Thursday, January 05, 2006

Vayigash (Torah)

“One touches the other, not even a breath can come between them” (Job 41:8)

The story of Yosef and his brothers reaches its climax with the confrontation between Joseph and Judah (44:18ff.). Chapter 93 of Genesis Rabbah presents a series of midrashim in which the brothers, observing this confrontation from the sidelines, comment “The kings are disputing with one another; what concern is it of ours?” The encounter is depicted as a titanic struggle, with the future leadership of Israel at stake. (As was indeed the course of the future history of the Israelite monarchy. The split between the two kingdoms of Judah and Israel, of North and South, essentially paralleled that between those tribes that remained loyal to the Davidic-Judahite dynasty, and those that followed the leadership of the sons of Joseph, beginning with Jeroboam son of Nebat, the Ephraimite who led the secession following Solomon’s death.)

At first blush, the issue was whether or not Zaphenath-paneah/ Joseph would hold Benjamin captive for the “theft” of his divining cup. But the hidden agenda, according to the midrash, was: who will be the leader of the tribes? Reuven, the first-born, had already been eliminated as a possible leader, as may be seen retroactively in Jacob’s blessings (Gen 49). Four scenes illustrate the impetuous side of Reuben’s character, not to speak of his lack of common sense. First his premature interference in his parents’ sexual life in the incident of the mandrakes (30:14); his lying with his father’s concubine Bilhah (35:22; but see the midrash there); and his two attempts to “set things right”: his abortive effort to save Joseph from the brother’s violence (37:22, 29-30); and his ludicrous offer to Yaakov, just before the second trip down to Egypt, that “you may kill my own two sons” if he fails to bring back Benjamin and Simeon—as if murdering two of his grandchildren would be of any comfort to Jacob!

Simeon and Levi, next down in order of birth, are likewise rejected as potential leaders, being revealed as men of violence both in the Shechem incident (Ch. 34) and in the sale of Joseph. Thus, the “default options” are Judah, the fourth son, or Joseph, Rachel’s firstborn, now the second most powerful man in Egypt—and in the whole region.

Joseph’s aim was to maintain a “stiff upper lip” until he could cause his brothers to bring Jacob down to Egypt where he, too, would bow before him, thereby fulfilling the second dream (the sun and stars and eleven stars). Suddenly Judah, a simple Canaanite shepherd, dares to open his mouth to this high official and tell him his family story and the implications involved in Binyamin not returning, ending with the offer to personally take his place in prison. This is the straw that changes Joseph’s heart: he drops the masquerade, breaks down in tears, and tells his brothers whom he really is.

Rabbi Soloveitchik, at a public lecture in Boston, once elaborated upon this theme, characterizing the two brothers as representing radically different human types, on two different levels: that of themselves, and that of their mothers. Drawing upon Maimonides’ Introduction to the Commentary on Tractate Avot, the “Eight Chapters,” he described Yosef as the type who is ”righteous by nature”—one who is not even tempted by sin, because he is by nature drawn to the good and is free of the incessant drives of the Evil Impulse. (Today, cynics would say that he had a weak libido). This was revealed in his instinctive repulse of the advances of Potiphar’s wife, as well as in his magnanimous, forgiving approach toward his brothers, at least at a later stage. Judah, by contrast, was the type “who overcomes his impulses”: a more rough and ready, earthy type, who knew the urges and temptations of flesh, as seen in his readiness to go with a woman he took for a harlot in the incident with Tamar. He was also capable of black hatred, as seen in the initial scene with Joseph: if not murderous rage like that of Simeon and Levi, still enough to propose selling his brother into slavery. But in course of time he overcame his negative impulses, regretting and repenting of his past sins. The Rav observed that precisely such a type was most suitable as a leader of his people: one who can empathize with the ordinary person’s drives and struggles. The overly spiritual person, who naturally gravitates towards abstemiousness (or perhaps squeamishness), cannot lead people. He does not have the same immediate, almost instinctive sense of real life, and is liable to be prone to a certain superior, self-righteous type of judgmentalism.

