Friday, March 03, 2006

Unchosen II

You may remember my November 2005 post No This Is Not Tobypalooza (Defending Uncle Ishmael). In it, I took on the anti-Yishma‘eil attitude common in the Jewish world today (seemingly due to our conflict with his spiritual/biological/eponymous descendents) and typified by DovBear's archnemesis Toby Katz.

In my continuing quest as a Dati ‘Olami Jew to express the Torah's darkhey no‘am for Jew and Non-Jew alike, let us now turn to the famous midrash about God offering the Torah to Other Nations before forcing it upon Beney Yisra’eil like an overturned barrel. (mount sinai as shotgun wedding, or even rape? maybe topic for another post...)

Sifrey (Devarim 343) on Devarim/Deuteronomy 33:2
Another explanation:
And then he said, 'God came from Sinai...'

When the Holy, Blessèd Is He, revealed himself to give Torah to Israel, it was not to Israel alone that he appeared, but also to all the nations.

First he went to the children of ‘Eisav.
He said to them: "Do you accept the Torah?"
They said, "What's written in it?"
He said, 'Do not murder!'
They said, "Lord of the World, the whole being of these people — their father guaranteed them on nothing but the sword, as it says and by your sword you shall live. How could we accept the Torah?"
And they did not want to accept it.

Then he went to the children of ‘Amon and Mo’av.
He said to them: "Do you accept the Torah?"
They said, "What's written in it?"
He said, 'Do not commit adultery!'
They said, "Lord of the World, the whole being of these people comes from nothing other than a drop of sexual immorality, as it says and so the two daughters of Lot became pregnant by their father. How could we accept the Torah?"
And they did not want to accept it.

Then he went to the children of Ishmael.
He said to them: "Do you accept the Torah?"
They said, "What's written in it?"
He said, 'Do not steal!'
They said, "Lord of the World, the whole being of these people is that they survive on nothing other than theft and robbery [or: their father was a lêstês, a bandit], as it says and he will be a wild donkey of a man. How could we accept the Torah?"
And they did not want to accept it...

People usually read this midrash to say 'look at how immoral those nasty g–––m are! they were offered the Torah and rejected it because they didn't want to have to stop doing horrible sins!'
Of course, just as in the case of the 'Dos iz nit Tobypalooza' midrash, a careful reading of the text proves them wrong.
Do Edom, ‘Amon and Mo’av, and Yishma‘eil reject the Torah because they were bloodthirsty, horny, and klepto? No. They wanted to accept the Torah, but they felt that accepting it would be giving up their identity.

‘Eisav was blessed by his father — Yitzhhaq — to live by his sword. He was a man whose entire life was on the edge of death. War was literally his blessing and his birthright. Accepting the Torah would have meant rejecting ‘Eisav/Edom's national identity, and Yitzhhaq's blessing.

‘Amon and Mo’av were descended from Lot's incestuous relationship with his daughters. They didn't reject the Torah because they thought forbidden sex acts were too much fun to give up, they rejected it because they would have been rejecting their identity. It would have been a disgrace to their ancestors who, after the destruction of Sedom, believed they were the last humans on the planet and only wanted to sustain the species.

Yishma‘eil, like his nephew ‘Eisav, was given a destiny which his descendents would not relinquish. Accepting the Torah would have meant rejecting not an ancestor's blessing but a divine mandate — Hagar was told by an angel of God that her son would be a 'wild donkey of a man, his hand against everyone and everyone's hand against him'. This was the role he was given. His descendents could have changed their ways, but that would have meant trading in their own blessing for that of Isaac.

It's not about sin. It's about honor.

18 Comments:

Blogger Mar Gavriel said...

Were you at FFD"M when Raf Gelley said: "And if the Ribboyne shel Oylem had told the Bne Yisru'el that the Toyre says No Loshn Horo, they would have said: what good Jew can avoid loshn horo?"?

No, I think that was last `Atzeres, before you joined the community.

3/02/2006 10:16 PM  
Blogger The back of the hill said...

Rather like the Frisian king (Radboud, mid seventh century leminyonom) who ordered his people to be converted to xtianity, himself to be baptized after everyone else had undergone it.

But when his time came, he asked the priest (Wulfram, a Frankish monk) if, upon dying he would be reunited with his ancestors...

"No, of course not", says the priest, "they were all heathens, and naturally would be in hell instead of heaven..."

"Well in that case", says the king "thanks but no thanks. I'd rather be with my ancestors".

And Wulfram returned to Frankish territoray a defeated man.

3/02/2006 10:46 PM  
Blogger Lab Rab said...

Not like midrashim like that ought to be used to justify asserting moral superiority over any contemporary nations ... but once you bring it up, I agree with MG. You imply that the Torah fits b'nei yisrael perfectly, without requiring us to control our inclinations. This seems unlikely, certainly from my personal experience; and it also reduces our reward for fulfillment of mitzvot.

3/02/2006 11:00 PM  
Anonymous chizki said...

"You imply that the Torah fits b'nei yisrael perfectly, without requiring us to control our inclinations."

-Lab Rab


Huh? I'm not seeing where Steg implies this in his post.

3/03/2006 1:20 AM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

MG:

right, i don't remember that. it's also good that Ya‘aqov didn't bless his children to be tricksters like him, or midevar sheqer tirhhaq might've been tricky!

ÐBOÐH:

so what happened? did all the frisians go back to their old ways, or did the conversion stick?

LR:

i agree with Chizki, i didn't mean to imply anything of the sort. what i was trying to say is that the midrash isn't talking about anything intrinsic; we were not tailor-made for Torah and our cousins were not tailor-made anti for Torah. it's all about culture and choices. they made the choice not to accept it because if they had they would have been disparaging their ancestors, and in some cases, blessings deriving from God.

