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.

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