Friday, November 12, 2010

Vayetze (Individual & Community)

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to this blog at 2005_11_15archive/html/ and at November 2006 and 2007, December 2008 and November 2009.

We mark with sadness two years (on 11 Kislev) since the tragically early passing of our teacher and friend, Rabbi Mickey Rosen. Study in his memory at Yakar, 10 Lamed-Heh, this Wednesday evening at 8:00 pm.

Jacob’s Vision

This week’s parashah begins with one of the first dream visions in the Torah; more usually, the patriarchs speak with God while awake, in an seemingly normal conversational manner. Here, we have the powerful and rather enigmatic vision (which over the centuries has enjoyed any number of diverse interpretations) of the angels ascending and descending a ladder, at his pinnacle sits God Himself. Upon waking, Jacob is filled with the numinous sense of the place, coupled with surprise that “Indeed, there is God in this place, and I did not know it… This is none other than the House of God and the gate of Heaven” (Gen 28:16-17). Was the place as such unique in its being a site for the Divine presence, or is the lesson to be learned that God may be experienced in any place? An important question, but not our subject today.

In any event, in terms of our theme this year of the continuum or tension between individual and community, religious experience is by its nature individual, almost by definition. In this case, Yaakov’s loneness is accentuated here by the fact that the vision occurs on a journey, at a place where he stops to sleep for the night. There is one great exception to this rule, which lies at the very heart of Judaism: the Revelation at Sinai, experienced by the entire people. (Interestingly, Rambam plays down the experience of the masses at Sinai, describing it as very limited and vague in nature, serving mostly to establish the legitimacy of Moses, as prophet and as the channel through whom they were to receive the teaching of the Torah; hence, Moses’ role as prophet and teacher totally dovetail.)

In what sense is religious experience individual by its very nature? Simply because it is a function of the soul, of awareness, perhaps of the intellect (if not necessarily of the rational faculty); it involves a very special type of consciousness, a sense of mystery, of encountering something beyond human understanding—what Rudolph Otto calls “the Wholly Other” and Habad refers to as מעבר לטעם ודעת —“beyond rationale or knowledge.” Notwithstanding certain ideological movements which spoke of “collective thinking,” thought by its very nature is an activity that occurs within the mind of each individual.

It is for this very reason, as I have noted here in the past, that prayer per se, as “service of the heart,” is an individual, personal act. Public worship is an halakhic performance, a kind of communal reenactment of the korban tamid, the fixed daily offerings made on behalf of the entirety of Israel in the Temple as of old. But the heart of prayer—the sense of standing before God, of being in the presence of the Shekhinah and addressing it—is by its nature individual, albeit it may be coordinated with the community by synchronizing the silent recitation of the Amidah with all those gathered together in the minyan.

Thoughts on Sisterhood

In Parshat Toldot we observed how “brotherhood” isn’t always all its cracked up to be. At times there may be violent conflict, which threatens to spill over into murder (as we saw with Cain and Abel, in Esau’s declared intention, and as we shall see again in the Joseph story), requiring flight on the part of the one so threatened in hopes that the other’s anger may “cool off.”

Among women (if I may venture an opinion on such matters as a man), both community and conflict assume a rather different guise. Some of the central scenes of Vayetze center upon the figures of Leah and Rachel—the two daughters of Laban who, through a ruse on the part of their father, end up sharing the same husband: an awkward situation, to say the least.

At the outset, according to the midrash, Rachel cooperates with Leah in deceiving Yaakov so that the marriage may be consummated and her sister not be put to shame. But later there is an ongoing rivalry between the two to have more children. Rachel was Jacob’s beautiful beloved, whereas Leah was ignored had “weak” (weepy?) eyes. But it is she who, through a kind of divine compensation for being the less beloved of the two, bears numerous children (“God saw that Leah was hated, and He opened her womb…”; Gen 29:31), while Rachel remains barren for many years. The implied assumption is that a woman’s life revolves around domesticity—bearing children, her relationship with a man, and all that goes with it. Almost all of the names given to the children reflect this ongoing “contest” between the two to bear children, and thereby prove oneself more feminine, more maternal, than the other. Thus, Leah: “God has seen (ra’ah) my anguish; now my husband will love me” (Reuven–29:32); “Now my husband shall accompany me (yilaveh ishi) for I have born him three sons” (Levi–v. 34); and later, when her maidservant Zilpah bears a son, “I have engaged in a most tortuous struggle (naftulei elohim niftalti) with my sister” (Naftali–30:8)—and so on, for both Leah’s other children and those which Bilhah bore for Rachel.

Various other incidents reflect the same motif: the mandrakes found by Reuven are traded by Leah for a night in bed with Yaakov (30:14-16); Rahel’s plea “Give me children or I shaIl die” and Ya’akov’s exasperated reply (30:1-2); and, most strikingly, that each of the sisters gives her respective maidservant to Ya’akov as a mistress, that she might serve as a surrogate womb to bear children in her name. Today, in wake of contemporary feminism, women more often than not do not identify themselves primarily in terms of their role as wives and mothers. Whether married and/or mothers or not, society has evolved to the point where women may realize themselves, for better or worse, as individuals. Note the large number of women from both parties elected in the recent American congressional elections; there were even more than a few contests in which both candidates were women—not to mention the female heads-of-state in many places in Europe and throughout the world. But notwithstanding, as many will be quick to note, the job market as a whole, particularly for the less educated, is not yet a “level” playing field. Whether this new ideal of individual self-realization is a wholly desirable development or not, and its impact on the family and on how children grow up, and thus on society at large—are issues that deserve deeper discussion.

In any event, an important part of the feminist revolution has been the rediscovery of “sisterhood,” of female bonding. Of course, women have always had ties with other women, both within the family and in their towns and neighborhoods, but in certain societies it has taken place in semi-underground circumstances, as in those ultra-conservative and moralistic societies in which the woman is supposed to stay within the confines of her (her father’s or husband’s) home (here in the Middle East, in Arab culture, this may at times takes extreme forms. Thus, there is a haddith in Islam in which Muhammed tells a woman not to visit her own father when he is sick, or even go to his funeral, because her husband forbade her to leave her home. This attitude impacted at least some of Rambam’s halakhic rulings). In Western society, women’s groups—women’s auxiliary of churches and synagogues, whose tasks are more often than not to arrange bake sales and other such homey activities, or the concept of women meeting for “kaffee klatch” or to play Mahjong or bridge—often bear the stigma of being somehow less “serious” than corresponding male groups. (But are such stereotyped male activities as poker games or watching football any more elevating culturally?) Today, one finds women increasingly bonding for serious cultural endeavors or to talk about their real lives in serious ways. In some third world countries (with Western seed-money), there is a potentially revolutionary movement for women to start their own small businesses, thereby improving the economies of these societies generally. But the most important message of this new emphasis on “Sisterhood” is for women to think of one another as fellows rather than as rivals and competitors for male favors and attention.


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