Today I’m going to talk about men. The Jewish sources are packed full of men: from the ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, whose mother-less succession, one after the other, is as miraculous as the Immaculate Conception, through the pivotal role played by Moses, as deliverer of the Divine law in the wilderness, through the judges, kings and prophets – with rare exceptions, all men – to the rabbis in their male-only academies, reconstructing the law of Moses for post-Temple times and the lives of a scattered people.

I’ve spent a good deal of time during that dimension of my rabbinate that is focused on study and teaching, searching out the women and making sense of the roles assigned to the female characters by the male writers of a drama that from the Torah onwards centres on the lives and deeds of men.

But today I want to do something different. Given that men take centre-stage, how do our Jewish texts present men, and what do we learn about the archetypal Jewish man from the Jewish sources? This week’s portion, Va-yishlach, is a good place to begin to explore this question. As the parashah opens, at Genesis chapter 32, verse 4, we read that: ‘Jacob sent messengers before him to Esau his brother, to the land of Seir, to the field of Edom’ – Va-yishlach Ya’akov m’lakhim l’fanav, el-Esav achiv, artzah Se’ir, s’deh Edom. Jacob is apprehensive. The last time he saw his brother Esau, twenty years earlier, he was in flight for his life, having tricked their father, Isaac, into giving him the blessing due to Esau, as the firstborn son.

The story of Esau and Jacob opens at the beginning of parashat Tol’dot, Genesis 25:19. There we learn that even in the womb, they were destined to be torn apart. When their mother, Rebekah went to enquire of the Eternal because she could feel the children ‘crushing against one another’ – va-yitrotz’tzu (25:22), we read that the Eternal said to her (25:23):

Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples shall be separated from your bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger.

Let us try to forget for a moment how familiar this story is to us. Here we have twin sons: what relationship could be closer than that of two siblings, who began their lives together in the womb? In the previous generation, the separation that took place between the two sons of Abraham was considerably more comprehensible.[1] After all, Ishmael was older than Isaac, and he was also the son of Sarah’s servant, Hagar. The complex family dynamics that ensued from the surrogacy arrangement that Sarah set up, when she was unable to conceive, were, arguably, doomed to failure.[2] But Jacob and Esau were twins. And they shared the same mother and father, Rebekah and Isaac. Nevertheless, parashat Tol’dot makes it clear that from the beginning they were utterly different. The firstborn came out of the womb, ruddy – admoni – and covered with hair, and was called Esav – from the root, Ayin Sin Hei, to ‘do’ or ‘make’ (25:25). The French 11th century commentator, Rashi, offers an explanation for his name: with all that hair, he looked fully made, like a child several years older. And then the younger twin came out. He was named Ya’akov – because, as the text relates, as he emerged he was grabbing the heel – eikev – of his brother (25:26); the two words, Ya’akov and eikev, are based on the same Hebrew root: Ayin Kuv Beit.

Clearly, the twins were far from being ‘identical’ in appearance. They also turned out to be utterly different characters. In the very next verse, we read: ‘And the boys grew; and Esau was a cunning hunter – ish yodei’a tzayid – a man of the field – ish sadeh; and Jacob was a simple man – ish tam – dwelling in tents – yosheiv ohalim’ (25:27). The description of Jacob’s disposition is more perplexing. The phrase ish tam, is often translated as ‘quiet’, ‘simple’, or ‘mild’ because the adjective, tam, comes from the root Tav Mem Mem to be complete, sound, perfect. What we learn later about Jacob suggests that ‘a complex man’ would be a more fitting description. Indeed, Esau comes across as the simple man, with straightforward appetites and impulses, while Jacob manipulates and schemes. The contrasting locales occupied by the two twins, establishes their separate domains: Esau in the field; Jacob dwelling in tents – and helps to explain the separate parental preferences and allegiances expressed in the verse that follows: ‘Now Isaac loved Esau, because he put game into his mouth; and Rebekah loved Jacob’ (25:28).

