Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Chazal Made Them Evil

For those of you who take issue with a supposed "fault-finding school" in Biblical interpretation, here's one for the other side - a "merit-finding" post for people whom Chazal uniformly portray as evil. So I won't disagree with Chazal, but I don't understand them, either.

So what is it with Chazal and various non-chosen people in the Torah? Esav, Bilaam – both are painted by the text in very different terms than they are painted by Chazal. The text makes them out to be neutral or even mostly good, but Chazal turn them into the embodiments of true evil.

Esav, for instance comes across as a simple guy, very straightforward, not a bearer of grudges, not vengeful. Yaakov treats him as if he were these things, because Yaakov’s whole being is infused with deception and guile, so he is convinced that everyone around him must be the same (and Lavan’s example, and his mother’s, do tend to support that belief). But we are also given the text, which tells a very different story.

What do we know of Esav?

1) Born first, hairy and red.

2) Lives in the moment – sells his birthright for a snack.

3) Lives a life of Kibud Ov – honors his father, does what his father wants, and his father loves him for it.

4) Is a “mighty hunter” like his ancestor Nimrod.

5) On doing his father’s bidding in return for a blessing, has that blessing stolen by deceitful Yaakov and Rivkah; contemplates revenge.

6) Follows his father’s advice in choosing a wife

7) The next time we see him, Yaakov treats him as if he bears grudges, because we all know Yaakov himself would.

8) Esav himself is “Hey, Jack, long time no see! Is this your family? Glad to see you’re doing so well! I’ve done well too!” And that’s it. None of the revenge that Yaakov dreaded for 22 years. No “Hey, forget about that blessing business – you can see I’ve been blessed too.” The whole thing is gone. Esav just lives in the moment.

9) Esav and Yaakov bury Yitzchak together. Again, honoring his father.

But Chazal treat Esav like the root of all evil. Esav becomes a stand-in for Rome, which really was the source of all evil in the times of Chazal, pagan, democratic, conquering, destroying the Temple and Jerusalem, reducing Beitar and the rest of the North, and by the time of the Amoraim, adopting that religion that started as a Jewish heresy, that has at its core, Judenhass for the Christ-killers. This is the ultimate bearing of a grudge – against the Jews for allegedly killing their god, we are their victims for all time.

Rome, Christian Rome, is so much not like Esav it’s not funny, but for some reason, Chazal use Edom and Esav as a stand-in for Rome in their literature. Is it only that they’re a closely-related sect that no longer exists, so they’re free to reuse the name Edom? But then they cast all their hatred for Rome back onto Esav the character. Why not use Moav, another nation with common ancestry that had by then ceased to exist, and which had actively opposed Israel during the Exodus? Edom just said “go away, go around”, while Moav hired Bilaam to curse Israel, and actually fought them.

Bilaam, too, seems to get a bum rap.

He repeatedly warns Balak “I can only do what God wants.” Balak hires him anyway. When he does what God wants, he’s scolded and punished for it. Here’s a non-Jew with real mesiras nefesh for God, but what do we get in the Talmud? He’s the anti-Moshe, he’s the great Rasha each of whose blessings reflects a curse he intended to hurl at the Jews, his curses mostly came true except for his alleged curse of Israel’s batei midrash and synagogues. See Sanhedrin 105a.

OK, the donkey incident somehow displays God’s displeasure with Bilaam, but it’s hard to understand – God told him to go with the men, he did what God told him to, then God gets angry and tries to stop him. Why is God portrayed as fickle and moody? At any rate, Bilaam learns his lesson, and from then on only does what God wants. God has no more criticism of him.

Whatever God’s motivations, Bilaam is portrayed textually as the great prophet of God, who doesn’t even argue with God as much as Moshe does. But Chazal bring him out as this great embodiment of evil.


Beisrunner said...

As for Esav...
He seriously contemplates killing his brother!
He marries women whom BOTH his parents think are inappropriate. Only when faced with their disapproval does he marry somebody more appropriate (while not divorcing the other wives).

