December 2009

The Torah portion of Vayechi marks the conclusion of the book of Genesis, and signals the transition from personal stories of the sons of Israel to communal stories of the Israelite nation. At the heart of this story is the notion that family is a larger enterprise than merely blood relations. Beginning with Moses, the Torah will refer to the relationship between a Jew and his fellow as fraternal: When Moses grows up, he goes out “to see his brothers” (Ex. 2:11). From here on out, the Torah employs the term “ach,” brother, to denote a relationship that is not a brotherly relationship that we would recognize.

The song, “Hinei mah tov,” familiar to many from camp days, comes from Psalm 133. The line is translated, “How good is it, and how pleasant, when brothers dwell together.” (Ps. 133:1) The Midrash applies the verse to Moses and Aaron, brothers who shared leadership and did not begrudge each other their respective positions. Yet the lesson of the verse is perhaps most poignantly learned during the story of Joseph, particularly during Judah’s speech in parshat Vayigash.

The speech is 16 verses long, the longest in the Torah. The pivot point comes at the beginning of the ninth verse of the speech (44:27), when Judah recounts Jacob’s words: “You know that my wife bore me two sons.” The medieval commentator Ramban notes the obvious: Jacob had more than one wife, so why is it only Rachel, the mother of Joseph and Benjamin, who is referred to as his his wife? He answers that Rachel was the only wife whom Jacob took willingly. Leah, Bilhah, and Zilpah were each imposed upon him. Rachel was the love of his life, the wife who Jacob truly loved.

What is so striking here is that Judah acknowledges this reality, and all that it implies: Yes, in Jacob’s eyes, Joseph is special–more so than the other brothers, including himself. While this led to the resentment and hatred that ultimately caused the brothers to try to kill Joseph, at this point Judah shows that he has matured (perhaps because by now he, too, has had children by more than one wife), and that he would put himself in harm’s way in order to preserve Jacob’s last remaining link to Rachel. It is at this point that Joseph can no longer hold himself back, and reveals his identity to his brothers. “I am your brother Joseph,” he says, reaffirming the brotherly relationship.

The book of Genesis has been a story of favored and unfavored brothers–Abel and Cain, Shem, Ham, and Yaphet, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers. What finally happens at the end is that brothers who share a father but not a mother learn to recognize one another and live harmoniously, outdoing the success of even brothers who share parentage (and a womb, in the case of Jacob and Esau). Indeed, parshat Vayechi puts an exclamation point on the narrative, when Jacob states that “Ephraim and Menashe will be like Reuben and Simeon to me.” (48:5) Two boys who do not share the father or mother of Joseph’s brothers will be treated just like them.

This is the beginning of peoplehood, the idea that we have familial ties to people with whom we do not share biology. What makes someone a member of the Jewish people? Being part of the Jewish story–being committed to it, shaped by it, living one’s life in dialogue with it. This is one of the hardest things to teach today. It requires not just book knowledge, but lived experience: shared foods and stories and songs, the things we highlight at the Passover seder (the touchstone of Jewish peoplehood) but that must be cultiavated and lived throughout the year–day by day, week by week. The effect of sharing food and story and song is to build a bond more powerful than that of biology, the bonds of culture, the bonds of brotherhood.

Dear reader,

As the year ends and many of us are doing our charitable giving, I hope you’ll consider making a contribution to support Fiedler Hillel at Northwestern University, my employer, which encourages and provides the laboratory for the thoughts and ideas that go on in my writing.

It really doesn’t happen for free. Our Hillel receives no direct financial support from Northwestern. We have a small endowment and receive roughly 10 percent of our budget from the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.  That means that we have to raise over $700,000 every year just to break even, and that support overwhelmingly comes in donations from people like you.

If my writing has meant something to you over the past year, please take the time to help make it possible by contributing online at

Thank you for reading, and for supporting our work.


Rabbi Josh

About a year ago, my older son Jonah called out to me to come into his room. “I can’t sleep,” he said. “Can you tell me a story?” Now storytelling is one of the lacunae in my repertoire. That is to say, I’m good at telling stories when I have stories to tell; but I don’t have a good repository of stories from which to draw. So, on the spot, I went to my strength: “How about the story of Jacob from the Bible,” I said.

Jonah ate it up. Of course, he was generally familiar with these stories before. But this led to a new bedtime ritual: after Natalie read him his ‘regular’ story, I would come in and read him a story from one of the many children’s Bibles we have at home. We’ll set aside the point that most Bible stories are not really suitable for children, as they’re about violence and betrayal and things like that. As Plato cautioned, children who are not capable of understanding allegory really shouldn’t be exposed to stories that demand allegorical interpretation.

Be that as it may, we continued to read Bible stories nightly, working our way through the Torah, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Esther, Ruth, Daniel, Ezra and Nehemiah. When we had gone through these stories several times, we started reading children’s midrashim–legends that build off of the stories in the Bible. And when we ran out of those, I started using Bialik’s Sefer Ha-Aggadah, or Book of Legends. But that requires a lot of sifting.