The scene set, the well-known tale goes on to relate how coming in from his exertions outdoors, Esau was so famished, he sold his birth-right to Jacob for a bowl of stew (25:29-34). And then, after a digression that focuses on Isaac and Rebekah, and a re-run of Abraham and Sarah’s encounter with King Avimelech of the Philistines and the digging of wells,[3] the story returns to their offspring with a frequently forgotten snippet of information, When Esau was 40 years old, he married Judith and Bas’mat, two Hittite women, much to the dismay of both his parents (26:34-35). The crucial denouement follows swiftly in the very next scene. And so, we read that when Isaac was old, and the time drew near for him to bestow his blessing on his firstborn son, Rebekah and Jacob consorted together to disguise Jacob as Esau and so deceived Isaac, whose ‘eyes were dim’, into giving his non-retractable blessing to his younger son (27:1-29).

Jacob fled from his brother, Esau’s murderous rage in the direction of his mother’s family back in Haran;[4] a chapter in the story that is related in detail in last week’s parashah, Va-yeitzei.[5] And then in this week’s portion, as I mentioned a moment ago, we find Jacob preparing to meet Esau again after 20 years. Jacob learns from his messengers that Esau is coming towards him with a retinue of 400 men (Genesis 32:7). He divides the people into two camps and prays to God. He makes elaborate plans to offer gifts to his brother to appease him (32:8-22). And then, on the night before his reunion, having taken his large, complex family over the stream – his two wives, his two concubines, and his eleven sons at that time (no mention of his daughter, Dinah) (32:23-24) – Jacob wrestles with a mysterious ‘man’ – ish – until the breaking of the dawn (32:25-32). Who was this mysterious ‘man’? Was Jacob imagining his reunion with his brother? Was the man a messenger of God? The text doesn’t tell us, but it is clear that Jacob won’t let go of the wrestling stranger until he receives a blessing. Jacob gets his blessing – and before that the nameless ‘man’ gives Jacob a new name. We read (32:29):

Then he said: your name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel – Yisrael; for you have struggled – ki sariti – with God and with men, and have prevailed.

Yisra-El: literally: ‘one who struggles with God.’ Jacob, the last of the ancestors, receives a name that becomes the name of our people. So: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob/Israel; and then, b’ney Yisrael; ‘the sons of Israel’, who descended into Egypt.[6] And then, generations later, the slave descendants of Israel, stood at the foot of Mount Sinai, together with erev rav, a ‘mixed multitude’ of other slaves, who went out of Egypt with them,[7] and became the people Israel.

Many of us are familiar with the chronology. But there is a problem. In order to be the descendants of Jacob/Israel, we have to exclude Jacob’s brother, Esau; banish him from memory; transform him into the ancestor of another nation, the people of Edom – derived from the reference to the baby Esau as admoni, ‘ruddy’; the ruddy, wild people – or to be more precise, the ruddy, wild men, with their voracious appetites, who hunt and fight. And so, our parashah ends with a 44 verse-long account of the Edomite nation that inhabits ‘the mountain-land of Seir.’ The chronology opens with the words: ‘Now, these are the generations of Esau – who is Edom’ (36:1), and among the names, we read: ‘And Timna was concubine to Eliphaz, Esau’s son; and she bore to Eliphaz, Amalek’ (36:12). Amalek: A name that resounds down the centuries, from the time that, according to the account in parashat B’shallach,[8] Amalek, came and attacked the Israelites, when they were coming out of Egypt, and as a consequence, was proclaimed the eternal enemy. B’shallach concludes with the words of Moses: ‘The hand upon the throne of the Eternal; the Eternal will have war with Amalek from generation to generation’ (Exodus 17:16).[9]

Jacob: Israel; Esau: Edom – and Amalek. The twins are not simply separated; they are transmuted into arch-enemies. And that’s not the only problem. Everything about Esau – in particular, his overtly aggressive masculinity is identified with the non-Jew. In rabbinic literature following the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 CE, the rabbis associated the ruling empire of their day, Rome, with Edom.[10] So: Esau: Edom – Amalek – Rome. And what of Jacob? Jacob: the ‘simple man’ and home-boy, who was also the trickster. Jacob: Israel. Clearly, the rabbis, who spent their days deliberating in the academies, saw themselves as the direct descendants of the ‘dweller in tents’. And clearly, like Jacob/Israel, the scholarly rabbis did not conform to the masculine ideal represented by Esau/Edom/Rome. On the contrary.

And there is a twist. The Jewish male and the non-Jewish male have not simply been defined by the Hebrew Scriptures and rabbinic interpretation. As a result of the Jewish experience of living as a marginalised, often persecuted, minority in the midst of other dominant cultures – most significantly, from the fourth century onwards, Christendom and Islam – the Jewish male, who no longer had a nation to fight for, and who spent his time studying was, indeed, disdained by the warrior males, who went to war for their faith.

