dissatisfaction. Until this point, Leah hoped that having a child would bring Jacob closer to her. But now, after three prior children, Leah knew nothing would change; she would still be the neglected, inferior wife. Yet even with this disappointment in her heart, she finds a way to appreciate the blessing she does have. Leah thanks God even while being rejected, and she is the first to offer gratitude while nursing a broken heart.


Contentment is one of the great lessons of Judaism. In a Mishnah that holds a great deal of affinity to Stoic philosophy, Ben Zoma tells us that "who is wealthy? one who is happy with their lot." To reconcile with reality and accept that one's dreams may never be actualized is difficult; to take joy in what one has left is no simple task. True contentment requires acceptance.


Leah's sister and co-wife Rachel takes a very different path. She refuses to let go of her dreams, and grasps at any solutions for her infertility. She is not content to accept a flawed and broken reality.


The Midrash sees Rachel as a key to Jewish history. It explains that Rachel is buried on the road out of Israel, so she would be of assistance to her children. “When the Jews are exiled and pass by her tomb… Rachel will emerge from her grave and weep and beg mercy for them…and the Holy One, blessed be He, answers her, ‘There is reward for your work,’ says the Lord,… ‘and the children shall return to their own border." Rachel's unending hope becomes the foundation of redemption; she cries for those whose dreams are shattered, and God hears her voice. Rachel remains committed to her destiny against all odds and ultimately brings her children back home.


Rachel and Leah bring opposite responses to disappointment. One is pragmatic, accepting reality for what it is, and finding contentment within the blessings that remain. The other is romantic, and refuses to let go of the great dream of destiny. Paradoxically, the Jewish people have always done both. We have built homes in exile and put down roots, but at the same time, have always held on to our vision for the future.


I knew a woman named Rose, who was a survivor of the Holocaust. At the end of the war, she was an inmate in Auschwitz; during that time, one Friday night she managed to smuggle a makeshift candle into the barracks, to light for Shabbat.


After the war, Rose moved to Canada and built a family and a business together with her husband. A few years later, on a trip to Israel, they went out to eat at a restaurant. As the waitress approached their table, she looked up at Rose’s face, and collapsed on the floor.


When they revived the waitress, she explained that she too was a survivor, and had been in the same barracks as Rose. One day, this woman learned that everyone else in her family had been murdered by the Nazis. Despondent, she was planning to take her own life by running into the barbed wire fence.


But that night, as she returned to the barracks, she saw the women gathered around the Shabbat candle that Rose had lit. It was at that moment she decided that she would survive, no matter what.


Even in the most difficult times, one must accept the gifts life gives us, even if it is just a flimsy candle; but as we hold that gift, we must see within it the dreams of a better future. Disappointment may spring eternal; but the search for hope can start with just one candle.

Friday, November 25, 2022

Jacob and Antisemitism


Govert Flinck, Isaac Blessing Jacob, 1638, Oil on Canvas

Joseph Official, the 13th-century author of the polemical work Sefer HaMekaneh, met a Capuchin friar on the road to Paris. The friar said to him: Jacob your father was a thief, and no greater extractor of usury was there; for one plate of lentils which was worth half a coin, he acquired the birthright which was worth a thousand coins.

One would expect the friar, who is a devout Christian, to be respectful of Jacob, who is a biblical hero. However, the opposite is true. Christian criticism of “Jewish” characters in the Tanakh was not uncommon in the Middle Ages; Rabbi Isaac Arama in Spain reports similar criticisms two hundred years later. And throughout history, antisemites have always found a way to reconcile their reverence for the Bible with their loathing of the Jews. Susannah Heschel, in her book "Aryan Jesus,” writes about the furtive efforts of pro-Nazi theologians to erase the Jewish elements from Christianity. They organized what was called "The Institute for the Study and Eradication of Jewish Influence on German Church Life," with the quixotic task of adapting a Nazified theology to a religion started by Jews. Walter Grundmann actually wanted to remove the "Old Testament" from the Bible, seeing it as anti-Christian. Jesus, he claimed, because he was a Galilean, was not actually a Jew; and because of this, Jesus does battle with the Old Testament Pharisees, whose views are the opposite of his own. Other institute professors theorized that contemporary Jews are imposters, and not the same as the Jews of the "Old Testament." And even today, both the white supremacist Christian Identity movement and the radical Black Hebrew Israelites, (whose message has been popularized by Kyrie Irving), claim that the Jews are not the people of the Bible. This brazen act of identity theft allows them to simultaneously love the Bible and hate the Jews.

