Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Jacob and Esau: Jews and Power / Toldot

I recently taught a course at the Baltimore Adult Institute entitled “Jews and Power.” The question that inspired me to put the course together was raised by Ruth Wisse in her book Jews and Power; she claims that Jewish culture has trained us to place greater value on our moral performance than on the necessities of survival. Wisse considers this “moral solipsism.” The Bible is filled with examples of powerful and courageous Jews, from Abraham to Samson, Deborah, David, and on to the Hasmoneans (in the Apocrypha). The biblical prophets, who linked national power to moral strength, and encouraged Jews to put themselves on trial for their political actions, were instrumental in shaping a culture of extreme personal responsibility, and a theology that blames the people Israel for every suffering they endure at the hands of their enemies. Two millennia in the Diaspora has reinforced an aversion to power that Wisse claims now threatens Israel’s survival.

For several months, I gathered materials – passages from Tan”akh, Talmud, midrash, Jewish folklore from around the globe, Zionist writings – to consider the Jewish perspective on having power. What I found was less the concern that Wisse raises, than the lauding of brains over brawn. The motif of the clever Jew who survives the dangers of capricious power by his wit and adaptability is ubiquitous. It is the picture of Jewish survival through the ages in Exile.

This afternoon, Naomi Benzil, who participated in the class, dropped me a note to say that the story of Jacob and Esau recounted in this week’s parashah can be viewed through this lens. Naomi pointed out that the conflict between Jacob and Esau reflects a rejection of power.

Naomi makes an interesting point. Esau, the earthy hunter, uses his physical prowess and power in the world. Jacob employs his intellect at every juncture: he tricks Esau out of the birthright and blessing. He is scheming and conniving and survives by his wits. He becomes an excellent model for Jews in the Diaspora, powerless and at the mercy of the ruling power, living by their wits and surviving because they are adaptable and clever. To elevate him to the level of an exemplar, however, the Rabbis have to effectively trash Esau. They do this by equating Esau with Rome, famous for its violence and decadence.

Now, in the 21st century, we live in a completely different world. There is a State of Israel. She possesses formidable weapons and wields extraordinary power. Israel is daily faced with a myriad ethical questions about the use of power. Israel struggles with these questions because there is never an ideal answer that balances the use of power and the highest Jewish morality: Jewish morality was distilled in the nearly powerless milieu of Exile.

There are no easy answers, but Jacob taught us that God is found in the struggle itself. Torah tells us that the night before he reunited with his brother Esau, Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn (Genesis 32:25, Parshat Vayishlach). If Jacob was alone, how could a man have wrestled with him? One classical explanation is that Jacob was wrestling with his conscience, confronting the morality of this own behavior toward Esau. Jacob – who must live in the real world, where life is complex and messy and there is often no morally perfect course of action – struggles to find the best path through the moral thickets. So does Israel. So should we. Only hindsight is 20/20, and often not even that.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman