Rationalism, Mysticism, and the Search for Order

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

It is a peculiar error of modernity that rationalism and mysticism are presumed to be opposites, when historically they have generally been allies.  I first learned this by reading Bertrand Russell, but the same point can easily be made within Jewish tradition, for example by studying Rambam’s concepts of worship and Providence.

One source of the modern confusion is semantic.  Rationalists tend to define those who oppose them as mystics.  So let us begin by defining our terms.

Rationalism, for the purposes of this devar Torah, means “the belief that one can derive all abstract truths and proper situational behavior by formally reasoning from first principles”.

Mysticism means “the belief that there are aspects of reality that cannot be accessed through physical experience, but can be accessed through other means”.

Platonists, who believe that abstract ideas are “more real”, than physical objects, which are merely ‘shadows’ of the ideas – are mystics.  And rationalists, like mathematicians, will always have a tendency to Platonism.  In twentieth century Jewish thought, I have always been struck by those who consider Mordechai Kaplan a rationalist, when his belief in “the force that makes for good in history” seems as mystical as they come.  Obi Wan-Kenobi was no anti-mystic (And Kaplan never paid enough attention to the problem of the Dark Side).

Ralbag’s commentary on this week’s parshah provides another example.  Here are the eleventh and twelfth morals he draws from the story of Yehudah and Tamar:

11. That actions which are intended/prepared for good purposes, even though they are in and of themselves somewhat shameful, the one who puts effort into them will be aided by Hashem the Blessed.  Thus you will find that Tamar was aided in this action, such that her aim was achieved, namely that she became pregnant from Yehudah and bore him children, one of whom became the great of the tribe of Yehudah.  Now she did this with wisdom, covering her face so that he would not recognize her, and taking security from him to prove to him that it was from him that she was pregnant.

12. To tell of the strength of Hashem’s Providence toward those He loves, that when they wish to do a shameful act, Hashem the Exalted prepares for them something that will satisfy their thirst without shame.  In this case, consorting with prostitutes was shameful for the “shlemim” (= people of integrity) even before the giving of the Torah.  This is what Yehudah meant by saying “let her have them, lest we become objects of ridicule”, and Hashem prepared for him someone (Tamar) who had a legal claim on him, in accordance with what was practiced (under the rubric of “yibum” = levirate marriage ) before the giving of the Torah.

Ralbag certainly qualifies as a rationalist, and yet here he introduces fascinating forms of Providence without any apparent textual compulsion – his morals are not derived from the text, rather he mines the story for support for principles he already believes.  I note tangentially that these morals are dangerous as well as fascinating, and one should avoid ever relying on them prospectively.

What rationalism and mysticism share, I suggest, is an unwillingness to tolerate disorder, to believe that there is anything in the universe that cannot be systematized.  To a significant degree this is simply a human characteristic – Kant’s disproof of the argument from design was that the human mind inevitably imposes order on data, that we are incapable of relating to information without organizing it into patterns. What is often underappreciated is that Kant’s disproof works as well or better against science as against religion.  The entire scientific enterprise rests on the presumption that the universe as a whole is consistent, that things happen for reasons other than randomness – but what if that consistency exists only in our minds, which cheerfully filter out anomalies as “experimental error”?

The desire to systematize, to construct a world in which no stray locks of hair fall irrepressibly over our mental eyes, also drives the Brisker derekh in Talmudic learning.    Of course, there are mystics who embrace contradictions, i.e. breakdowns in the capacity of reason to explain the world – the affinities between the writings of Rav Kook and those of Walt Whitman can be striking – but at least in the former case, Hegel provided a model in which the embrace of contradictions could itself be systematized, and thus to intellectually assimilate even more data into a recognizable pattern.

Psychologically, it may be that the perception of order is a necessary condition for happiness.  Rabbi Irving Greenberg has explained compellingly that aveilut=mourning fundamentally consists of experiencing the world as disordered.

Ordered systems always require ignoring some of the data, and greatness often consists in knowing which data can be safely ignored. The risk, in Torah as in science, is that one will choose to ignore the wrong details.  In both realms an important antidote is curiosity, the abiding interest in anomalies and loose threads, along with the capacity to temporarily tolerate disorder in the hope of finding a better pattern.

