For further teachings on this parsha, please see Archives for December 2005.
Between Rashi and Peshat
Earlier this week I received an email from a new reader, Pinhas Kahn, relating to some questions of the methodology of how we study Rashi:
… You seem not to be fully aware of the nature of midrashic interpretation (symbolism, allegory, etc.). Rashi’s statement re Yaakov’s grabbing Esau’s ankle is not to be understood as physical reality. And Rashi’s continual attack (unfairly) of Esau is again midrashic, this time understanding Esau as representing Jew-hating Christians. Rashi lived through the First Crusade, the shock of which had a profound effect upon the Ashkenazic Jewish community, and on Rashi as well. An interesting academic question would be whether Rashi felt that his interpretation was of the actual intent and meaning of the text, with the text speaking prophetically, or whether he was simply speaking to his generation in their hour of need….
Let me begin by stating that I am well aware of the nature of midrashic interpretation; indeed, I devoted an entire year (Volume III of HY) to discussing various midrashim, attempting to understand their implied message and, as I always do, studying each text in its own terms. It seems to me that almost the first thing that strikes any reader of either the Talmud or the Midrash is the vast gap between them and what seems to be the literal or common-sense meaning of the biblical text. Rashi is, of course, very much an heir to the Oral Torah tradition or what is called by scholars Rabbinic Judaism, and his commentary, whatever else it may be, is a kind of distillation of that tradition, on the levels of both halakhah and aggadah. Thus, in the narrative passages of the Torah he draws heavily on Midrash Rabbah and other classical aggadic midrashim, while in the legal sections he quotes extensively from the relevant Talmudic halakhic passages.
The question is, what is one to make of all this? One approach is to reject the Oral tradition as a more-or-less fabrication or even falsification of the real meaning of the text; a second, opposite approach is to assert, perhaps in a dogmatic way, that notwithstanding appearances, the Oral tradition is the true, authentic interpretation of the written text. I believe that a third approach is possible: that the Oral Torah is indeed largely a new, human creation, but that it is nevertheless valid. The Torah itself, through what I once called the “escalator clause” in Deut 17:10-11, empowers the Sages to interpret with broad latitude and to create new Torah according to their own deepest understanding; that there is, in fact, a kind of partnership between Man and God, in which man creates large sections of the Oral Torah—again, both in halakhah and aggadah (I find this idea to be a central theme in the Sefat Emet).
Regarding two specific points raised by Pinhas. First, it is the Torah text, not Rashi, which speaks of Yaakov grabbing Esau’s ankle; in any event, I thought I made it clear that what seemed to be important in Rashi’s anatomically improbable description of the two drops of seed becoming the two babies and exiting in the reverse order from that in which thy entered, was his attempt to find as many justifications as possible for Yaakov’s claim to the birthright (I shall return to that issue next week). As for the second, “academic,” historical question: I suspect that Rashi and other medieval thinkers did not have a sophisticated sense of history, or of the distinction between the original intent and the midrashic level to which it gave birth.
But on another plane, the medieval exegetes do in fact refer to Pardes—four levels of commentary: peshat, remez, sod, derash; that is, literal, homiletical, allegorical, and mystical-symbolic—suggesting that they were far from oblivious of their departure from the literal sense of the text, although not viewing this in the critical way modern people might. (Incidentally, medieval Christians used a similar concept of “four-square interpretation” of the Bible, in their own way, at about the same point in time.)