The two mothers invite a similar comparison. Rachel was a tragic, unfulfilled figure who died young. Her life was marked by self-sacrifice; according to legend, when her sister Leah was brought under the huppah (marriage canopy) in her stead, she helped her deceive Yaakov, so as to spare her embarrassment on her wedding night. She is described as very beautiful—I imagine her as one of those exilic-Jewish beauties with a certain haunting, spiritual beauty, touched by melancholy. In the end, she never dealt with the rough and tumble of family life with lots of kids, but in death became the mythical “Rachel weeping for her children,” watching over the tribes who passed her grave on their way into exile. Even her name, “ewe,” connotes a certain fragility and helplessness.

Leah, by contrast, is envisioned as a hard-working home-maker, juggling the innumerable tasks of managing a large, bustling household. She is the archetype of the old-fashioned balaboste, the Jewish mother immersed in the details of practical life. Her name, Leah, comes from the same root as le’ot, “exhaustion. Here too, the Jewish nation needs a leader who has absorbed from his mother some of the sense of the needs of ordinary, mundane, everyday life. Thus far the Rav, ztz”l.

I would add, elaborating on the same theme, that we also find here two alternative models of masculinity. Unlike the black and white pairs of Isaac/Ishmael, Jacob/Esau, in Joseph and Judah we find two plausible, positive models of masculinity, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, both of whom represent positive models of masculinity and of leadership.

As I see him, Judah represents the male figure who emerges to a position of leadership among his peers in a natural, organic way. He is “first among equals.” To jump ahead to next week’s portion, this motif is expressed in Yaakov’s deathbed blessings to Yehudah (49:8-12), whose key-note is: “You shall be praised [or: recognized] by your brothers”—that is, a leader whose leadership is gracefully accepted by his siblings. His symbol is the lion: the “king of the beasts,” who is so confident of his own strength that he can lie calmly in the sun while ready to pounce at a moment’s notice.

Joseph, by contrast, is called ben porat Yosef (49:22): “a fruitful bough,” which Rashi reads as “one blessed with hen, ‘charm.’” Joseph relied upon his winning personality to succeed in life. He was a favored child, used to being “parachuted from above,” always protected by the good offices of parents and other authority figures, such as Pharaoh. He was nezir ehav: “the elect of his brothers” or “separate from his brothers”; one who felt himself to be special, the “crown prince” of the family, beloved by doting parents and elders. He seemed most at home in hierarchical frameworks, whether as a protege of an older person, or as the boss, giving orders to others. He was also a born lady’s man: one reading, probably fanciful, of the above blessing of “banot tza’adah alei shur” (49:22) is that “the daughters of Egypt walked along the wall to look at his beauty” (Rashi). (The literal sense of this phrase is probably a continuation of the vine imagery: “the tendrils climbing over the wall.”) But he was less successful with his peers; the natural, essay camaraderie of “male bonding” did not come to him easily, if at all. Indeed, there was something in his somewhat snobbish, superior air that attracted enmity: “The archers attacked him fiercely, they hated him sorely” (v. 23).

We commented earlier that there was something slightly ridiculous in the scene in which Yosef fled from Potiphar’s wife. The virginal Yosef was overwhelmed by her ravenous sexuality, which he saw as highly threatening. We may imagine that the more balanced, solid, somehow more experienced Judah, would have behaved differently, and known how to handle himself. Perhaps he would have recognized the pained, lonely human being even inside this voracious woman, and known how to project a calm, kindly, friendly, but clearly non-sexual attitude to her, so that things would never have gotten out of hand as they did.

Emotionalism vs. Self-Discipline

We have described Joseph as a figure who knew how to exert iron self-control, maintaining the masquerade of the tough, distant Egyptian official until the point that he would choose. Some commentators like to speak of the penitence and tikkun, inner change, that Judah and the brothers needed to make. But Yosef, too, had a tikkun to make, centering upon abandoning this iron discipline for warm, natural, human affections. (Of course he had good reason to be wary of his brothers; but he also needed to understand how his own aloofness and narcissism brought about this situation, and to learn a new way of being in the world of others.)