Obviously, that kind of curiosity is more attractive to those who find existing patterns insufficient for other reasons.  And for the same reason, it can be threatening to those who find existing patterns deeply satisfying.  Nor should we believe that the result of pulling at loose threads is always a more beautiful tapestry – sometimes the result is simply a loose string, or an amateurishly woven jumble. This conflict of sensibilities may itself be a useful pattern for explaining some of the current issues of controversy within Modern Orthodoxy.  May we find the wisdom to know which threads will benefit from pulling and reweaving, and which are best left alone.


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Shame Without Sin

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Michael Pershan

The story of Yehuda and Tamar is truly a bombshell: a tale of death, sexuality, deception and contrition. It’s a difficult perek, made more difficult by its insertion in the middle of Yosef’s saga. What is this story about, and what is it doing here?

For both Yehuda and Tamar, this is a story about embarrassment and shame. Yehuda ends up in a compromising situation. After extensive negotiations with a prostitute (which, in retrospect, should have been his first warning sign), he finds himself unable to find her and pay for her services. At the cost of his collateral, he decides not to prolong the search, “lest we become a laughingstock.”

Yehuda doesn’t know the half of it, though. The “prostitute” was Tamar, his daughter-in-law, and she has become pregnant, and she has proof that the child is his, in the form of the seal she cleverly took as collateral. Yet, when her pregnancy becomes known and Yehuda sentences her to burn, she remains publicly silent, keeping the scandalous information to herself — and to Yehuda, whom she tells discretely.

The gemara makes much of this: “Better for a man to let himself be cast in flames than not shame another.” We learn this from Tamar, who kept quiet even as disaster neared.

One puzzle the mefarshim grapple with is why Tamar remained silent during the first three months of her pregnancy, before the pregnancy became noticeable. Why not bring the seal to Yehuda right away?

The Torah is not explicit as to Tamar’s motivations in meeting Yehuda out on the road. According to the Sforno, though, Tamar didn’t seek the father; she sought the son, Shelah, who she had been told to wait for. All she wanted was to dress up nicely, to remove her mourning clothes, and make a clear impression. That would show Yehuda that she was ready to emerge from her grief and marry his third son.

Instead, her father-in-law asks to sleep with her. Rashi on Yehuda’s proposition to Tamar: “hava na: Prepare yourself and your mind for this.”

Tamar needs to prepare psychologically because this was not what she thought would happen when she encountered her father-in-law. Still, she accedes to Yehuda’s call of hava na. (I wonder, did she know that Yehuda couldn’t recognize her?) Three months later, her pregnancy becomes obvious. Word passes to Yehuda, who sentences her to be burned. And still, Tamar remains silent.

“Better for a man to let himself be cast in flames than not shame another.” But what about shaming yourself? The key to understanding Tamar’s silence could be the shame she feels for herself — especially if, as Sforno says, her intent had not been to sleep with Yehuda. Perhaps, even as the father of her children sentences her to death, Tamar is still hoping there’s some way, any way, to avoid revisiting this episode in public, for her own sake.

Following Yehuda’s actions, he and Tamar are both left feeling ashamed of themselves. And yet Yehuda seems to be without sin. Yehuda was widowed when he propositioned Tamar, he didn’t really owe Tamar his third son in marriage, and he didn’t recognize Tamar when he propositioned her.

But whether or not, in a technical sense, Yehuda sinned seems besides the point. Yehuda came to be ashamed of his actions, and caused Tamar to become ashamed of herself. People don’t feel like that when they act righteously; he must have done something wrong.  

What was Yehuda thinking, when Tamar handed him his seal and cord? Can we imagine what was passing through his mind in that moment? Did he feel defensive? Protective? Angry? Scared?

Maybe, in that moment, Yehuda thought of his brother, the one whose sale he’d arranged in the story surrounding this one. That had been a difficult situation too, even more than his current predicament. And he’d found an elegent way out. The others wanted to kill him, after all, so Yehuda had done the right thing. Yosef was still alive.

He had done the right thing, hadn’t he? But then why, as Yaakov wept, did the others look at him with disgust? What right did his brothers have to be upset with him? (Rashi: “And Yaakov descended – they took him down from leadership.”) Rationally, the brothers had no right to judge Yehuda.

But when it comes to ethics, emotion is sometimes a better barometer than reason. Yehuda was embarrassed by what he’d done — what he’d done to Yaakov, Yosef, his brothers and to Tamar — and he finally knew what he had to do: “Yehuda recognized and said ‘She is right,’” and his teshuva began.


