Friday, December 21, 2007

Vayehi (Mitzvot)

For further teachings on this parasha, see the archives to this blog at January 2006.

Honoring the Dead

This week’s parasha is focused upon the events surrounding Yaakov’s death, including two separate deathbed blessings (to Joseph’s children, and to all twelve of his sons), as well as depicting the great entourage that accompanied him back to the Land of Canaan/Israel. Interestingly, as Rav Soloveitchik once noted, the entire parasha may be viewed as a kind of hiatus between Vayigash and Shemot, in that it is really superfluous to advancing the “plot” of the Torah—suggesting that it comes to teach us other things.

There is an entire group of mitzvot and practices concerned with death and dying, beginning with the final moments of life, through the preparation and dressing of the body for burial, escorting the deceased to his/her burial place, burial itself, various prayers recited before and during the funeral procession and burial, eulogies, and concluding with various mourning and memorial practices and customs, all of which fall under the rubric of kevod hamet (respect for the dead). Without going into the specific details and reasons for all of the numerous practices (volumes have been written about the subject!), several basic ideas that run thorough them all:

1. Kevod ha-adam: the dignity and significance of human life. As a corollary of the innate significance of human life, so too is its passing treated with honor and respect. This is a basic fundament of Jewish thought, and may be seen as counterpoised to either a utilitarian or purely biological approach to human life. This is no simple matter: the Rav often spoke of the idea that death is the ultimate affront to meaning in life, a grisly event that seems to mock the human “pretense of being the choicest of all creatures.” The fact that all ends in death, annihilation of the person’s presence in the world, seems to contradict the idea that “you have made him little lower than angels,” and might easily lead to despair and questioning.

2. Gemillut hasadim: Acts of kindness. Caring for and burying the remains of the dead with both dispatch and dignity is an act of kindness; indeed, it is called gemillut hesed shel emet, the ultimate or truest act of kindness, since one cannot expect any repayment in kind from the recipient of the favors. In Parshat Vayetze we discussed how helping others to celebrate in times of joy is a form of gemillut hesed; here too, in the time of greatest loss and sadness, the community is called upon to support and help the mourners.

3. The Afterlife—Hayyei Olam ha-Ba: Many moderns are uncomfortable with such ideas, and Judaism does not by-and-large preoccupied with this subject, but there are nevertheless many sources in the tradition that speak of the survival of the soul, and of death as a kind of transition to some other state, which we cannot define or even imagine. Many customs surrounding death and burial, particularly those originating in the Kabbalah, are seen as protective rituals for the soul, to prepare the soul for its journey to the other world, to “cross the River Yabbok.”

4. Mourning: Death of a near one is a traumatic event, a rent for the survivors, that needs to be dealt with. Symbolically, the mourners find themselves on the periphery of life, only gradually returning to community, through shivah, sheloshim, and during the year. The nuclear family, in the absence of one member, must reconstruct itself in a new way. Though this is not its primary purpose, many psychologists and anthropologists have commented on the therapeutic value and wisdom of traditional Jewish mourning practices (anticipating by centuries Kübler-Ross and the current fashion of “thanatology”).

Rambam (Hilkhot Eivel 13.11-12) speaks of the importance of avoiding two extremes in mourning: cruelty, through mourning too little; and foolishness, through excessive mourning. In a sense, both extremes represent the same error: the denial of death and mortality. Indeed, one might well make a case that it is death that gives human life its significance. The knowledge that we have a limited span of time to live on this planet (and that none of us know when death will come) and that we are not eternal, adds a certain poignancy and weightiness to our choices—not only major ones, but, if we were to think things through and consider to the end, ultimately all of our choices.

Excessive mourning comes from an inability to accept the reality and inevitability of death—that “such is the way of the world.” It may be an expression of a certain kind of exaggerated, romantic notion of love, or of co-dependency: the idea that life is impossible without this particular person—although of course it always is in the end.