The reemergence of his emotions is shown as a gradual process. Already when he first sees the group of ten his brothers, and hears them conversing about how these troubles are befalling them because they had wronged their brother, he turns aside to stifle a tear (42:24). Later, when he sees Benjamin, his feelings begin to swell up in earnest, and he must go to another room to conceal his weeping. “ki nikhmeru rahamav el ahiv…” “for he was overcome with feeling for his brother…” (43:30). Finally, when Judah speaks up in a mature, responsible, self-sacrificing way to stand surety for Benjamin, acting as natural leader of the family, he breaks down, abandons the masquerade, and sends everyone out of the room to make his confession.

I see this scene as the crux of Yosef’s change and growth: his moving away from the posture of superiority and control, so typical of the favored younger son (and, to speak anachronistically, such a familiar pattern among certain kinds of modern Jewish families), towards a simple acceptance and forgiveness of his peers and family. He abandons the second dream, the grandiose plan of manipulating things so that his father would come to bow down to him as the anonymous stranger, and reveals himself to his brothers: “I am Joseph; is father still alive?” (45:3).

Rabbi Soloveitchik, in his classic essay Halakhic Man, speaks of the great self-control and inner discipline of ba’alei halakah, the archetypal Talmudic/halakhic scholars:

Halakhic man is characterized by an almost festive dignity (or, to use the term of William James, an attitude of solemnity).... This stance prevents man from being attracted to any of the extremes of the emotional life… His affective life is characterized by a fine equilibrium, a stoic tranquility. It exemplifies the Aristotelian golden mean and the ideal of the well-balanced personality set forth by Maimonides... (pp. 76-77)

He goes on to recount a series of anecdotes involving the Gaon of Vilna and others in which, even in the face of the death of loved ones, they maintained their perfect composure and devotion to halakhah, controlling of their actions in light of, e.g., the laws of Shabbat and Yom Tov, or in order to fulfill the mitzvah of tefillin as perfectly as possible before becoming a mourner, was complete. When Rav Aharon Lichtenstein taught this essay at Gush Etzion, he related an anecdote involving another gadol (I believe it was Rav Hayyim Heller) who received news of the death of loved one in Shabbat, and broke down in tears. Later, he composed a halakhic responsum exploring the permissibility or not of this act, and ultimately defended his weeping. The significant point seemed to be the emotional, spontaneous nature of his immediate reaction.

Joseph the Provider

In the latter part of this parshah, we turn from the family drama to larger issues: of economy, social welfare, of the role of state. In Chapter 47 we read f how, with Joseph’s help and planning, the free peasant population of Egypt gradually lose all they own: first their money, then their livestock, and finally their land and even their very bodies. They are then moved to the cities, and become serfs of Pharaoh. (There is a truly harrowing Rashi on verse 47:21, quoting Hullin 60b, which says that the Egyptians were moved from country to city, or even from one city to another, so that the Jews wouldn’t be seen by their non-Jewish neighbors as exiles, since now everybody would be a displaced new-comer.)

As one raised with socialist values, I find this story very difficult. (To this day, I would describe myself as a democratic socialist, and look on in dismay at the unravelling of the Labor Party in our country, and its replacement by a very “’90’s” neo-liberalism, which is only another name for a new, hyper-sophisticated ideology of capitalism.) Perhaps this chapter may be read as an etiology of feudalism: describing how a presumably once-free people became subservient to a powerful, centralized, well-organized government that turns a tragedy to its own advantage. It is interesting to read this chapter in light of Leviticus 25, which presents a radically egalitarian vision of society, in which it is clear, through the institutions of shmitah and yovel (sabbatical and jubilee years), that money, property, and private ownership are not absolute values.