Michael Pershan (SBM 2009) teaches math at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn.

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Women’s Winter Break Beit Midrash 2018

The Center for Modern Torah Leadership is excited to announce the 2018 Women’s Winter Break Beit Midrash!

Please share with everyone who you think may be interested! A PDF of the flyer is available here.

Center for Modern Torah Leadership WWBM3

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How to Teach Halakhah: From the Transcript of an Ongoing Podcast

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

We need to think about halakhah curricularly.  I don’t mean that questions of the pedagogy of halakhah should be confined, or even largely contained, within a halakhah curriculum.  Rather, we need to think about how we as a school or community teach halakhah holistically – what is our students’ overall experience of the practice and study of halakhah?

Let’s start by distinguishing between “whether” and “why” classes.

In a “whether” class, the default goal is to be comprehensive, to present every interpretive option, and to present each option in its best possible light.  “Whether” classes validate multiple practice options, and empower students to make choices.

In a “why” class, there may be less need to present positions that we won’t end up following leHalakhah, at least so long as the students would not think of or encounter those options on their own.  “Why” classes convince students to exclude options, and to make only choices which the teacher would approve.

Both types have a place in our schools and shuls.  But they require very different pedagogies.

In every pedagogic context, teachers must decide whether their primary goal is empowerment or persuasion, validation or standardization.  They must decide whether setting themselves up as a source of authority is a desideratum; and whether they seek to position the class as deepening the students’ appreciation of their community, or rather as critiquing it.  Sometimes these decisions can be made ad hoc; sometimes they require a sustained and consistent pedagogic approach.

These choices often reflect the instructor’s goals for his and her students throughout their lives.  Should students learn to see halakhah as a menu from which they can choose (not that they can refuse to eat, or skip a course – but they have options for each course) or as a blueprint they must follow?  Should their study of halakhah be an experience of autonomy, or rather of submission?  Should their default be to ask a sh’eilah whenever they experience uncertainty, or only when they have a conflict of interest, or when the stakes are communal rather than individual?

On a deep level these are false either/ors.  The experience of studying halakhah should be one of both submission and autonomy; students should see halakhah as both blueprint and menu; and there are many different kinds and degrees of uncertainty.  We must also distinguish among “asking a sh’eilah”, “looking it up yourself”, “doing the research yourself”, and “making your own decision”.  But pedagogically it is often important and necessary to choose which side of these dichotomies to emphasize.

Let’s concretize these issues with a tale of two teachers, Ayelet and Brokhoh.  Ayelet falls on the authority/standardization/blueprint side of the spectrum, while Brokhoh falls on the autonomy/validation/menu side.  Let’s make the issue the kashrut of a school sukkah under windy conditions, where the skhah has been blown away from the walls toward the middle of the roof.  Ayelet and Brokhoh are each scheduled to teach their classes in the sukkah, with school-provided cookies so students can fulfill the mitzvah.

Each teacher will think of the issue of dofen akumah, the concept that a sukkah is valid even if kosher skhakh begins up to 4 amot away from a required wall because we treat those 4 amot as an extended wall, which goes up to where the kosher skhakh, or “roof”, begins.

Each teacher will discover after minimal research that there may be a machloket rishonim, a disagreement among medieval authorities, as to whether this principle can be applied if there is in fact just open space in the 4 amot, rather than invalid skhakh.  According to the Encyclopedia Talmudit, the issue depends on whether we view the wall as literally “bent over”, in which case the wall must continue physically, or rather as if it is “moved over” so that its vertical component reaches the kosher skhakh.  In that case the horizonal space can be ignored, so it makes no difference whether it is empty or filled.  Most rishonim hold that it is considered “bent over”; therefore most rishonim hold that it must be solid; therefore a sukkah whose skhakh is blown more than three tefachim away from a necessary wall becomes invalid.  QED.  So, Ayelet concludes as she emphatically takes the cookies off the table, our class will not be eating in the Sukkah today.

What questions was Ayelet asking herself as she read the Encyclopedia?  It seems to me that she focused on clarity and authority.  How can the dispute be most clearly and neatly explained?  What are the “nafka minas”, the practical differences, that flow inevitably from the clearly identified and explained conceptual positions?  Which position has more authority attached to it?  How must we act?

