Sunday, June 6, 2010

Isaac's Bad Rap

During a six month stint at LA - I was on sabbatical at UCLA - there was a Saturday morningbar mitzva in the local synagogue. Before the 'hot kiddush' - cholent, kugel and herring, more than I would ever eat for lunch at home - there was the anticipated 'speech' by the rabbi (another good reason to live in Israel, I reminded myself, no Saturday morning speeches). First words on the weekly Torah reading, then about the family - I was already shifting in my seat - and then the inevitable: the praise for the bar mitzva boy. David is a 'special boy' the rabbi began - uh-oh, I thought, this does not sound promising - because 'he is a good listener, and able to take advice.' That's it? Nebach, pathetic: is that really the best the rabbi could come up with? True, it's a Jewish school, so the boy is not going to be captain of the lacrosse team or head of the student council, but a good listener? able to take advice? Poor kid - and what about the father, I thought, as I tried to get a glance of him sitting a few rows in front of me: the rabbi must have been really fishing for something to say. What could be praiseworthy about knowing how to take advice?

But then I though of Maimonides and his compendium of Jewish law, the Mishneh Torah, and the description of the avot or patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob - and how, in that account, Isaac gets only scant mention. In the telling, like in the Genesis story upon which Maimonides relies, the patriarch Abraham takes center stage: the forefather's youth in his hometown, Ur Kasdim; his rebellion against the idolatrous culture of his family; the trials which he suffered; and the journey to the Land of Canaan, what will become later his inheritance, the Land of Israel. In the course of his travels, Maimonides writes, Abraham attends to the questions of skeptics and doubters, and gathers first thousands, and then myriads of thousands into what becomes the 'House of Abraham.' Abraham 'gathered first cities and then kingdoms' teaching - monotheism, remember, is an innovation, not a given - the principle of 'the One Everlasting God.' Maimonides devotes 266 words to Abraham's story, but then, in continuing the story of the patriarchs, a just eight words to Abraham's son Isaac, before becoming expansive again, and devoting almost a hundred words to Jacob and his establishing of Jewish people through his children, the tribes of Israel, and the eventual descent to Egypt. True, Maimonides is known for his brevity: but Isaac - just eight words? Much like the bar mitzva boy about whom the rabbi seemed to have so little to say: is he also just skipped over? the middle and ignored patriarch?

'And Isaac sat' - Maimonides few words about the patriarch emphasize his passivity. Isaac, Maimonides continues, 'taught, and was careful - the word 'm'hazir' also means 'was cautious or circumspect,' - and then, and this is the extent of the description, Isaac instructs his son Jacob to pass on the tradition that began with his father Abraham. That's it: for Maimonides Isaac is who he is not for what he does, but by his inactivity, what he doesn't do. Abraham for Maimonides, as in Genesis, is overflowing with hesed - the man of 'excess,' writing books, travelling, and teaching. But Isaac, does not write books, he does not even leave the Land of Canaan. Abraham turns outwards - Isaac is passive and prudent. Isaac is the chosen son of Abraham, the first in the tradition that begins with his father. But in that tradition he seems just a passive agent, not a man who goes out into the world, but who withholds.

In his essay, 'What is a Classic?' when T.S. Eliot chooses the model for the 'classic,' it is not the Greek poet Homer - that would have been the obvious choice, the first and original classic - but to his Roman follower Virgil. Does Eliot really prefer the Latin imitation - Virgil seems to 'copy' Homer in so many ways - to the Greek original? Maybe - but it's not Eliot's poetic preferences which matter. Eliot's essay is about classicism. For him, a classic is not what begins a literary tradition, but what allows for its continuity. To be sure, Homer is the (astonishing) beginning; but Virgil brings the Homeric inheritance into the Roman present and future. True, Virgil's story seems to borrow a lot - almost everything it sometimes seems - from his Homeric predecessor. A university academic committee might charge him as guilty of plagiarism. But in Eliot's tradition, the act of taking the past into the future is what makes a classic, an activity that falls to the latter poet. The 'most individual parts' of a poet's work, writes Eliot, 'may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously.' Eliot's is a counter-intuitive notion for this generation: a poet is at his most original when most traditional, when the past speaks through him.

