Torah from around the world #191

By: Rabbi Reba Carmel,


Rabbi since 2009, freelance writer, teacher, and serves on the Advisory
Board of the

Jewish Dialogue Group

Sara’s Tent and the Next

Isaac then brought her
(Rebekah) into the tent

of his mother Sarah, and
he took Rebekah as his wife.

Isaac loved her, and thus
found comfort

after his mother’s death.
(Genesis 26:34)

When Esau was forty years
old, he took to wife

Judith daughter of Beeri
the Hittite, and Basemath

daughter of Elon the
Hittite; and they were a

source of bitterness to
Isaac and Rebekah (Genesis 25:67)

Among the emergent and recurring themes of
this parsha is intermarriage. Rebecca emphatically does not want Jacob to marry
outside the tribe and the text notes that both Rebecca and Isaac are distressed
at Esau’s marriage to foreign women. Yet distraught, neither Esau nor his
family are banished from the house. Esau is not sanctioned for marrying outside
the faith. Were we to consider this is contemporary terms, Esau was not cut out
of the will for marrying out. In fact, Isaac has every intention of blessing
him as the first born. And, even after Esau’s marriage is recorded, Isaac
reaches out to him, seeking the sensory pleasure of his son’s food, of his
son’s presence. In other words, Esau appears to be a comfort to Isaac in his
old age.

Isaac is an aging parent and acknowledges as
much in his request to Esau. He calls to his son tenderly, “My son.” “Hineni”,
replies Esau (Genesis 27:1). I am present for you and ready to do that which
you are requesting – the same response that Abraham gave to God when called. “I
am old now,” says Isaac, “and I do not know how soon I may die.” (ibid, 2) “Go
out…and hunt me some game. Then prepare a dish for me such as I like, and bring
it to me to eat, so that I may give you my innermost blessing before I die.”
(ibid 3,4) While Isaac’s physical vision may have been impaired, his faculties
were intact. He expressed his needs clearly, had a hearty appetite, was aware
of what he needed to achieve and yet intuitively sensed that death was
imminent. Despite his silence and recorded dissatisfaction regarding his eldest
son’s marriage, Isaac nevertheless needed sustenance from him. Preparing
special food for a loved one is an intimate, tender act and this moment between
Esau and Isaac describes a spontaneous, unself-consciousness between parent and
child rarely found in the bible.

The text barely allows us to savor the quiet
warmth of that scene when Rebecca hijacks the biblical stage and frenetically
provides the wardrobe and directs the action. Jacob convincingly enough ad-libs
his lines, Isaac performs as Rebecca had hoped and indeed blesses Jacob. Esau
returns, feels betrayed and wishes to avenge his younger brother’s deception.
Fearing for his life, Rebecca sends her beloved Jacob to her uncle’s home where
he will remain safe and marry within the family. Esau leaves as well but
perhaps taking note that his parents disapproved of his previous marriages to
foreign women and that Rebecca – with Isaac’s tacit agreement – sent his
brother to his uncle Laban’s home to find a bride, sets out for his uncle
Ishmael’s home and marries a third wife. Yet the text is silent regarding this

The book of Exodus similarly recalls one of
the most famous biblical intermarriages – that of Moses to Tzippora, later
referred to by her sister in law Miriam as ‘that Cushite woman.’ Rather than
praise Miriam for her comments or even ignore them, the text’s author
graphically describes her very public punishment for these comments regarding
her sister in law – a mysterious skin disease that led to her week long
ostracism from the Israelite encampment (Numbers 12).

Moreover, the book of Exodus recounts the
mysterious story of Moses’ non-Jewish wife’s swift and deft act of circumcising
their son so as to apparently save him from a certain death That brief and
admittedly puzzling narrative seems to praise the Midianite priest’s daughter
for her quick action and perhaps more importantly for our purposes, her
familiarity with Israelite custom (Exodus 4:25-26). Moreover, there is not the
slightest hint in our text that Moses’ marriage negatively impacted his
leadership role, or the unequivocal acclamation that the text provides after
his death: “Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses – whom
the Lord singled out, face to face” (Deuteronomy 34:10).