Perhaps our self-consciousness makes it more difficult for us to believe in a multi-leveled Torah in the same way as our ancestors did. Gershom Scholem, founder of modern Kabbalah studies, and in his personal belief a self-declared religious anarchist, writes of the creative freedom that is, in seemingly paradoxical fashion, facilitated by this naive, literal belief in the divinity of the Torah. In one of his more personal essays, Scholem writes:
What is the basic assumption upon which all traditional Jewish mysticism in Kabbalah and Hasidism is based? …. That each and every word and letter, and not merely something general and amorphous lacking in specific meaning, is an aspect of the revelation of the Divine Presence; and it is this specific revelation of holiness that is meant by Torah from heaven. It is only for this reason that they were able to find infinite illuminating lights in every word and letter, in the sense of seventy faces to the Torah—of the infinite interpretation and endless understandings of each sentence.… Once a person has accepted… this quality of faith… he enjoys an extraordinary measure of freedom, to which the history of the Kabbalah gives abundant testimony. He… is able to uncover level upon level, layer upon layer, in the understanding that the gates of exegesis are never closed—and not necessarily because the talents of the person himself are unlimited. …
The awesome faith in the power hidden within the divine word… served as the basis for the mystical decision based upon the exegesis of this word. This… allows wide latitude for religious individualism, without leaving the fixed framework of the Torah… but for many of us that very thing was a tremendous, if not an absolute, obstacle. (Gershom Scholem, “Reflections on the Possibility of Jewish Mysticism in Our Time,” in On the Possibility of Jewish Mysticism in Our Time & Other Essays [Philadelphia–Jerusalem: JPS, 1997], 13-15.)
Jerusalem or Beth-El?
I have devoted considerable space to this issue, because the passage I wish to discuss this week is one of the most blatantly “aggadic” texts in Rashi, presenting what to many may seem fantastic solutions to the difficulty. The problem confronted by Rashi, to which he offers several different solutions, is this: How could the central epiphany in Jacob’s life described here, his encounter with the Divine Presence in such an intense and awesome way, have occurred in a place other than Jerusalem, the place destined to be the site of the future Temple? The Torah speaks here of Bethel as “the house of God,” when our tradition clearly speak of Jerusalem as the holiest place, and as that place in the world where God, so to speak, makes His home.
Gen 29:17: “And he was frightened, and said: How awesome this place is! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” Rashi: “This is none other than the house of God.” Rabbi Eleazar said in the name of Rabbi Yossi ben Zimra: The ladder stood in Beer-sheva and the middle of its incline was opposite the Temple. For Beer-sheva is in the south of the [tribal territory of] Judah, and Jerusalem is in its north, at the border between Judah and Benjamin. And Beth-El was in the north of the inheritance of Benjamin, at the border between Benjamin and the tribes of Joseph. We find that its legs were in Beer-sheva, and its head in [i.e., above] Beth-El, and the middle of its incline opposite Jerusalem.
For the Holy One blessed be He said to Himself: Shall this righteous man come to My resting place, and be allowed to depart without sleeping there?
The solution proposed here is an ingenious one. Jacob indeed experienced this vision while sleeping in Beth-El, a small town some 20 km. NNE of Mount Moriah in Jerusalem, mentioned as one of the places where Abraham built an altar and sojourned for a certain period of time (Gen 12:8). From that place, he saw the top of the ladder—a symbol, like that of a mountain, of that which unites heaven and earth—directly above his head; the foot of the ladder was in Beer-sheva, the place from which he had departed; while its mid-point was over Jerusalem, serving as a pointer to that holy site. Rashi is thus trying to reconcile the actual location of the vision, the holy site which he evidently considered Beth-El to be—a place where there were numinous powers, a place that clearly had a certain potential for Presence that enabled him to have that dream—with those qualities associated with Jerusalem alone. The incline of the ladder, which connected it in a very natural way to several locations, somehow visibly united these two diverse aspects. But we continue:
They also said: Jacob called Jerusalem Beth-El, yet this was Luz and not Jerusalem. And from whence did they learn this? I say that Mount Moriah was uprooted and came here, and this is the “jumping of the earth” referred to in [the aggadah] in the tractate of [Slaughtering of] Hullin [91a]. That the Temple came to meet him, until Beth-El. And this is, “and he [suddenly] came upon the place” [above, v. 11].
