Last year, in Covenant and Conversation, I pointed out the other side of the Esau story. There is a midrashic tradition that paints him in dark colours. But there is a counter-tradition that sets him in a more positive light.
First, Esau was indeed blessed by Isaac. In fact, his blessing came true long before Jacob's did. The Torah emphasises the point: "These are the kings of Edom [i.e. the descendants of Esau] who ruled before any king reigned over Israel" (Gen. 36: 31). Esau's descendants were settled in their land while Jacob and his children were enduring exile.
Second, Moses commands the Israelites: "Do not hate an Edomite, for he is your brother" (Deut. 23: 8). G-d too commands the people: "You are about to pass through the territory of your brothers the descendants of Esau, who live in Seir. They will be afraid of you, but be very careful. Do not provoke them to war, for I will not give you any of their land, not even enough to put your foot on. I have given Esau the hill country of Seir as his own" (Deut. 2: 4-5) Esau's children and their territorial integrity were to be respected.
Third, the sages admired Esau's intense love and devotion toward Isaac. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said: "No man ever honoured his father as I honoured mine, but I found that Esau honoured his father more than I honoured mine." The Zohar states that "No one in the world honoured his father as Esau honoured his."
The result is a significantly more nuanced portrait of Esau, the son Isaac loved.
One reader, however, asked me the following question: How could I say this in the light of the verse from Malachi:
"I have loved you," says the Lord.
"But you ask, 'How have you loved us?'
"Was not Esau Jacob's brother?" the LORD says. "Yet I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated . . ."
The question is fundamental. The answer is, firstly, that the verb s-n-', which usually means "to hate," has a different meaning in biblical Hebrew when contrasted with the verb "to love." Then it means not "hated" but "loved less intensely, less intimately." That, as Ramban and Radak point out, is what it means in the passage: "Jacob cohabited with Rachel also, and he loved Rachel more than Leah . . . When the Lord saw that Leah was hated [senuah] . . ." Leah was not hated; she was merely less loved. That too is its meaning in Deuteronomy: "If a man has two wives, one loved, the other hated [senuah] . . ." Here again, the meaning is not "hated" but "less loved."
Second, there is the remarkable comment by the Vilna Gaon that the phrase, "Esau I have hated" refers only to "the peripheral part of Esau" not his essence. The verse in Malachi refers to particular historical circumstances. During the First Temple period there were conflicts and wars between the Israelites and Edomites. The prophet Amos attributes particular cruelty to Edom: "He pursued his brother with a sword, stifling all compassion, because his anger raged continually and his fury flamed unchecked" (Amos 1:11). Malachi is therefore speaking about a specific historical era, not eternity.
The issue has larger significance because, for the rabbis, Esau/Edom symbolised the Roman Empire, and then (after the conversion of Constantine), Christianity. Ishmael was the Arab world and later, Islam. On the basis of the Vilna Gaon's comments, Rav Kook wrote this about the relationship between Judaism and these two other faiths:
Noteworthy in this respect is the statement of Rabbi Elijah Gaon on the verse, "But Esau I hated" - "this refers to the peripheral part of Esau, but the essential part of him, his head, was interred with the patriarchs." It is for this reason that the man of truth and integrity, Jacob, said [on his reunion with Esau], "I have seen you, and it is like seeing the face of G-d" (Gen. 33: 10). His word shall not go down as a vain utterance. The brotherly love of Esau and Jacob, Isaac and Ishmael, will assert itself above all the confusion that the evil brought on by our bodily nature has engendered. It will overcome them and transform them into eternal light and compassion. (Letters, 1, 112)
Rav Kook believed that just as in the Torah, Jacob and Esau, Isaac and Ishmael, were eventually reconciled, so will Judaism, Christianity and Islam be in future. They would not cease to be different, but they would learn to respect one another.
The point touches upon a fundamental of Judaism. What does it mean when we call Jews "the chosen people"? Does it mean that in choosing Jacob, G-d rejected Esau? Or that in choosing Abraham, G-d rejected humanity? G-d forbid. In the Torah, G-d appears to several non-Jews, among them Abraham's contemporary, Malkizedek, described in the Torah as "a priest of G-d most high." One of the great heroines of the Bible, the woman who saves Moses' life, was an Egyptian, Pharaoh's daughter. And so on. We believe as a matter of principle that "the righteous of the nations have a share in the world to come."
