Friday, November 20, 2009

Toldot (Aggadah)

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to my blog, at November 2005, 2006, 2007, and December 2008.

“Two Nations are in Your Womb”

This week’s parasha begins with an oracle concerning the birth of the children with whom Rivkah is pregnant. While there are other prenatal oracles or prophecies in the Bible concerning the upbringing and ultimate destiny of children to be born—most notably, preceding the births of Samson and of Samuel, in Judges 13 and in 1 Samuel 1, respectively, nowhere else is there one as dramatic as this: (a) because it concerns the destiny of a pair of twins; (b) that it relates, not only to their own personal or individual destiny, but that of the nations that will stem from them, continuing into the indefinite future; (c) In the other two cases, the expectant mothers—Manoah’s unnamed wife and Hannah—hear the prophecy/blessing from an angel, or from Eli the priest (and, in Hannah’s case, she herself makes a vow). Here, troubled by the constant tumult and evident strife within her womb, Rivkah goes “to seek the Lord,” and is told: “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples will be separated from your innards; and nation will overcome [or: contend with] nation, and the older [literally, “greater”] will serve the younger” (Gen 25:23). The birth itself seems like a struggle between the two infants to see which one will emerge into the air of the world first: the second infant is holding on to the heel of the firstborn, as if to overtake him (compare the other pair of twins in Genesis: the birth of Peretz and Zerah in Gen 38:27-30).

The two babies are, of course, Jacob and Esau, who serve as archetypes for the future nations of Israel and Edom. But the latter, more than a specific nation, becomes an ever-changing archetype of the non-Jewish world as a whole: originally referring to the Idumeans, it came to stand for Rome, Byzantium, Christianity, or Europe generally—and there are no doubt contemporary darshanim who would read Esau as Western secular culture. (The other great antithesis and occasional nemesis to the Jewish people, the Arab-Islamic nation, is of course mythically identified with Ishmael, Yitzhak’s rival half-brother).

We shall examine two aggadot that relate to this verse. First, b. Megillah 6a:

Caesarea and Jerusalem: If someone tells you that both are destroyed, do not believe him; that both are settled, do not believe him. [If he says} Caesarea is destroyed and Jerusalem settled, Jerusalem destroyed and Caesarea settled, believe him. “I will fill it from its ruins” [Ezek 26:2]—if this one is filled, that one is destroyed; if that one is filled, this one is destroyed. Rav Nahman bar Yitzhak said, [we infer it] from here: “and one nation shall overcome / vie with the other” [Gen 25:23].

Caesarea, today a wealthy Israeli bedroom community on the Mediterranean shore, was in tannaitic times the symbol of the presence of Roman civilization in Palestine: a prosperous, half-pagan city that embodied the values and way-of-life of the great empire. Renamed and built up as a major metropolis by Herod, who renamed it in honor of the great Roman emperor, it was filled with pagan temples, bathhouses, wide roads, imposing public buildings, a large amphitheater, and boasted a deep sea harbor that made it a center of international commerce. From the viewpoint of Hazal, it was the most important of kerakhei hayam, the “great cities of the sea,” that symbolized the antithesis to Jewish culture—devoted exclusively to human pleasures (including high-class prostitution; see Avodah Zarah 17a; HY X: Haazinu-Shuvah), as opposed to the life of holiness symbolized by Jerusalem.

Our aggadah poses a very simple thesis: Caesarea and Jerusalem or, more generally, Jewish and Gentile culture, are in constant struggle with one another; when one is in ascendancy, the other is in decline, and vice versa. This struggle, which began in Rivkah’s womb, is a never-ending one, to which there is never a conclusive solution, but only temporary victories for one side or the other.

A corollary of this, in traditional Jewish historiography, is that Jews are destined to be “a people apart,” who can never be truly assimilated or accepted in the world. Champions of this view point to the love affair of 19th century German Jewry with German humanistic culture, and their hopes for integration and synthesis therein—hopes that were conclusively dashed by the rise of Nazism with its terrible consequences. Some would argue that the present situation, in which Israel is treated as a semi-pariah nation by many Leftists and western intellectuals, held to higher standards than other nations, whose far more serious violations of human rights are ignored, puts the lie to the hope that Zionism and Israeli sovereignty would bring about the “normalization” of Jewish relations with the world and its acceptance within the family of nations “like all the other nations.” Jewish apartness is, in this view, not something to be explained in terms of sociology or Real-Politik, but something innate in the nature of the universe: a metaphysical, even cosmic fact, dating back to time immemorial.

Is this indeed the case? Are Jewish relations with the world indeed a zero-sum game? Can we never take our rightful place within the human family? Are hopes, e.g., for a new era in Jewish-Christian relations a chimera? Friends of mine who work in Jewish-Christian dialogue seem to think not: they say that there are signs of change, even in the once-intransigent Catholic Church (and my own experience in this area also seems to confirm this). Or has Jewish-Christian rivalry merely been supplanted by Jewish-Muslim conflict, with its far more murderous potential? This is perhaps the most important question for our time, of not for all times.

The second aggadah on this verse gives a more sanguine view of Jewish-Gentile relations, with hopes for friendship on a basis of equality. Avodah Zarah 11a:

“Two nations are in your womb” [Gen 25:23]. Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rav: Do not read “nations” (גויים) but “proud ones (גאים; the Masoretic tradition prescribes that this word be written in the Torah scroll as גיים, presumably the source for this gloss). This refers to Antoninus and Rabbi [i.e., Judah Hanasi], from whose tables there were never lacking radish, gourd nor horseradish, neither in the sunny season nor in the rainy season.

Presumably, these vegetables were seasonal delicacies, whom only the extremely wealthy could afford year round. A modern equivalent might be someone who ate fresh strawberries, apricots and peaches in winter, or a multi-millionaire gourmet whose private chef flies to distant parts of the world to get special rare ingredients to satisfy his whims.

There are several stories in the Talmud about conversations and meetings between Antoninus and Rabbi Yehudah. His identity is not entirely clear: there are several Roman emperors known by that name, but Marcus Aurelius Antoninus seems a likely candidate. He was both an outstanding Roman man of letters with an inquisitive turn of mind whose conversation would be of interest to Rabbi, and emperor. He lived from 121-180 CE, and reigned from 160-180: dates which overlap those of Rabbi Yehudah, who was born in 135.

In any event, the point is that, among both the Roman leadership and the Jews, there were wealthy people who could afford whatever luxuries they wanted. But beyond that fact, what is the point of this story? That wealth and luxury were to be found among both the Romans and the Jewish people—Rabbi Judah, the editor of the Mishnah, was also “the Prince” and considered, at least by the Jews, as the height of its own aristocracy. The fact that, notwithstanding the political subjugation of Judaea to Rome throughout this period, there were pockets of wealth, and these somehow served as a source of pride.

Yalkut Yehudah finds it difficult to believe that the Talmud is concerned with such externals, and suggests an ethical interpretation: that both these men, despite their great wealth, were decent, righteous men, whose prime concerns were ethical and spiritual ones. Perhaps their friendship and mutual respect may serve us as a more positive model for relations between Jewry and the world at large.


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