Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Jameel vs Rashby

Our Arab friend Jameel has found a fascinating bit of parshanut from bible scholar Mark Twain:
Jacob took advantage of Esau's consuming hunger to rob him of his birthright and the great honor and consideration that belonged to the position; by treachery and falsehood he robbed him of his father's blessing; he made of him a stranger in his home, and a wanderer. Yet after twenty years had passed away and Jacob met Esau and fell at his feet quaking with fear and begging piteously to be spared the punishment he knew he deserved, what did that magnificent savage do? He fell upon his neck and embraced him!
Jameel doesn't much like what Twain had to say, but his complaint is comical: "How can it be that Mark Twain falls into the hypnotic trap of Esav, when its totally clear to Chazal of Esav's hypocrisy and evil?"

Well, for starters Twain didn't have the benefit of midrashim. All Twain had was the text itself. It's a little stupid to fault Twain for being unaware of the midrashim, and its even stupider to act like the midrash's view of Eisav is self-evident from the text. It's not.

More importantly, if you sift through the many midrashim about Eisav you'll find that not all of them have a uniformly negative view of Jacob's brother. Sure, some thought Esav was irredeemably evil, but the midrash isn't a monolith, and Jameel is wrong to think of it this way. There are midrashim with more generous opinions of Esav. No less an authority than Shimon Bar Yochai, in fact, sees the reunion between Esav and Jacob exactly as Twain did: “It was well-known that Esav (the individual) hated Yaakov, but here Esav’s mercies were aroused, and he kissed him with all his heart.”

Jameel, did Shimon Bar Yochai also fall "into the hypnotic trap of Esav?"