Friday, December 12, 2008

Our Dysfunctional Jewish Family

Jewish history has been characterized not only by omnipresent Gentile against Jew persecution, but by Jew against Jew infighting. A few examples from modern times includes the Mitnagdim against the Chassidim, present day Chassidic feuds (e.g., Lubavitch vs Satmar, the dynastic succession feuds of Satmar and of Bobov), Chareidi vitriolic response towards secular Zionist Jews or their accusations of heresy regarding Modern Orthodox approaches to Judaism, the Orthodox / non-Orthodox (secular, Reform, etc) divide, the list goes on and on and on and on. (And, of course, grows exponentially if we widen our perspective and look at ancient Jewish history, especially the late Second Temple period.)

There is truly only one reason for our problems: Ma'aseh Avot Siman Lebanim - the actions of the forefathers presage the experiences of the children! Simply put, our current dysfunctionality stems from the dysfunctional behavior of our ancestral families. Thus we have:
  • Abraham kicking his concubine Hagar and his son Ishmael out of the house at the behest of his wife Sarah, because Ishmael was mocking (some say sexually abusing) Isaac. As a parting gift before sending them into an inhospitable wilderness, the very wealthy Abraham gives them only some bread and a skin of water.

  • Abraham taking his son Isaac to be sacrificed, only to stop at the last minute because of an angelic vision telling him not to proceed (some midrashic accounts having him actually going through with the act)

  • Jacob taking advantage of Esav's state of famishment to trade a bowl of cholent for Esav's first-born rights, and - more importantly and less justifiably - taking advantage of the decrepitude of his father and stealing the blessing designated for Esav at the instigation of his mother

  • Esav's desire to kill his brother Jacob as a result of the deception, and the latter consequently fleeing from his house

  • Jacob's bride-to-be Rachel colluding with her sister Leah so that Jacob marries the wrong woman

  • Leah's knowledge that she is unloved by her husband. The jealousy between Rachel and Leah and their competition to have offspring

  • Jacob showing preferential treatment to his four wives/concubines and their children to the extent that each group sees how valued they are by the degree to which they are put in harm's way for the meeting with Esav (shades of Sophie's Choice!)

  • Joseph tale-bearing on his brothers

  • Jacob showing greater love for Joseph than for his other children

  • The brothers of Joseph attempt to kill Joseph but later deciding "only" to sell him as a slave. They then deceive their father, claiming that Joseph was torn by a wild beast, thus putting Jacob through many years of inconsolable hell.

  • Joseph - as a ruler of Egypt - toying with his brothers and accusing them as spies, taking Shimon as hostage, and the brothers returning to Egypt not to attempt to rescue Shimon but because they lack food
  • Joseph apparently estranged from his family who now live in Goshen

  • Jacob demonstrating one last act of preferential treatment of Ephraim, the younger son of Jacob, over Manasseh
There are many positive lessons to be learned from the avot and imahot, but it seems that the only lesson that we should take from their family interactions is how not to behave!


jewish philosopher said...

The primary purpose of Biblical stories is to demonstrate what mistakes earlier generations made and to learn from that.

Frum Heretic said...

I wouldn't call it the primary purpose, but it is one of the purposes. On one hand we are supposed to learn from Yaakov how to deal with Esav (=the Gentile nations) and on the other hand we see that the Avot exhibited gross lapses in proper interpersonal behavior. And while Chazal occasionally criticize Biblical characters for their behavior (for example, in Vayishlach Yaacov is criticized for his subservient attitude towards Esav, for locking Dinah in a trunk, etc.), more frequently do we encounter the attitude that the Avot and the "Shiftei Kah" were on a madreiga that we can't even comprehend, that they were on the level of melachim.

It's strange dichotomy.

Anonymous said...

You are turning into the JP of the skeptic bloggers.

Frum Heretic said...

Nah, I don't believe that "it's all about sex".

-suitepotato- said...

If the primary reason isn't to learn from their mistakes, at least from the POV of those who compiled the Torah, then it must be G-d's. How else can you explain so many horrible things being so graphically recorded or retold?

Only G-d could make a people like the human race use such a painfully unvarnished text as the central text of an entire religion instead of doing the usual human thing of totally glitzy marketing.

If you wanted to write a central text for a religion would you do anything but make all the chief people seem like angels? Of course not. You'd not record a story like that of Abraham and his descendants. It's embarrassing.

G-d had to be involved for that oversight to have continued for so many millennia.

Frum Heretic said...

I really don't buy the argument "God must have written it because it tells of the peoples' failures unlike other historical documents" but I do agree that we are supposed to learn from the successes and failures of previous generations. I guess my biggest issue is really what was expressed in my first comment to the post; that all too often the claim is made that we are simply on too low of a level to judge the actions of the tzaddikim of previous generations. This attitude seems to be a relatively recent phenomenon, since the earliest sources certainly didn't hesitate to criticize (although this is often mitigated by a "David didn't sin"-style of whitewashing).