Friday, December 03, 2004

Vayeshev (archives)

“And Jacob dwelt”

Here the scene changes, and the curtain falls on Yaakov’s active life. He lives another forty-odd years, but the focus moves to his sons, the drama of their interactions, their hates and loves, etc. I’m not sure just how Yaakov’s old age fits into my projected scheme of a bildungsroman. He becomes an éminence grise, a wizened old man blessing Pharaoh, but in many ways living vicariously through and dependent on his children, and suffering through their conflicts and troubles. He is a sentimental, loving father, who must yield the reins to Judah, and then to Joseph. He is very much like King David, too blinded by his sentimental love for his child to ever really see them for who they are or to raise them with the proper mixture of sternness and love.

Before leaving Yaakov, a brief comment on one of the opening Rashi’s. Rashi on Gen 37:2 states “‘And Jacob dwelled…’ Yaakov wished to sit in tranquility, and the trouble of Joseph and his brothers was thrust upon him.” A friend of my parents, a secular socialist who in his childhood in White Russia studied in a traditional heder and maintained a soft spot in his heart for “old-fashioned” Jewish culture, taught me this Rashi when I was quite young. (As Toldot Ya’akovYosef constantly teaches us, each part of the Torah speaks to each person and to each time period.) Though no longer religious, my parents’ friend identified himself with the figure of Yaakov as portrayed in this Rashi: he found the peace and quiet of his retirement years spoiled by problems and worries involving his two daughters: the one, “too attractive for her own good,” a sexy New York Jewish intellectual, flitted from man to man and refused to “settle down”; the other, an old-maidish librarian, “ugly as virtue,” in one of my brother’s memorable phrase, whose one real marriage prospect suddenly died on the eve of their wedding.

But leaving aside this possibly amusing anecdote, the second half of Rashi makes the truly significant point: “The righteous wish to sit in tranquility in this life; the Holy One blessed be He says, ‘That which I have prepared for them in the World to Come isn’t enough? They want to sit in tranquility in this world too?!’” The point made here is a profoundly pessimistic one: that the ordinary human desire for a bit of peace and quiet at the end of the day, or at the end of a long life filled with trials and tribulations, is somehow wrong; that conflict and troubles in life are inevitable, the very stuff of life, and the desire to avoid them is not only unrealistic, but vaguely sinful or at least improper. The view is that this life is meant to be an arena of troubles and confrontations and difficulties, and only thus do we somehow constantly prove our mettle, spiritually speaking.

Images of Yosef: The Mystery of Personality

The next four Torah portions center around the figure of Yosef, or Joseph. What manner of person is he? What are we to make of the mystery of his personality? There are many different images through which one may see Yosef. He is a dreamer, but of a very different type from Yitzhak, whom we described earlier as a contemplative mystic, quietly content with his own company. There is in him something of the narcissist, fawning on his own self, filled with dreams of greatness, of superiority over brothers. Then there are issues of masculinity and gender which, to be candid, is problematic in various ways for nearly all of the patriarchs; in any event, one that does not fit into the tough, aggressive male model of contemporary (and ancient e.g. Greek) mythology (which midrash identifies with the thoroughly negative model of Esau). American Jewish literature is preoccupied with this problem: the Jew as nebbish, as not quite masculine, as in Philip Roth and Woody Allen, who develop this theme in counterpoint to complaints about the domineering qualities of Jewish woman ( the stereotype of the JAP). There are those who see the roots of this in the shteitl—the stereotype of the passive talmid hakham vs. the baaleboste who runs the store, earns a living, and runs the practical side of life. Daniel Boyarin has recently studied this issue, posing Jewish models of male heterosexuality as alternatives to Western models. Yosef in some way fits this paradigm. Even the story of his heroic resistance of the lewd advances of Potiphar’s may be seen in ambivalent terms, as betraying a certain inherent weakness.

Then there is Yosef as the successful son: the one upon whom his parents rely in their old age. This may be seen through the lens of the Jewish experience of immigration: the archetype of the Jew who “makes it” in a strange, new land; once again, a familiar figure in American Jewish experience. The flip side of this is the problem of assimilation, the ambivalence of Yosef’s identity: the use of double names, in both Hebrew and in the non-Jewish vernacular (Yosef and Zafnath-paneah); his goyish appearance—he was no doubt clean shaven, dressed in Egyptian clothing; his speaking the foreign language; his marriage to the daughter of an Egyptian priest. Yet, at least in the Midrashic image, he is ultimately loyal to his tradition and to the covenant, Yosef ha-Tzaddik.

