Friday, December 02, 2011

Parsha Post: B'reishit through Chayei Sarah

Who is Wise?

Not me, but here are some interesting tidbits I've come across since Simchat Torah.

(Sources: Five Books of Moses, by Prof. Everett Fox, Five Books of Moses, by Prof. Robert Alter, Torah: A Modern Commentary, by URJ, Etz Hayim, by JTS, Soncino Pentateuch & Haftorahs, by R. Hertz, and the Artscroll Tanach, by R. Nosson Scherman.)


Song of Lamech (Gen. 4:23-24): "I have slain a man for wounding me/ And a boy for bruising me./ If Cain is avenged sevenfold/ Then Lamech seventy-sevenfold."

Alter reads this as a poetic fragment from a now-lost part of Hebrew oral tradition that the Torah's audience would have been familiar with. He notes that it sounds rather like a "warrior's triumphal song, cast as a boast to his wives." He suggests that Lamech "is saying (quite barbarically) that not only has he killed a man for wounding him, he has not hesitated to kill a mere boy for hurting him." EH takes the song less literally, seeing in it more of the kind of gladiatorial boasting from warriors or champions about to engage in combat. Lamech brags "that he does not need divine protection because he can defend himself with the new iron weapons of war. He places his faith in the power of technology." Per this view, Lamech is not a bully, but a mighty warrior whose skill is such that whereas his opponents can only bruise him, the same blows from him result in death. Somewhat similarly, Hertz sees it as a triumphant ode to industrialization and the creation of weaponry, "as mentioned in the previous verse." (This would make more sense except that the previous verse is talking about Tubal-Cain being the father of iron weapons, not Lamech.) As part of this gloss, Hertz connects Lamech's superiority in arms to the Cain reference, as well: "If Cain, though unarmed, was promised a sevenfold vengeance on a foe, I, equipped with the weapons invented by Tubal-Cain, will be able to exact a vengeance very much greater!" Artscroll, ever ready with the hard-to-swallow midrash, offers up the old "blind Lamech shot Cain" story from Rashi. In this interpretation, Lamech's song is a plea for forgiveness from his wives: "If the punishment of Cain, an intentional murderer, was delayed until the seventh generation, surely my punishment will be deferred many times seven because I killed accidentally!" I have to say, it's fascinating to watch the meanings of a few lines of text be interpreted so drastically differently. (While I don't buy Rashi's explanation at all, I am intrigued by the similarities between a blind Lamech shooting an arrow and killing Cain and the Norse story of Balder and Hoder. Cross-cultural exchange?)

Nephilim & B'nei ha-Eloheim (Gen. 6:1-4): Fallen angels and demi-gods? Now we're talking! Alter suggests they could be left-overs from pre- or un-Hebraic pantheons. Hertz gives an entirely different gloss by reading the Nephilim and "Sons of God" as being a reference to the godly descendants of Seth interacting with the "Sons of Men," that corrupted, descendants of Cain (or perhaps the "Sons of Men/Mighty" being rich and powerful nobles taking wives from common people). Both interpretations, Hertz says, indicate the failing morality of the time and necessitating the Flood. Artscroll follows the interpretation of B'nei Elohim as being nobles, citing Rashi as the source.

Lech Lecha

Abram's Rambo Moment (Gen. 14): Alter notes the shift of Abram going from being an important figure in his own story to suddenly becoming a "major player" on an international political and military stage-- something which is essentially confined to this single chapter, after which the narrative shifts back to Abram's personal story and that of his relationships with God and his family. Could this be an attempt to expand the scope of Abram's story? Alter notes that several of the kings mentioned in this section match up with historical records, so that element of the story has at least some basis in fact. Artscroll says this chapter shows Abram's "physical courage in battle" and EH notes that he is a "decisive, courageous and skilled battle commander"; perhaps this is an attempt to make him more well-rounded? While it's cool to think of Abraham as a macho man, I also have to wonder whether a wandering shepherd would really be all that likely to know about battle tactics. Hertz has nothing particularly noteworthy to say about Gen.14 other than to make a swipe at his favorite target, Bible critics: "This chapter does not fit in with any of the so-called 'sources' of the Bible critics; hence their determined attacks on its veracity." That's showing them, Rav!