Brokhoh also read the Encyclopedia Talmudit.  But her conclusion from its citations is that the issue has not really been addressed directly by the poskim, which means that this is an opportunity for the students to think for themselves.  She has a different set of questions than Ayelet : Which interpretation of dofen akumah fits better with the nominal phrase itself?  Which interpretation seems a better explanation of the Talmudic passages in which the term appears?  If walls need not reach vertically up to the skhakh, so that we treat empty vertical spaces as extensions of the walls, why can’t we treat empty horizontal spaces as extensions of an L-shaped wall?  What about spaces that still have a framework, just not enough skhakh to be kosher?  What if the framework is tight-knit enough to meet the standards for a valid wall, even though it would not be enough for skhakh?  Even if she can explain some or all of these issues to the students, will they understand them well enough, and have the breadth and maturity necessary, to evaluate them sufficiently to make their own decisions by the end of a single period?  If she puts away the cookies because they can’t make a decision, will they learn about the seriousness of the process, or rather about its futility?  If she encourages them to eat the cookies, will they come to see halakhic discourse as a mere language game divorced from the realities of life?

There is a deeper issue hidden in the artificial limitation of the Ayelet and Berokhoh’s research to the Encyclopedia Talmudit.  Which is: What sort of competencies are needed to teach halakhah, in what ways?

It might be useful to think about a science classroom as an analogy.  Science can be taught as an assemblage of existing knowledge, or as a process of discovery.  A teacher may be excellent at digesting presentations of scientific consensus and of conveying that digest to students, but have no capacity to convey how that consensus was arrived at, or the limits of that consensus.  For example, he or she may have no genuine understanding of research protocols, or of the extent to which “scientific method” is a poor description of the methods used by scientists (especially those engaged in highly creative science).  I was deeply affected by Thomas Kuhn’s biting critique of most high school labs, in which an experiment is judged a success or failure based on whether it achieved the predicted result, and the reaction to “failure” is to repeat the experiment until it “succeeds”.  The teacher may also wish to encourage, or rather to discourage students to consider whether they agree with the consensus based on their intuition and the evidence available to them.

Encouraging students to think independently, no matter how carefully you try to circumscribe the methods they use, will always lead to some students thinking things the teacher passionately disagrees with.  In that kind of science classroom, some students will conclude that global warming is not caused by human activity; the same will happen in a halakhah classroom.  Teachers and schools need to decide whether and how they can handle this.  (Note: Ayelet’s students are much less likely to voice their disagreements with her presumptions in class and in assignments than Berokhoh’s are, but this does not demonstrate that she is more effective than Berokhoh in shaping the broad parameters of her students’ longterm thinking. But Ayelet does not have to deal directly with students whom she knows reject her assumptions, or with student work that upsets her. )

Moreover, Berokhoh is unlikely to be able to effectively teach the way Ayelet does, and vice versa, because each of them likely is teaching halakhah the way they themselves experience it.  So a school or community needs to decide whether that diversity is a strength or a weakness – or my preference, to consider how to make that diversity a strength.  Part of that involves deciding whether education happens best when teachers are in their intellectual and spiritual comfort zones, or whether there is value in pushing teachers to model dealing with discomfort.

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Personal Transformation and Facing the Divine

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Eliana Yashgur

Yaakov Avinu is introduced into Sefer Bereishit as a prototypical homebody. As an  איש תם יושב אוהלים (Bereishit 25:27), the straightforward and simple-hearted Yaakov is removed from the outside world and fully immersed in the world of the beit midrash. In the opinion of HaAmek Davar, Yaakov believed that anything anyone did on the outside represented what they were really like on the inside. Such a lifestyle was nested in reservation and innocence, free of the burdens of the world.

Yet, in Parshat VaYishlach, when Yaakov meets the angel of G-d, he embarks upon a journey away from this insular life toward a life of responsibility and ownership. This angel tells him that his name will be changed to Yisrael. Rashi comments that the change is from Yaakov, “supplanting”, to Yisrael, which comes from שררה, nobility. Yaakov understands himself as having spoken to a messenger of G-d face-to-face and hence names this place Peniel (פניאל), “facing G-d”.  He thus moves from passively receiving or subtly acquiring blessing to being the owner of his blessings, receiving them openly and in the context of taking action as an emerging leader. This way he moves from a life in the private sphere to the public sphere.