Which breaks us to the mythic image of Yosef: Yosef ha-Tzaddik, Joseph the righteous; symbol of sexual purity. Rav Soloveitchik once connected the figure of Yosef to that of the tzaddik be-tiv’o of Maimonides’ “Eight Chapters”: one who is by nature without overwhelming lusts or passions, and hence blessed with a certain natural goodness and purity. Such a one is also, Kabbalistically speaking, “Tzinnor ha-Shefa,” the channel of abundance, of the cosmic flow of blessing. Thomas Mann, in Joseph and His Brothers, entitles one section “Joseph the Provider,” describing Yosef, in more mundane terms, as an FDR type, providing for the entire population by centralized, wise planning in time of famine. Yet this too is problematic: under Yosef’s management, the population was turned from one of peasants living upon their own land into sharecroppers, than indentured servant. But more on this later.

Joseph the Zaddik?

I will elaborate here upon only one of these images: Joseph as the archetypal spoiled brat. Narcissistic, spurred on by the obvious preference of his parents (in this case the father, since he was an orphan, but more often, in real life, the mother), convinced beyond doubt that the world revolves around him. (“Behold, The sun and the moon bow down to me.”). All he needs to do, his indulgent parents constantly tell him, is to simply be his naturally brilliant and talented self, and the word will bow at his feet. He is so sure of his own centrality that he makes no visible effort to be a normal child, to play with others as equals. No: “and Joseph brought the bad report [of his brothers] to his father.” He fawns on parental approval, and on that (and adult approval generally) alone. Not for him the rough-housing of playing with other boys, of the camaraderie and testing which lead to male bonding. He is always alone, dreaming, with a strange, inward, self-preoccupied smile on his lips. His father foolishly encourages this by appointing him a kind of supervisor over his brothers, sending him all the way from Hebron to Shechem by himself (even in modern times a good two hour’s drive or more: how long must it have taken in ancient times? And from there to Dothan, even further north?) In how many Diaspora Jewish families has this scenario been played out? And is it any wonder that his brothers hated the obnoxious brat?

His charmed life seems to end when his brothers catch up to him and he is sold into slavery in Egypt—but not for long. He is highly successful as household manager for Potiphar, who soon entrusts all details of the management of his household to him. One day the mistress of the house tries to seduce him, and he righteously flees from her voracious advances. Is he a saintly man, resisting the sinful temptations of the flesh, when no one will ever know, and at an age when he must be at the height of his own sexual desire and vigor, or is he a prig? Is one being overly cynical in finding something slightly ridiculous in the figure of a 28-year-old virgin “fleeing/escaping outside” (the Hebrew phrase vayonas hahutzah is repeated no less than four times; what is this repetition telling us?) Obviously, I am not suggesting that it would have been more admirable had he committed adultery with her, but were these the only alternatives? Somehow, I cannot but wonder whether, if Joseph somehow been more centered in his own masculinity—like Judah?—he would not have found himself in this ludicrous situation.

It is interesting that two tales of sexual scandal are paired back to back against one another in Genesis 38 and 39 -- Joseph’s near seduction by Potiphar’s wife, and Tamar’s pregnancy, craftily engineered by her posing as a harlot. It is also interesting that the text seems to take the fact of Judah’s visit to a whore in a matter-of-fact way. He has gone to “be comforted” after the loss of his wife by visiting his friend Hirah in Adullam. Is this part of the pattern of male camaraderie, rather like working class males going drinking at a bar followed by a visit to a whore-house? In any event, he finds the woman sitting at the crossroads, discusses the details of her payment, leaves a pledge, and that is that. It seems accepted that, as a vigorous widower, he will want a woman now and again, and paying for her services is a perfectly natural thing.

Not so Tamar. When her indiscretion is discovered, she is taken out to be burned to death. (Interestingly, the traditional commentators are hard put to define precisely her sin. Apparently, were she fully unencumbered, there would be no sin. It is only because she is either, a) a shomeret yabam, still awaiting the brother-in-law to consummate a levirate marriage, or b) the daughter-in-law of a prominent chief, who is tantamount to being a priest, that makes her act culpable or shameful.) In any event, once she produces the pledge, making it evident that Judah was her customer and the childrens’ father, all is free and forgiven. She was adopting a guise to achieve a higher end—perpetuating Judah’s line, and ultimately, to quote Genesis Rabbah, bringing down the “light of King Messiah” destined to be descended from this union.

To return to Joseph: he is again thrown into the “pit” and meets Pharaoh’s two servants, the baker and the cup-bearer, who tell him his dreams. He modestly says, “God will answer dreams,” but immediately adds “tell me, please.” Is he authentically pious, or is he still convinced that he is second only to the Almighty in knowledge of hidden things?