And as for Bilam...
He allows himself to be hired to curse Israel (if he can), even after God has said "ki baruch hu".
He displays self-centeredness and cruelty in his encounter with the donkey
The bnot midyan/baal peor episode is ascribed to him by the Torah

These are hardly righteous people! Admittedly, I am selectively quoting the negative aspects of these two, just like you selectively quoted the positive aspects. The overall story is more complex, and figuring out which character traits are "deep" and which "superficial" is not trivial. In Bilam's case I think you can make a good argument that he's an immoral person with unusual access to religious knowledge. Esav is not so simple, I think the most you can say is that he was good in some ways and severely flawed in others.

So while we must acknowledge Chazal's tendency to portray Biblical characters as either all good or all evil - and in this case as all evil - it is clear that the necessary raw material for such portrayals existed.

By the way, there are other midrashim which go out of their way to point out good qualities in both Esav and Bilam. They are a minority but they do exist.

As for the association of Rome with Edom, the Jastrow dictionary tells me that since Herod was an ethnic Edomite who played a big role in bringing Roman rule in Judah - through him Edom was linked to Rome. I would add that the picture given of Edom given in Tehilim 137 and Sefer Ovadiah indicates that highly negative attitudes toward Edom existed much earlier. In Chazal's time it was easy to transfer these attitudes to Rome. Perhaps, also, it was dangerous to criticize Rome openly, so a euphemistic name had to be chosen.

As for "Bilaam is portrayed textually as the great prophet of God, who doesn’t even argue with God as much as Moshe does." - some would argue that arguing with God is exactly what makes Moshe great!

thanbo said...

Seriously? Your "bad attributes" above are no more than hirhurei aveirah for the most part: "seriously contemplated killing" but didn't. He was pretty furious at Yaakov for lying, deceiving, and stealing Esav's bracha as well as taking his own.

The Canaanite wives seem to have been his own idea; his parents only disapprove afterwards. So afterwards, he takes their advice. But no, he doesn't divorce them. Was there divorce back then? I don't think we see any biblical examples of it.

Herod or the nation of Edom being bad for the Jews are another issue enitrely from Esav the individual.

Hitting the donkey? Self-centeredness? Donkeys are by nature stubborn creatures that often won't do what you want. Saying what he did to the donkey was pretty strange - why didn't he react to the donkey talking as a neis?

As for the Baal Peor/Bnot Midyan, that's not in the Torah, Rashi says it's from the Gemara (Perek Chelek). That's already part of Chazal's smear campaign.

If you want to say that "they were on the high level and thus their small failings are writ large" that might be possible, but since Esav was never going to be the heir, despite primogeniture, it seems a bit unfair to dump this on him.

So yes, they were not the best people. But were they the embodiment of evil? That's where the bum rap lies.

Beisrunner said...

"Your "bad attributes" above are no more than hirhurei aveirah for the most part: "seriously contemplated killing" but didn't. "

It may have technically only been "hirhurei aveirah" since Esav never had the chance to carry it out. But conspiracy to murder is a serious crime nowadays, and for good reason: normal, relatively moral people don't even consider committing murder.

"He was pretty furious at Yaakov for lying, deceiving, and stealing Esav's bracha as well as taking his own."

I never say that Yaakov was perfect (indeed I think both Yaakov and Rivkah were severely punished for the brachot episode), only that Esav was imperfect. And stealing a bracha is hardly a justification for murder.

"Was there divorce back then? I don't think we see any biblical examples of it."

Devarim 24:1-3 mentions divorce.

"Herod or the nation of Edom being bad for the Jews are another issue enitrely from Esav the individual."

And I think the force of Chazal's attack is directed at Edom the nation, not Esav the individual.

"Hitting the donkey? Self-centeredness?"