Yet the question remains; How is it that Jacob is so unethical? At two critical moments, he acts treacherously toward his brother. When Esau is returning from a day of hunting and is extremely hungry, Jacob takes advantage of the situation; he refuses Esau food until he agrees to exchange his birthright for a bowl of lentils. Later, when Isaac plans on bestowing the familial blessing on Esau, Jacob, at the instigation of his mother, deceives his blind father and steals his brother's blessings.

Esau exclaims after the theft of the blessings: “(my brother) is rightly named Jacob (‘Yaakov’), for he has deceived me (‘vaya’akveni’) these two times: he took away my birthright, and now he has taken away my blessing.” In this bitter jibe, Esau says that Jacob’s very name predicts that he will be a shyster. And it is difficult for the reader to dismiss Esau’s words. How can it be that our hero, our patriarch, acts in such an immoral fashion?

In response to this and other similar questions, two interpretative responses emerge. In rabbinic literature, many passages tend to whitewash the flaws of biblical characters. Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Chajes points out that this is part of a general tendency to exaggerate the good traits of the pious and the negative traits of the wicked. When the contrast in the Biblical picture is heightened, the lessons derived are far more black and white; we are left with a simpler picture of good guys and bad guys. In these sorts of interpretations, Jacob's ethical failings are rationalized and defended.

Rashi's comment to the verse where Jacob lies to his father Isaac and says "I am Esau, your firstborn son" is an excellent example of this type of interpretation. Rashi explains that Jacob actually didn't lie; he had a different type of punctuation in mind, and intended it to mean "I am he that brings food to you, and (aside from that,) Esau is your first-born."

Similar explanations defend Jacob's actions at the sale of the birthright. Ibn Ezra explains that Esau is more than willing to give up the right of the firstborn; he's a hunter who is in constant danger and is unsure how long he'll even live. (Ibn Ezra adds that Isaac was not a wealthy man, so there would be little of value left in the estate anyway.) Esau has no interest in a meager inheritance that might arrive in the remote future.

At the same time, another type of interpretation emerges in Rabbinic and Medieval literature. They follow what they see as the straightforward understanding of the text, and don't romanticize the actions of Biblical heroes. For example, Rabbi Joseph Bechor Shor emphasizes the heartlessness of Jacob's negotiating stance. In his reading of the text, Esau is truly near death, having spent days in the field hunting. At this moment of vulnerability, Jacob said to Esau: if I don't feed you, you will die, and I'll inherit all the rights of the firstborn; so in order that I don't lose out by saving your life, you must promise to sign over the rights of the firstborn to me.

Similarly, multiple commentaries, from the Midrashim onward, point out how Jacob is punished, measure for measure, by the deceptions of others. He wants to marry Rachel, but his father-in-law Laban switches sisters on him, much like Jacob did with his father. Later, Jacob’s own sons will deceive him, (also, while using a goat,) when they fake Joseph's death. One Midrash, (Bereishit Rabba 67:4,) goes so far as to say that the frightening decree of Haman in Megilat Esther is punishment for the pain that Jacob caused Esau. The Tanakh itself emphasizes Jacob’s culpability.

Today, there remains a debate about which style of interpretation to adopt. All too often, people tend to choose black-and-white interpretations; Jacob is either a hero or a villain. In reality, Jacob's early deceptions arise from a complicated mix of jealousy, idealism, and ambition, mixed together with loyalty to his mother. Esau is not a worthy successor to Abraham's spiritual legacy, and Jacob and his mother Rebecca both know it. That crisis leads to these desperate deceptions.