Perhaps these later chapters—Miketz and Vayigash—are to be read, not so much as a tales of the brothers’ repentance, but of Joseph’s character at last maturing, and him showing some signs of authentic modesty, of reaching out for true brotherhood and camaraderie with his long-lost siblings, of exhibiting a degree of true graciousness, forgiveness, and self-effacement. That, as much as Judah’s “I shall be surety for the lad” are the real drama of these chapters.

Hanukkah: From Darkness into Light

Once again it is Hanukkah. First, a brief peshat I heard, or read, from Phil Chernofsky of the Torah Tidbits: Hanukkah candles are lit during the darkest season of the year, in the depths of winter; beginning on the 25th of the lunar month, as the moon light is nearly completely disappearing; and, of course, at the beginning of the night. One is entering into darkness on three separate, but intertwined levels. Within this deep darkness, we light a small candle to symbolize the reversal or overcoming of this process, through the act of creating ner mitzvah vetorah or, “the illumination of the commandment and the light of the Torah.” But viewed in a more thoughtful light, there is a certain problem with the standard message of Hanukkah. Are we really prepared to accept uncritically the message, most often articulated, of a categorical rejection of Hellenism? After all, most of us are not about to jettison our Western cultural baggage. We seek “synthesis”—“Torah with….” (fill in the dotted line: derekh Eretz, avodah, mada, or whatever). Many of us may speak of a “love affair” with America or with Europe. The rhetoric of total rejection of the West, heard in Haredi circles and to a certain extent among that portion of the second generation of Religious Zionism who have turned to ultra-nationalism, is too repugnantly obscurantist for many of us. What then do we do with Hanukkah?

Let’s start with the following: the Yevanim (“Greeks”) of Hanukkah were the bearers of a bastardized, degenerate version of Greek culture. A Hellenism for the Levant. They spoke Koine Greek, which was decidedly not the language of Homer and Plato and Sophocles. More significantly, they represented a cultural imperialism, forcing their practices upon the Jews of Eretz Yisrael, imposing draconic anti-religious laws, and prohibiting the practice of some of the most basic institutions of Jewish religious life—Shabbat, Milah (circumcision), and Kiddush hahodesh (the sanctifying of the New Month by the Court).

Whatever Hellenism was, whatever we may wish to appropriate of its culture for ourselves, we must adopt for ourselves, through our own choice, based upon our own values, and integrated into our own scale of values. The slogan must be yaft elohim leYefet vayishkon be-ohalei Shem. “May God enlarge Japheth (forebearer of the Hellenic peoples; also a term alluding to beauty), and let him dwell in the tent of Shem” (Gen 9:27). (I know I’m starting to sound too much like S. R. Hirsch). Somehow, the cultural contents must be filtered through Jewish lenses and standards—and that makes all the difference. This is a point well worth remembering in the age of the Politically Correct.

“Dew and Rain for Blessing”

The following comments were originally intended to be made after Shabbat Noah, when we in Israel began reciting the prayer for rain, the two words added in the benediction for material blessing: “… send dew and rainfall as a blessing upon the face of the land.” In the Diaspora, this prayer is only introduced sixty days after the vernal equinox (corrected for the changeover from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar), on December 4th, during what R. Saadya Gaon’s Siddur calls tokfoh shel horef, “the full force of the winter.” This year it coincides with the very first weekday prayer of Hanukkah, this Saturday night.

In any event, as a result of occasionally worshipping in Sephardic synagogues, I have become aware of an interesting puzzle regarding this prayer. The Sephardim don’t merely add the two words in question, but recite an entirely different version of this blessing during the winter months: “and let the entire world drink its full of Your goodness… fill our hands with your blessing and with the rich gifts of Your hands… Guard and protect this year from every bad thing… and give us good hope and a peaceful end…. Bless us with rains of blessing and generosity… and let its end by blessing and fulness and peace as in the good years… “ The Mishnah (Ta’anit, Chap. 1) and other halakhic sources merely state that one begins to “ask for rain” (shoa’alin al hageshamim) in ones prayers from a certain date, without specifying the exact contents of that “request.” Why did the Ashkenazim understand this in minimalist terms, as merely adding a passing reference to rain, whereas the Sephardic tradition included a full-scaled prayer for rain (to my mind closer to the original intention of the mishnaic halakhah)? To date, I have been unable to discover any significant discussion of this point in the sources.

To make matters even more complex, some of these phrases do in fact appear in the special prayer recited in times of drought, Aneinu Borei Olam (which we have unfortunately had excessive occasion to recite here in Israel in recent years). This in turn presents several anomalies and enigmas regarding both its own legal standing and its origins. The subject requires further exploration and research.