Who is Melchizedek's God? (Gen. 14:18-20): We know he is the king of Salem (Jerusalem), but details are sketchy. He gives a prayer to El Elyon, who could either be referring to the Hebrew God, or El, one of the Canaanite Sky Gods. The text doesn't say, so people have interpreted it both ways. Hertz says "the Ras Shamra tablets show that it was quite a familiar appellation of Deity in pre-Mosaic Canaan," which he uses to conclude that "Melchizedek was evidently a convert of Abraham's." Not sure how you made that leap, but ok. Artscroll says that "The Sages" (I love them!) identified Melchizedek as Noah's son, Shem, Abraham's 9th-great-grandfather. (Chronology: who needs it!) Artscroll adds that Ramban said that Melchizedek was called "a priest of God, the Most High because unlike priests of the other nations who served angels, Melchizedek served Hashem." Again, possible but definitely not provable. R. Kook cites a midrash saying that Melchizedek (Shem) was God's original intended priest but that when he blessed Abraham before God, he lost his mandate (is someone insecure?). Kook extrapolates this midrash to focus on character traits of the two men:
Shem was called Malkhi-tzedek, literally, "the just king." He stressed the trait of tzedek — justice and worthiness. Abraham, on the hand, excelled in chesed and kindness. He sought to reach out to others, to influence and help them even beyond what they deserved.
Kook argues that Shem and Abraham offer two different models of God and religion. Shem's vision of God is beyond human accessibility, hence the need for a priestly intermediary. Abraham's view of religion is that all people are made in God's image, and therefore have the ability to access God already. The only need for a priest is to purify and atone for the people's transgressions. In other words, Abraham's priests have to do a little leg work but the end goal is still individuals interacting with God, whereas Shem's model is more Catholic in focus: all emphasis is on the priest with none on the people. (I'd be more convinced by this if there was any justification for it in the text.) EH admits that no one has any idea who this Melchizedek guy is, which is honest if not particularly enlightening. Alter notes that by borrowing the phrase in his address to the king of Sodom, Abram "elegantly co-opts" Melchizedek for Hebrew monotheism. (It wasn't just Abram; over the generations, ol' Melchi has gotten co-opted multiple times over, by the rabbis, the Essenes, the Kabbalists, the Christians, and even the Mormons. Lucky him.) The biggest surprise here is from the Reform TMC, which "adopts the interpretation which is also favored by Jewish tradition: Melchizedek and Abram worship the same God." I suppose they're entitled, but this seems like a pretty odd place to just take something on random faith based on no good evidence. Have you guys been reading Artscroll again?

Who was Hagar? (Gen. 16):

Hagar's title is usually translated as maidservant or concubine, but EH and Alter note that Hagar is Sarai's property, plain and simple. This is interesting both in terms of showing more of the social dynamics within Abram's household (which raises some questions about the nature of all those "servants" we've been hearing about), as well as for the notable fact that this is one of the only times  in the Torah (AFAIK) that a subservient or underclass character is given agency as well as narrative power. The focus of the chapter is mostly confined to Hagar, and it is through her perspective, not Sarai's, that we hear about the women's quarrel, Hagar's flight, and her experience with God's angel as well as God himself, who she gives a new name, El-Roi, which could be read as "God who sees Me". Compare this with, say, Abram's servent Eliezer, who gets such little screen time that his most famous moment in the Torah may not actually even involve him. It's easy to see how Sarai might be feeling pushed out of her rightful position as the matriarch of Abram's household; at this point in the text, Hagar certainly seems like she's being placed on equal footing with Sarai-- a point Alter underscores by pointing out that the critical word in verse three, usually translated as: "gave [Hagar] to her husband Abram as concubine" is not actually the Hebrew word for concubine, pilegesh, but 'ishah, woman-- "the same term that identifies Sarai at the beginning of the verse." Do I detect a tiny seed of Liberation Theology here? Is the text suggesting that humanity and dignity remain the same regardless of social status? It's certainly an interesting coincidence that the primary struggle of the chapter is Sarai trying to enforce her superiority over Hagar-- a superiority undermined by the text itself! (Also look back to Hagar's name for God- he sees her, even though she's someone's slave. Neat stuff.)

