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Family Trees, Branches, and Identity

  • Family Trees, Branches, and Identity

    Noach, Genesis 6:9−11:32
D'var Torah By: 

The Book of Genesis involves a patchwork of stories. These are held together by an overarching framework that I refer to as "the ideological overlay."How are we to understand this structure? Picture eggs in an eggcrate. When open, the box is flimsy, and the eggs all sit there as discrete and unconnected entities. When closed, such that the eggs are touching the top and bottom surfaces of those spaces specially designed to hold them, the structure becomes rigid, and you relate to the sum of the parts—the crate and the eggs—as a solid whole. In this analogy, the eggs are the discrete stories that make up the Book of Genesis, and the crate constitutes the structural framework that holds the individual stories together. As noted, when closed, an eggcrate feels pretty solid, and the same is true of the Book of Genesis—looked at as a whole, its narratives flow "solidly"from one part to the next. However, when we peel back the ideological overlay—analogous to opening the egg crate—we become conscious of the distinctive stories, which do not share either a thematic or even a chronological unity. That is, just like you can have an eggcrate with eggs that didn’t start out together, so it is that the stories in Genesis did not start out clustered together as they currently are. Rather, the sense of unity was created by the book’s editor.

The stories the editor decided to include address a great array of concerns, but two main thematic elements lend the entire work narrative and ideological unity. The first element consists of those periodic genealogies we read; the second is what we will refer to as "the covenant."We will meet the second element in next week’s Torah portion ( Parashat Lech L’cha ). Here, toward the end of Parashat Noach , we have a very important genealogy, one that traces the regeneration of humanity after the devastating Flood of Noah’s era—a regeneration through Noah’s sons that leads to the ancestry we identify with ancient Israel.(1)

The Genesis genealogies define both the lineage of the world’s nations as well as Israel’s place in that world. Identity in antiquity was frequently developed around two notions, blood relations and land. When it came to familial or tribal units, establishing what was meant by "we"frequently involved defining some "other"group. In effect, people declared what they were by articulating what they were not. "We"form a group; they are not part of our group.

This approach to self-differentiation is not without certain inner paradoxes. The Bible seeks to show that all human beings derive first from Adam and Eve, and then from Noah’s sons and daughters-in-law. In other words, we are all, in some sense, related . Consequently, differentiation among peoples proves to be a tricky business. The paradox, then, lies in the notion that the writers were moved to valorize some groups and villainize others, despite the fact that heroes and villains may only have had a few degrees of bloodline separation between them.

Then there is the problem of ever-shifting attitudes toward discrete ethnic groups. One generation’s villains may prove to be another’s heroes. Some genealogies report matters in relatively neutral terms, while others involve characterizations that reflect deeply held prejudices. It would be a serious mistake to think that the perspectives on the various nations in the Book of Genesis were universally held by all ancient Israelites at any given moment in history. To illustrate this point, we’ll consider a brief passage in Parashat Vayeira , which provides a scathing parody of the origins of the Moabites and Ammonites. Toward the end of Genesis 19 (vv. 31–38), Lot’s daughters seduce their father to become pregnant. The story unfolds as follows:

"Come, let us make our father drink wine, and we will lie with him, that we may preserve offspring through our father."So they made their father drink wine that night, and the first-born daughter went in and lay with her father, but he did not realize that she had either lain there or gotten up. . . . [The next] night also they made their father drink wine, and the younger one went and lay with [Lot]; but he did not realize that she had either lain there or gotten up. Thus both of Lot’s daughters became pregnant by their father. The first-born daughter bore a son and named him Moab; he is the father of the Moabites of today. And the younger also bore a son, and she called him Ben-ammi; he is the father of the Ammonites of today.(2) (Genesis 19:32–33, 19:35­–38)

What could be more insulting than to have your origins attributed to an act of drunken intercourse between a father and a daughter, schemed by the daughters no less? Obviously, the author of this passage did not think well of the Moabites or the Ammonites (not to mention Lot himself). But this pejorative depiction of Moab was not shared by all. The genealogy at the end of the Book of Ruth conveys a rather different attitude:

So Boaz [the Israelite] married Ruth [the Moabite]; she became his wife, and he cohabited with her. The Eternal let her conceive, and she bore a son. And the women said to Naomi, "Blessed be the Eternal, who has not withheld a redeemer from you today! May his name be perpetuated in Israel!". . . And the women neighbors gave him a name, saying, "A son is born to Naomi!"They named him Obed; he was the father of Jesse, father of David. (Ruth 4:13–14, 4:17)

Hardly a more astounding contrast could be imagined. In the Genesis story, the Moabites emerge from the most debased of sexual pairings. In the Book of Ruth, a Moabite woman conceives because of God’s intercession , and her progeny include Israel’s redeemer , King David. That Ruth is not born a Jew hardly hampers her ability to bear Israel’s future political and military savior.

