Friday, December 15, 2006


V'Yishlach Blogging

I should probably revisit this topic (as cmike expressed some interest) when I have more time, but last week's parsha is perhaps one of the more interesting parsha's to read if you view it as a collection of stories not about the Patriarchs but about the social organization of ancient Israel/Judea.

As I introduced my sermon on the parsha, according to Ruskin, people must answer three questions "whence did I come? what am I? and whither will I go?". The Book of Genesis in general and parsha V'yishlach in particular is the Jewish people's answer to "whence did I come?".

In this parsha and the parshios before and after this one, we see a bunch of "just-so stories" describing the social position of various tribes making up the confederacy that is Israel. Levi and Simeon are dispossed? It's because Levi and Simeon overstepped in their slaughter of the Shechemites (but the Levites are the priests -- Levi did act with righteous intentions ... moreover, untouchable priests are not un-common: consider the Osu of the Ibo peoples -- and I've mentioned the agenda of "L" in this regard on this blog before, haven't I?). Reuben has such prime land? It's because Reuben was the first born. This prime land is so peripheral to the power centers that form in Israel? It's because Reuben jumped the gun in sleeping with one of Jacob's concubines (part of the oldest son's birthright at the time was to claim one of his father's wives/concubines). Dan is a peripheral tribe? Because Dan was descended from a concubine of Israel rather than a wife. Menashe, Ephraim and Benjamin have certain political advantages? Because they were descended from Israel's favorite wife, Rachel and not Leah.

Also in this parsha you begin to see the rise of Judah as the son with the birthright (note the interplay of the Joseph and Judah traditions of E and J respectively) and even the change in name from Jacob to Israel.

But what about what we are as Jews? Are we Jacob or Israel? Some would say that we Jews should be Jacob and act exactly as anti-Semites expect us to act anyway -- clannish, over-clever, etc. But we really should be Israel, a light unto the nations.

And what about whither we go? Well, in spite of the Prophetic reading describing Edom/Esau as a plunderer, we should remember that in spite of Jacob's understandable fears of Esau, Israel and Edom were reunited in the Torah portion. And why was Edom able to plunder Judah anyway? I think Jeremiah might have an explanation, nu? So whether we are plundered by Esau, tricked by Laban, etc., can depend on whether we are Jacob or Israel, nu?

How important is literalism in the Jewish tradition? Could DNA evidence or some newly discovered text create a crisis in Judaism or at least among some Jews? Is it recognized that perhaps the stories of several men were drawn together to create the legend of Jacob or is that a blasphemous notion?

If the birthright was so important how is it that twelve sons of Jacob could each establish tribal lines of their own? It seems more likely the twelve would have been established and descended from first and favored second sons over several generations (granted, I don't know how clans and tribes ordinarily evolve).
I'm soon going on a trip and just finishing up some stuff at work before my trip, so I'll have to be somewhat brief. But ... in answer to your first question, it depends on the Jews involved -- it would be a problem for some Jews, some Jews would cling to some form of Biblical literalism (albeit, a Biblical literalism that's already tempered by Talmud and Midrash, so it isn't quite the same as fundie Christian Biblical literalism ... which, to Jewish eyes, seems deeply unserious since they don't really "struggle" with the text, but see it just on blind faith, c.f. my earlier post on Hume, of all people having the correct mindset for a truly religious person to have), some Jews will treat it as a "vital lie" and many Jews already reject Biblical literalism.

The idea is that whenever a document like the Bible talks of geneologies, it's really talking about relations among tribes (although these relations do not necessarily correspond to linguistic or ethnic relations, but rather are based on political affiliation and life-style similarities ... for example, the North Semitic Canaanites are represented as being not even a descendent of Shem but rather Ham) -- so, e.g., the brotherhood of Isaac and Ishmael represents a fraternal relationship perceived between Arabs and the Isaac tribes. And the twelve kids of Jacob represent twelve tribes which make up the Israelite confederation. That Reuben is the first born indicates the tribe of Reuben had some sort of importance at some barely remembered point in history. That Dan is born of a concubine rather than a wife indicates the tribe of Dan was likely not really part of the Israelite people. Etc.

If you can get ahold of the Etz Chaim Chumash (Books of Moses with Haftoras and translations) -- the Chumash for the Conservative Movement -- it has a wealth of commentary from the perspective of a religiously observent yet somewhat non-Biblical literalistic perspective.
Enjoy your trip.

I'm going to rework my question, something along the lines of what is essential to Judaism and what is not. If Jacob's sons are metaphors for Jewish tribes then their rich stories seem to have less to do with instructing about matters of individual morality and more to do with creating a national identity.

(I have a Pentateuch & Haftorahs which I borrowed to check up on your claim that Sarah was Abraham's half-sister. Now I guess I'll have to open it and start reading some.)
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