One who mourns “too little” is described by Maimonides as acting out of cruelty: it means acting as though what has happened is not significant. This is “cruel” both to the deceased, as if his/her life were not of sufficient significance to warrant mourning; and it is a kind of apathy towards the depth dimensions of life. Rambam concludes here by saying “rather one should fear, and be anxious, and examine his own deeds, and return in teshuvah.” That is, another’s death is a reminder of our own morality, that we will not live forever and one day we too shall go in that path—and hence ought to be perceived as a call to introspection and teshuvah. I was once at a funeral in Meah Shearim (of noted Bratslav hassid and teacher R. Gedalyah Koenig), held late at night, out-of-doors, next to his home in Batei Ornstein. Though more than a quarter century has since passed, I still remember how all those assembled cried out, in the words from the Days of Awe liturgy: Avinu malkinu, hatanu lefanekha! “Our Father, Our King, we have sinned before you!”

The minimalizing of mourning is often seen in Western society. In the norms of Gentile society, it is not unheard of for people (children, even the spouses) to return to work the day after a death. Some people have remarked that this is also a kind of denial of reality of death, because it is upsetting and disturbing. A generation or two ago, traditional death rituals such as Kaddish and shivah were widely observed even by Jews who were remote from most other Jewish observances—as is still by and large the case in Israel, even among avowed secularists. But as US Jewry moves into its fourth and even fifth generation of American-born, and as work-places have become ever more demanding and all-encompassing, there seems to be a gradual attrition in these observances—which is too bad.

“The End was Hidden from Him”

There is a curious turn in this parasha. Yaakov gathers his children together with the words: “Come and I will tell you what will happen at the End of Days” (Gen 49:1), but then goes on to talk of other things: he settles old scores with those of his children whose behavior was less than exemplary, and describes in a few choice words the unique character of each of his sons—but nowhere does he address the subject of the Eschaton, the Messianic End. Rashi, quoting the aggadah at b. Pesahim 56a, observes that ‘”He sought to reveal the End but the Shekhinah departed from him, and he began to say other things instead.”

Interestingly, this is one of the few places, as far as I know, in which Rashi repeats the same idea almost verbatim within the space of barely a chapter. The opening verse of Vayehi (47:28) is unique in that there is no space whatsoever between it and the previous parasha; it is the parasha setumah par excellence. Rashi comments there that this “hiddenness” or “closedness” alludes to the fact that “the Shekhinah was closed to him.” ביקש לגלות את הקץלבניו ונסתם ממנו. (In this passage he cites Gen Rab 96.1, which uses the word נסתם rather than נסתלקנה; if any readers can explain this duplication, I’d like to hear it). Yaakov was granted a glimpse of the End, knowledge which he wanted to pass on to his children—but suddenly the gates of eschatological vision were closed to him, and he “turned, almost distractedly, to other subjects: blessings–prophecies pertaining to the medium-range future of the various tribes.

This hesitancy to reveal the End, the idea that eschatological knowledge is a kind of esoteric gnosis, too powerful and dangerous to be disseminated, which led the Shekhinah to suddenly cut short Yaakov’s deathbed prophecy (at least in this respect), dovetails with a well-known Jewish reluctance to engage in hishuvei haketz, in calculations of the date of the Final Redemption. “May the bones of those who calculate the End swell up,” R. Shmuel b. Nahmani curses them in b. Sanhedrin 97b. Admittedly, there is also an opposite tendency: that same page of Talmud suggests a variety of dates for the Messiah’s coming, mostly close in time to their own age (4250=490 CE; 4290=530 CE); later, such notable thinkers as Ramban and Abravanel proposed their own timetables; and, from the Hebrew year 5000 on (1240 CE), there were constant messianic movements, involving group aliyot to Israel, usually centered on the century bench-marks (see, e.g., Arie Morgenstern’s paper in Azure 12 [2002]). In our own day, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe was notorious for the messianic frenzy into which he whipped up his Hasidim, nor was he alone in this respect. But the halakhic ”bottom line,” as I see it, is nevertheless that of Rambam, who states that “one ought not to make [these matters] one’s main concern, as they bring about neither love nor fear [of God]. Nor should he calculate the End… but wait and believe in the things in a general way” (Hilkhot Melakhim 12.2).

