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.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Sleeping like a Baby

My brother Mitch and his lovely wife Jocelyn had a baby girl, their first, on Monday, 23 June, or 20 Sivan. 6 lbs 8 oz, everyone healthy. They not being particularly religious, and not wanting to get involved in some synagogue they don't go to (and thus don't know a lot of people in), we organized a Simhat Bat for them last Wednesday, at which

Winifred Celia Baker got her Hebrew name, צביה בת מלך ברוך.

It was held in my parents' apartment, right there in the living room where my brother & I had our brisses. Mom was all excited to clear off the desk on which Mitch and I had had the surgery, despite my reminding her that there's no surgery here, it's not a bris-parallel, etc.

But she's very excited, as this is her first genetic grandchild. Well, you see, my sister is from Dad's first marriage, and she has two kids (one just out of the army, one just out of Tel Aviv University), and Jocelyn came into the relationship with a daughter, Zoe. So it's my parents' fourth grandchild, but the first that is genetically descended from both of them [rather than 0 or 1 of them].

I put together a service using the resources linked from JOFA's web site, particularly the narrative of Joseph Kaplan's semachot bat, and the prayers and suggestions on R' Seth Farber's Itim.org site. You can find the service here, in PDF.

Winifred is from an aunt, Winifred L. Wisan, an academic, who studied Galileo. She had great battles with the eminence grise of Galileo studies, Stillman Drake, in the footnotes of her papers. Took us for long hikes over the local mountains in Oneonta. Inspired both of us in our academic endeavors - I minored in history of science because of the interest she helped kindle. She passed away 17 years ago last Pesach.

Celia is our mother's mother, Celia Cohen Wisan, much loved, very American (born on the Lower East Side, grew up in Bed Stuy and Crown Heights, attended Adelphi College when it was in Brooklyn), married Grandpa on Lag Ba'Omer 1926, long life raising Mom & Uncle Dick, and volunteering at Vacation Camp for the Blind. Endlessly busy with her roses and rock garden, when they had the country house. Great hostess for yom tov, went sometimes to Spanish/Portuguese, as it was around the corner and her sister was a member. Very close with her sisters, life of the party, amateur painter and sculptor. Full of life, until a few years before her passing in 1989.

Tzivia as a name does double duty - it's Grandma Wisan's name above, but Grandpa was also Tzvi Hirsh, so Tzivia encompasses both grandparents, husband and wife.

May she grow into a life filled with joy, learning, love, and good deeds.