In his book, Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man,[11] Daniel Boyarin, challenges what he sees as the gentile male gaze and the disdain for the ‘feminized’ male Jew and recovers the gentle, receptive, ‘feminized’ studious Jewish male. He writes (pp.3-4):

…. There is something correct – although seriously misvalued – in the persistent European representation of the Jewish man as a sort of woman. More than just an anti-Semitic stereotype, the Jewish ideal male as counter type to ‘manliness’ is an assertive historical product of Jewish culture.

Boyarin honours the scholarly Jewish male, as he says, ‘the product of Jewish culture’, and also of diaspora Jewish existence. But this image of the Jewish male is not the end of the story. With the advent of political Zionism, and the return to the land of our ancestors in the late 19th and early 20th century, another kind of Jewish male was born: the pioneer and tiller of the soil. And then, in the ensuing conflict with the other people who inhabit the land – the Palestinians – and with hostile neighbours roundabout, the farmer also became the warrior. More akin to Esau than to Jacob, the male Israeli sabra is another kind of male Jew: ‘a man of the field’ – and the battlefield.

So, in the male Israeli sabra, Esau has, perhaps, finally come home to his roots. But are we satisfied with these two diametrically opposed and non-reconcilable images of the Jewish male? In Israel today, the gulf between them continues, since so many scholarly males, who spend their days in y’shivot studying, refuse to serve in the Israeli army. Has the time come to address the split between Jacob and Esau? To acknowledge that Jewish men are not one thing or another, but rather that both aspects of the legacy of Jacob and Esau live within them? Perhaps, that is, after all, what Jacob’s night-time struggle with the unnamed ‘man’ was all about: a struggle within Jacob’s psyche to internalise his twin, so that he could heal the split between them.

And there’s something else: Has the time finally arrived, when we have the awareness to recognise that like Jewish women, Jewish men are not simply defined by what our traditional sources say about them, but rather, again, like Jewish women, wrestling with the tradition in the context of their lives here and now, Jewish men have the opportunity to define themselves and name themselves anew. May each one of us find our own ways of confounding binary, dualistic prescriptions and stereotypes to live with integrity as multifaceted Jews today. And let us say: Amen.

Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah

Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue

Shabbat Va-yishlach – 28th November 2015 – 16th Kislev 5776

  1. Va-yeira, Genesis 21.
  2. Lech L’cha, Genesis 16.
  3. Genesis 26:1-33.
  4. Genesis 27:41-45.
  5. Genesis 28:10 – 32:3.
  6. Va-y’chi, Genesis 47:12-50:26.
  7. Bo, Exodus 12:38.
  8. Exodus 17:8-16.
  9. See also: Ki Teitzei, Deuteronomy 25: 17-19 – a passage read, traditionally, as the second portion on the Shabbat before the festival of Purim, because in the Purim story related in the Book of Esther, the anti-Semitic villain, Haman, is presented as a descendant of King Agag, the Amalekite (Esther 3:1; 8:3, 5;9:24). In this passage, we read that Amalek attacked the weakest people, walking in the rear (25:18). This Shabbat is known as the Shabbat Zachor because the passage begins, Zachor Amalek – ‘Remember, Amalek’. For the connection between the reference to ‘Agagite’ and Agag, King of Amalek, see: Samuel I, chapter 15. In Bilam’s famous peon of praise to ‘Israel’ in parashat Balak, Numbers 24:5ff., ‘Israel’ is juxtaposed with ‘Agag’: ‘Water shall flow from his branches, and his seed shall be in many waters; and his king should be higher than Agag, and his kingdom shall be exalted’ (Num. 24:7).
  10. See Encyclopaedia Judaica ‘The identification of Esau with Rome …. appears first, apparently, in an aggadah of the period following the Bar Kokhba War (132–135 C.E.): “It has been taught: Judah b. Ilai said: My teacher Baruch (or, “blessed be he” – see later) used to say ‘The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau [Gen. 27:22]; the voice of Jacob cries out at what the hands of Esau did to him at Bethar'”. [See, for example, Genesis Rabbah 65:21] …. The identification is …. common in the mouths of the scholars of the age following the Hadrianic persecutions [See, for example, Genesis Rabbah 67:7].
  11. University of California Press, 1997.