Only later during the Babylonian exile when
the Israelites lived as a minority within a majority culture could the public
conversation regarding intermarriage arise. Chapter 10 of the book of Ezra
recounts the admission to Ezra by Shechanya son of Yechiel on behalf of a group
of Israelites that they had in fact married non-Jewish women. Weeping bitterly
and asserting that they had “trespassed against God” (Ezra 10:2) they immediately
expelled these women and their children. At a subsequent public gathering of
the tribes of Judah and Benjamin in Jerusalem during the holiday of Sukkot,
Ezra ordered that all non-Jewish wives had to be separated from their families
and brought to Jerusalem so as to placate God’s wrath.

In the commentary on this Torah portion, Dr.
Ellen Frankel in her book The Five Books of Miriam (HarperCollins, 1996) frames
the question in starkly contemporary terms:

Our daughters ask: For
most of our history,

we’ve lived as an alien
minority  among a

larger host culture. And
we always face the

same dilemma. How can
 we maintain our

separate identity so we
won’t be swallowed up

by the people
 around us? The issue usually

comes to a head over the

Whom are we  allowed
to marry?

But in the case of
Abraham’s clan, who could

they marry when theirs
was the only

Jewish family? (p.

Much has already been written analyzing the
recent Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews issued on October 1 of this
year. The one seemingly irrefutable fact is the high rate of intermarriage
among American Jews. The question that seems vexing though is how to respond as
parents and as a community.

Decades have passed since patrilineal descent
became the norm in the Progressive Jewish community. Yet there is little
clarity as to whether the ethos of expanding the seams of our tent is producing
a more engaged Jewish community. Moreover, the Pew Study raises the issue of
what does and perhaps should ‘engagement’ mean. The study seems to suggest that
while we may technically have more people who can stake their claim as Jews by
birth, Jews are not necessarily crossing the threshold of traditional Jewish institutions.
Arguably that should not be an issue. Institutions should change, should
periodically engage in their own ‘

cheshbon nefesh’

and assess
whether they are serving current needs or succumbing to the temptation of
inertia or are just plain blind. The question may be clear – what do we do in
the presence of a reality in which intermarriage seems to be the rule rather
than the exception in the Progressive world?

As is often the case in the Torah, the answer
is nuanced. Isaac and Rebecca did not reject their child. They were
dissatisfied but Esau is still their son. Nonetheless, his parents clearly
wished to save their younger son from a similar fate and sent Jacob off to
marry within the tribe. Esau, too, marries within his uncle’s family. In an unusual
moment of honest candor, Rebecca laments regarding her children: “Let me not
lose you both in one day” (Genesis 25:45) – for our story that may mean
physical loss since Esau was out for revenge. But in contemporary terms, that
may imply spiritual loss, the loss of future Judaism. Should our response be
like that of Ezra’s and issue an outright ban on intermarriage? An ‘expulsion’
of non-Jewish spouses? Should conversion be the only option?

Although there is no clear answer in this
parsha, our story does offer guidance which can be both gratifying and
complicated. There is no aspect of human nature or flaws that the Torah’s
authors were too squeamish to write about. In this Torah portion alone we read
about issues of parenting, manipulation, sibling rivalry, anger management,
blessings, revenge, and pride. Through the unfolding of our own story the Torah
is telling us that Sara’s tent is indeed large enough to embrace those who have
found their way to Laban’s family as well as to Ishmael’s house. It is perhaps
now incumbent upon us to be as genuinely tender, warm and accepting as Isaac
was to Esau. There is really no need to go beyond our own four corners of the
Torah because it’s all here.

Rabbi Reba Carmel has been a
Reconstructionist Rabbi since 2009. She lives in the Philadelphia area and is a
freelance writer, teacher as well as serving on the Advisory Board of the
Jewish Dialogue Group


Recent Issues

More About: