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.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Toldot (Individual & Community)

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

A Dysfunctional Family

The family, as we have noted earlier in this series, is the smallest and most fundamental unit of community, the basic building-block of society. In traditional societies, such as those of our ancestors in antiquity or the medieval world, or of our Palestinian cousins, where extended families and clans are de rigueur, it is often difficult to tell the difference between the two: there is the nuclear family; there is the extended circle of married brothers and of grandparents who may live in greater or lesser proximity; there is the clan, which may include the entire population of a village or small town; and there is the tribe. In any event, for may the idea of family is synonymous with cooperation, caring, the circle of mutual responsibility and support., “the place where they have to take you in.” In America, social conservatives often evoke “family values” in contradistinction to the alienation, supposed hedonism and rampant competition of modern urban society. Within the Jewish framework, traditionalists evoke the old-fashioned Jewish family, complete with chicken soup and kugel, as an unparalleled model of warmth and love. The term “brotherhood” is a common metaphor for unqualified friendship and concern without ulterior motif: “How goodly and pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together” (Ps 133:1).

But, as almost everyone knows for everyday experience, there is often great disparity between the ideal and reality. Families are often marred by strife and dissension, by sibling rivalry and hatred. For many, holiday gatherings such as the Passover Seder or Rosh Hashanah dinner may be dreaded as times when covert tensions and animosities come to the surface; there are cases, in even the best of families, where children are so divided that, when an old parent dies, they cannot even sit shivah together!

Family and its tensions is a central subject of this parashah, as it is of the rest of Sefer Bereshit: the deceit and murderous hatred between Jacob and Esau, the feminine rivalry between Leah and Rachel, the saga of Joseph and his brothers—all these illustrate in striking colors the less than ideal functioning of the archetypal Biblical family.

All this is captured in concise but powerful images in the first dozen or so verses of this parashah (Gen 25:19-34). It begins with the two infants struggling in the womb, and their mother seeking out an oracle, who tells her that they will constantly struggle, both on the personal level and, in later generations, on the historical-national level. It continues with the twins’ birth (itself marked by violence, Jacob seizing the ankle of his firstborn brother) and, in verse 27, once they are grown, in a succinct description of their differing characters: “Now Esau was a man who knew the hunt, a man of the fields; and Jacob was an innocent/simple man, dwelling in tents.” (At this point one must interject: if one brackets the midrashic view, this not a simple contrast between white and black, good and evil. There is much to praise in Esau’s love of the outdoors, of the open spaces of the field: “See the fragrance of my son, like the fragrance of the field that God has blessed”—27:27. The original Zionist dream was of a return to nature, of a return to the soil, to a more “Esavian” existence, as against the excessively bookish, indoorish, inactive life of the traditional Jewish ideal. Even S. R. Hirsch has suggested that the traditional view did a disservice to Esau.) Finally, we are told that each of the parents had their own favorite between the two sons—a source of never-ending trouble within families. Something similar happens with Jacob and Joseph, the blatant favoritism of the former setting off the murderous resentment of the brothers—albeit without the factor of father and mother each favoring a different child.

At the center of the parashah lie key incidents which, at least on the surface, appear as acts of deceit, of manipulation, of taking unfair advantage of another’s weakness: in the case of Esau’s selling his birthright for a “mess of pottage,” taking advantage of the latter’s ravenous hunger (doubtless exaggerated) upon returning from the hunt; in the case of Isaac giving Jacob the much-coveted deathbed blessing, mother and son aligning themselves to exploit the blindness of an old man who does not fully know what is going on. Again: many traditional commentators see all this as necessary to realize Yaakov’s destiny as the rightful bearer of the covenant with God, and even as acting out Divine providence.

Be that as it may, the question that interests me here is: What are we to make of these divided family situations? What causes it and what, if anything, are we to learn from them about our own family conflicts?

Basically, we might say, such is human nature. If human beings were like angels, without ego, without ambition, without the desire for power and importance, all this would not happen. Some mystical paths, including much of Hasidic thought, propound the idea of negation of the self (bittul atzmi), of a kind of mystical submission to God, as a way of transcending all such worldly attachments with the inevitable conflicts that come in their wake. But in real life, with real human beings, this is all but impossible. Even the holiest of people have an ego—even, a cynic might say, if it expresses itself in the desire for exemplary holiness, purity, and modesty. The halakhic mainstream within Judaism accepts this, and attempts to train people to tame the beast, to place limits and constraints on excessive ego, and teaches honest and just means on achieving one’s ends. But it ultimately accepts the reality of human nature, and that even within the family there is no absolute moratorium on the striving to be first.

Two Afterthoughts about Shlomo

Two more thoughts about Reb Shlomo Carlebach. First, in describing his attempts to create a community that would somehow realize his vision, I saw both Shlomo and his followers in terms of the alienation of the 1960’s, and the “youth culture” of those days as an attempt to somehow create a vehicle that gave both freedom to radical individualism while building a community.

Last Motza’ei Shabbat, at the concert in Shlomo’s memory (as announced here), “forty years later,” what struck me more than anything—seeing some of the “khevre” (among them several good musicians, standing on the stage with long white Hasidic-style beards and belting out a song with tremendous power)—is how many of these former ‘60s Hippies have raised Jewish families, are now grandparents, and that there is a second generation of “Shlomo-khevre” who are themselves raising Jewish children in his spirit. It seems to me that this an impressive accomplishment. Secondly, I have noted before the melancholy undertone in many of his songs; not withstanding the fast beat of some of them and the “Hasidic joy” expressed in a modern musical idiom, I felt an underlying sadness—both in much of the music, and in Shlomo himself. (I heard him say, on more than one occasion, that he saw himself as the loneliness man in the world.)

I used to think that this sadness had its root in his personal life—in whatever happened in his childhood; in his decision to break with the Haredi word in which he grew up and his rejection by many of his friends and mentors from that world; In whatever it was that made it so difficult for him to find a soul-mate; in his late marriage (when his twin brother was already a grandfather!) and in the ups-and-downs of his married life; etc.

But it now seems to me that a large part of his melancholy comes from the Holocaust. He and his immediate family got out of Europe in the nick of time, in ’38 or ’39, but much of his large extended family—and one must remember that his father was the youngest of twelve siblings, many of whom were prominent rabbis throughout Central Europe—were killed by the Nazis. His uncle, Rabbi Joseph Carlebach of Hamburg, was among those killed in the Holocaust, and there were doubtless many others whose names I do not know. Add to that his empathy and identification with the Jewish people, and the fact that he was among the generation that lived through the Holocaust, must have left an indelible impression on all that he did and felt later. For those of us born later, the Holocaust, however strongly it may be felt, cannot but be something very different—something learned, something adopted into our consciousness, and not an immediate trauma as it was for Shlomo’s generation.