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What’s not new? Cursing and demonization of the ‘other’

Eggs racismIn both the U.S. and in Israel we are gearing up for elections in November. It is hard to fathom how the future leaders of our two countries can allow themselves to speak with such abominable rhetoric against their opponents. I don’t have to go very far with examples. Just open up the newspapers. There are reports about the “vitriol” and threats such as “we’re going to hang you” and “I hope somebody puts a bullet in your head.” The U.S. is experiencing abusive language not only on the fringe but also in the mainstream population. Where are the mothers of yesteryear who could tell these various candidates to “wash their mouths with soap”?

Society is in the midst of demonization, or “othering”. In Israel, we are experiencing the same. I won’t dignify any of these candidates by repeating their words—we hear them daily. What they make clear is what they don’t stand for. Who cares if the most impoverished among Haredi Jewish children are denied their basic rights to read and learn mathematics. Let’s cast aside my principles (assuming I have some to begin with) just to make sure that they will vote for me. What these candidates represent is ephemeral. We do know whom they oppose.  Bezalel Smotrich, the right-wing “lawmaker” calls the Arab political parties, “the most dangerous security threat” to Israel and wants to outlaw them. His identity consists of what he is not, and not of what he is. His self-definition is hatred and demonization of the other.

There is a burgeoning field of Hate Studies and an annual peer-reviewed journal, The Journal of Hate Studies, which is celebrating its twentieth anniversary this year. It studies what hate is, where it comes from, and how to combat it. It presents theory and research that deepens the understanding of the development and expression of hate. Our Torah portion of the week, the parasha Ki Tavo has two outstanding examples of texts which seem to promote hatred and demonization of the other.

I’ll start with the lengthy litany of curses with which God threatens His people if we/they don’t obey Him. Preceding these curses are blessings with which, if the people obey God, they will prosper. “The Lord will make you the head, not the tail; you will always be at the top and never at the bottom-if only you obey and faithfully observe the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin upon you this day, and do not deviate to the right or to the left from any of the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day and turn to the worship of other gods” (Deut 28: 13-14).

But if we do not obey God and faithfully observe all His commandments and laws we will be cursed. We will be like “others” to God and treated with vicious rhetoric and not mercy. The curses that follow are frightful, one worse than the other. They include: curses on all that is born to you (vs. 18); being utterly wiped out (vs. 20); pestilence (vs. 21); “consumption, fever, and inflammation, with scorching heat and drought, blight and mildew” (vs.22). “Your carcasses shall become food for all the birds of the sky and all the beasts of the earth, with none to frighten them off” (vs. 26). And to add insult to injury: “The LORD will strike you with the Egyptian inflammation, with hemorrhoids, boil-scars, and itch, from which you shall never recover” (vs. 27). And this continues for 40 more verses. Feel free to read them all of them and be horrified (Deut 28: 18-68). To me re-reading them is like re-living the holocaust.

These curses sound like God-hatred of His chosen people. Where is the God that loves His people? How can He can threaten them/us with these calamities simply for not observing the commandments. Surely this is an example of hyperbolic overkill. One wonders if the scare tactics even worked, since people have continuously sinned in the past, are doing so in the present and are likely to continue in the future. Does God see us as the other, as objects of His hatred, to punish us as He pleases?  Since I have no answer for that, I’ll now move on from God-cursing to rabbinic demonization.

A Fugitive Aramean Was My Father

At the beginning of “Ki Tavo” (Deuteronomy 26) we have an enigmatic phrase at the beginning of the farmer’s recitation of bringing the first fruits to the place where God will establish His name in the future:

“My father was a fugitive/wandering Aramean” (arami oved avi). He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us.  We cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The Lord freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O Lord, have given me” (Deut 26: 5-10)

In the simple reading, the text refers to the Israelites who moved to Egypt, and were eventually enslaved there. The word “oved” implies lost, like a stray animal. The reference is probably to Jacob who wandered or may have been lost and thus in danger of perishing. Jacob may have been a vagrant or a nomad who was possibly a refuge who went to Egypt because of famine. As to the Aramean, it is simply a statement of Jacob’s (or his ancestor’s) origin as an Aramean. This ancient confession reflects a belief or tradition that Israel’s ancestors were Arameans who moved to Egypt. The Aramean likely refers specifically to Jacob, who came down to Egypt with his 70 descendants. He is called an Aramean either because: his grandfather Abraham and grandmother Sarah were from Aram (Gen 12:4); Jacob’s mother Rebekah was from Aram (Gen 25:20); or Jacob himself lived in Aram for a time and took Aramean women as wives (Gen 29-30).