Hitting the donkey is expected. Hitting harshly and repeatedly as he does is unwarranted cruelty, and I believe the text expects us to see it as such. Bilam's verbal response to the donkey is arrogant and self-centered. I would have thought that anyone with the slightest bit of moral sensitivity would have felt these things immediately.

(I assume that since Bilam was used to talking to God, he would not find it so strange to talk to a donkey.)

"As for the Baal Peor/Bnot Midyan, that's not in the Torah,"

Yes it is - Bamidbar 31:15-16.

"That's already part of Chazal's smear campaign."
"That's where the bum rap lies."

You don't even bother to consider why Chazal would have said what they said; what was their textual basis, their motivation, how this fits into their overall approach to Biblical exegesis or philosophy, and so on. And as shown above, you have not exactly done a comprehensive review of the related Biblical passages. So don't you think such a harsh appraisal of Chazal's view here is a bit premature?

thanbo said...

Divorce is in the Torah as a mitzvah for us, but did the Canaanites have the concept? Catholics don't, Muslims do - what did the Canaanites have? Could Esav have divorced them?

As for Bilam, yes, you're right, the text does make him into a mesit. I thought I had read over the parsha, but apparently I missed that.

Still, the material about Eisav stands.

Anonymous said...

If a person would only learn the Torah Sheb'ksav, there is not one mitzva that would be understood. The same applies for the maaseh avos in the Torah--without Torah She'balpeh, the stories cannot be understood.

yehupitz said...

You're on much strong ground with your questions about Eisav than those about Bilaam.

With Eisav, no evil is seen in Chumash. I think that Ovadia and Malachi shed light on that more than the text of Chumash.

When it comes to Bilaam, it is the information given to us by Moshe's quote in Parshas Mattos that informs the Bilaam story from Parshas Balak. But you're right: Read from a certain angle, the Bilaam presented to us in Parshas Balak alone doesn't seem so evil.

Anonymous said...

I have put together a lot of evidence which indicates that Moshe's outburst in Parshat Mattot should not be taken as true. If the Torah was backing Moshe's rage here we would have had testimony earlier in the narrative confirming the conspiracy betwen bilaam and the midyani woman. We have indications from Pirke De rabbi Eliezer that his raging accusation is problematic. In PRE we find a midrash showing that the ruach hakodesh left Moshe and alighted upon Eleazar the Kohen instead. even more incriminating is the Torah's own testimony to MOses switching God insruction from "avenge Israel's vengeance" on Midian to "avenge God's vengeance". If you thought striking a rock instead of talking to it was a problem, try confusing Israel with God (clearly a problem which continues to plague us). If we put all this together, we can begin to regard the Moses' command to attack the midianim and the subsequent slaughter of women and boys as without divine approval. Remarkably, Moses' words"why have you spared the females" seem very close to Pharoah's questioning of midwives who saved Hebrew boys. In some way, Moses acts Pharaoh like. You might also consider that Peor is somewhat an anagram for Pharoah in Hebrew. The material gets deeper if you consdier that Peor means chasm or rift and that the whole episode takes place near where the Jordan empties into the Dead Sea, the lowest point in the world. The diety of the chasm is the lord of separation. People who worship Peor are people who don't beleive in the possibilty of connection. Consequently, the Peor people engage one another without care. In this worldview only power exists. On the other hand the God of the Torah represents those who believe that chasms represented by the Red Sea and the Jordan River can be crossed. As far fetched as this might seem, the torah offers even more evidence to support the idea that ulimately in his acting as if Israel was God, in his brutal violence toward mdian, Moses demonstrates a fall into the practices of Peor. when Moses is first informed of his imminent death it seems as if he will go up on a mountain and be buried there like Aaron was. Moreover, recently archeological evidence from Mt Nebo suggests that it was an ancient prominent burial ground for centuries. Yet after Moses dies there. rather than burying him there with a view over Israel, God buries Moses in a gully across from the House of Peor! There's still more...maybe some other time.