The Torah also uses the root פנה when describing Moshe Rabbeinu’s communication with Hashem as “פָּנִ֣ים אֶל־פָּנִ֔ים”, “face to face” (Devarim 34:10).  Indeed, Seforno comments that it was speaking with G-d in that way that made Moshe נורא, awesome, with rays of light emanating from his face.

Like Yaakov, Moshe did not begin life as a public leader.  Moshe began as a self-perceived ערל שפתיים, “man of uncircumcised lips”, uncomfortable with taking on the leadership of an entire nation. But Moshe too emerges as a leader when G-d speaks to him.  

Both Moshe and Yaakov are transformed by their interactions with the Divine panim el panim. Yaakov emerges from the life of an ish tam inexperienced in dealing with the conflicts of the greater world, and is led to face himself, another man, and the Divine all in one battle. The use of these words in two scenarios that share in common the purpose of the Divine messages to the subjects rather than the format of the speech, highlight the transformative power of these confrontations. It is clear according to the pshat that Yaakov’s experience involved interacting with a being whom Yaakov perceived as an angel of G-d, while Moshe’s communication with G-d was prophetic and immediate. What is similar, though, is the transformative purpose these interactions have.

The words פנים אל פנים contrast with the words פנים בפנים, which are used to refer to Bnei Yisrael when they hear Hashem at Har Sinai, in Devarim 5:4: פָּנִ֣ים ׀ בְּפָנִ֗ים דִּבֶּ֨ר יְהוָ֧ה עִמָּכֶ֛ם בָּהָ֖ר מִתּ֥וֹךְ הָאֵֽשׁ׃. Ibn Ezra understands פנים בפנים to mean simply face-to-face, without an intermediary. Similarly, Rashi comments that the words are used by G-d to convey to Bnei Yisrael that He is speaking to them directly as the seller of the Torah, so that they do not think they are being misled with something that does not exist- in the same way a transaction between a vendor and a purchaser happens. On the other hand, the words פָּנִ֣ים אֶל־פָּנִ֔ים seem to convey something additional, especially because of the context in which they are found. They refer not simply to an instance of confrontation, but to a moment in which direct encounter with G-d is the harbinger of a new stage of development for an individual. It is when Yaakov confronts himself in the fight with the angel and Moshe confronts himself at Har Sinai, ready to take on new roles of leadership as a more developed versions of themselves, that they also are able to face Hashem panim el panim.

Eliana Yashgur (SBM 2017) is a junior at Princeton University.

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Drinking Eyes and Kissing Ewes

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

When Yaakov saw Rachel, daughter of Lavan, brother of his mother,

and the flock of Lavan, brother of his mother,

Yaakov approached

He rolled/revealed/rejoiced the stone off the mouth of the well

He kissed the flock of Lavan, brother of his mother

Yaakov gave Rachel a drink . . . 

Nechamah Leibowitz z”l used to joke that every Yeshiva student knew ten explanations for how Yaakov could kiss Rachel, but not that an explicit verse in the Torah forbids lying.  Now we can (tongue in cheek) suggest an eleventh explanation.  Yaakov did not actually kiss Rachel; he merely gave her a drink, albeit after drinking in her appearance.  What he kissed were Lavan’s sheep.  The mistake arose because the Torah here uses verbs with identical letters – vav, yud, shin, qof – to mean “kiss” and “give drink to”.

But our confusion about Yaakov’s actions seems to mirror Yaakov’s own confusion in the text.  Both Rachel and the flocks belong to “Lavan, brother of his mother”, and he notices them both before deciding which to water and which to kiss.  Furthermore, is Rachel a name, or rather a common noun?  If the latter, it means “ewe”, so Yaakov was kissing sheep either way?

Now we might say that Rachel must be human because she is the daughter of Lavan, who is human.  But later in the parshah, Lavan removes from Yaakov’s flock all the speckled and brown sheep, so that Yaakov remains with the flock of leftovers that are Lavan, or white.

Lavan removes the speckled and brown sheep because he has agreed that Yaakov’s salary for shepherding will be all the speckled and brown lambs born that year.  But his original offer to Yaakov in Hebrew is “NKBH your salary on me, and I will give it”.  The standard commentators translate NKBH as “make clear” or “cut” (meaning give a fixed value to).  The Zohar, however, notices that NKBH can also spell nekeivah, female.  Lavan expects Yaakov to again ask for a woman as recompense for his work, just as he had worked seven or fourteen years for Rachel.  He is taken aback when Yaakov asks for actual sheep.