So last week I realized we could do something else. “How about the Mishnah?” I asked him. (For an explanation of the Mishnah, click here.) We began with Bava Metziah, a section of the Mishnah that deals with lost objects and movable property in general. Of course, studying Mishnah with a 6-year old requires translating terms into ones they can understand. “If two men find a garment and both lay claim to it” becomes, “If you and your best friend Avi were walking down the street and found a Darth Vader action figure at the same time, and you both grabbed it, how would you decide who it belongs to?”

In general Jonah has really been able to get it. “They’re like math problems,” he says. “Only harder, and the answer isn’t always as clear.” Yes, he gets it.

This morning we were studying a mishnah in the second chapter of Bava Metziah. What happens, asks the Mishnah, when you find a lost animal? You need to announce that you have it, and try to return it to its owner. But in the meantime, it requires feeding, which will cost you money. So can you use the animal productively in order to make money with which to feed it, or not? (Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva disagree on this point.) Related to this, the Mishnah teaches that when you find a book (which were scrolls in those days), you have read from it at least once every thirty days. But you may not intentionally use it for study, and you may not read it with someone else.

I tried to help Jonah understand the subtlety the Mishnah was conveying. “It’s not your object,” I said. “But you have to take care of it as though it were.” There is great philosophical material here, stuff that people like Levinas and my other intellectual fodder write about a lot: What are our obligations to one another, and how are those expressed in the responsibilities outlined in the Mishnah? I couldn’t mention Levinas, but these are also things a 6-year old can grasp if framed correctly.

I wasn’t quite sure he got it, until 10 minutes later, well after we had stopped reading together, when out of nowhere he said, “Abba, it’s kind of like if you find a child, or if someone’s parents died and you took care of them. You’d have to treat him as your own son, right?” Levinas was smiling.

I passed by this ad on the way to work today. It took me a few moments to figure out what it was about, but then it came together: the ad is a reference to a scandal at the University of Illinois this year, in which trustees and high administrative officials pressured the admissions office to accept applicants from well-connected political families.

The ad stuck with me as I continued on my way. Perhaps this was because I have spent a good deal of time over the last week writing a couple of papers examining the role that the thinking of Immanuel Kant has played in shaping American higher education. We’ll get to the link between Kant’s thought and this ad in a second, but I need to explain a little bit about what I’ve been wrestling with.

Like other Enlightenment thinkers, Kant believed that man’s enemy was enslavement, that human beings yearned to be free. Freedom for Kant meant exercising one’s own will and reason, independent of any institutions or beliefs that might cloud one’s judgment. In this, Kant amplifies a central idea in Plato, who says that all education is really recollection: if we simply apply our clear reason, we can find the truth, which resides within our immortal soul.

For Kant, religious institutions are frequently a form of enslavement. They keep individuals from thinking for themselves, and teach them to behave out of a slavish adherence to tradition. For many of Kant’s intellectual inheritors, it is not only religious institutions, but religious ideas themselves, that become a problem. If science can explain the world better than religion, then to maintain “religious” ideas about the creation or miracles or history is blind to the facts and ultimately slavish. Religious ideas, and not only organized religion, are problematic.

All of this led to three fundamental postulates of secularism in the late nineteenth and early to mid-twentieth centuries: 1) Religion should be separate from the political apparatus of the state; 2) Religion had no place in political discussions; 3) Religion would ultimately decline and become irrelevant to most people’s lives. At this point, while most people in western democracies would agree on point 1, there would be considerable disagreement over point 2, and there would be near uniform rejection of point 3 (religion hasn’t gone away). This has led some to argue that we are living in a postsecular age.

Now whether Kant himself would have argued for all three of these points is up for discussion, and more serious scholars of Kant and Enlightenment philosophy are welcome to weigh in. But one of the things that I think came about through the de-nuancing of Kant and Enlightenment philosophy was a cultural climate uncomfortable with notions of inherited identity, which are seen by (too) many to be yet another form of enslavement, keeping individuals from achieving their full uniqueness–which, after all, is the aim of life, right?

Saba Mahmood, author of a wonderfully insightful study called Politics of Piety, builds another narrative. She bases her theory on Aristotle and Foucault, and uses it to explain how Muslim women in Egypt have taken on pietistic forms of observance (in Jewish parlance we would say they’ve become ba’alot teshuva) in a way that is not demeaning to their sense of selfhood, but rather a fulfillment of it. “Tradition,” she writes, “is not a set of symbols and idioms that justify present practices, neither is it an unchanging set of cultural prescriptions that stand in contrast to what is changing, contemporary, or modern. Nor is it a historically fixed social structure. Rather, the past is the very ground through which the subjectivity and self-understanding of a tradition’s adherents are constituted.”