I would like to focus on one specific application of this principle. For many years the predominant ideology of Religious Zionism (and here I am writing as one who has in the broad sense identified with that movement in the past, and mourns the loss of an ideological home) has been to justify its support of Zionism by identifying this movement as a harbinger of or as somehow foreshadowing Messiah. This was done, both to defend its support of the largely secular movement of political Zionism, and to justify its break with the traditional attitude of historic passivity of what has come to be known as the Haredi world, whose banner cry was the “three oaths” of Ketuvot 111a. The phrase in the Prayer for the State of Israel, “the beginning of the blossoming of our Redemption,” expresses this vision. All this has become exacerbated since 1967, with the de facto Israeli presence in almost all of historical Eretz Yisrael—Shechem, Hebron, Bethlehem, and of course the Old City of Jerusalem—and the movement of settlement, which has become identified with Religious Zionism, as if the union of the two were self-evident.

I wish to pose here an alternative vision (which is of course not my own: such distinguished thinkers as the late Yeshayahu Leibowitz and, yibadlu lehayyim arukim, David Hartman, Aviezer Ravitzky, Uriel Simon, and, among rabbinic leaders, Aharon Lichtenstein and Yehudah Amital, have articulated, in one way or another). In essence, we must recognize and accept that we are still living within unredeemed history, and that we can say nothing definitive about the theological meaning of the State. My friend Dr. Menahem Kallus, when he leads prayers at Bira Amikta (the “Leader Minyan”), is in the habit of adding one word to the Prayer for the Welfare of the State of Israel: שתהא ראשית צמיחת גאולתינו, “that it shall be the beginning of the blossoming of our Redemption”—thereby changing it from a statement of fact to a prayer for the future. I strongly agree with this view.

Thus, religious Zionism becomes perfectly valid as the religious branch of a secular, this-worldly moment, whose goal was the establishment and is the ongoing existence of a national homeland for the Jewish people, in a world which had become increasingly hostile to the anomalous sort of national existence Jews had been living in the Golah. Or, as Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz succinctly put it: “We are fed up with being ruled by the goyim!” The religious branch of Zionism may not even be concerned with transforming the culture of the State, but simply with making it possible for religious Jews to live and function here. As Michael Rosenak once wisely observed: Religious Zionist Jews in Israel speak of their model as Rav Kook, with his mystical, messianic vision, but in practice their real model for everyday life is Samson Raphael Hirsch: that is, an approach focused on cultivating communities of religious families living in the state, not that differently than they did in Diaspora; assuring the availability of services needed for themselves and their families—synagogues, education, kashrut and Shabbat observance in public institutions, including a kosher Army; but without any grandiose, metaphysical historical vision. As a this-worldly movement, it behooves the State of Israel to be attentive to the reality of the world around us, and to conduct a policy based, not upon the belief that Messiah is around the corner or that the time has come for the Divine promise of inheriting the land to be realized in full, but in terms of a sober and realistic evaluation of its actual situation.

All this has clear implications as to how we deal with the burning political issues facing the state. In a nutshell, it leaves us open for negotiation with the Palestinians so as to arrive at some sort of equitable, peaceful solution to two nations living in the same land. And this applies to compromises, not only in the Land as a whole, but even regarding Jerusalem. From a strictly halakhic viewpoint (as I have argued in the past; see HY V: Yom Yerushalayim), ownership of the Temple Mount per se, without the Temple and the order of sacrifices, is utterly meaningless. If Jerusalem, or specifically the Temple Mount, is under some sort of sovereignty in the name of the Creator of heaven and earth who is worshipped by all the religions involved (a position that admittedly still needs to be “sold” to the Muslim side), what offense is there in that?

But having said that, the path to peace must be conducted with clear eyes, with great caution and realism, and even a certain element of skepticism as to whether our erstwhile enemies are indeed erstwhile. There can be ungrounded messianism on the Left as well; moreover, I fear that I am not blessed with an excess of trust in either Mr. Olmert’s wisdom nor in his uprightness of character. But all this is on a worldly level, not as an uncompromising meta-halakhic or religious vision.

VAYIGASH: Postscript

A few more thoughts about the Joseph-Judah story: It is true, as we stated last week, that Yosef was unable to maintain a posture of hardness and distant towards his brothers in face of Yehudah’s poignant plea: one which indicated in the clearest way that he was a changed person—no longer the impetuous hot-head ruled by the passions and hatreds of the moment, but a mature, responsible, caring adult and devoted son. And true, in some sense his choice was an existential one, in favor of fraternal friendship rather than aloof, cold leadership—the “objective gaze,” as Aviva Zornberg puts it. But this does not mean that all was sweetness and light between the brothers from then on. There was a certain ambivalence to the reconciliation; there was still great tension between them, as testified by the brothers’ anxious question, 17 years later, after the death of the old patriarch, upon their return from the lengthy funeral procession: “Maybe now he’ll finally exact his revenge on us” (such is the sense of Gen 50:15-21).

