In the jazz standard, “As Time Goes By,” the great Louis Armstrong asserts that “A Kiss Is Just A Kiss.” The same question is addressed by the Torah in the weekly portion of “Vayetze” and in our days by Keis (traditional Ethiopian Jewish spiritual leader) Semai Shlita.
We read in the Torah that Jacob kissed his cousin and future wife Rachel when he met her at the well in Haran and then he cried. Many commentators were uncomfortable with this kiss, worrying that it was licentious. The commentators ask: Where did he kiss her? On the hand? Shoulder? Neck? Forehead? Or did he kiss her on the, gasp, lips?
Some commentators believe that Jacob was especially righteous. He kissed Rachel entirely platonically, without any contemplation of sin. Some posit that Rachel was still a child and the kiss was entirely familial.
Others interpret the kiss metaphorically saying it wasn’t an actual kiss. They understand “Neshika,” the Hebrew word word for kiss, to derive from the word “Teshuka/Passion,” thus meaning that Jacob felt passion for Rachel. Some commentators see the kiss as a wholesome kiss between relatives, since Rachel was the daughter of Jacob’s mother’s brother.
And still, some commentators believed the kiss was passionate and immoral and associate Jacob’s crying with licentiousness.
What does the tradition of Ethiopian Judaism have to say about this question?
I decided to ask Kohin (Keis) Samai Shlita what he thought of the kiss. The Keis burst into a big laugh when I asked him and after he calmed down, he said, “I would actually wonder if Jacob hadn’t kissed Rachel, the daughter of his brother and his mother. This was our custom in Ethiopia when relatives and acquaintances meet, especially relatives and friends who haven’t seen each other for a long time. They kiss each other on the cheek from side to side when they finally meet. Sometimes they also cry out of joy and excitement.”
In fact, this is also how the medieval French commentator Radak interpreted the verse: [After Jacob kissed Rachel, he began] “Crying out of joy and out of love and the melting of his heart.” In Ethiopia, even when parting from one another, members of Beta Israel usually kiss and even cry out of excitement. This was the custom according to Ethiopian Jewish culture. Saying hello to a man or a woman includes a handshake or a kiss on the cheek. People who see each other frequently often content themselves with a handshake, but if they haven’t seen each other for a long time, they usually give a kiss on the cheek out of longing, for both men and women. Since it is a kiss of longing, there is no place to talk about immodesty.
I once met a grandmother of Moroccan descent who painfully told me that since her grandson had become more observant, he avoided kissing her, even though she was his grandmother. He thought kissing her would create an unseemly appearance. Does it sound humane that a grandson would not kiss his grandmother because it would look unseemly? But what about this boy’s conscience? I myself faced similar dilemmas between the dictates of Ethiopian religious culture, in which I grew up, and the world of Rabbinic Halacha, which I encountered here in the Land of Israel.
It is clear that pre-modern civilizations, and including ancient Jewish civilization, did not see Jacob’s kiss as a moral problem. Kisses between relatives and friends were routine. It was normative and accepted in all civilizations in their time. The commentators who saw Jacob’s kiss as an immoral act and feared an erotic kiss, are imposing an anachronistic interpretation on an accepted practice that says more about the religious culture in which the commentators lived, than the culture in which Jacob and Rachel lived.
We see from this that a living connection exists between the past and the present in the Jewish tradition. Sometimes, the changing of the tradition over time creates contradictions and complexities. Each group responds at a different pace to change. Woe to those who do not maintain a continuous dialogue betwen the past and the present. Such people are dangerous to themselves and to their surroundings.
Here is another example of the dialog with change that comes from a previous Torah portion. We learn the following about Hagar, the mother of Ishmael: “And she [Hagar] went and sat down across from him [Ishmael], the distance of an arrow fired from a bow, because she said, ‘I will not see the death of the child’ [and that is why] she sat across from him” (Genesis 21:16).
I struggled for years to understand this story, Recently, I saw the interpretation of Rabbi Ovadia of Bartenura (1445 – c. 1515). In his work, ‘Amar Naka’ which explains the commentary of Rashi, Rabbi Ovadia provides an innovative explanation regarding why Hagar distanced herself from Ishmael before what she believed would be his death from thirst. It was not out of faintheartedness and or compassion. Rather, she feared that Ishmael, a master of the bow and arrow, and someone of questionable moral fiber, might shoot arrows at her to kill her together with him, if he was convinced that he was going to die. Rabbi Ovadia cited a custom, apparently current of his own time, that the Children of Ishmael would kill their loved ones when they died. According to this interpretation, Hagar moved out of bow and arrow range from her son so his arrows would not be able to reach her (from “Nitzotz Ehad”, Parashat Vayeira, 2023).
I thank my friend Yasu Yasu for pointing me to this source. It is critical that we learn from it that not all of the Children of Ishmael are the same, over all times, just as not all Jews are the same, over all times. Here are some things that are true. A person created in God’s image is worthy of love. We are all required to realize the image of God in us, and we must not put ourselves in place God. It seems that sometimes our desire to know how to distinguish between success and failure in real time is what gets us stuck in life, but it also leads us to inappropriate and sometimes inhumane behavior. Woe to those who do not maintain a continuous dialogue between the past and the present. We have the absolute freedom to live and choose between the many different options available to us. We must not reach a situation where we despair, where we see our past as offering us only one option. We can always change our destiny.