When Jacob was chosen, Esau was not rejected. G-d does not reject. "Though my mother and father might abandon me, the Lord will take me in" (Ps. 27: 10). Chosenness means two things: intimacy and responsibility. G-d holds us close and make special demands on us. Beyond that, G-d is the G-d of all mankind - the Author of all, who cares for all, and is accessible to all. In an age of resurgent religious conflict, these are truths we must never forget.
Address to the European Parliament - 19 November 2008
Mr President, Members of the European Parliament, I thank you for the privilege of addressing you today. I thank you even more for undertaking this vital initiative of Intercultural Dialogue. I salute you all, but in particular your visionary, wise and deeply humane President Hans-Gert Pottering, and in what I hope will be today my only breach of the separation between church and state, religion and politics, I pray that G-d bless all of you and all you do.
I speak as a Jew from within the oldest continuous cultural presence in Europe. I want to begin by reminding us that European civilisation was born 2000 years ago in a dialogue between the two greatest cultures of antiquity: Ancient Greece and Biblical Israel – Athens and Jerusalem. They were brought together by Christianity whose religion came from Israel, but whose sacred texts were written in Greek. That was the founding dialogue of Europe. And some of the greatest moments in European history in the intervening 2000 years were the result of dialogue. I will mention just three.The first took place between the 10th and 13th centuries in Al-Andalus in the great cultural movement initiated by the Umayyads in Spain. It began with an Islamic dialogue on the part of thinkers like Averroes, with the philosophical heritage of Plato and Aristotle. The Islamic dialogue inspired Jewish thinkers like Moses Maimonides, and the Jewish dialogue inspired Christian thinkers, most famously Aquinas.
The second great moment of intercultural dialogue took place at the beginning of the Italian Renaissance when a young Christian intellectual, Pico della Mirandola, travelled to Padua, where he met a Jewish scholar, Rabbi Elijah del Medigo, who taught him the Hebrew Bible, the Talmud, and Kabbalah in their original languages. Out of that dialogue came the most famous statement of Renaissance values: Pico’s Oration on the Dignity of Man.
The third and most poignant of them all has been the dialogue between Christians and Jews after the Holocaust, inspired by Martin Buber’s philosophy of dialogue and by Vatican II and Nostra Aetate. The result has been that after almost 2000 years of estrangement and tragedy, today Jews and Christians meet in mutual respect as friends.
But I want to say more that this. As I read the Hebrew Bible, I hear from the very beginning G-d’s call to dialogue. I want to draw attention to two passages (I am not quite sure how this will go down in translation so anyone who is listening to me in translation, I hope you get it). I want to draw attention to two passages in the opening chapters of the Bible whose meaning has been lost for 2000 years in translation.
The first occurs when G-d sees the first man, isolated and alone, and He creates woman. Man, seeing woman for the first time, utters the first poem in the Bible: ‘Now I have found bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh. She shall be called Ishah, woman, for she was taken from Ish, man’. Now this sounds like a very simple poem. It even sounds rather condescending, as if the man was the first creation and woman was a mere afterthought. However, the real meaning lies in the fact that biblical Hebrew has two words for man, not one. One is Adam, and the other is Ish.
This verse that I just quoted to you is the first time the word Ish appears in the Bible. Listen again. ‘She shall be called Ishah, because she was taken from Ish’. In other words, the man has to pronounce the name of his wife before he even knows his own name. I have to say ‘you’ before I can say ‘I’. I have to acknowledge the other, before I can truly understand myself. This is the first point the Bible makes: identity is dialogical.
The second occurs soon after, in the great tragedy that overcomes the first human children, Cain and Abel. We expect brotherly love. Instead there is sibling rivalry and then murder, fratricide. And at the heart of this story in Genesis chapter 4, is a verse that is impossible to translate. In every English Bible I have ever read, the verse is not translated, it is paraphrased.
I am going to translate it literally and you will see why no-one translates it that way. Literally the Hebrew says as follows: 'And Cain said to Abel, and it came to pass when they were out in the field that Cain rose up against Abel and killed him.' You can see immediately why it cannot be translated because it says ‘and Cain said’, but it does not say what he said. The sentence is ungrammatical. The syntax is fractured. The question is why?
