My friend Senator Cory Booker called me before a recent speech on rising anti-Semitism in Ukraine. Because Cory loves the weekly parsha, we discussed the necessary response to growing Jew-hatred around the world in biblical terms.
What should our posture be? Submission or defiance? Ignore it or fight it? Allow it to pass or stand and confront it?
This is a question that affects each of our children as they face ferocious anti-Israel activism from the likes of Students for Justice in Palestine on campuses across America, with their Israel apartheid wall, Israel apartheid week, and weekly public “die-ins.” While SJP creates massively visible events that give the impression that they own the campus, Hillel and other organizations are responding with far more low-key events that convey anything but. The thinking seems to be that confronting our opponents with large-scale public protests of our own – say against Hamas slaughtering gay Palestinian men and honor killings of women – would only give more attention to the Israel haters and antagonize them further.
I could not disagree more.
The patriarch Jacob, my namesake (Jacob Shmuel), about whom we have read in the Bible the past few weeks, is the most maligned of all the patriarchs. The Christians through St. Paul claim to have been “grafted onto the seed of Abraham.” The Muslims make equal claim to the father of monotheism as do we Jews. But Jacob, with his seeming deception of his blind father to take the firstborn blessing away from Esau and his manipulations of his father-in-law Laban, most of whose flock he eventually owned, is treated by anti-Semites as the prototype of the wily, cunning, dishonest Jew who will do anything to profit.
Jacob is the forerunner of Shylock, who mourns more for his lost ducats than his lost daughter. He is the father, they say, of the modern State of Israel, which will engage in aggressive tactics to fight off its enemies.
And yet, we Jews are not “Abrahamites” or “Isaacites” but “Israelites.” We call ourselves by Jacob’s name. We recall the embrace given to Jacob after he wrestled with, and defeated, an angel.
Why celebrate a seemingly deceitful man?
Because Jacob was the first patriarch who decided that he would enter into the arena with evil, fight it, defeat it, and ensure that it would never take over the world. He was not concerned about the way that fight would damage his reputation. He knew that Esau was violent and dangerous and would have abused the power that would have come along with the firstborn’s blessing. He was determined to neutralize him one way or another, even if it partially impugned his soul.
The same was true of Laban, whose wealth would be abused and misused and was in any event owed to Jacob for 14 years of unpaid labor.
Jacob was no one’s sucker.
He is the exact opposite of what we normally think of religious people: pious, meek, subservient. Jacob is bold. Jacob is defiant.
There are those who believe that religion should distance itself from the corruption of the world and maintain an unblemished integrity. Monastic life, divorced from the affairs of a society ruled by greed and avarice, is where the pious flourish. Even in the Jewish world, there are many who believe that the righteous man spends his life studying in a yeshiva, unsullied by materialism or commerce. They should avoid service in the Israeli army, that belief goes, because fighting evil taints the fighter and lacks the innocence of pure Torah study.
To some degree this was the posture adopted by Abraham, who was known as Ha’ivri, the Hebrew – literally the man who sets himself apart. The kernel of monotheism, having just been birthed by Abraham, was, he felt, too vulnerable to be exposed to the world’s corruption. So he cloistered himself from immoral people like the ones in Sodom and Gomorra. Yes, he would pray for their welfare – but only from afar. He would not live among them or attempt to combat their wickedness.
Isaac, who was a holy offering brought on God’s altar, likewise lived apart. God prohibited him from sojourning in the fleshpots of Egypt.
Only Jacob engages the world and courageously confronts the wicked, allowing goodness to triumph. Yes, at times he will fight them on their own terms – even employ their own means, without crossing moral lines – to defeat them. But he will not let the world be ruled by wicked men.
Those who condemn Israel for fighting Hamas this past summer actually have contempt for Palestinian life. They would allow a gay-hating, women-honor-killing, democracy-suppressing, international-aid-robbing, religiously coercive bloodthirsty death cult to rule Arab life.
Jacob will allow no such travesty. He will not submit to the murderers of Hezbollah or the genocidal maniacs of Iran. He is the defiant man of faith, the bold man of belief.
And it is as a result of this courageous posture, fighting God’s battles, that his name is changed from Jacob – he who is stepped on by the heel, the ultimate punching bag, the religious man who normally would be stepped on and killed – to Israel, he who wrestles with God and man and triumphs. Not the subservient man of the spirit, but the rebellious man of faith.
Lincoln suspended habeus corpus, insisted on continuing the bloody engagements of the Civil War when there was an outcry for peace, and he was labeled a bloodthirsty tyrant for doing so. Seven hundred thousand Americans died in order to save the union and end slavery. Today we remember Lincoln as our greatest president, who purged America of the abomination of slavery and kept the Union intact.
While Chamberlain waved his useless piece of paper proclaiming “peace in our time,” Churchill was dismissed as a warmonger and alarmist, who was provoking a fight with Hitler. He later would be accused of mass butchery in leveling cities like Hamburg and Dresden to finish off the Third Reich. But today he is remembered as the 20th century’s greatest statesman.
The desire to remain aloof from the world’s affairs and allow wicked men to gain supremacy is the piety of cowards and betrays a fraudulent faith.
And, my God, my God. If only our Muslim brothers and sisters did the same, ceasing the bowing of heads to fanatical mullahs who pervert Islam in favor of their personal hatreds and insist that the faithful accept their exhortation to violence even as these foul teachings betray the humanity of a religion that once took in Jewish refugees after the Spanish and Portuguese expulsions when Jews were the most hated nation on earth.
It is time for the emergence of a new rebellious man of faith, steeped in the tradition of Jacob, refusing to allow the iron hoofs of evil to tread upon the vulnerable hearts of the righteous.