Indeed, Asher Yuval—a Yerushalmi who every week compiles and sends out a parshat hashavua sheet consisting of various Rabbinic sources on a particular topic in the parsha, with notes and discussion—asked the question: Did they ever “clear the air” among themselves? Did the brothers ever tell Yaakov, or Yosef, the true story as to exactly what they had done so many years earlier?

I can imagine a situation of acute interpersonal crisis—between husband and wife, between parents and children, between close friends or colleagues—in which there is much anger and mutual suspicion, perhaps even a separation, for a longer or shorter time. After some months or years they get together again—or perhaps they simply meet again, years later, under new circumstances. They may never “talk out” the deep issues that once divided them, but somehow they discover that they are once again friends; that they can accept one another as they are; that, while they can remember the bitter quarrels they once had, they no longer feel the intense emotion these carried. It is as if all that happened to different people: the struggles of yesteryear are no longer relevant. It is something like this, I imagine, that must have happened to Joseph and his brothers.

One more thought: Yaakov and Yehuda, as I once mentioned (HY I: Vayigash), represent archetypes of Jewish leadership. On one level, Judah was dominant, the noble forebear of the Davidic monarchy. But on another level, Joseph too had his kingdom—the northern kingdom of Israel that seceded after the death of king Solomon. So too, in Jewish eschatology, we have the (suffering) Messiah son of Joseph as precursor or harbinger to Messiah son of David.

Perhaps these two may also be seen in another way as eternal archetypes for splits and tensions in Jewish people, for different models of leadership. We are, after all, one people, but with profound differences among ourselves. There are numerous pairs one can imagine: political vs. spiritual leader; prophet and priest; hakham and navi; or, in more modern times, Hasid and Mitnagged; practical vs. cultural Zionism; universalist vs. particularist. Perhaps the Joseph-Judah dichotomy was not one that was resolved once and for all in favor of one side or another, but represents an archetype for the ongoing creative polarities in our people. But more on that, with God’s help, in a special essay in the coming weeks.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Vayigash (Mitzvot)

For further teachings on this parasha, see below, at the archives for January 2006.

Joseph the Provider

It is difficult to find one mitzvah as such that is emblematic of this parashah. Thus, I will approach this week’s reading by following the path of the Hasidic darshanim, who are fond of the question: “How is this part of the Torah applicable to every person, in every time and place?”

This parasha divides roughly into two equal parts, in both of which the central figure is Joseph, who here finally “come into his own.” The first half (Gen 44:18-46:7) tells of the reuniting of the brothers, when Joseph suddenly reveals them the truth, in the poignant words “I am Yosef your brother whom you sold to Egypt” (Gen 45:4). The phrase used by the Torah immediately preceding this disclosure is “and Yosef could not hold back”—ולא יכול יוסף להתאפק (v. 1)—as if to say, he was acting under deep emotionally compulsion. I see him as at long last surrendering to his natural emotions; as no longer able to maintain the carefully maintained mask of alienation, indifference, manipulation, even cruelty that he played until then. In a moment, he chose friendship, fellowship, a kind of fraternal equality, above rulership and power.

In the second half (46:28-47:27), separated from the first half by a list of names of all those (males) of Jacob’s family who came down to Egypt, Yosef implements his plan for Egypt as a whole: he gathers grain from the peasant farmers, in return for which he (acting on behalf of the government) sustains them once the famine sets in, providing them with carefully stored food, enabling them to survive the thin years. This is the source of the Kabbalistic image of Yosef as Tzaddik. Usually translated as “Righteous,” the image is related to the Sefirah of Yesod, portrayed in concrete image as a kind of funnel or channel carrying the supernal, divine flow of abundance down into the world generally.* [see note below]

Turning from the mythic to the ethical dimension: the task of Yosef-Zaddik is to provide sustenance: again, the classical male role of provider. Here he sustains the nation as a whole. Indeed, Thomas Mann, in his great quadrilogy, Joseph and His Brothers, paints him as a kind of FDR figure, saving his nation from mass starvation and impoverishment by careful social organization.