Asking for sheep rather than women reflects a new maturity in Yaakov.  The Torah explains clearly what causes this development: Yaakov thinks of leaving Lavan only after Yosef is born.  The birth of Yosef enables Yaakov to recognize Rachel as a person, rather than as the best-looking of Lavan’s flock.

This new recognition makes him feel the need to have his own flock, and not depend on Lavan, in part because he realizes – perhaps for the first time – that he would like to grow old together with Rachel rather than replace her if she ages poorly.

Rachel was fully aware of Yaakov’s attitude.  Perhaps she was present when Yaakov, after completing his first seven years of labor, came to Lavan and said: “Hubba my wife, and I will have sex with her” (29:21).  His failure to mention Rachel by name may have given Lavan the idea of substituting Leah, and In Chazal’s understanding of the narrative, may have induced Rachel to cooperate with the switch.  In any case, Rachel throws Yaakov’s words back in his teeth when she says “Hubba sons to me, and if not, I am dead/will die”.  She is correct that only bearing his child will make her fully alive to Yaakov.  But her words become bitterly ironic in retrospect when she dies in childbirth.

The late medieval commentator R. Isaac Arama, in his Aqeidat Yitzchak, points out that Yaakov never accepts a traditional salary from Lavan; he works either for Rachel or for his own flock.  R. Arama suggests that Yaakov and Lavan were engaged in a complex social negotiation from the very beginning.  Lavan’s seemingly generous offers (29:15 and 30:20) to let Yaakov set his own salary are actually attempts to subordinate him, to convert him from an honored guest into a contract laborer.  By demanding first Lavan’s Rachel, and then a share of the flock, Yaakov constructs modes of compensation that he believes will generate rather than diminish social equality.  The success of his last mode is captured by Lavan’s sons declaration (31:1) that “it is from that which is our father’s that he has achieved all this kavod/dignity.”  Yaakov’s possessions are for the first time not seen as part of Lavan’s family fortune.  Having his own sheep gives him enormous dignity.

What about his first mode?  A difference between people and sheep is that Rachel and Leah do not stop being Lavan’s daughters just because they marry Yaakov.  Truth be told, it is not clear that Lavan’s sheep would ever fully cease being his if they were given to Yaakov as salary.  Maybe Yaakov insists on his novel compensation regimen because it is only the next generation of lambs, who have known no previous owner, that can truly be his.  By the same token, it is only the birth of Yosef to Rachel that makes him think of breaking free of Lavan.

Breaking free of Lavan is not easy.  On the one hand, Yaakov makes an enormous step forward by speaking to Rachel and Leah together about his plans, and at least as importantly, they respond together.  This might mean that Yaakov now sees Leah and Rachel each individually as full human partners.  The problem with this theory is that he calls them (31:4) toward the field, to his flock.  Yet that he calls them at all suggests a profound progression in the relationships.

When Yaakov speaks to them, moreover, he makes himself incredibly vulnerable by sharing with them his experience of G-d.  Rachel and Leah might have responded mockingly.  Perhaps worse, they might have responded separately and contradictorily, thus forcing him to choose between them.  Instead, Rachel and Leah respond in the best way possible.  They utterly sever their connection with Lavan, thus giving Yaakov the dignity of his own family.  They affirm and support the normative implications of his religious experience.    “All the wealth which G-d saved from our father is ours and our sons.  Now -everything which G-d said to you, do!”

The result of this harmony is that Rachel and Yaakov now seem to be in tune.  While Lavan is off shearing his flock, Rachel steals his terafim, and Yaakov steals his heart (31:19-20).  Perhaps Rachel’s action is inspired by Yaakov’s newfound religious confidence in her.  It is also possible that Rachel liked going to extremes.

But Yaakov and Rachel don’t really know each other.  He does not realize that Rachel has stolen the terafim, and so he affirms that whoever has done so will die –  perhaps his words contribute to her early death.  Moreover, Yakov’s dialogue with Lavan is all about who the women belong to, not about what they want or whom they feel loyalty to.   The profound respect he showed in his conversation with them seems to melt in the heat of disputational polemics.

In the end, fervor is no substitute for depth of understanding and sustained commitment.

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Why Does Yakov Dream of Speckled Sheep?