We could point to a number of other biblical passages that parallel this odd contrast in attitudes toward a single nation. But let me here summarize what has been said thus far. First: identity contingent on distinguishing the "we"from "the other"is rooted in genealogies, ostensibly because "blood"can be construed as an objective marker of identity. And second: any particular attitude regarding a specific nation found in one part of the Bible should not be taken as having been universally accepted in any given period or even over time.

Both of these facts tend to leave "we/they"identity politics rather contentious. This has not hindered an ongoing engagement with this approach; indeed, many Jews even today still find these ideas to be powerful elements in their own sense of self. In his book The Beginnings of Jewishness , Shaye J. D. Cohen [Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999]) delineates how because of constantly changing historical circumstances Jews were constantly revisiting the question Who is a Jew? Perhaps the best-known adaptation in identity politics remains the shift from patrilineal to matrilineal descent (apparently) during the Roman era. But while this is the best known, it is hardly the most profound adaptation. More consequential would be the identity politics created by authors throughout our history who saw the content of one’s Judaism as more important than any particular inherited trait. This approach to identity emerges from the Torah itself.

At some very fundamental level, biblical writers beyond the Book of Genesis recognized that blood lineage could never adequately establish the grounds for distinctiveness or allegiance. Some understood that distinctions between peoples who were originally next of kin (such as Ishmael and Isaac, or Jacob and Esau), were at best, artificial. They recognized that the most significant elements of Jewish living—the cultural content and religious practices that constitute its distinctiveness—contribute to a form of self-definition that is superior to vague claims that we are simply other than someone else.

This was not, however, an insight held by the authors of Genesis. The Book of Genesis does nothing to foster the content of Jewish identity beyond clan association. The writers of other biblical passages (in the Torah and elsewhere) would take it as their task to remedy what they saw as Genesis’s limited utility in the formation of Jewish identity. While they sustained aspects of "we/they"politics in their own writings, they ultimately transcended them with the laws, customs, ethics, and ideological positions that dominate their literary legacy.

The challenge of the Book of Genesis for liberal Jews starts in that otherwise innocent-sounding genealogy of chapter 10. For there we have set in motion a cultural paradigm for self-differentiation that cannot, in my opinion, be sustained by those of us seeking a vibrant Judaism through cultural creativity and ongoing spiritual renewal. It is in our power to assert that no one is a Jew by historical fiat, but that all Jews are Jews-by-choice. This is the conviction held by the Books of Exodus and Deuteronomy, and the closing section of the Book of Joshua. The covenant scenes in these books require that each individual affirm his or her allegiance; no individual is simply part of the covenant unless they have actively affirmed their commitment. In Exodus 24:7 we read: "Then he [Moses] took the record of the covenant and read it aloud to the people. And they said, ‘All that the Eternal has spoken we will faithfully do!’"Another covenant scene appears in the Book of Joshua (24:22): "Joshua said to the people, ‘You are witnesses against yourselves that you have by your own act chosen to serve the Eternal.’ The people replied, ‘We are [free] witnesses.’"Such sentiments dominate the entire narrative of Deuteronomy, where being a Jew is about making a choice to choose life! These authors saw a covenant entered voluntarily as more powerful than any notion of birth-into-a-covenant. In fact, these passages undermine the notion of Jew-by-birth.

Too often, when the politics of identity are rehearsed in the modern world among Diaspora and Israeli Jews alike, this profound insight of Torah is subordinated for the sake of reactionary, shallow notions of clan. It is time for us to consider the meanings of our identity through freewill affirmations of commitment, rather than acquiesce to customary medieval, halachic notions of who is a Jew that violate the more profound insights of Torah.

