Reflections – Toledot

Texts and beliefs By Matt Plen 22nd Nov 2014

Parshat Toldot is often understood in stereotypical terms as an account of the relationship between Jews and non-Jews. The central part of the story is focused on Isaac’s journey to Gerar, his defeat at the hands of the Philistines, and his subsequent successful relocation to Rehovot (literally ‘wide places,’ indicative of the fact that here he found space to settle without coming into conflict) and then to Beer Sheva. The narrative culminates with Isaac’s erection of an altar, his invocation of the name of God, and his reconciliation with Avimelech, who comes to realise that God is on Isaac’s side.

These motifs are strengthened by a framing story which dwells on the relationship between Isaac’s sons, Jacob and Esau. Esau is imagined by the rabbis as the archetypal non-Jew. He is depicted in the Bible in terms of physicality and violence, being his father’s favourite and associated with raw appetite, hunting and the outdoors. Jacob, in contrast, is most intimate with his mother, stays indoors and is characterised by cunning and intelligence. Here too, the ‘Jewish’ character wins out, despite the physical advantages of his ‘non-Jewish’ adversary.

In short, this is a story about non-Jewish aggression and confrontation, and the Jewish response which involves non-violence and ultimate spiritual superiority. But a closer reading undermines this stereotypical first impression.

A re-reading of the Jacob-Esau narrative reveals that while Jacob gets the better of his brother, this is achieved through deception, manipulation and lies. We cannot conceal the fact that Jacob got his way as the result of intellectual, but certainly not moral, superiority. Similarly, Avimelech is presented as a confrontational yet straightforward leader. Isaac, in contrast, protects himself by lying that Rebecca is his sister, endangering both her and the Philistines. The eventual rapprochement between Isaac and Avimelech, rather than being a realistic vindication of the Jew’s religious and moral superiority, feels more like a fantasy, spun out of frustration at Isaac’s inability to prevail.

In the tension between these two readings, this is a story about our self-image as Jews. Since the middle ages, Jews have often been depicted by a hostile Christian culture as physically weak, overly intellectual, cunning and exploitative. Over time, Jews began to internalise this narrative, taking on a more positive version of the stereotype. Even today, the idealised image of a Torah scholar in ultra-orthodox circles is very different from parallel Western ideas of masculinity. The Zionist revolution in the early twentieth century took notice and internalised this critique. One of its most significant achievements was to recast the image of the Jew in a new way: healthy, muscular pioneers, farmers and soldiers, living a physical, outdoor life. These stereotypically non-Jewish traits were also associated with moral ones: a repudiation of the necessary duplicity which Diaspora existence often involved.

This recasting of Jewish self-image has also been connected with the development of a new ideology of political and military assertiveness. Where Diaspora Jewish politics was defined, out of necessity, as the art of diplomacy and compromise, many Israeli leaders have seen raw power and intransigence as vital means of survival. They may not have approved of Isaac’s policy of territorial withdrawal in the hope of reaching compromise with a stronger adversary.

The negatives of the traditional, stereotypical Jewish self-image are clear, as are the problems of the new, Zionist one. This becomes even clearer when we look at the dangers of too strong a connection between religious belief and physical force in other contemporary faith traditions. The question raised by our parsha Is whether it is possible to blend the powerful stereotypes of Jew and non-Jew to create a healthier Jewish self-image, identity and politics.

Matt Plen is the Chief Executive of Masorti Judaism.

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