That is to say, when I eat the matzah on Passover; when I circumcise my son on the eighth day after his birth; when I recite the Shema in the morning or recite the Maariv prayer at night, all out of a sense of obligation, I am not giving up my agency or my autonomy–I am, rather, fulfilling it.

The assumption of the ad here is that it doesn’t matter who your daddy is. And while I believe that’s true, that each life is its own individual story, I also believe that it matters very much who your parents and grandparents were, what choices they made, what inheritance they left you, what stories they began for you. As the linking of the holidays of Passover and Shavuot teaches us, to be free does not mean only to throw off the yoke of enslavement–it also means embracing one’s story.

For too long, our colleges and universities have been focused on only the first half, teaching critical thinking and untying the knots of previous identities. For too long, they have let slip the essential second step, weaving a coherent sense of identity in the wake of the unweaving. I believe we are starting to turn a corner, and to find a way that identity can be not only about freedom from, but also about commitment to; not only about rejection of the determinism of the past, but also about embracing the truth of the story it bears.

Last week I made reference to the postwar German philsopher H.G. Gadamer, who, among others, plays with the tantalizing idea that a text is made complete when it is read–that is, that it remains incomplete until the reader reads it. Gadamer elaborates this idea further in talking about play, both in the theatrical sense and in the sense of games. A play is “open toward the spectator, in whom it achieves its whole significance.” A theatrical production becomes complete when comprehended by the audience; a literary text becomes complete when comprehended, recognized, by the reader.

Play is an exercise bounded by rules, in which the individual identities of the players are constructed and governed by the rules of the game. “Play itself,” writes Gadamer, “is a transformation of such a kind that the identity of the player does not continue to exist for anybody. Everybody  asks instead what is supposed to be represented, what is ‘meant.’ The players (or playwright) no longer exist, only what they are playing.” The rules of the game–whether literary or genre conventions, rules of football or rules of ritual–determine the identity of the players within it. Joe Montana becomes a quarterback; Kasparov becomes Karpov’s opponent; Alice becomes a reader.

What delimits these experiences is the consciousness that one is playing a game, that one has expectations of rules that stand apart from the everyday and ordinary. Moving a pawn on a chessboard is only meaningful within the context of playing chess; in and of itself, it is simply moving a pawn on a chessboard. Likewise a dollar bill is only a piece of paper, until it is recognized and valued for its purchasing power.

One of the words that Rashi frequently comments on is the word “ki.” “Ki” in Hebrew can have many meanings, as Rashi reminds us: when, if, because, among others. We often gloss over these comments as seemingly irrelevant, exciting only those interested in the picayune details of grammar. Yet Gadamer reminds us that those details are in fact what make a text, a game, our lives, meaningful.

“Ki” appears seven times at the crucial moment of Jacob’s encounter with the mysterious man/angel in Gen. 32.

And Jacob was left over, by himself, but a man wrestled with him until dawn rose.

He saw that (ki) he was not able to overcome him, so he touched the hollow of his thigh, and the hollow of Yaakov’s thigh dislocated during his wrestling with him.

He said: Send me away, for (ki) the dawn has risen;

He said: I will not send you away except if (ki) you have blessed me.

He said to him: What is your name?

He said: Jacob.

He said: Not Jacob will your name still be said, but (ki) rather Israel, because (ki) you have striven-for-mastery with Elo-him and with people, and you have overcome.

Jacob asked, saying: Please tell your name!

He said: Why is it necessary for you to ask my name?

He blessed him there.

Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, because (ki) I have seen Elo-him face-to—face and my life was saved.

The run shone for him as he passed by Penuel, with him limping on his thigh.

Therefore The Children of Israel will not eat the sciatic nerve, which is part of the thigh, until this day, because (ki) he touched that part of Jacob’s thigh, the sciatic nerve.

What “ki” does here is signify, create a context for symbols, words, and actions. Ki is used for “because,” explaining the symbol of not eating the hind quarter. It thus makes eating a rule-based exercise, which gives eating rituals meaning. The same is true for Jacob’s naming of Peniel: The name Jacob gives to the place is linked to an experience. It ceases to be a nameless, insigificant place, and becomes a place attached to memory, experience, and aspiration.

These are common uses of ki. More unusual is the use of ki in the moment of Jacob’s renaming: the moment of resignification, when Jacob becomes something else and stands for something new, turns on this tiny word, ki, the word that takes him and us out of our regular experience, pausing the film as it were, and enabling a new layer or meaning to come to life.

What has always struck me about this passage is that it concludes with a ritual signification: in our eating practice, we link ourselves with this moment. That is, Judaism does not leave the the rich game-playing of meaning-making to the realm of the intellectual, but makes it part of our embodied lives. Our lives, in body and mind, take from and contribute to a dense web of signification, of texts and people and ideas that talk to each other through the ages. This reality–and it is a reality, not just an imagined thing–is what makes our tradition so unique and so valuable. It is the 3,000-year old conversation of which we have the honor to be a part, a conversation that begun at the moment of Israel’s naming.

Shabbat shalom.