The answer is clear: the Bible is signalling in the most dramatic way – in a broken sentence – that the conversation broke down. The dialogue failed. And what do we read immediately afterwards? ‘And Cain rose against his brother and killed him’ or to put it simply: where words end, violence begins. Dialogue is the only way to defeat the worst angels of our nature.
Dialogue therefore testifies to the double aspect of all human relationships, whether they are between individuals, or between countries or cultures or creeds: our commonalities on the one hand, and our differences on the other, what we hold in common and what is uniquely ours. Let me put it as simply as I can: If we were completely different we could not communicate, but if were totally the same we would have nothing to say.
That is all I have to say about dialogue, yet I want to add that dialogue may not be quite enough. You see, between the late 18th century and 1933 there was dialogue between Jews and Germans, just as there was dialogue and even friendship between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda, or between Serbs and Croats and Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo. Dialogue brings us together, but it cannot always keep us together when other forces are driving us apart.
Therefore, I want to add one other word, which played a significant part in healing fragmented societies. The word is ‘covenant’. It played a major role in European politics in the 16th and 17th centuries in Switzerland, in Holland, in Scotland and in England.
Covenant has been part of American culture from the very beginning to today, from the Mayflower Compact in 1620 to John Winthrop’s speech aboard the Arabella in 1630, all the way through to the present. When Barack Obama makes his inaugural speech – what he is going to say, I do not know! - but he will either mention or allude to the concept of covenant.
Covenant is, of course, a key word of the Hebrew Bible for a simple reason: because biblical Israel was formed out of 12 different tribes, each of whom had, and insisted on retaining, its distinct identity.
What is covenant? A covenant is not a contract. A contract is made for a limited period, for a specific purpose, between two or more parties, each seeking their own benefit. A covenant is made open-endedly by two or more parties who come together in a bond of loyalty and trust to achieve together what none can achieve alone. A contract is like a deal; a covenant is like a marriage. Contracts belong to the market and to the state, to economics and politics, both of which are arenas of competition. Covenants belong to families, communities, charities, which are arenas of cooperation. A contract is between me and you – separate selves – but a covenant is about us – collective belonging. A contract is about interests: a covenant is about identity. And hence the vital distinction not made clearly enough in European politics between a social contract and a social covenant. A social contract creates a state; a social covenant creates a society.
You can have a society without a state – that has happened at times in history – but can you have a state without a society, without anything to hold people together? I do not know! You can hold people together in many different ways: by force, by fear, by suppressing cultural difference, by expecting everyone to conform. But when you choose to respect the integrity of many cultures, when you honour what I call – as the President reminded us – the dignity of difference, when you honour that, then to create a society you need a covenant.
Covenant restores the language of cooperation to a world of competition. It focuses on responsibilities, not just on rights. Rights are essential, but rights create conflicts that rights cannot resolve: the right to life against the right to choose: my right to freedom against your right to respect. Rights without responsibilities are the subprime mortgages of the moral world.
What covenant does is to get us to think about reciprocity. Covenant says to each of us: we must respect others if we expect others to respect us, we must honour the freedom of others if they are to honour ours. Europe needs a new covenant and the time to begin it is now.
Now, in the midst of financial crisis and economic recession, because in bad times people are aware that we all share a fate.
The Prophet Isaiah foresaw a day when the lion and lamb would live together. It has not happened yet. Although there was a zoo where a lion and a lamb lived together in the same cage. A visitor asked the zookeeper: ‘How do you manage that?’ The zookeeper said: ‘Easy, you just need a new lamb every day!’.
But there was a time when the lion and the lamb did live together. Where was that? In Noah’s Ark. And why was that? It was not because they had reached Utopia but because they knew that otherwise they would both drown.
Friends, last Thursday – six days ago – the Archbishop of Canterbury and I led a mission of the leaders of all the faiths in Britain, leaders of the Muslim community, the Hindus, the Sikhs, the Buddhists, the Jains, the Zoroastrians and the Baha’i, and together we travelled and spent a day in Auschwitz. There we wept together, and there we prayed together, knowing what happens when we fail to honour the humanity of those not like us.
G-d has given us many languages and many cultures, but only one world in which to live together, and it is getting smaller every day. May we, the countries and the cultures of Europe, in all our glorious diversity, together write a new European covenant of hope.