3/03/2006 7:46 AM  
Blogger The back of the hill said...

so what happened? did all the frisians go back to their old ways, or did the conversion stick?

It took a few more generations, but the conversion (more or less) stuck. Well, only after murdering a few missionaries in the process.

Part of the problem was that the Franks, having taken the southern part of Frisian territory, built churches and monasteries. Then when Radboud quarelled with Pepin the Frank, he 'liberated' large areas, burning Churches and monasteries. But the Franks eventually achieved hegemony.

Mind you, the destruction of religious buildings is a fine old tradition in that part of the world. During the first few years of the revolt against Spain, the natives sacked churches and monasteries throughout Dutch and Flemish territory.

Nowadays they merely trash trains, shops, and each other after a soccer match.

That's progress, there's no stopping it.

3/03/2006 1:10 PM  
Anonymous Mike Koplow said...

You say, "They *wanted* to accept the Torah" according to this Midrash. The translation used here explicitly says the opposite: each of the three anecdotes ends with "And they did not want to accept it."

I'm guessing this isn't your own translation, because it doesn't seem like you would introduce this sort of inconsistency. For those of us who don't have a copy of Sifrey handy, could you please give the original of "And they did not want to accept it"?

Thanks. Shabbat shalom, be vell.

3/03/2006 2:52 PM  
Anonymous Mike Qoplow said...

PS: I do like your take on this; just want some clarification.

Mike

3/03/2006 2:57 PM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

Mike Coplow:

Sorry about that, it's my translation and my inconsistancy. It just looks to me, based on the way they talk about it and say "How could we?" that there was some kind of deliberation going on. If they had simply flat-out refused and said simply 'no', i think it'd be clearer. The explanation, and then the end of velo' ratzu leqabela, makes it look to me more like the result of deliberation and not a flat response.

3/03/2006 3:08 PM  
Blogger ADDeRabbi said...

i posted a freudian read of this midrash, based on r' tzadok, around shavuos time. not too different from your read.

3/04/2006 8:17 PM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

ADDeRabbi:

cool, maybe it inspired me very very slooooowly... :-)

Everyone else:

the referenced post by the rav is here

3/04/2006 10:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Steg

I like your reading, and as much as I would like all Torah to be Olami.. I just don't buyt it. It feels like re-reading an idea into the text that isn't there. The Chazal seem to be horribly anti-goy.

Shouldn't we just face up to it and recognise that we don't like it, rather than try to re-read every bit of anti-goy literature we have in a nice humanistic way?

zsta

3/05/2006 9:05 AM  
Anonymous Jacob Farkas said...

The point of the Sifrei, as I understand it, is that BY accepted the Torah unconditionally, without knowing its contents, Na'aseh V'Nishma, unlike the other nations who wouldn't commit without prior knowledge of its contents.

Had BY read the fine print or the contract at all prior to accepting, they may/or may not been willing to accepted the Torah, but that was nullified by their choice of accepting it without question. Loshon horah et al are all irrelevant because questions were never asked.

The moral of the Sifrei appears to be that HQBH made the Torah available for all, and it was rejected by those who needed and/or requested prior review. This could be because the Torah is only suitable for those who are ready to accept the Hukkim, commandments whose explanation may not be clear. The examples given by the Midrash highlights the following contrast between BY and the other nations that not only did BY accept Hukkim without question, other nations rejected the Torah for its more "rational" content, a stance which would seem irrational if not for the fact that we can highlight Eisav's bloodthirstiness, Mo'av immorality, etc.

3/06/2006 2:41 AM  
Blogger Mar Gavriel said...

Loshon horah et al are all irrelevant because questions were never asked.

That was part of Rav Gelley's point.

3/06/2006 11:12 PM  
Blogger torahumaddachic said...

you should totally read work by my mentor and teacher of midrash, prof. Carol Bakhos.

3/06/2006 11:50 PM  
OpenID daniel-saunders said...

I’ve only just come across this. I don’t know if you get notification of comments on old posts, but here goes…

First, I really like your interpretation of the midrash. I agree very much that the Torah is our culture, and that other nations have their own, equally valid, cultures.

However, I think the midrash itself is more critical of these nations. They aren’t saying “we’d like to accept the Torah – but we’ve got a great recipe for ham we don’t want to give up!” This is murder, robbery and sexual immorality: serious stuff. I don’t think that ‘ancestral honour’ is really a mitigating circumstance. After all, our ancestors worshipped idols (Terach, Lavan), but that isn’t a valid excuse for us. As for the Edomites and Yishmaelites, their blessings are ambiguous enough that they should be able to find ways of being themselves without murdering or robbing (after all, several of the Yaakov’s sons were given rather martial blessings). Not that accepting the Torah should be part of that identity, but they still should not feel such an instinctive attachment to murder or theft.

Of course, as I don’t believe this is a description of a real event, it doesn’t really matter. I don’t believe that Moabites, Edomites or Yishamaelites (whoever they might be these days) are intrinsically evil or that their cultures are intrinsically evil. But I do think there is a critical edge to that midrash, not as much as some people make out (and the fact the nations are able to justify themselves from the Torah itself is significant), but it is still there, and whoever composed it may have had less than tolerant views of these nations.

1/05/2008 10:08 PM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

daniel saunders:

(i do get comment notification)

I don't think it's meant to be an excuse for them — one of them explicitly (‘Amon & Mo’av) is only referring to their ancestry; they can't accept a law against that not because they want to do it, but because it would insult their ancestors.

One of the Yishma‘eil variants is the same — not about them, and what they do or don't want to do, but about their ancestors, and what they did.

People don't like to think that their nations were founded in sin.

1/06/2008 2:46 PM  
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