Translating this into lessons that might be applied by the ordinary person, if not as an actual mitzvah, than as a desirable ethical trait: first, that at the end of the day Yosef preferred friendship with his brothers, being at most “first among equals,” to being “above” them—the all-powerful ruler whose word was law. Second, the aspect of “Joseph the Provider,” as a source of material goodness and blessing, is one that every person may strive for on a small scale in his immediate surroundings: i.e., ordinary, mundane responsibility—and perhaps this may be understood (as one of my sisters-in-law write about her father, on whom more next week), not only in the economic sense, but in that of providing strength, support, a sense of joy, and love to one’s family and those around one.

There was also a problematic side to Joseph’s role as “the provider to all the land” (המשביר לכל הארץ). Because his social planning concentrated wealth and power in the Pharaonic house, one might well argue that, in exchange for sustaining the masses in life, he created a kind of serfdom. Was this a form of state socialism or centralized planning that, in irresponsible hands, could easily lead to tyranny? Or is it comparable to the super conglomerates of (now global) capitalism? The story is very suggestive in terms of contemporary models (and see my discussion from past years)—but we cannot elaborate on this today.

NOTE: This is also the connection to the symbolism of Yesod=Zaddik=Yosef as phallus: it is not only sexual, but indicates in general the “bringing down” of the divine flow, which is both a concrete description of the male sexual function (especially in medieval science, where the seed was believed to pass down from the brain via the spine into the phallus and from there to the receptive female function, identified with Shekhinah or Malkhut), and of the image of a channel or medium for bringing down abundance generally. The image of Yosef as Tzaddik is paradoxical: he is both he who resists sexual temptation, in the person of Potiphar’s wife (“the bear”), and the avatar of male sexuality in a positive sense.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Miketz-Hanukkah (Mitzvot)

For further teachings on this parasha, see below, at the archives for January 2006. For teachings on Hanukkah, see at December 2005.

“To Hearken to the Words of the Sages”

Lighting the Hanukkah candles is a Rabbinic ordinance—as is, for that matter, the recitation of the Hallel, the joyful group of psalms recited on various festival days, including Hanukkah. And yet, we introduce their performance by reciting a blessing in which we thank God “who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us to….” Yet if these mitzvot are not stated in the Torah, where and how did He command them? This question is asked by the Talmud at Shabbat 23a—interestingly, as almost a postscript to a lengthy discussion of the various practical, technical details involved in the lighting: when, where, how, with what kinds of oil and wicks, etc. The answer, for which two different proof-texts are given, is that He has commanded us to “hearken to the words of the hakhamim”—the Rabbinic Sages—so that any mitzvah they institute is seen as also coming from God, albeit indirectly. Hanukkah is thus the first Rabbinic holiday—and, appropriately enough, one whose story relates to Jewish religious and “Rabbinic” loyalty. One might add that the principle of Rabbinic law is the central formative principle of Judaism as such; indeed, in concrete terms it shaped Judaism far more than the Written Torah. Without the Oral Torah, it would have remained no more than a frozen, rigid set of laws.

But there is a certain duality inherent in the nature of Rabbinic law. On the one hand, the wide latitude given the rabbis to interpret, institute, and even innovate new regulations, expands the Torah, making the halakhic process into a kind of marriage between timeless writ and human creativity, responding to changing events and social climates. On the other hand, it creates a human authority structure, which may rankle some (or many) people, particularly in ages of rapid and radical change, when the human representatives of Torah may seem lacking in sensitivity to the zeitgeist and the demands it makes on the ordinary Jew living in a secularized world.