Abraham is also a beginning: but his hesed - the excess of giving - does not make, though it is indispensable, for tradition. Isaac represents the limitation, the restraint or withholding, without which tradition would be impossible. So in Genesis, Abraham's servants dig wells; they are filled by Plishtim, people of another nations. Isaac returns to the wells and digs them again. Isaac may not be an originator, but the traits which he embodies - going back to the past and the wellsprings of Abraham - preserves the tradition. So he gives the wells the same name that his father gave them. But Abraham needs Isaac as much as Isaac needs his father, for there can be no tradition of Abraham without the conservative and disciplined efforts of Isaac. This discipline means, in T.S. Eliot's terms, nurturing an 'historical sense' - of going back to the past not just to blindly follow it, but to find new resources for the the self. For Eliot, 'Tradition' and the 'Individual Talent' are not opposed; they come together. In the Jewish tradition, the excess and restraint of the two first patriarchs which allows for the Torah of Israel to be realized fully in the House of Jacob, the people of Israel. Jacob brings together the characteristics of Abraham and Isaac - both the outpouring of creativity, and the restraint that allows such creativity to be possible.

The tension born out of the relationship between Abraham and Isaac shows itself in the life of Rabbi Eliezer who became one of the greatest sages of Israel. Eliezer was a field hand on his father's estate, and, until the age of twenty-eight, had never studied Torah. His father found him crying in the fields: 'if plowing on the hard ground is too difficult then maybe you would prefer to plow on softer ground?' 'No,' cried Eliezer, 'I want to learn Torah.' His father was unsympathetic - 'marry and raise children of your own; you can take them to the house of study. Get back to work.' But Eliezer went to Jerusalem on his own and sat at the feet of the sages in the academy of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai. During the years of his study, he sat quietly, and said nothing, like the kid in class - but Eliezer was an adult - who the professor does not notice. The day came when Eliezer's father came to Jerusalem to disinherit his son - 'enough, the party is over.' Upon his arrival he found all the sages gathered; Rabbi Yochanan places Hycarnus, Eliezer's father at the head table, and asks his student - so long silent - to say some words of Torah. Eliezer is reluctant: 'I am like a cistern from which you cannot draw more water,' he says pointedly to his teacher, 'than has been put into it.' So, Eliezer continues, 'I cannot say more than I have received from you, my teacher.' Rabbi Yochanan responds: 'you are not a cistern, but a spring: and as a spring produces more than flows into it, so your Torah will exceed that which you have have received from Sinai.' 'Open' - commands Rabbi Yochanan - and expound for us! I cannot 'open' - Rabbi Eliezer replies. 'Perhaps you are embarrassed in my presence,' says Rabbi Yochanan, as he moves to stand behind him. Finally the student accedes: Rabbi Eliezer utters of Torah that had never before been heard, nor ever imagined. As Rabbi Eliezer expounds verses of the Bible, his face glows like the sun; the splendor of his face, the sages say, is like that of Moses' upon his descent from Mount Sinai. And so Rabbi Eliezer, the one who receives and listens, and seems to embody the passivity of Isaac - the vessel that does not lose a drop - becomes like the greatest of prophets, Moses, rays emanating from him like the sun. Though Rabbi Eliezer is insistently modest and conservative he himself becomes a great original, am'chadash, an innovator. Rabbi Yochanan understands his student's modesty so he stands behind him, but it's because the teacher is behind the student, not just literally, that allows the latter to be an original. Rabbi Eliezer becomes what the poet John Donne calls a 'potent receiver' - passive an active at once. Even what looks like passivity - just receiving - is part of the creative act.

In the first of the psalms, the sages see King David thinking on Torah and creativity act. David writes, 'You shall desire God's Torah, and in his Torah you shall meditate day and night.' Of this the sages say, first the Torah is attributed to God - it is God's Torah - and then after, in the second clause, there is no mention of God - it is 'his Torah,' the one who desires it, and studies. You express desire for God's Torah - like Rabbi Eliezer who sat for years in an academy - and then, as Rashi explains, become capable of answering questions on your own, even those which your teachers never asked. Part of the independence of creativity is the desire to receive, to be a cistern like Rabbi Eliezer, to acknowledge I don't (yet) know, and to nurture both the passivity and discipline that allows for creation. 'Open up your mouth wide, and I will fill it,' God says to King David - in the translation of the nineteenth century rabbi, Samson Rafael Hirsch, God says, 'open up your desire.' Opening myself to the past - to the tradition to which I want to connect - is surely an act disciplined attention, but also reveals my desire to be part of it. Eliezer's tears of desire - 'I want to learn Torah' - turn into the words of Torah that flow from him, transforming him from a cistern into a spring. So Isaac returns and attends to the wells of his father and opens them, so that future wells of Torah may flow: and in the next verse in Genesis: the servants of Isaac dig new wells, and find mayim chaim, living waters. So the receptivity of desire, of wanting to connect with the past, as the bar mitzva boy who is good at taking advice, is also part of the creative act, letting the 'living waters' of the past nourish the present and the future.

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