Rashi is not satisfied with the first answer, which he tok from a midrash (Gen. Rab. 69.7). He wants to see Jacob relating to Jerusalem as the most important place (perhaps anachronistically), yet the site of his vision is clearly Luz and no Jerusalem. He thus offers a second answer, taken from another aggadah, this one in the Talmud: namely, that Jerusalem miraculously came to Beth-El, the earth “jumping” (or, “folding itself”) to greet Yaakov. (The last sentence in the previous section probably belongs more properly to this section.)
And should you ask: when Jacob passed the [site of] the Temple, why was he not caused to linger there [i.e., by God]? [If] he did not set his heart to pray in those places where his ancestors had prayed, should he be delayed by Heaven? Rather, he went as far as Haran, as we say in Chapter Gid Hanasheh [Hullin 91b] and as the verse proves. “And he went to Haran” [v. 10]. When he got to Haran he said: Is it possible that I passed a place here my forefathers prayed, and I did not pray there? He set his mind to return, and got as far as Beth El, and the land jumped forward towards him.
There is yet another difficulty here: Why didn’t Jacob stop at Jerusalem while en route? Surely, it is located more or less directly on the road from Beer-sheva to Beth-El and from there to Haran? Jacob seems to have undergone a certain subterranean change of mind: originally, it wasn’t important to him to visit all the sacred places where his ancestors had prayed—we don’t know why. And then he changed his mind, came all the way back to Beth-El (where Abraham had built an altar when he first entered the Land: Gen 12:8) and, as he approached Jerusalem, i.e., at Beth-El, was “met” by Jerusalem.
What is this all about? Why was it so important to pray where his ancestors had prayed? Perhaps it is connected to the well-known concept of ancestral virtue. Or perhaps his ancestors, by the act of praying there, somehow sanctified Beth-El and other places. Carrying it one step further: we are accustomed to thinking that there was some inherent numinous quality in the various places which were later sanctified; this may help to explain why different religions often revere the same sacred places (often struggling over them as well). But here, it would seem that it is the human act of worship that makes a place sacred. This is a very Jewish, halakhic approach: we know that various objects, such as a Torah scroll, tefillin, etc., are made sacred by the human act of writing, coupled with the intention to make it into a holy vessel; the same held true in olden times for animal sacrifices, tithes and priestly gifts, and even of the boundaries of the Temple and the Holy City of Jerusalem.
But the whole question of Beth-El vs. Jerusalem also raises another issue: the centralization of holiness (and of worship) in one sacred center, i.e., Jerusalem, vs. a multitude of sacred places, or the potential presence of the Divine everywhere! Some years ago I discussed (HY III: Vayetze = blog archives: Vayetze [Midrash]) the paradox involved in the very notion of a holy place: that, given that God is transcendent and infinite, He cannot really dwell anywhere, but must “contract” Himself in order to fit into the Temple, so in what sense is any particular place essentially holier than any other?
To return to our story here: Why did Jacob skip over these holy places, and then turn around and come back to them? One answer: he was fleeing from Esau (or, according to some, from his nephew Eliphaz ha-Temani) and hardly had the calm or presence of mind to stop and to pray.
(Beth-El [referred to here] is not that which is adjacent to Ai, but rather to Jerusalem. And because it was the city of God is was called Beth-El [lit., the house of God]. And this is Mount Moriah where Abraham prayed, and this is the field where Isaac prayed. And it says in the Talmud [Pesahim 88a], “Let us go up…” [Isa 2:3: the verse continues “to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob”]. Not like Abraham, who called it a mountain, and not like Isaac, who called it a field, but like Jacob, who called it the house of God. Thus far in an exact [or: old] Rashi.)
This last section is referred to as an “old” or “exact” Rashi: that is, a section not considered authentic by contemporary scholars, one that does not appear in the oldest and most accurate manuscripts (MS Leipzig 1; nor in the Berliner edition or in Torat Hayyim). It consists of marginal additions by Rashi’s students and their students in turn, that were included in the earliest printed editions, and copied from there in successive editions, down to the standard Mikraot Gedolot. At times, despite the claim to be “exact,” the text is garbled and unclear. But this particular “Rashi” is actually something very simple: it is copied from Rashi’s Talmud Commentary on the above-mentioned passage in Hullin.