In attempting to connect this idea to the parashah (and we know well that Hasidic darshanim always try to find a link between Hanukkah and Yosef): the concept of Rabbinic authority may be read as a specific application of the broader human concept of leadership: that every community has leaders, who enjoy a certain charisma and sense of being recognized by their peers, who are instrumental in shaping the collective life of the community. In this whole sequence of parshiyot, we find the concept of leadership in various ways. In large measure, the story of “Joseph and “his brothers” is really the story of Joseph and Judah. Yehudah, as is befitting a leader, had great personal charisma, whether for good or for ill: we find him leading the brothers against Yosef, and suggesting that he be sold to the Ishmaelite traders who were passing by. He was doubtless the one who first suggested they go down to Egypt to buy grain during the famine, and he seems to have served as spokesman for the brothers as a group, throughout their encounters with the strange “Egyptian” prince. During the course of these chapters, we observe Yehudah moving from impetuousness to responsibility; in the final confrontation with Joseph at 44:18 ff. (Vayigash), he displays deep concern for his old father and his vulnerability. Joseph, on the other hand, enjoyed a position of leadership through his cleverness and talent—and a certain kind of charm and almost feminine attractiveness. These were also the source if his brothers; murderous hatred and jealousy—but in the end he won them over to “his side.” I like to see him as a certain kind of Diaspora Jew—akin to Don Isaac Abravanel, Disraeli, Henry Kissinger, et al.

Many people today associate submission to any kind of authority as somehow “fascist,” while nationalism, the sense of belonging to a specific group with a specific language and history, is tantamount to “tribalism.” Our culture today seems dominated by an extreme, almost atomistic, individualism—a subject to which I hope to devote much fuller discussion on another occasion. It seems ironic, and more than a little strange, that the word “Left” (in the political context) has changed its meaning 180 degrees in half a century (as has the word “red,” in a totally different way). From advocates of socialism, of protection of the “little guy” through collective means, the Left today have become the champions of individual rights as the sine qua non of “politically-correct thinking” (itself a tyrannical idea for so-called liberals to champion). Classically, Judaism sees the individual as finding his place within a community, in a joyful, positive way—and the rules, traditions, and ordinances as a natural part of a supportive kehillah.

Vayeshev (Mitzvot)

For further teachings on this parasha, see the archives below, for December 2005.

Adultery and Betrayal : “And I would sin before God”

This parasha is filled with several unsavory stories, displaying human beings at their worst—including violence, fraternal treachery, ingratitude (Pharaoh’s cup bearer), and rapacious sexuality. In terms of concrete mitzvot, we find here a clear inference of the forbidden nature of adultery. When Potiphar’s wife attempts to seduce Joseph, he refuses her by citing two distinct reasons: (1) “my master knows nothing in this household that he has not entrusted to me… and has withheld from me naught but yourself, being his wife; how then can I do such a great wrong?!“ (i.e., it would be a violation of the trust placed in him: an almost Japanese ethic of duty stemming from the particularities of human relations); (2) “and I would sin to God” (39:8-9). The name used here for God is Elohim, which as a rule relates to the universal, objective principle of lawfulness in universe: God as Creator, Lawgiver and Judge. The notion of God here, as opposed to the unique name HWYH, is “natural,” non-covenantal, to use Soloveitchik’s language, the implication being that certain basic sexual norms are innate to the human conscience and to all human societies.

This idea is perhaps even more explicit in the story of Abraham and Sarah and Abimelech, in Gen 20:1-18. In explaining to Abimelech why he felt he had to resort to the subterfuge of saying that Sarah was his sister, Avraham says: “Because I said, there is no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me for my wife” (20:11). Again, in the Sodom story, while there is no specific reference to sinning before God, there is a general sense of good and evil. When the mob surrounds Lot’s house, demanding that he send out the men who have come to him “that we may know them,” he replies, “My brethren, be not wicked” (19:7)—as if to say, a certain standard of decency and sexual behavior is self-evident.

Finally—and here I’m going out on something of a limb—the phrase elohim also appears in a sexual context in Gen 6:1-2, but in a different way: in the story of b’nei elohim who snatch up the “daughters of men.” One might say that their sin is one of hubris, a certain sexual “expansiveness,” as if they felt themselves as if they were indeed “sons of gods” in the sense of being allowed to transcend ordinary bounds, not subject to the same rules as ordinary people. I once had a friend who boasted of having bedded 300 women during his hippie years, as if this “accomplishment” made him into a kind of minor god of virility.