Jacob ultimately is a wrestler, whose character continues to develop as he struggles with his circumstances and choices. Wherever he turns, his moral failures haunt him. The blessing he steals turn out to be worthless, and he lives a life of exile and difficulty. Ultimately, Jacob reconciles with Esau. And at the end of his life, Jacob blesses all of his children, including them together in one legacy. Jacob isn't a saint in his youth, but his road to reconciliation and transformation is inspirational. It is in his struggles that Jacob becomes the patriarch that we admire.

Contemporary Jewish readers can read Jacob's story carefully and critically, and give their own interpretation of the text. But when Joseph Official responds to the Capuchin friar, he doesn't have that luxury. In this case, Joseph Official, (and the Rashbam), say that Jacob actually paid full price to Esau; the lentils are merely part of a meal served to celebrate the transaction.

This is not a unique explanation; in other passages, the Rashbam often offers unusual apologetic explanations as well. He is well aware of Christian polemics using the Tanakh, and at one point explains that his interpretation “effectively silences the heretics (i.e., Christians)…” Anti-Jewish polemics is almost certainly why the Rashbam makes the remarkable claim that the brothers did not sell Joseph, but rather the Midianites stole him out of the pit while the brothers, unaware, were eating lunch. Clearly, Jews were being denigrated as people who would sell their own brother into slavery, and the Rashbam was looking for a way to respond.

I read these apologetic interpretations with a mixture of amazement and sadness. They are exceptionally brilliant re-readings of the text, worthy of the rabbis who composed them. At the same time, it is heartbreaking to realize that the Rashbam, who is ordinarily meticulous in offering the simple reading of the text, had to deviate from his own standards in Biblical interpretation. He felt it was more important to confront the Christian polemicists who mocked the Jews.

Simply put, the antisemitism of others affected how the Rashbam wrote his commentary. And that is exceptionally sad.

This brings me full circle to today's antisemitism. On social media, celebrities push the ugliest antisemitic conspiracies, bringing them mainstream. And it is more than just words. There is a very short distance from Black Hebrew Israelite rhetoric to the attacks on Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn.

Today’s proliferation of antisemitism is profoundly troubling; but what worries me even more is what antisemitism does to Jews. Spiteful attacks on Jews, Judaism, and the Jewish homeland change the way we think; and like the Rashbam, nasty rhetoric rings in our ears. In his time, the Rashbam turned to protect Jacob, and did too good a job; but today's young Jews will, more often than not, run from Jacob and hide their Jewish identity.

Rabbi Angela Buchdahl of Central Synagogue began her Rosh Hashanah sermon this year with the following anecdote:

One of my most engaged students at Central started law school this fall and was happy that campus Hillel invited her to Shabbat dinner her first week. But soon a text chat began circulating among Jewish students:

“I’m not sure I want to go,” one said. “I might get canceled.” Another wrote, “I think I’ll go, but there’s no way I’m putting my name on any sign-in list, or appearing in any photos.”


My student decided to go to the dinner…When it came time for a group picture, however, several left the room.

One student concluded, “I’m never going back to that again.” In his view, it seemed any association with something Jewish was inherently problematic. My student stayed for the picture. But she wondered out loud with me if she would later pay a price for it.


Buchdahl mentions that a 2021 Brandeis Center survey of Jewish students in two fraternities found that 50% of students hide their Jewish identity while on campus. As she puts it: Half our kids are hiding.

This is the greatest tragedy of antisemitism: what it does to the Jewish soul. As young people decide to become crypto-Jews, hiding in plain sight, we must grapple with this thought: now it is our birthright that is being stolen.

We cannot let that happen.

Friday, November 11, 2022

Should We Love God More Than Man?




Arent De Gelder, Abraham Entertaining the Three Angels (Genesis 18:8-9), 1680’s



Should We Love God More Than Man?


By Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz



Does Abraham love God more than he loves his fellow human beings? He immediately jumps to follow God’s command to offer his son as a sacrifice; he does not question and does not bargain. God comes first; Abraham faithfully accepts God’s call, despite the great cost to himself and his family. This passage in the Bible, called the Akeidah, (the binding of Isaac), has a deep and abiding influence on Jewish thought.

Abraham's response at the Akeidah is the polar opposite of how he responds to the punishment of Sodom. God tells Abraham he plans on destroying Sodom due to their great sins; Abraham objects, instantly and instinctively. He debates and negotiates, at one point rebuking God by saying: “Will the judge of the entire earth not do justice?” In this passage, Abraham clearly puts man before God.