The idea here is quite straightforward, representing yet a third interpretation of our verse: namely, that Yaakov’s vision did not in fact occur at Beth-El at all, but took place in Jerusalem itself—to which Yaakov referred by the poetic name of Beth-El, “House of God.”
I am reminded of a small incident that happened during my basic training in the IDF, many years ago. We were stationed near Beth-El, but on a certain occasion our group was brought to Shechem as reserve troops. After a few hours, when it was clear that our services were not likely to be needed, we were given an impromptu tour of the area, including Mount Gerizim. There we encountered an old Samaritan who was busy setting things up for the Passover Sacrifice they were to observe a few weeks later, who explained to us something of their beliefs and of who they were. When he asked where we were from we said, “We’re from Beth-El” (referring to our training camp, BH”D Arba), to which he replied “No! This is Beth El!”—referring to Mount Gerizim. That is, for the Samaritans, whose main polemic with mainstream Judaism revolved around the proper location of the Sanctuary, “Beth-El” could only be their own holy place—Mount Gerizim.
As for the Talmudic passage cited here: it is quoted to show that all three patriarchs, though they used different terms, were all referring to the same place: Jerusalem. But some years ago I suggested another reading of this passage: as a paradigm for different types of religious experience: transcendence (Abraham-mountain), immanence (Yitzhak-field), and feeling-at-home-with-God (Yaakov-house). See HY I: Vayetze = Archives Vayetze (Torah)
A Theological Postscript
Towards the end of the parsha, in the final encounter between Yaakov and Lavan, Yaakov refers to God by the unusual term, פחד יצחק, “the Fear of Yitzhak” (Gen 31:42)—i.e., He whom Yitzhak feared. Still later, when Lavan invokes an oath to seal the uneasy peace (or perhaps disengagement) between them, he concludes by saying “May the God of Avraham and the God of Nahor judge between us, the God of their fathers.” Yaakov, rather pointedly, swears his assent in the name of פחד אביו יצחק, “the Fear of his father Yitzhak” (v. 53).
Rashi explains this succinctly: “’God of Abraham’—Holy. ‘God of Nahor’—profane. ‘God of their fathers’—profane.” That is: “God of Nahor” is not among the names of the true God, but that of a pagan deity, and as such profane; by extension, “God of their fathers,” a kind of syncretistic combination of the two, is also profane.
I would like to suggest, only partly in jest, that Lavan’s phrasing may be seen as the first example in history of what Henry Kissinger, more than three and a half millennia later, called “constructive ambiguity”—that is, the use of vague language to smooth over fundamental disagreements between people, which can be understood by each side as he likes. Other examples include: the “Higher Power” of the Alcoholics Anonymous and other twelve-step groups, a vague reference to the Deity used to unite people of different religious traditions who share a concrete interest in conquering their common addiction; and the phrase, in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, “with reliance upon the Rock of Israel,” which may be understood by religionists as God, and by secularists as some vague national or historical spirit.
Against this approach, Jacob speaks of “the Fear of Isaac”—that is, in face of Lavan’s mushy, sentimental attempt to say that the God of Abraham and the God of Nahor are really the same, he is insistent upon clarity and clear distinctions in theological matters. As if to say: you can believe whatever you want, but I have definite views from which I cannot be shaken. I think this is an important point in Jewish faith generally. There is a definite rejection here of a kind of all-embracing ecumenism, that says “all religions teach the same thing” or “are equally valid,” or that would call for compromise on matters of principle. (Rabbi Soloveitchik’s essay “Confrontation” is still a classic Jewish statement of this issue, as are, lehavdil, the things written by the present pope when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger, in which he displays great sensitivity to the enormous delicacy of inter-religious dialogue.)