First, I hope those who celebrated Thanksgiving had an enjoyable holiday. If you haven’t read it yet, I posted a pre-Thanksgiving piece. I think it’s worth a read, though you may disagree. (If so, tough patootey, I guess.)
On to other things, then.
The Torah portion this week continues on with the adventures of Jacob and Esau–and adds in the adventures of Leah, Rachel, Bilhah, Zilpah, and Laban. There’s a lot of interesting narrative that deals with the complications of dealing with fathers.
It’s been a rough week or so here in the U.S. And it hasn’t been a banner time in Israel over the last few weeks, either.
I don’t mean to downplay the problems out there. There will be no end to problems, which is perhaps a nice subtext for reading (very much out of context and its original meaning) the statement Pirke Avot attributes to Rabbi Tarfon: it is incumbent upon you to finish the work, but neither are you a free person so as to be able to cease from it (Avot 2:16). Continue reading →
This week is, as far as I’m concerned, momentous. The Torah portion under the traditional reading cycle brings us to Parshat Toledot, which marks the Torah’s transition in Genesis to narrating stories of Abraham and Isaac to the stories of Jacob.
That’s not what makes it momentous to me. Rather (and here I let slip my age), twenty-five years ago, I chanted part of this parashah at my bar mitzvah. At the time, I could chant the Hebrew from memory but didn’t understand it; now, I can understand the Hebrew but I don’t remember the tune.
You didn’t come here to stroll down Memory Lane with me, though. Instead, I’ve got a d’rash for you involving the story of Jacob and Esau.
I posted recently a broadside at the supposed panacea of Jewish day school education as a means of keeping Jews Jewish. There was an additional thought that, because it wasn’t squarely about the merits of the argument as a means of advancing Jewish affiliation and identity, I omitted. But I think it’s important, and it deserves a post.
Actually, I’ve been sitting on the topic for this post for a while; well, not a while, but for a little over a week. But it was in the mental background on some of the other recent posts.
I’ve written before on the Akedah, the story in Genesis 22 that purports to tell of Abraham’s near-slaughter of Isaac because Yahweh said so. (On a related note, we really should be careful of what we think is happening when we hear voices in our heads.) Last week, Rabbi Hannah Dresner wrote a post at the Rabbis Without Borders blog on the Akedah; the post is titled, “God Likes a Counter-Offer,” and views the story of the Akedah as acquitting Abraham of his near-sacrifice of Isaac because he makes a counter-offer in the form of a ram caught in a thicket.
I don’t think the plain sense of the narrative there supports this view. It extends the version of events Rashi and other commentators provide about Abraham forestalling Yahweh’s overtures to sacrifice Isaac by “playing dumb.” It’s a midrashic approach–and that’s fine. But let’s admit that the text doesn’t quite portray that episode as a negotiation.
(This weekend, IISHJ is holding a colloquium on the future of Judaism at the Birmingham Temple. I can’t be there due to a business trip; I’ll be in Dallas at a convention. But in the spirit of the colloquium, here’s my feeble attempt at figuring out exactly what Judaism is. The short answer is: “I know it when I see it.” That not being good enough, I’ve written this. In addition, congratulations to Ed Klein and Susan Averbach on their upcoming rabbinic ordinations during the colloquium. Mazal tov to them both!)
Last week, I responded to the idea that we should focus on how people “Do Jewish” as a way of getting past essentializing labels like “What shul do you go to?,” and I ended with the note that ideas matter. I want to attack the problem of Jewish identity from the other direction.
On the one hand, I agree with him: “Are you ______?” and “Which synagogue do you belong to?” are essentializing, unhelpful questions in many cases. Asking how you “do” Jewish may be a better place to start.
On the other hand, I cannot agree with him on his premise for the question, because he writes out portions of the Jewish community.
R. Eliyahu Fink of the Pacific Jewish Center argues for just that, calling the recent movie about Noah directed by Darren Aronofsky a modern midrash for its filling in of gaps in the narrative and its addition of new shades of meaning to an old story.
The core of R. Fink’s concern is that the body of interpretations called “The Midrash” in the Modern Orthodox world has gotten too small and hidebound. I agree with R. Fink that there is a problematic tendency to treat as effectively canon medieval and earlier biblical commentaries. I am not, however, sure that the proper remedy is to write new midrash. (Setting aside that his suggestion implies that the spinning of midrash has somehow stopped; I don’t think he means that, and I don’t think that has happened in any event.)
(Warning: this is a bit of turgid post, language-wise. It’s a lot of thinking “out loud” about relatively wonky stuff. Just, you know, hold tight. Inspirational stuff comes at the end.)