Around the Seudah Shlishit table in my synagogue last week, a lively discussion centered on one of my favorite seasonal topics: how to read and understand the stories in the Book of Genesis.
As has been amply noted by scholars and laypeople alike, the main characters of Genesis, our patriarchs and matriarchs, are complex characters who defy easy categorization. Abraham exhibits spiritual grandeur and courage in challenging God over the impending destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah, but enjoins Sarah to lie about her relationship to Abraham when they are in Egypt, and say that she is his sister and not his wife. Sarah, though clearly endowed with clarity of vision and divine assurances, treats Hagar and her son Yishmael harshly, expelling them into the desert. Isaac withstands the unimaginable test of the Akedah, but seems not to be able to discern that his son who sold his birthright for a bowl of soup is not the right person to inherit his spiritual mantle. Rebecca conceives of a daring deception of her feeble husband to compensate for his lack of vision, and enlists her easily convinced, favored son Jacob into the plot- the same Jacob whose subsequent vision of angels ascending and descending a “stairway to heaven” is among the most sublime spiritual images in all of biblical literature…
Amplifying the complexity is the fact that both Yishmael and Esau, who are conspicuously excluded from the line of patriarchal succession, appear, at least from the text of the Torah, not to have done anything egregiously wrong. That is to say, they might not have been the right children to carry on the line, but neither did they deserve banishment, as was Yishmael’s fate, or deceitful betrayal by both his mother and twin brother- Esau’s lot.
Classical rabbinic commentaries attribute a variety of unsavory behaviors to Yishmael and Esau, but they are not, for the most part, textually grounded in Genesis itself. Our discussion last Shabbat centered on the chapter where Jacob and Esau encounter each other for the first time since the great deception. A simple reading of the text portrays Esau as spiritually gracious to Jacob, not at all interested in revenge. But the some rabbinic commentaries, playing off an alternate, similar sounding Hebrew word, insist that rather than kissing Jacob, Esau bit him. They simply couldn’t accept the idea that Esau might have been possessed of the kind of emotional bandwidth that would have enabled him to be so gracious…
For as long as I’ve been reading and studying Genesis- and that’s a long time- I’ve never found an acceptable comfort level with these texts. And I didn’t last week either, in our discussion at Seudah Shlishit. Finally, after going back and forth for a while, one person (whose opinion and learning I respect greatly) looked at me and said “Look; the point of Genesis and these stories is that we’re here. We survived. The legacy got passed on to the right people, and we’re still here. We got moral later.”
My first response was to laugh. The idea of “we got moral later” sounded at first hearing like a laugh line intended to end the discussion and move on to end Shabbat. But upon reflection, it was anything but a laugh line. I’ve been pondering its meaning all week. What exactly does that mean, “we got moral later,” and what are its implications?
I’m not so sure that we “got moral” in a systemic way later on in our history, and the world certainly didn’t. The Exodus story, with Moses in the lead, introduced the idea of freedom from enslavement to another nation as a glorious expression of redemption. In its vision of the society to be built by the Israelites when they inherit their promised land, Leviticus laid down critical foundational norms of what constitutes a just society. And of course, when it comes to morality and ethics, the most obvious place to seek out a deeply centered moral consciousness is in our prophetic literature- Isaiah, Hosea, Amos… they gave voice to a sense of morality and ethical imperatives that would inspire visions of social justice to this very day.
These days, though, invoking the prophetic ideals of clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, and caring for the orphan and widow will almost surely result in being labeled one of those tax-and-spend liberals who just want to get in your wallet. These are hard times for liberals. Morality is expensive. So are bombs, by the way, but most people tend to gloss over that. And progressive causes like the Women’s March are too often tainted with anti-Israel or anti-Semitic bias.
In a purely physical sense, Judaism certainly allows a great deal of ethical leeway when it comes to survival. Habbah l’horg’kha, hashkem v’horgo; if someone is coming to kill you, arise and kill him first. Ours is not a pacifist tradition when it comes to self-defense. Survival is a moral and ethical obligation.
That said, how and where does one draw the lines for that kind of thinking? If survival is the ultimate rationale, are all bets off when it comes to use of force? Is morality relative depending on the circumstances? Would, for example, Israel be justified in any use of force it deems necessary against the Palestinians because the ultimate goal is survival against an insidious and often amoral enemy? Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman just resigned from the government coalition because he believed the answer to that question is yes. Fire four hundred missiles in a few days at defenseless citizens of Israel, and its government has the right to take whatever action is necessary to secure its population, even if it will involve significant loss of life, on all sides. For that matter, is America justified in using tear gas against defenseless women and children on the Mexican border because it claims that they are part of an invading force threatening the physical security of our country? President Trump seems to think so, or at least he wants you to believe that he thinks so. “We must defend our border at any cost.” Really? Is that a defensible cost?
And, to circle back to the original question that sparked all this… Was Rebecca’s “by any means necessary” strategy for securing the birthright for Jacob justifiable because, with the survival of the covenant on the line, the ends justified the means?
Moral relativism is a hopelessly slippery slope, and these questions, not new, will never become irrelevant. To say that “we got moral” at some point later than the Book of Genesis is, I’m afraid, not all that true. What is closer to the truth- in my humble opinion- is that, just like the characters in Genesis, we moderns have moments of spiritual grandeur, and others of something far less than that. In that sense, those people really are our patriarchs and matriarchs…