September 22, 2019

We Have Met the Enemy, and He is Us: Haftarat Toledot, Malachi 1:1-2:7

Malachi makes a stirring prophecy at the beginning of this week’s Haftarah, and botches it badly:

I have shown you love, says the Lord. But you ask, ‘How have you shown us love?’ After all – declares the Lord – Esau is Jacob’s brother, yet I have accepted Jacob and rejected Esau. I have made his hills a desolation, his territory a home for beasts of the desert. If Edom thinks, ‘Though crushed, we can build the ruins again,’ thus said the Lord of Hosts: They may build, but I will tear down. And so they shall be known as the region of wickedness, the people damned forever of the Lord.

Edom was the nation in the Negev that descended from Esau, and so Malachi dutifully lets us know not to worry, Edom will really take it on the chin in the end.

But there is a big problem: we are Edom.

This isn’t a metaphor. Forty years after Judah Maccabee’s successful revolt in 175 BCE against the Seleucids, his nephew John Hyrcanus became King of Israel. The new kingdom had its share of security problems, and conquered its neighbor. That much might sound familiar to modern ears, but the next piece does not. John Hyrcanus worked hard at integrating his new lands – by “>Academic charlatans such as Shlomo Sand seem to think that this is a new revelation, and that it delegitimizes Jewish peoplehood; as I show below, this is nonsense).

So quite literally, we are Edom. Edom is us. And what does that mean for our Haftarah?

Most clearly, it points to fundamental cultural flaw when we discuss the problem of evil. In the typical movie – and particularly in the typical children’s move – the evil figure is a discreet person, object, monster, alien, group, or thing. There is a good guy and a bad guy. It is something out there, an “other.” Viewing Haftarat Toledot through the lens of history makes it painfully clear how distorted a picture that is. In Parashat Toledot, we learn of the rivalry between Jacob and Esau. Well, guess what: we’re Esau.

The rabbis understood the idea overall, explaining that every person has their own good and evil inclination. What they did not say is that personifying evil thus poses an enormous danger. Instead, they invented various legends equating Edom with Rome.

They thus missed a great opportunity for moral philosophy. “>a famous book by historian Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger: it also represents the way that much of Judaism does business. Consider the most important sentence in the history of modern Judaism:

Moses received Torah at Sinai; he transmitted it to Joshua; Joshua gave it to the Prophets; the Prophets to the Elders; and the Elders to the Men of the Great Assembly. They said: raise up many disciplies, be deliberate in judgment, and build a fence around the Torah. (Avot 1:1).

This is a myth. It represents the rabbinic claim to authority, viz., that there was always another Torah, an oral Torah, given to Moses at Sinai, which the rabbis had special authority to interpret and rule upon.

But what a myth! In the wake of the destruction of the Temple, it saved Judaism. It produced an extraordinary flowering of religious and legal creativity, helping to make Jewish spirituality and civilization one of humanity’s greatest products. This is true even one believes, as I do, that God played a pivotal role in that creation (as God does in all creation).

So what is the upshot?

1. There is a more-than-reasonable probability that you are an Edomite;

2. At some point, your ancestors transformed themselves through a complex process to become “original” Israelites;

3. This is completely okay, and in no way compromises the integrity of the Jewish people because we do this all the time;

4. Beware of anyone – whether Orthodox Jew or anti-Semite – questioning your Jewish legitimacy because of a supposed “real” Jewish authenticity. That does not exist; and

5. This whole process comprises an ingenious, beautiful method of Jewish spiritual creativity, whereby our people constantly renew and deepen our relationship with the divine.

We are not the same as our ancestors. They might not even be our ancestors. And thank God for that. Really.