An Aramean Tried to Destroy My Father

Rabbinic midrash, however, does not translate the first three words as “my father was a fugitive/wandering Aramean”. Instead it reads the present participle אֹבֵד not as the adjective “wandering” but as the verb “destroying.” The sages thereby creatively understood the phrase to mean “an Aramean (would have) destroyed my father.” The midrash thus identifies the arami as Jacob’s father-in-law Laban, who, after Jacob stole away from him, chased after him to bring him back or kill him (Gen 31:23). However, once Laban catches up with Jacob, before he even speaks with him, God appears to Laban and warns him not to cause harm (literally “speak good or bad”) to Jacob (Gen 31:24). Laban even admits that this visitation from the deity made him rethink any harm he was considering to Jacob: “I have it in my power to do you harm; but the God of your father said to me last night, “Beware of attempting anything with Jacob, good or bad” (Gen 31:29). The Rabbis even specify the type of harm, noting in the same midrash, well known to many since it forms a key part of the Passover Haggadah: “Go and learn what Laban the Aramean wished to do to our father Jacob: for Pharaoh only issued a decree about the [Israelite] males, but Laban wished to uproot everything.”

Obviously, one’s interpretation of the Aramean is connected with one’s agenda. Both understandings of the present participle אֹבֵד are grammatically possible before the intervention of vocalization of the word: thus, it is possible for the phrase to contain both meanings at once: “my father was a wandering Aramean” and “an Aramean destroyed my father.”

Uprooting everything means that Laban intended to slaughter Jacob and his entire family, thus uprooting Israel’s future existence entirely. This is a very harsh accusation. It is one thing to consider the possibility that Laban intended to murder Jacob—something the text does not quite say—but another to assume he would murder his daughters and his own grandchildren. But this fits with the overall approach the rabbis take towards demonizing Laban.

Not an Aramean (Arami) but a Trickster (Ramai)

The Torah presents Laban as fooling Jacob into marrying the wrong sister, thus extending his years of labor, and even changing the agreed upon pay multiple times (at least according to Jacob). The Hebrew word for a trickster or deceiver is ramai (רמאי), a word formed with the same letters as Aramean (ארמי), like an anagram.

The Bible uses the verbal form of this root in Jacob’s accusation against Laban (Gen. 29:25), though it never actually calls Laban a ramai, for this noun is never found in the Bible. The sages use this arami-ramai pun frequently; for example, Genesis 25:20 uses the word Aram three times: “Isaac was forty years old when he took to wife Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean.” (Gen 25:20). Bothered by this three-fold repetition of the word aram, Genesis Rabbah offers this midrash: R. Yitzhak said: “If it just wanted to teach us that he was from Padan-Aram, what does ‘Laban the Aramean’ teach us? It comes to teach us that her father was a trickster and her brother was a trickster, and even the people who lived there were tricksters, and that this righteous woman who came from there can be likened to ‘a lily among the thorn-bushes’ (Song 2:2)” (Toledot 63, Theodor-Albeck).

In short, Laban is a cheat from a family of cheats in a town of cheats. But this is the least of the rabbis’ accusations. In a midrashic source Laban is equated with “Balaam the sorcerer, who wanted to destroy בלע the inheritance of the Lord, the offspring of his (own) daughters [=Leah and Rachel], as it is said, ‘An Aramean [=Laban] wanted to destroy my father…” Laban (alias Balaam) continued his quest to destroy Jacob by going down to Egypt and joining forces with Pharaoh” (Targum Pseudo-Jonathan on Num 22:5). The story here assumes, as rabbinic midrash does in general, that Balaam was a wicked character who wished to curse Israel, and notes the sad irony, that if Balaam is Laban, he would be cursing his own descendants. There are many more examples, but it is clear that rabbis revel in the ability to find some connection between an ancient villain from the Bible and Laban, so they can demonize him and pin more sins onto the latter.

Is the Biblical Laban Really So Bad?

Many of these midrashim are well-known, and influence the manner in which we understand the biblical Laban.  But what does the Torah actually say about Laban?

We first meet him when Abraham’s servant arrives in Haran and wishes to take Rebekah back to Canaan to marry Isaac. While Laban attempts to stall the servant, no motive for this is given. Perhaps Laban wanted to keep his sister close to home. In any event, Abraham’s servant was determined to leave immediately, and Rebekah departed with him forever the day after he arrived. Skipping ahead, many years later, Rebekah’s son Jacob comes to claim another woman in his family, this time his daughter Rachel. This time, Laban devises a way to keep his daughter by him. Laban’s stalling succeeds for twenty years, but eventually, Jacob loses patience with the situation, figures out a way to make enough money to gain independence, and rushes off without a word to his father-in-law. Moreover, even his daughters feel like their father has mistreated them and wholeheartedly support Jacob’s unannounced departure.

