Like my page and make comments on Facebook! (and share with others)

Friday, November 20, 2009

Toldot: On Being a Jewish Man

This week’s parashah/portion is Toledot (Bereshit/Genesis 25:19 – 28:9). It begins with the phrase “these are the generations of Isaac, son of Abraham: Abraham begot Isaac.” We then read the genealogy of Isaac’s descendants. Though this opening seems at first blush to be simple, the great hassidic rebbe Levi Isaac of Berditchev, is drawn to it’s phrasing. He asks (and take some “author’s license” here) why the text focuses on the fact that Abraham begot Isaac, and not that Sarah gave birth to him. In citing various verses from earlier in the book of Bereshit, he first focuses on the righteousness of Isaac in comparison to his half-brother Yishmael (also Abraham’s son, though not Sarah’s). He states that, contrary to what one might believe, Isaac is not automatically considered a tzaddik/righteous person because he is the son of Abraham. Rather, since is the son of a tzadik, Isaac must actually earn the title of tzadik through his actions.

Then the commentary takes a turn that I find fascinating – and quite disturbing. For Levi Isaac believes that Isaac earn the title of ‘seed of Abraham’,as well tzadik, because of the Akeidah, the time when Abraham bound him to the altar and almost sacrificed him. Furthermore, using various rabbinic sources as proof texts, Levi Isaac states that, though Sarah gave birth to Isaac, he received his soul – and his “life” – from his father. Again, this occurred on Mt. Moriah when he was bound on the altar and almost killed!

It would be simple to dismiss this entire commentary as a way to emphasize the paternal lineage and ignore Isaac’s maternal line. This kind of misogyny would not be unheard of in rabbinic commentary! However, I experience this text as much more. To state that the trial that was experienced by Isaac on Mt. Moriah at the hands of his father is responsible for Isaac receiving his neshamah/soul is much more than that? For it begs the bigger question: how is it that the terrifying experience on that mountain made him “truly alive,” and made him his “father’s son?”

This is an especially ironic question considering the fact that Torah never mentions Isaac and Abraham seeing each other again after the Akeidah. So how it is that what I would view as an abusive near-death experience, is viewed as giving Isaac his life and assuring his place as patriarch and a tzadik? As a rabbi, I have theological issues with this point of view. As a man, I find it frightening and dangerous.

I have also been grateful that Judaism was not one of those religions or cultures that utilized violent or frightening rites of passage to mark entrance to adulthood. Though I do feel that Bar/Bat Mitzvah has lost its meaning for many and needs to become more of a true rite of passage, the addition of violence and fear is not part of my ideal formula! Yet, here is a great hassidic rebbe focusing on one of the most problematic, fearsome and violent passages of the Torah and viewing it in a positive light!

In reading his interpretation I can’t help but think of all of the boys throughout history - until this very day - who have been told that what it means to be a man is to be tough, not show fear – or feelings – and prove oneself. It is not acceptable to be a ‘wimp,' a ‘sissy,’'gay,' or 'queer.'. One must instead be brave, fearless, stoic and macho. That is how we cut our mother’s apron strings and become independent men!

Of course, this has changed for many men in our society, and yet a vestige of this still exists even in the most enlightened of contemporary men and women.The hyper-masuline action hero still abounds in our society. Conversely, the father-as-buffoon we see on so many TV sitcoms, the jokes about men centering on their masculinity, or lack thereof, the implicit and explicit homophobia that still exists in our society and the exaggerated negative images of “domineering”mothers that still fill our popular culture all relate back to this in some way.

By stating that Isaac receives his soul – his inner Divine essence – from his father when he is almost killed by him, Levi Isaac is also implying that he was not yet truly alive as long as he was still connected to his mother (the feminine force in his life)! From this perspective, Sarah’s death at the beginning of the parashah that immediately follows the Akeidah takes on a new meaning. It is as if, in order for Isaac to receive his soul and earn his place as a tzadik, he must not only endure emotional (and even physical) abuse at the hand of his father, but he must also sever his ties to his mother to such a degree that it brings about her death. Beyond this, he must also then separate himself from his father so he can be the independent man he was meant to be. Therefore, Abraham returns home alone after the Akeidah and Isaac goes … who knows where. It seems as if Levi Isaac has created a perverse Jewish version of the Oedipus myth where the boy kills the mother and then bonds with the father (after the father almost kills him) only to then abandon him as well in order to prepare to then marry the one for whom he is destined (who also happens to be his cousin on his father’s side!).

But before the marriage occurs, it appears that Isaac lives his life as a lone wolf. He is the alpha male seeking his place in society, preparing to continue his father’s work of creating a new people and a new society. He has passed the test. He has withstood the trial and not faltered. He can now truly be called a REAL man!

Yet, in the following passages we read how he is duped by his son Jacob (seen by the tradition as the more ‘feminine’ son, tied more closely to his mother) and how his son Esau (traditionally portrayed as the more ‘macho’ one, and his father’s favorite) is loses his birthright and his father’s blessing. In this narrative Esau, the macho one, is not the one who will continue the lineage of Abraham and Isaac. He is not the one who will be called tzadik, or seed of Abraham. Yet, even in this narrative, when the softer, more feminine son comes out ahead, we read of emotional and psychological games – if not abuse – that the brothers play with each other and their father, with their mother’s help. This continues as we then read of what happens to Jacob in terms of his relationship with his four wives, 12 sons and his oft-forgotten daughter.

Is being part of this vicious game of masculinity roulette what it means to be part of the generations of Abraham? It would seem so. As much as I would like to rewrite the Torah to provide a picture of a family where gender roles are different, where people are valued for who they are and not which parent they were closer to or how much they embodied the idealized man this is not the Torah that we have inherited.

So it seems that we must continue to struggle with our Torah in order to see what it has to teach us about what it means to be a human being, in general, and what it means to be a man or a woman, in particular. We may not like what we find in the texts – or in the commentaries – but it is in our reactions and relationship to the text that we can find our true selves. It is in the words, as well as in the spaces between them, we can find our soul and our identity.

As a Jewish man, I must find a way to find my place among generations of Abraham, and claim Abraham as my ancestor, while at the same time rejecting the violence, abuse, and disconnection that is a part of Jewish male mythology. I must also find a way to say that I am part of the generations of Sarah, while rejecting the notion that to be connected to the maternal means being less than a man or being dominated by a powerful, and even dangerous, outside force.

This is not an easy task, but it is something in which Jewish men need to engage themselves as we struggle with the tradition and our relationship to it. Of course, there is also a struggle in which Jewish women need to engage themselves as well. However, as a man I only feel qualified to discuss what I see (and this is also objective) as part of the masculine struggle of what it means to be a child of Abraham and Sarah, what it means to strive to be a tzadik through my actions, and what I can pass on to my son and to the next generation of Jewish men – gay, straight, bisexual, transgender and others - to help them as the embark upon the journey of manhood – whatever that means to each of us.

All of this requires me, and each of us, to pay attention to the voices of our ancestors, recent and ancient, that fill our minds with messages at every moment, many of them conflicting. We must hold these contradictions as part of who we are and not fight them. For they have something to teach us, as does everything that arises within us and within our minds at any given moment.

Shabbat Shalom

No comments:

Follow by Email

Blogs That I Try to Follow