Underlying all this lies the basic idea of a certain innate, universal sexual code, incumbent upon all human beings as such. The concept, as I see it, is that human sexual/reproductive power is part of the Divine force operating within the universe; that Elohim, besides being Law Giver, is the creator of our sexuality, and that this somehow calls for a kind of reverence and modesty. The Noachide code, a kind of Jewish natural law (I discuss this at length in HYV: Noah=Noah [Rambam]), contains inter alia a rudimentary code of sexual norms. R. Akiva, quoted in Sanhedrin 58a, infers this from Genesis 2:24: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother (that is, bond sexually outside of the family—the basic incest laws); and cleave (i.e., to a woman and not to another man, with whom there can be no true ‘cleaving’) to his wife (and not to another man’s wife; that is, monogamy as a kind of natural state) and they become one flesh (ruling out bestiality).” This midrash hangs the different rules to the various phrases of the verse expounded, but is really based on moral insights that come from a certain understanding of the human condition per se.

But the laws of sexuality are arranged in a two-tiered scheme. Later in the Torah, two entire chapters (Leviticus 18 & 20—in Aharei Mot & Kedoshim) are devoted to the admonitions and sanctions involved in the incest code, as tied to the specific sanctity of the people of Israel. Thus, the laws of sexuality are, on one level, based on reason, on common decency, even on a practical need to preserve social order against the explosive potential inherent in sexual licentiousness. But on another level, there is a theological, covenantal, even metaphysical dimension, somehow related to the specific notion of the holiness of the Jewish family and the Jewish people.

* * * * *

Last Shabbat I attended a feminist-oriented synagogue, where the Devar Torah focused upon the actions of the “nameless woman portrayed in this portion in demonic terms”: i.e., Potiphar’s wife. The speaker referred to the midrash in Gen. Rab. 85:2 quoted by Rashi at the beginning of our chapter, stating that just as Tamar was justified, performing her action (disguising herself as a harlot to seduce her father-in-law/ would-be-levir Judah) for the sake of Heaven, so too was Potiphar’s wife, who had been told by the astrologers that she would have offspring with Joseph—and she thought this referred to a child rather than a grandchild (which, assuming the identity of Potiphar and Poti-phera, named as father of Josaph’s wife Osnat in Gen 41:45, is plausible).

I must admit that I found this whole approach rather troubling: (a) With all due respect to the midrash mentioned, the whole concept of determinism overriding halakhah is exceedingly problematical—especially in the sexual area. Today, everyone is fond of quoting Mei Shiloah, who justifies Zimri ben Salu and Kozbi bat Tzur rather than Pinhas, the subtext being a “liberal” sexual agenda; (b) Today’s feminist agenda often seems to hold that the woman must be found to be in the right, in all cases and at whatever cost. As an aside, I should mention that, if this chapter “demonizes” Mrs. Potiphar, Torah and Nakh are filled with criticism of men who are driven to do immoral things by sheer lust—beginning with the back-to-back incidents of David and Bath-sheba, and Amnon and Tamar, in 1 Sam 11-13; (c) I would be particularly reluctant to promulgate such a message in our own day, in which sexual permissiveness is de rigeur (unlike, e.g., Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary, the great 19th century adulterous heroines who are shown as tragic figures, adulterers and adulteresses are often the heroes of popular media, who show them in a sympathetic, human light. This is an interesting subject for study).

Finally, one must reiterate that a simple reading of the text suggests that Potiphar’s wife was driven by old fashioned desire (the immediately preceding verse, 39:6, notes that Joseph was attractive in both face and figure), not be some misguided wish to realize the plan of divinely-guided destiny. Note also the manner in which, after repeated refusals, she simply grabs his garments; nor are her actions explained in terms of the desire to have his child, as was Tamar’s frustration, which is clearly articulated. Moreover, the phrase ויעזוב בגדו בידה וינס ויצא החוצה, “and he left his garment in her hand and fled and went outside”—suggestive of a violent sexual assault—is repeated no less than four times (vv. 12, 13, 15, 18), making it something of a leit-motif. Finally, there are other lines of interpretation pointing in the other direction: e.g., Maimonides’ portrait of Joseph as a hero of natural self-control of impulses (Shemonah Perakim); and the midrash in which Joseph sees his father’s image before his eyes at the critical moment (Gen. Rab. 67.7=b. Sotah 36b; quoted by Rashi on v. 11).