The disparity between Abraham's response at Sodom and at the Akeidah is puzzling. There are technical ways of resolving this question by noting distinctions, such as differentiating between when God approaches for a dialogue or with a command, or between making a personal sacrifice and pleading for the lives of others. But I find those resolutions unsatisfying. At its core, this contradiction forces us to choose one passage as paradigmatic, as the ultimate lesson of Abraham’s faith; and which one is chosen will depend a great deal on how one understands the lesson of the Akeidah.

Successive generations of commentaries have offered their own interpretations of the Akeidah. Already in the Book of the Maccabees, the Akeidah is seen as the inspiration to martyrdom (and rebellion); and this perspective of the Akeidah becomes very influential. Rabbi Meir in the Sifrei explains that the commandment to love God with one’s entire soul, which is found in the first paragraph of the Shema, means that a Jew is obligated to love God as much as “Isaac, who tied himself down on the altar (as a sacrifice to God).” 

Indeed, martyrdom becomes so much a part of Jewish life, that several texts note how the martyrdom of later generations exceeds the Akeidah. The Talmud (Gittin 57b) tells the story of Hannah, a women whose seven sons were martyred by the Romans; before her seventh son is executed for his faith, Hannah tells him “go and say to your father Abraham, you bound up one [son to the] altar, but my mother has bound seven sons to altars.” In a 13th century poem, Rabbi Ephraim of Bonn writes:

Recall to our credit the many Akeidahs,

The saints, men and women, slain for Thy sake.

In medieval Europe, many Jews saw the Akeidah as a reflection of their own unwavering faith. It was a heroic act, one that inspired the spiritual heroism of Abraham’s descendants.

Some authors are deeply attracted to this perspective as well, seeing it as more authentic than the sensible, dull, and tepid religiosity of contemporary times. Isaiah Leibowitz argues that Judaism is uninterested in the ethical, and only recognizes mitzvot, divine commands. This he sees as a uniquely Jewish perspective, of the singular desire to fulfill the will of God. He notes that “Christianity's highest symbol is the crucifixion and the sacrifice which God brings for man, whereas the highest symbol of faith in Judaism is the Akeidah, where all man’s values are canceled and cast aside for the love and reverence for God….” The lesson of the Akeidah, he argues, is about putting God before man.

For this point of view, the Akeidah stands as a corrective to the earlier passage about Sodom; in the Akeidah, Abraham changes direction, and instead of questioning God, learns to obediently follow His command.

Most modern commentaries offer a very different perspective. They are troubled by the Akeidah, and wonder how God could have issued an unethical command. Samuel David Luzzatto explains that the Akeidah is essentially a publicity stunt, a way of demonstrating the fullness of Abraham’s religious fervor. Unlike the surrounding pagan religions, Abraham’s ethical commitments prevent him from performing child sacrifice. An observer might mistake Abraham’s ethical refinement for a lack of faith; for this reason God stages the Akeidah, to publicly demonstrate Abraham’s faith, and to demonstrate that an ethical religion can still have profound religious passion. The purpose of the Akeidah is to undermine child sacrifice, and show that one can be passionately attached to God and meticulously ethical at the same time.

This approach can be taken a step further, in a manner suggested by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and others. God commands Abraham, “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” because the very point of the Akeidah is to show that faith should never supersede ethics. The Akeidah is actually an example of what should not be done, the Torah's way of making clear that God rejects the unethical. 

Seen this way, the Akeidah confirms Abraham’s actions at Sodom; in the end, the ethical takes religious priority at the Akeidah as well.

Abraham in Sodom vs. Abraham at the Akeidah is not just the central riddle of the Parsha, it is also the central theological issue in Judaism. Does God come before man, or does man come before God?

At first glance, the perspective that puts God before man seems more credible. After all, religion is about God; compared to Him, man seems inconsequential. John Henry Newman, an influential 19th century Catholic theologian wrote: "The Catholic Church holds it better for the sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions on it to die of starvation in extremest agony, as far as temporal affliction goes, than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one wilful untruth, or should steal one poor farthing without excuse." This may sound extreme; but if God is all that matters, then everything must be done to fulfill His will. Our interest in man is unimportant.