Jacob flees and Laban chases him down and catches up with him in the Gilead area. The verses imply that Laban wished to do Jacob harm, but God warns him not to and he does not. Laban makes a peace treaty with Jacob, and Laban’s only stipulation is that Jacob may not marry any other women and he threatens Jacob that if he lays a hand on either of his daughters he will come after him– אִם־תְּעַנֶּ֣ה אֶת־בְּנֹתַ֗י וְאִם־תִּקַּ֤ח נָשִׁים֙ עַל־בְּנֹתַ֔י אֵ֥ין אִ֖ישׁ עִמָּ֑נוּ רְאֵ֕ה אֱלֹהִ֥ים עֵ֖ד בֵּינִ֥י וּבֵינֶֽךָ:  In other words, his last act is to protect the daughters that rejected him (Gen 31:50).

Even if they rejected him for good reason—that he manipulated their husband and even them—in the end, Laban behaves honorably. His final act in the treaty may even be fairly described as “repentant.” One can argue that Laban is not the enemy but the rightful ruler protecting his own interests and his dedication to family is honorable and praiseworthy. However, our tradition does not wish us to emulate him (despite his positive family values); instead it has consistently and continuously demonized him. Laban and Jacob’s relationship is one of mutual dislike and distrust.

One wonders why the tradition relates to Laban as a villain, for at the end he behaves honorably (Gen. 31:43-52).   Strictly speaking, Laban has pardoned Jacob for the crime of breach of trust.” Laban takes care of all the loose ends, he makes it clear if Jacob mistreats his wives, the contract will be invalidated. He sets boundaries and one can even read this as mutual respect—a relationship between equals, now that Jacob is set free to return to his land and family. It is the end of hostilities! In this reading, Laban could be construed as a tragic figure, one who suffered personal loss, and who wished to keep his family together. But even if one wants to read Laban’s acts in a harsher light, and suggest that he was simply a deceiver who wished to make as much money as possible, his character hardly deserves the animus displayed against him by the rabbis.

Who or what is the “everything”? 

I believe the reason for demonizing him is connected to his great love of his sister Rebekah, who was lost to him. He tried to stall her going back with the Servant and had he succeeded, perhaps she would have remained with him and there would have been no marriage between her and Isaac and there would have been no Jacob. In Genesis 24 we read: “And the servant said to him, ‘What if the woman does not consent to follow me to this land, shall I then take your son back to the land from which you came?’” Abraham answers: no! He adds: “The Lord, the God of heaven, …. took me from my father’s house and from my native land…”, suggesting that this was also a trauma that he had to live with. Perhaps that is why it is so important for Abraham to have a relative from his homeland marry his son. For the same reason, Laban does not want to lose his sister.

Laban’s biggest tragedy in life was the loss of his beloved sister Rebekah.  He had tried to delay her leaving with the Servant decades ago. He had not succeeded. Now we skip twenty years later and this time another relative comes to claim a female from his family. He recognizes that he is going to lose his daughters. Ever since he heard that Yitzchak and Rebekah had twin sons, he has known (if he read the midrash) that both of them have first rights to his daughters. That was the way of the world according to the Talmudic midrash in Babba Batra 123a. Then Jacob came– and to Laban it was a re-play of the scene at the well with the servant and Rebekah—and fell for his daughter, just as Rebekah fell off her camel when she saw Isaac—it was love at first sight. All Laban wanted to do was postpone the inevitable.

Thus, to answer the question what is “everything” that is being jeopardized by Laban’s tactics to keep Jacob and his daughters and grandchildren with him in Aram: it is literally “everything” that God promised Abraham and his progeny. The promise was to inherit a land, to be the owners of this land, to live in peace in their own way on this land. The everything being jeopardized is the substance of God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah and their offspring. In modern terms Laban getting his way would imply a total assimilation of the “Hebrew nation” to Aramean culture and civilization.

Why Does Rabbinic Tradition Demonize Laban?

So why paint him as full of iniquity, the embodiment of Israel’s foes throughout the centuries, and a threat to the very existence of Israel, worse even than Pharaoh himself? In other words, why do the rabbis demonize Laban?

To understand this, it is necessary to understand the hatred that is extended to other races or ethnic groups. We “other” them, turn them into enemies and subsequently our hatred is accompanied by racialization, as a consequence of real or perceived threat that one group feels from another. We perceive differences and then exploit them for political ends; legitimating ideology. Hatred allows us to define ourselves in comparison to others. We view those outside our group negatively. They are hateful and threatening. By negating them we also self-define. We are not what we hate.