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Elliot Dine

At the outset of our parashah, Yakov sees angels going up and down (עולים ויורדים) a ladder.   After twenty years living with Lavan in Haran, Yakov dreams instead “that all the he-goats mounting (עולים) the flock are streaked, speckled and mottled (Bereishit, 31:12).” He cannot even dream beyond his livelihood.  How does Yakov fall so far?  More importantly, how does he snap out of it, so that by the end of the Parasha he once again meets up with angels (32:3)?

To answer these questions, we must understand how Yakov comes to depend on the spotted sheet for his livelihood, and why he may specifically think about their mounting/mating habits. After marrying and having 12 of his children, Yakov makes a deal with Lavan to go back to shepherding Lavan’s flock to “make provisions for his own household (30:30).” This deal gives Yakov all the speckled, streaked or mottled sheep and leaves Lavan with all the pure white ones. Lavan readily agrees to this deal, as speckled sheep are the much rarer kind – it’s a recessive genetic trait- yet Yakov has a plan that he puts in place right after making the deal.

This plan involves Yakov breeding “vigorous” sheep in front of peeled rods and poplar branches, so that the sheep will have the images of white spots on black branches or black spots on white reeds at the time of mating. Yakov’s plan may be based on a folk belief that images present at the time of mating will be imprinted on the embryos, and the progeny will thus match the speckled and streaked nature of the poplar branches.  Some modern commentators, such as Yehuda Feliks, try to argue instead that Yakov’s plan was rooted in sound concepts of genetics and animal breeding. Specifically, “vigorous” animals are more likely to be heterozygotes and therefore give birth to speckled sheep even though the parents are completely white. As a biologist and reader of the text, I find this argument less than compelling, mostly because reliance on folk beliefs seems to appear as a motif throughout our parasha, most notably with the story of Rachel requesting Reuven’s mandrakes.

Regardless of its basis, Yakov’ plan raises a troubling ethical question: isn’t Yakov taking unfair advantage of Lavan in this agreement, making Lavan think he’s getting a great deal while having this stratagem in his back pocket?!

Yakov seems to have become the trickster that Lavan is.  Professor Nahum Sarna points out that the language used in the agreement, with its strained repetitions of the whiteness (Lavan) of the sheep, seems to blare out that Yakov has out-Lavaned Lavan in this deal. Moreover, Yakov appears to think little of God’s role in his livelihood, instead relying on folk beliefs or his knowledge of animal breeding to bring wealth to his family.  Unlike his wives, Yakov only mentions God twice up to this point in his time at Haran; first when he yells at Rachel “Can I take the place of the Lord?! (30:2)”, and secondly when he makes this deal with Lavan and repeats Lavan’s words to state “And G-d has blessed You [Lavan] wherever I [Yakov] turned (30:30).” Yakov has lost all sense of God’s promise at Bet-El and cannot even think that God has provided for and protected him in Haran. rather it has all gone to Lavan. Thus, Yakov turns to and turns into Lavan to provide for his family.

So how does Yakov snap out of it? Clearly, God’s appearance to Yakov in his dream about speckled sheep leads Yakov to realize that God was with him this whole time (see 31: 10-14).  But what leads Yakov to merit God’s appearance?  Other cases of God appearing to those in need (even those who are undeserving) necessitate the person crying out and God hearing those cries, such as with the stories of Hagar or the Israelites in Egypt. Yet Yakov never cries out or turns to God even when he is in danger. So what allows Yakov, who has disregarded God in Haran, to see Him again?

I think the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas’ emphasis on the importance of “the face of the other” is helpful here.  Immediately before God appears to Yakov, “Yakov saw the face of Lavan, and it was not disposed towards him as in the past (31:2).”  Professor Robert Alter notes that the physical concreteness of this wording and image is striking and should not be overlooked; rather, Yakov looking at Lavan’s face and recognizing its inconstancy may be the key to the story. The person who Yakov has spent the last twenty years following and imitating changes his face, in stark contrast to the God of Yakov’s fathers. Yakov makes the contrast explicit in his words to Rachel and Leah: “I see your father’s face and it is not disposed towards me as in times past, but the God of my fathers has been with me (31:5).” Yakov sees the face of another, Lavan, and recognizes its lack of godliness due to its changing nature. Therefore, Yakov turns back to the face of the Ultimate Other and recognizes it once again, even when it takes the form of speckled sheep.

Shabbat Shalom!

Elliot Dine (SBM 2010, 2015) is a third-year PhD student in the Department of Molecular Biology at Princeton University.

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