The text doesn't offer very much background on Hagar, though some of the chumashim do try. EH and TMC both note the similarity between Hagar and the Arabic word hajara, meaning "flee" or "emigrate," suggesting both a different origin for Hagar as well as a hint to how she wound up in Canaan. Artscroll takes a different tack, going with a midrash attributed to Rashi claiming that she was the daughter of Pharaoh: "After seeing the miracles that were wrought on Sarah's behalf when she was abducted and taken to his palace, he gave Hagar to Sarah, saying, 'Better that she be a servant in their house than a princess in someone else's.'..." The midrash strikes me as a little silly (I notice Pharaoh didn't offer to become Abram's slave along with his daughter) but does offer another interesting add-on to the idea of doubles and inversions: Hagar is Sarai's slave, but she in her own way, she is also a princess-- not unlike Sarai/Sarah, whose name means "my princess"/"the princess."

Sarai's treatment of Hagar (Gen. 16:1-9):

Many of my chumashim mention Ramban's commentary that "Sarai our Mother acted sinfully in ill-treating Hagar, and also Abram in permitting it; therefore God heard her affliction and gave her a son who became the ancestor of a ferocious race that was destined to deal harshly with their descendants." I like that Ramban recognizes that Sarai committed a sin in how she treated Hagar, though it strikes me as odd that rather than ending her suffering, God explicitly tells her to go back and submit to Sarai's abuse, the implication being that her "reward" for this will be Ishmael's own mighty line. Ramban's drash is also impressive in noting that Abram was also responsible for the deteriorating relationship between his wife and concubine. Abram is criticized by Sarai in not standing up for her, and rather than comfort her, or speak to Hagar, he essentially says, "Do what you want, keep me out of it"-- which not only reads as a bit cowardly, but also a cop-out, particularly since he is the focal point of the love/status triangle! (This comes up again in Va-Yera, when Sarai kicks Ishmael out and Abraham feels bad but does nothing.)

Both the EH and TMC have some interesting linguistic insights. EH says the Hebrew verb used in the text "implies that Sarai subjected Hagar to physical and psychological abuse." TMC also calls Sarai's treatment of Hagar "abuse," with the deliberate goal of driving her out of the household, and notes that "the term for afflicting Hagar... is also used for Pharaoh's afflicting Israel in Egypt." There's only one problem: EH and TMC don't agree on what the verb is! (EH: va-t'anneha, TMC: inah). Help from Hebrew speakers, please?

Hertz stops short of calling Sarai's treatment abusive, saying merely that she "probably imposed harsh tasks on Hagar," and adds that most women would have had similar frustrations if their servant had been "disrespectful and ungrateful." It may be my 21st century anti-slavery bias here, but it's hard for me to feel all that sympathetic to Sarai.

Artscroll has nothing more to say about Hagar here. That brilliant princess midrash took up too much space on the page. Yeah, that was worth it.

Chayei Sarah

Getting the band back together (Gen. 25:9): "[Abraham's] sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah..."

Just like that, Ishmael's back in town? Seems like there's some story missing here...

TMC says that "the two brothers seem to live in harmony" after their parents' deaths. EH goes further into psychological territory, citing the Talmud's claim that "Ishmael changed his ways as he matured... he seems to have forgiven Abraham for having been a less-than-perfect father. Isaac too seems to have come to terms with his father's nearly killing him on Mount Moriah. Might these reconciliations have occurred in Abraham's lifetime and be the reason for the Torah's describing him as 'contented' in his old age?" The EH asks some interesting questions, but they seem to be reaching a little on this one, particularly with where they go next: "Can we see this as a model for family reconciliations, forgiving old hurts? And can it be a model for the descendants of Ishmael and Isaac, contemporary Arabs and Israeli Jews, to find grounds for forgiveness and reconciliation?" Ok, guys, seriously... it's ONE sentence, without ANY detailed description. Calm down. I thought you were supposed to belong to the historical school or something.

Hertz is the most conservative with his interpretation: "At the graveside of their father, the half-brothers were reconciled." Surprise, surprise, I like his best.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for happy endings in the Torah... particularly given some of the Jerry Springer back-stabbing going on in the last few parshot... but let's try to rein ourselves in a little bit, please. The liberal chumashim need to stop trying to out-Artscroll Artscroll.

Tomorrow: Toldot.

1 comment:

kalvin said...

Friar Yid: Privileges of the Majority Peter Beinart had an interesting post about American Jews' religiosity, in which, among other things.
Hertz atlanta