The challenge is to find religious arguments for putting man before God. Does humanism, which Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein defines concisely as “a worldview which values humans highly,” have any place in Judaism?

The answer is yes, for the very reason that God created man. From a mystical perspective, as Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto explains, the purpose of creation was for God to extend his love and kindness towards man. If so, God cares deeply about man; we should as well. Man, who is created in the image of God, deserves our love and esteem.

Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik offers another idea that is critical to religious humanism. He explains that a foundation of Jewish ethics is that man is obligated to imitate God; and just as God is a creator, we too are meant to be creators. God left the world imperfect and incomplete, to allow man to complete creation, and be His partner in improving the world. Putting man before God is actually God’s desire; to care for humanity is to continue God’s work.

This idea is best illustrated by a passage at the beginning of the Torah reading. Abraham is speaking with God, but then abruptly turns away to welcome guests. The Talmud (Shabbat 127a) explains that this teaches us that “welcoming guests is more important than receiving the Divine Presence.”

Yet this idea is strange; even if there are guests arriving, why would Abraham disrespect God? Why can’t the guests wait a minute? The answer lies in recognizing the purpose of man’s partnership with God. Abraham is fulfilling God’s will by turning his attention to the guests; much like two partners, God is happy to be left aside, so that Abraham can take care of their newest “customers.” Man can come before God, because God Himself placed man at the center of His creation.

Many contemporary authors advocate religious humanism as a counterweight to religious fanaticism; they hope to end religious violence by reminding us of how ethics and kindness are the foundations of religion. But actually, religious humanism is critical for spiritual passion; at a time when it is difficult to perceive the divine presence, religious humanism becomes all the more important. Even in a profoundly secular world, we can truly experience the transcendent at special moments of human connection. 

There is a Chassidic story, which was made famous by Y.L. Peretz, about a sainted Chassidic Rebbe. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks retells the story this way:

Every Friday morning before dawn, the Rebbe of Nemirov would disappear. He could be found in none of the town’s synagogues or houses of study….

Once a Lithuanian scholar came to Nemirov. Puzzled by the Rebbe’s disappearance he asked his followers, ‘Where is he?’ ‘Where is the Rebbe?’ they replied. ‘Where else but in heaven? The people of the town need peace, sustenance, health. The Rebbe is a holy man and therefore he is surely in heaven, pleading our cause.’

The Lithuanian, amused by their credulity, determined to find out for himself. One Thursday night he hid himself in the Rebbe’s house. The next morning before dawn he heard the Rebbe weep and sigh. Then he saw him go to the cupboard, take out a parcel of clothes and begin to put them on. They were the clothes, not of a holy man, but of a peasant. The Rebbe then reached into a drawer, pulled out an ax, and went out into the still dark night. Stealthily, the Lithuanian followed him as he walked through the town and beyond, into the forest. There he began chopping down a tree, hewing it into logs, and splitting it into firewood. These he gathered into a bundle and walked back into the town.

 In one of the back streets, he stopped outside a run-down cottage and knocked on the door. An old woman, poor and ill, opened the door. ‘Who are you?’ she asked. ‘I am Vassily,' the Rebbe replied. ‘I have wood to sell, very cheap, next to nothing.’ ‘I have no money’, replied the woman. ‘I will give it to you on credit,' he said. ‘How will I be able to pay you?’ she said. ‘I trust you – and do you not trust God? He will find a way of seeing that I am repaid.’ ‘But who will light the fire? I am too ill.’ ‘I will light the fire’, the Rebbe replied, and he did so, reciting under his breath the morning prayers. Then he returned home.

 The Lithuanian scholar, seeing this, stayed on in the town and became one of the Rebbe’s disciples. After that day, when he heard the people of the town tell visitors that the Rebbe ascended to heaven, he no longer laughed, but instead added: ‘And maybe even higher.’

 We must be inspired by Abraham's profound faith at the Akeidah; it reaches directly into heaven. However, even more inspiring is Abraham’s love for his fellow man. His enduring example teaches us how to ascend spiritually, and go even higher.