Two mitigating points. First: that the ancient world can’t really be judged by the standards of the 20th century: it wasn’t Joseph’s or Pharaoh’s fault that neither of them were FDR. Second: that Yosef nevertheless found a way to assure that the population wouldn’t die.

Pharaoh and Yaakov

In conclusion, two short questions on a pair of verses that are often overlooked. When Joseph brings his father to see Pharaoh, the old man blesses Pharaoh (47:7). What is the nature of this blessing? It seems a reversal of normal protocol, in which a priest or monarch dispenses blessings to his subordinates or flock. Or is Pharaoh so overwhelmed by Yaakov’s advanced age, or by a certain charismatic aura, that he defers to him? Second, when asked his age, Yaakov tells him “the days of my sojourning… have been few and evil, and have not reached the years of my fathers” (v. 9). Why does Yaakov kvetch so? One constantly reads and hears in Jewish ethical treatises that a truly religious person should accept whatever God sends gives him in life with equanimity and faith, and even with joy. How then can Jacob behave in such a way?

Joseph: Tzaddik or Narcissist? Another Reading

One of the perennial difficulties which I find in studying the Torah portions concerning the patriarchs, is the dissonance between many of the midrashim and popular pietistic exegeses, in which the principle figures are portrayed as the Jewish equivalent of “plaster saints,” and what seems to be the simple, common-sense meaning of these stories. This is particularly true of the cycle of stories dealing with Joseph, who is crowned in Rabbinic exegesis with the title Ha-Tzaddik (“the Righteous”). I find it more instructive to read these chapters as a Bildungsroman—the story of a hero who grows, comes to maturity, and learns lessons from life. They may be used as object lessons for our own growth, for gaining insight into our own life-tasks as fallible human beings, rather than as unattainable models of superhuman perfection.

I recently gained some insight into this from an unexpected source. A few years ago I encountered a book, Howard Addison’s Enneagram and Kabbalah, which applied the categories of Kabbalah to a system in which all people are classified into nine basic “character types.” The book itself was one of those combinations of pop psychology, New Age and Kabbalah, which I tend to reject at first glance. But there was a deeper message here. After presenting the central idea that each person belongs to a basic character type, entailing patterns of behavior, the role in which he sees himself in the scheme of things, etc., the author presents an interesting insight. Even though each person is “born” into his type, which is essentially unchangeable, within the context of each personality type there is a continuum of possible options, ranging from negative, destructive, and selfish ones, to maximum positive realization of ones own potential for doing good, for others and oneself (or any point on a continuum between these two positions). Thus, the person whose life is focused upon issues of power and leadership may become involved in ego-centered struggles for power and domination over others and the gratification these bring him/her, or may use this same trait to benefit others through wise, caring, generous leadership. Similarly, one whose life orientation is towards the need for being loved and accepted may live as a spineless rag, constantly adapting him/herself to whatever values, ideas, behavior, etc. is espoused by those whose acceptance he craves, or he may become a genuine maker of peace, between both people and ideas, one who is capable of seeing the truth and the common ground in seemingly irreconciliable opposites, thereby creating a higher synthesis between them.

I would like to apply this insight to the romance Joseph. From the very beginning, Joseph saw himself as the type of person destined to lead others, born for power and leadership. This was the meaning of his childhood dreams, in which he stood at the center, first of his brothers, and then of his entire family circle, including his parents, with his leadership is projected onto the celestial, cosmic background of the stars and luminaries. The negative reaction both of his brothers and of his father—“Will you reign and rule over us?” “Will I and your mother and brother come to bow down to you?” (38:8, 10)—indicates that this started out as a narcissistic, self-centered kind of fantasy. His leadership was of a negative cast, one centered about the personal benefits and glory to be derived from power over others. Only much later, and even then only in a partial and problematic way, did this begin to be translated into positive virtues: generosity, magnanimity, caring for others, and the use of power to arrange matters for their collective benefit.

