By: Rabbi Lisa J. Grushcow, D.Phil.,
Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom
, Montreal, Canada
Identity and Authenticity
“These are the generations of Isaac son of Abraham; Abraham begat Isaac” (Gen. 25:19).
The rabbis who commented on the opening words of our
were anxious. The presenting problem was the repetition: if the Torah has already stated that Isaac is Abraham’s son, why is this assertion repeated twice in a single verse?
Their concern seems to go beyond literary criticism. It did not escape the notice of the ancient rabbis that Isaac’s parentage was suspect. His father, Abraham, was one hundred years old when he was born, and his mother, Sarah was ninety. To make matters worse, Sarah finally conceived, after years of barrenness, after she was taken to be the wife of King Avimelech of Gerar, in one of the three infamous sister-wife episodes in Genesis (Gen. 20).
One of the most creative
responses to this concern is a passage in which Sarah breast feeds Isaac publicly – and then goes on to nurse all the other babies who are present, in order to prove her fertility and fecundity (Genesis Rabbah 53:9, Babylonian Talmud, Baba Metzia 87a). But there is another creative response which focuses on Isaac’s appearance:
“They were still murmuring and saying: Sarah at ninety years old might give birth, but can a child be born to Abraham, one hundred years old? Immediately the appearance of Isaac’s face changed and resembled Abraham’s. Everyone opened their mouths and said: Abraham begat Isaac.” (BT Baba Metzia 87a)
In another similar source it is Abraham himself who has suspicions about Isaac’s paternity, even in utero. Here, the
suggests that God commands an angel to make the fetus resemble his father, to prove that Isaac is indeed Abraham’s son (Tanhuma Buber, Toldot 1).
From our modern perspective, these
may seem outlandish, but it seems to me that there is something here for us to learn.
As modern, liberal Jews we have our own concerns about authenticity and transmission. When Jews are depicted in the media, they do not look like you or me; almost invariably the photos taken in the streets of London or Montreal show our Chasidic cousins in their ultra-Orthodox garb, even though there is no doubt that Abraham didn’t dress like a Polish Chasid! Often, when Jews speak with me about their encounters with more traditional rabbis, they are pleased and astonished not to have been judged. I don’t judge them either, but somehow it feels more authentic not to be judged by a rabbi with a beard and a hat.
Even more problematically, many of our congregants doubt their own identities. Especially for those of us in countries without a Reform majority (i.e. everywhere outside the United States), our way of doing Jewish – and being Jewish – is often undermined.
Outside appearance may be the easiest way to establish identity, but I would argue that it’s not the most authentic. There are plenty of people who resemble their parents on the outside, but whose characters couldn’t be more different. And there are plenty of children who aren’t biologically related to their parents who nevertheless perpetuate their deepest values. So too do Jews of all origins and all denominations have the potential to carry forward the legacy of Abraham and Sarah. I am less interested in whether we look like them, and more interested in whether we act like them. Are we hospitable enough to open our tents? Are we brave enough to take a journey into the unknown? Are we hopeful enough to bring new life into the world? These are the questions that matter.
In their heart of hearts, I imagine the ancient rabbis knew this too. Superficial similarities can quiet external sceptics and even quell our own internal doubts, but the most profound challenging of parenting, and Judaism, is not transmitting how we look; it is transmitting who we are, and how we transform our world for the good.