One uncomfortable truth the Rabbis may have been facing is that Jacob is depicted as every bit as cunning as his uncle. Jacob’s name can mean the deceiver—certainly that is how Esau understands it when he accuses Jacob of tricking him twice, once out of his birthright and next out of his blessing (Gen 27:36). Later, after being duped by Laban into marrying Leah, he gets back at Laban with his peeled-stick trick, ensuring that the baby sheep come out speckled or spotted.  By calling Laban the deceiver, the Rabbis distanced themselves from Jacobs’s long history of deception.

In a similar fashion we have seen how the midrash consistently transposes the letters of arami to ramai, a scoundrel or cheat. Rebekah’s father and Laban are both scoundrels and cheats and by association all the inhabitants who lived in Syria/Aram.

Once upon a time WE were Arameans

Rachel, Leah and Jacob are breaking with the Aramean family connection, they have nothing more to gain by the association. No looking back to the Arameans and perhaps from now on the associations will have to be negative. It is probably worthwhile restating that had Jacob remained with Laban, they would have been subsumed into the latter’s family.

The distancing of Israel from Aram begins in the Bible.  When Jacob appears at Laban’s house, Laban declares that the two are close family (עצמי ובשרי— “the same bone and flesh” (Gen. 29:14). When they meet in Gilad, Laban even suggests that, through their common ancestry, he and Jacob share the same God (Gen 31:53). But Jacob will not acknowledge this connection, and each man swears in the name of his own ancestral God. Moreover, the two men end up referring to the place of their oath in their respective languages, Hebrew for Jacob (גלעד), and Aramaic for Laban (יגר שהדותא).

The rabbinic polemic against Arameans likely reflects more than just discomfort with the biblical text. The linguistic hegemony of Aramaic extended past the Persian period and into the Rabbinic period, even when Aram no longer had any political influence. Not only did all of the Rabbis’ neighbors speak Aramaic, but they themselves spoke Aramaic. For the rabbis, an Aramean became a euphemism for outsiders, and yet, these were outsiders with whom they shared a land and a language, and whom the Bible tied together with Israel from its inception. The rabbis, therefore, felt the need to draw a razor-sharp line between “us” and “them.” What better way than to turn our “Aramean ancestor” referenced in Deuteronomy, into our wicked “Aramean uncle” who tried to destroy us for hundreds of years in his various different guises. And thus, the rabbinic villain “Laban the deceiver,” who tried “to destroy our father” was born.

Despite this negative assessment, our ancestors continued to go there to get their brides for they are family. They are like us, yet they are demonized. They are demonized so much that when the Mishnah wants to describe the law against sexual relations with a non-Israelite woman, it refers to her as an Aramean (even though in the Torah story she was a Midianite). The Mishnah’s law (Sanhedrin 9:6) that “one who has intercourse with an Aramean woman” (הבועל ארמית) can be executed without a trial could hardly be a starker contrast with the stories of Isaac and Jacob.  The Aramean at this point is so foreign to us that she is the very embodiment of “enemy.”

The danger of engaging in demonization

If we define ourselves by what we are not, then who are we? Normally, one who cares for his family is viewed positively. Privileging a particular interpretation reveals much about the chooser, ourselves. Just as the metaphors we choose reflect our belief system, our social class, race, gender, nationality etc., so does following a midrashic party line, which demonizes characters such as Esau, Ishmael, Laban, Balaam, Pharaoh etc. Unfortunately, we lock ourselves into a holding pattern and see no way out with such binary thinking (he/she is either good or evil). At the end of the story, God points out to him all the “evil” that he has done to Jacob and warns him not to harm Jacob. As a penitent, Laban now makes a treaty with Jacob and even warns Jacob not to follow in his own footsteps, by abusing his daughters. In taking leave of his family, he kisses his grandsons and daughters and blesses them and goes back home.

In the month of Elul, we should hope that all is possible and that we can and should turn the tables on years of demonization and remind ourselves that if “evil” Laban is capable of repentance, we should be able to change our views and accept the others in our midst. We have to avoid the cursing (even if the exemplar of this is both God and the sages) and the gratuitous hatred that surrounds us especially today during this pre-election period. If possible, we should focus on the blessings that we have (even if the curses outnumber them in this parasha) and try inasmuch as we can to act properly, focus on positivity, and censor what comes out of our mouths, so that we need not wash them with soap.

About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible from a feminist perspective on zoom.
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