At this stage, we are told three more things about Joseph: that his father showed him open favoritism, making him a special, decorative coat or tunic not worn by the others; that he was “beautiful of appearance and figure” (this is only stated in 39:6, but the midrash already portrays him incessantly playing with his hair during the earlier period)—a further field of play for his innate narcissism; and that he was a tale-teller, serving as a spy for his father among the presumably lower-status sons of the concubines (37:2).

At this point, he underwent two major traumas, which may have shocked him into the beginnings of inner growth. The brothers, whose hatred of him had long been simmering, attacked him once he was far away from home, and threw him into a pit, some of them even plotting to kill him. Suddenly, he realized that he did not live a charmed life after all; perhaps he realized already than that his arrogance was a danger to his own survival, and that he required a modicum of strategy, planning and savoir-faire for his own personal survival.

He was taken to Egypt, and sold into the service of a Pharaonic official named Potiphar. Here he in due time encountered his second shock. While in the world of men, i.e., his brothers, he had encountered outright hostility and violence, the pitfalls he was to encounter in the world of women were more subtle and devious, but no less dangerous. Potiphar’s wife’s lusted for him and tried to seduce him. This was clearly a response to his being “too pretty” (which we are told in 35:6 so as to understand this as her motive). I visualize Joseph as somewhat ambiguous in his sexuality: there was something vaguely effeminate in his constant involvement with physical appearance, even in his wearing the fancy tunic for rough travel over the hill country of Shechem and Dothan and work with animals. Perhaps Mrs. Potiphar was fed up with her husband, whom we can imagine as an ordinary middle-aged man, a busy, important (self-important?) bureaucratic official, who was alternately sexually demanding, in a brusque and crude way, and apathetic. Suddenly, there was introduced into her life a young, beautiful, virginal youth, whom she imagined she could train to satisfy her whims and desires and would be grateful to her for introducing him to erotic pleasure. She was deeply frustrated when he fled—explaining her hypocritical revenge. She hadn’t reckoned with the stern, puritanical side to his personality, which came to the fore in a crisis. (This may be the symbolic meaning of the midrash stating that, at the crucial moment, Joseph suddenly saw his father’s face and drew back from sinning. It would be interesting to compare this to the aggadah in Menahot 44a about the disciple of Rabbi Hiyya who went to a famed Roman courtesan in one of the “cities of the sea,” was hit in the face by his tzitzit while climbing his paramour’s golden bed, and similarly refrained from committing the sin.) In any event, here Joseph learned that his good looks, and perhaps some undefineable quality in his bearing, could get him into deep trouble.

Considerably humbled, he was thrown into prison on false charges. There too he quickly rose to the top, and was appointed internal supervisor of the prison. (Aryeh Deri or Shimon Sheves must wish that Israel’s Prison Services were run like Pharaoh’s “pit.”) His talents for dream interpretation stand him in good stead in prison, where he successfully interprets the dreams of two prominent fellow inmates. Bu there is still much ambivalence in his character, a certain arrogance about his own gifts (40:8).

In due course, he is brought before Pharaoh himself. At this stage, we find a mixture of sincere, well-thought-out, sage advice with self-interest. He warns Pharaoh of the coming “seven bad years,” suggests that he set up an emergency organization to gather and distribute food to the entire population, and that he appoint a “wise and understanding man” to manage the whole business (41:33-36). Craftily, indirectly, he is writing his own ticket to power and influence. As expected, Pharaoh appoints him to the job; interestingly, as his very first step, he marries Joseph off as quickly as possible. No doubt the world-wise emperor of Egypt sized him up as a potential lady’s man, and wanted to make sure to keep him out of trouble. (Remember Rashi’s reading of the blessing at 49:22, “his branches run over the wall”: all the girls in Egypt used to climb onto the wall to get a glimpse of him!).

