A Bold Exegetical Gambit

Vayetzei By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Nov 2, 1995 / 5756 | Torah Commentary

Why does Jacob abandon the security of his parents home in Beer-sheba? The obvious answer is to flee from the wrath of his brother Esau, whom he has now cunningly stripped of his birthright and paternal blessing. But the end of last week’s parasha adds a second motive: to avoid taking a wife from his Canaanite neighbors. The destiny of Jacob’s flight is to be the family of his mother in Haran, where hopefully, like his father, he will find a life-long mate.

The patriarchs exhibit a strong aversion to commingling with the native inhabitants of Canaan. Ishmael marries an Egyptian like his mother Hagar (Genesis 21:21). Abraham, before his death, seeks a wife for Isaac among his own people. And even Esau, who at age 40 greatly displeased his parents by marrying two native Hittite women (Gen. 26:34), later tried to mollify them by taking the daughter of Ishmael as an additional wife (Gen. 28:9).

Indeed, I sense the same aversion in the reaction of Jacob’s sons to the rape of their sister Dinah by Shechem, son of Hamor the Hivite (Gen. 34). It is the prospect of wholesale intermarriage between Jacob’s clan and the Hivites which prompted Simeon and Levi to exact a retribution that far exceeds the crime committed by Shechem.

How ironic that the one son of Jacob about whom we are specifically told that he found his wife among the Canaanite inhabitants of the land was none other than Judah (Gen. 38:2), whose name would eventually denote the progeny of Jacob that survives. The force of the verb “left” in the phrase, “About that time Judah left his brothers (Gen. 38:1)” suggests not only a physical departure but also a violation of family mores.

The standard upheld by the patriarchs without any explicit divine exhortation received its legal formulation in the rest of the Torah. Time and again the Israelites are warned to exterminate the seven nations that inhabit the land promised to them. The barbarity of Canaanite culture as evinced in the treatment of Lot’s quests by the citizens of Sodom (Gen. 119) would surely contaminate the purity of Israel’s faith if left in place. Deuteronomy lists the nations by name, forbids any thought of matrimony and calls for their eradication. “You must doom them to destruction: grant them no terms and given them no quarter. You shall not intermarry with them… Instead…you shall tear down their altars, smash their pillars, cut down their sacred posts, and consign their images to the fire (Deut. 7:2-5).”

In the same unequivocal tone, Deuteronomy excludes from “the congregation of the Lord” forever any descendant of the nations of Moab and Ammon, because of what they did to Israel in the wilderness (Deut. 23:4-7). Less harshly, Deuteronomy countenances the admission of Edomites and Egyptians in the third generation (Deut. 23:8-9), because one was a brother(descended from Ishmael) and the other hosted Israel on its land for centuries.

I raise this malevolent legislation not to ask whether it was ever carried out, but rather to show how it was overcome by rabbinic Judaism. That the weight of biblical evidence favors the view that such genocidal policy was never implemented (see Judges 1:21-23, Kings 9:20-21) would not alone have set aside its validity. In fact, a striking incident from the early days of the Second Temple period reveals just how potently and painfully it remained in force. In the middle of the fifth century B.C.E. the priest-scribe Ezra led a contingent of exiled Jews back from Babylonia to Jerusalem. Armed with a letter of authority from the Persian king, he assumed the leadership of a nascent and vulnerable community anchored in a very modestly reconstructed Temple. To his dismay, he learned that intermarriage with the local population was rife, especially among the elite circles of Jerusalem. His officers reported: “The people of Israel and the priests and Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the land whose abhorrent practices are like those of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites (Ezra 9:1).”

The language implies an expansion of the notion of excluded nations. It is not ethnicity that defines the seven original settler nations of Israel, but cultural mores. Decadence is the common denominator, and Ezra demands and achieves a wholesale expulsion of foreign wives and their children from the community. (Judaism had not yet developed the concept and ritual of religious conversion by which sincere outsiders could be admitted into the community.)

By the time the Pharisees and Rabbis, Ezra’s spiritual heirs, came to power after the destruction of the Second Temple, Judaism had become a missionizing world religion, constituting as much as one-tenth of the population of the Roman Empire. To maintain the Deuteronomic legacy, especially in Palestine, would have severely impeded access to Judaism for prospective converts in a world turned cosmopolitan. Who could be sure that an interested gentile was not a descendant of one of the proscribed nations

Hence, in two cases of conversion in the decades after 70 C.E., Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hananiah and Rabbi Akiva separately dared to set aside the restrictions of the Torah. History had overturned their relevance, they argued. The nations listed by the Torah were no longer identifiable because they no longer lived on their ancestral lands. The Assyrian King Sennacherib (705-681 B.C.E.) had defeated and dispersed them in the course of his many military campaigns throughout the Fertile Crescent with the result, according to Rabbi Akiva, that today, “an Ammonite man will marry an Egyptian woman, and an Egyptian man will marry an Ammonite woman, and one of them will marry someone from any nation on earth, and someone from any nation on earth will marry one of them.” Later authorities accepted the joint view of Rabbis Yehoshua and Akiva as normative by adding the assumption that given this state of ethnic intermingling, every convert is deemed to come from the nationality that dominates the region in which he or she might live (and not from one of the proscribed nations).

With a single bold exegetical gambit, Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Akiva devalue the genocidal content of Scripture. By contextualizing the laws pertaining to the seven nations, they relativized their validity. The book of Joshua, with its alleged annihilation of the seven nations, became no more than a historical test, not a prescription for contemporary policy. Since in Judaism divine revelation is subordinate to human interpretation, the history of Jewish exegesis records the evolution of Judaism’s moral conscience. Which means that responsibility, courage and compassion are as important in the study of Torah as learning and observance.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Vayetzei are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.