Struggles and Separations / Parashat Toldot

Yakov Z. Meyer
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Yakov Z. Meyer

During the era of the sages, the first batei midrash ‏(houses of Jewish learning‏) were set up, and those who studied in them were separated by their walls from the public outside. In addition, a hierarchy of students, on the one hand, and lawmakers and interpreters, on the other, was established, and the role of the latter group in deciphering and organizing reality began. This process led to the creation of Jewish culture as we know it today. The reality that demanded this regimentation and in which the sages lived was not just the physical Land of Israel − it also encompassed the textual expanse of the stories of the patriarchs. The sages took the institutions that were familiar to them and the tensions characterizing their lives and read them into terms of the Bible’s stories. Their reading was a transitive act, one that gave rise to a dynamic that both exposed the text’s meaning and essentially recreated that text.

Thus, the tragic and complex character of Esau, as conveyed in a literal reading of the text, is seen as evil because he is perceived as symbolizing the early Christians who lived during the same period as the sages. Similarly, Jacob becomes the righteous individual in the narrative and, after his separation from Esau, he represents the sages themselves. The struggles between the two in this week’s Torah reading represent in the sages’ eyes the struggles over power in the Land of Israel during the era of Christianity’s disengagement from Judaism.

Rebecca is pregnant with Isaac’s twins: “And the children struggled [literally: ran] together within her; and she said: ‘If it be so, wherefore do I live?’ And she went to inquire of the Lord” ‏(Genesis 25:22‏). The sages offer the following homily related to this verse: “It is written, ‘And the children struggled together within her.’ When Rebecca would pass by the temples of idolatry, Esau moved inside her and went into convulsions, trying to get out, as it is written, ‘The wicked are estranged from the womb.’ When she passed by synagogues and houses of Jewish learning, Jacob went into convulsions, trying to get out, as it is written, ‘Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee.’ ‏(Bereisheet Rabbah 63:6‏).

The verses related to the description of the twins’ struggles signify different things: Esau’s is described by means of a verse from Psalms: “The wicked are estranged from the womb; the speakers of lies go astray as soon as they are born” ‏(Psalms 58:4‏). According to this verse, the wicked do not choose to be evil later in life; rather, they are “sanctified” for evil already at birth. By contrast, Jacob’s struggle in the womb is described by means of a verse in Jeremiah, wherein God appoints the latter as a prophet: “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee, and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee; I have appointed thee a prophet unto the nations” ‏(Jeremiah 1:5‏). While he was still in the womb, Jeremiah was sanctified for his role in life − and the same is true for Jacob. One womb, two fetuses − and two very different desires. ‏(Perhaps this homily even includes anti-Pauline criticism, as it attacks those who believe that the difference between Judaism and Christianity lies not in the flesh, but in the spirit.‏)

For her part, Rebecca moves within an expanse that contains places that have been sanctified for religious worship: on the one hand, the synagogues and batei midrash; on the other, the temples of idolatry. Her womb is portrayed as a source of desires, the objects of which are outside: This is the precise opposite of the accepted perception of the fetus in the womb as an entity that is unaware of what is going on outside it. Indeed, the unborn children Rebecca carries are aware of the duality of the different religious institutions in the external domain, and they react by moving about inside her womb. The contradictory religious options existing outside charge that world with a polarized sort of eroticism. The fetuses inside their mother demonstrate their passion for the external realm, a passion whose result is the psychosis Rebecca experiences.

Walls separate the womb from the outside world, where a hierarchy holds sway − one that makes order of and reorganizes that world. Rebecca is kept ignorant of what is transpiring inside her but is preoccupied by it: Since she does not know who the powerful individuals are who control her through her womb, and may not even know that she has twins, she experiences the struggle between Jacob and Esau as schizophrenia.

However, the reality expressed in the polemical document criticizing the early Christians who separated themselves from Judaism is not the same as the reality of separation in the womb. Quite the contrary: The latter separation attests to an opposite phenomenon. At this particular point, after Christianity left its Jewish origins behind, it was not really clear who was going to the synagogues and batei midrash, and who was going to the temple of idol worship. That is why the sages must show that the difference between Jacob and Esau was predetermined, even before birth. The sages do not yet identify themselves with either of the twins, but rather with Rebecca, who physically suffers the torment of separation. The sages are suspicious of anyone who changes the liturgy and fear that this person might have been swept away by the temptations of heresy. On one occasion, even the great Rabbi Eliezer was suspected of heresy ‏(according to the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Avoda Zara‏ 16b).

Since the sages have been kept ignorant of what is happening inside the womb from which the two religions − Judaism and Christianity − will separate from one another, they have no alternative but to “inquire of the Lord.” Like Rebecca, they must go to batei midrash, into the isolated, artificial, heterotopic expanse, to voice their concerns and receive a reply from the rabbinical judge within.

“But she [Rebecca] only went to Eber’s house of Jewish studies. Thus, it can be seen that whoever appears before an elder is like someone who appears before the divine presence” ‏(Bereisheet Rabbah 63:6‏).

Rebecca seeks out the universalistic, mythological institution of learning headed by Eber, who is a descendant of Shem, one of Noah’s sons, and also the great-great-grandfather of Nahor, the grandfather of Abraham. The sages portray Eber as an ancient wise man who sits in the academy and studies.

Such is the house of study to which Rebecca, whose sons are struggling inside her womb, goes: to make an inquiry, to demand justice, to demand answers and a solution to her distress. After all, this is, in the final analysis, the sages’ “project”: to demand that the text answer our needs, to demand a reply from God. Since he will not speak with us directly, there is a need to go to the text, which is mediated by a wise man who delivers homilies in one of the batei midrash. Rebecca goes to such a place to “inquire of the Lord”: God himself is being asked to supply her with an answer. As the sages say, “Thus, it can be seen that whoever appears before an elder is like someone who appears before the divine presence.”

The reply is forthcoming: “And the Lord said unto her: Two nations are in thy womb, and two peoples shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger” ‏(Gen. 25:23‏). There will be no reconciliation, only a total severance of ties. There will be no peace, only war. The schizophrenia will be translated into social reality, and the one will be split into two entities, who will then struggle against one another.

The sages read the story of Rebecca’s pregnancy, and they incorporated themselves into it. Thus, they decipher God’s reply to her as one that presages what will happen between them and the early Christians. The sages go to inquire of the Lord, and he provides them with an answer, which is to be found in the verses of the Bible placed before them.

'Birth of Esau and Jacob,' by François Maitre (c. 1475-1480).