At this stage, Joseph confronts the two central tests of his mature years. First, the return of the brothers, and the elaborate masquerade in which Joseph conceals his identity, sending them back and forth to Canaan to bring their younger brother Benjamin, treating them alternately with suspicion and with royal honor. The crucial question is, of course, why did he submit them to such mental torture? Was he justified in doing so? Many traditional commentators read this as midah keneged midah, as a kind of test set up to “educate” the brothers or to lead them to sincere teshuvah (repentance). Or was he simply getting his revenge against them, using this rare opportunity to torture them psychologically like fish on a string? There is a concept in various religious traditions of a “spiritual master”: a Zen master, a Hassidic rebbe, who may do otherwise outrageous and at times even cruel things, in order to guide the disciple’s or novice’s development. Is such a thing valid? And even if so, what does it do to the master? Once or twice in my life I’ve encountered rabbis who assumed the privileges of Zen masters, placing themselves above the ordinary give and take of human relations, disbursing insults and arbitrary commands. I can only say that, to this day, I deeply resent such behavior.

The second test of his mature years involved the setting up of the agrarian administration in Egypt. He saved the people from starvation, but concentrated wealth in Pharaoh’s hands. Was he an Egyptian FDR, as Thomas Mann portrays him, or the founder of a cruel, autocratic feudal system? The issue is complex and multi-faceted, and I have discussed it somewhat elsewhere. What can be said with certainty is that once again we encounter the ambivalent nature of Joseph’s leadership, the admixture of power and egotism with genuine kindness, concern, and the attempt to do good.

I see the crucial turning point in his life at the point at which he breaks down in tears when Judah displays maturity, offering to replace Benjamin in prison so as to spare his father further grief. Here Joseph has an epiphany of what a real, mature human being looks like. He sees in his brother not just trickery, cleverness, charm, and the accoutrements of power and success, but a real willingness to lay ones life on the line for another person. Judah’s power comes from the very simplicity of his statement. From this point on, there are no more manipulations or games; Joseph is forced to reveal himself. I have often nearly broken into tears upon reading the words from the Torah: Ani Yosef ahikhem asher makhartem oti leMitzrayim—“I am Joseph your brother whom you sold into Egypt” (45:4). That, and his final speech, when the brothers return from Jacob’s funeral, worrying that “now Joseph will get his own back at us,” encountering instead real humility and forgiveness (50:15-21), indicate the ultimate maturation of one who started out in life as a classic spoiled brat.

A final word about the concept of Yosef ha-Tzaddik, “Joseph the Righteous.” One way of understanding this is after the Kabbalistic definition of tzaddik: not as a “perfect,” sinless person, but as a source of blessing, plentitude, etc. Joseph, and the Tzaddik generally, is a father figure, caring for his extended family and progeny. This is also the connection to the sefirah of Yesod, and to the symbolism of the phallus: Tzaddik as a conduit of life-giving power, the ”channel” through which Divine energy flows down into the world, and the human counterpart thereof. In this reading, it is not the individual’s moral perfection that is important, but that he is the life-giver. Joseph’s role in helping the Egyptian people to survive the great famine, as well as his help to his own family, dovetail perfectly with this conception. The leit-motif here is, hu hamashbir lekol am haaretz; “he is the sustainer of all the people of the land” (42:6)

Joseph the Economist

The story of Joseph’s behavior in Egypt (47:13-25), in terms of his plan to centralize all the property in Egypt in Pharaoh’s hands, in exchange for providing food to the population, raises important ethical questions. In his huge novel about Joseph and His Brothers, Thomas Mann portrays Joseph as an FDR type: a master of governmental planning to alleviate personal suffering as a result of economic depression. As will be recalled, Joseph organized the massive storing of excess grain during each of the seven good years, in order to build up a reserve to keep the people alive during the seven bad years . But in exchange, they lost their independence: the first year they bought food for money; the second year, they sold their livestock; until ultimately, they had to sell both their land and themselves as slaves to Pharaoh. The central government thus acquired all the land, gathering the people in towns while providing for their basic needs. True, they were grateful, telling Joseph “you have saved our lives” (v. 25), but there was a terrible price to pay: the uprooting of the population from their homesteads and their proleterianization, with an attendant loss of rootedness and identity of the small town farmer.

Most of the midrashim and major medieval commentators don’t seem to deal in depth with the socio-ethical dimensions of this problem, confining their comments largely to explaining straightforward textual difficulties. (But see Nehama Leibowitz’s New Studies in Bereshit/Genesis, pp. 520-529, where she suggests a covert criticism of this state centralization, contrasting the Egyptian system to the Torah ideal in Lev 25.)

This section, and the issues it implies regarding the ethics of government economic policy, came to mind in recent weeks with the stormy Knesset debates about Israel’s budget for the year 2002. This budget involves a drastic cost in government spending (as required by the difficult economic times), but with the costs concentrated particularly on social and cultural services and subsidies: cancelling tax cuts to Negev, intended to stimulate much-needed growth in that area (once the area of BG’s dream for the future of Israel, now a center of socio-economic backwardness, unemployment and poverty); cut-backs in social security, education, and medical services; etc. Social Security in particular seems to be used as a reservoir of funds to be transferred to cover deficits in other areas. (Am I being naive in noting that social security administrations, both here and in the US, were originally supposed to be independent agencies, with their own book-keeping separate from the government’s budget, precisely to provide “security” for those who paid in through their working lives, knowing that the money they pay in would be earmarked for their needs in old age, and other social needs of the ordinary citizen? Can it be that our government is acting in bad faith?)

But lo and behold, who does not suffer? The only ones who don’t seem to be called upon to sacrifice for the general welfare are—the wealthy. Governmental subsidy of the matching “employment tax” paid by employers will continue. Scandalously, there is not even a tax on capital gains from investments, such as exists in the United States. Needless to say, the economists offer a rational explanation: stimulating economic growth must take priority over all else. The investors, even loyal Israeli businessman, will run away if they’re made to shoulder any more of the burden. Eventually, the benefits will “drip down” in the firm of more jobs and general prosperity. Is it far-fetched to suggest that this is a self-serving argument: selfishness dressed up as science and with a mantle of academic respectability? Can it be that the entire discipline of economics has lost its intellectual autonomy and integrity and become no more than “perfumers and cooks” for the new ideology of global capitalism? (By the way, I cannot be accused of talking politics here, because Labor is as much a rich man’s party as Likud, if not more so.)

I am reminded in this context of a sermon I heard a few months ago from Judge Sefi Elon on Parshat Vayera. He raised the question: what, exactly, was the sin of the people of Sodom, that led the Torah to describe them as “very evil and sinful” [Gen 13:13; cf. 18:20]? (Indeed, Sodom is frequently used in the Bible as a byword for deliberate, premeditated evil, used by the prophets as the strongest possible term by which to condemn the people of Israel. See Isa 1:9-10; 3:9; Jer 49:18; 50:40; Ezek 16; Lam 4:6; and, already in the Torah, Deut 29:22 and 32:32). One standard answer is that they were guilty of every crime in the book: wanton cruelty, sexual perversion (whence the term “sodomy”), robbery, general violence, etc. But there is another, more subtle answer. A familiar passage in Pirkei Avot 5.14 reads: “There are four measures among men. One who says, ‘What’s mine is mine, and what’s your is yours’: this is an in-between quality, and there are those who say, this is the measure of Sodom…” Other midrashim, as well as Talmudic sugyot on this question, interpret this as standing by the letter of the law, of insisting upon one’s own technical rights, without sympathy, compassion, or willingness to bend, to forego privilege for the sake of those less fortunate than oneself. In brief: the sin of Sodom was garden-variety apathy, selfishness, the ethics of limited responsibility, of the supremacy of property. If you like (and here I add of my own to Elon’s remark): very much like the ethos of capitalism, the philosophy of “laissez faire,” the belief that the forces of the marketplace will eventually even things out and create the best possible society. Let the reader be the judge.


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