Some might hold that birth into a Jewish family makes this choice easier to come by than for others. But given well-documented assimilationist trends, no one should assume that "ease"constitutes a significant factor in the creation and sustaining of a Jewish identity and life. Only identities that involve active choice lead to meaningful engagements with Jewish living. If we only had the Book of Genesis, birth might constitute a sufficient criterion for establishing who is a Jew; but as it is, Torah transcends the mere sum of its parts. Meaning is created, not born. And so it is with each and every Jew. That I am taking direct aim at all theories of identity by descent—maternal or paternal—should be blatant enough. Reform Judaism should rethink its own politics of identity and, in the process, reaffirm its commitment to the more profound insights of Torah.

While the ideology of genealogically-based identity may prove to be increasingly irrelevant to Reform Jews over time, this does not detract at all from the Book of Genesis as a whole. The discrete stories in this book address many core concerns of the human condition beyond that of identity, including faith, justice, destiny, appeasement, dislocation, abandonment, and vulnerability. And these are the concerns with which we will be occupied over the coming weeks.


(1) Genealogies in Genesis occur in the following chapters: all of 5; 6:9–10; all of 10; 11:10–32; 25:1–18; all of 36.

(2)This is my translation. Most published translations use softer idioms that neutralize the crassness of the event. For instance, JPS renders verse 36 as "the two daughters of Lot came to be with child by their father,"but "with child"is to my ears quite a bit softer than the literal meaning, "pregnant by.”

David H. Aaron received his doctorate from Brandeis University and ordination from the Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, Cincinnati. At the time of this writing in 2008, he was professor of Hebrew Bible and History of Interpretation at HUC-JIR, Cincinnati, and his most recent book at that time was Etched in Stone: The Emergence of the Decalogue (T & T Clark, 2006).

Wrestling with Identity
Davar Acher By: 
Stanley M. Davids

The challenging vision of Dr. David Aaron as to what constitutes the formal nature of Jewish identity demands of us a serious and prolonged debate. Dr. Aaron properly notes how the Genesis genealogies set the stage for self-differentiation, and that self-differentiation (we/they) cannot be explored without at the same time trying to understand the very nature of the covenant or covenants said to bind humanity in general, and the people of Israel in particular, to the God of the Creation and of Sinai.

The existence of multiple and distinct ethnicities is intended to be explained by the events surrounding the construction of the Tower of Babel. As a result of a treacherous challenge by united humankind against the rule of God, men and women were scattered across the earth, scattered not as individuals but rather as ethnic clusters. The Edenic vision of a unified humanity is then further shattered by the unique relationship that soon emerges between God and the descendants of Abraham. Henceforth, and throughout the Torah in all of its strands and fragments, the notion of unified humankind is subordinated to the relationships between the descendants of Abraham and God.

This privileged relationship between the people of Israel and God was constituted within a bilateral relationship. Even as peoples who encounter the numinous must necessarily abandon the view that they are the unequivocal center of God’s concern, so there arose a singular faith that asserted it possessed insight into aspects of God not known by others and not available to them. For the people of Israel, the covenantal relationship would always be conditional: their response to the unique demands that God made upon them determined the extent to which God’s promises to them would be fulfilled.

It therefore matters greatly who "we"and "they"are. And it most certainly is true that the understanding of who "we"are has continued to evolve and, at times, to change radically. Patrilineality and matrilineality came to represent divergent tests of affiliation, reflecting shifting patterns of Jewish existence. While recognizing such shifting conditions and understandings, it is neither possible nor accurate for us to limit notions of a "clan"linked in covenant with God just to the Book of Genesis and thus, by implication, isolated in a primitive period of Jewish history. The content of that identity surely is more significant than its familial base no matter how configured, but that does not negate the enduring nature of a relationship that Dr. Aaron refers to as merely "shallow"and "reactionary."

My understanding as to how Torah came to be written and edited has been strongly influenced by the writings and lectures of Professor Israel Knohl, as summarized most recently in his volume The Divine Symphony: The Bible’s Many Voices (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2003). For Knohl, the processes set in motion by the authors of the biblical strands were complex, controversial, and often harmonious, but at times markedly discordant. The editing of Torah during the time of Ezra brought no end to these processes; rather they became an ever-evolving midrash that emerged in response to our people’s march through history and our encounters with a rich variety of other peoples and of other voices.

But to the best of my knowledge, never did our teachers, writers, philosophers, poets, and dreamers set aside a definition of the "we"that somehow involved aspects of family (or ethnicity or people or clan)—a family that could be joined, a family that could be abandoned, but a family that carries with it text and traditions, as well as a unique sense of in-group belongingness that exists even as it fails of easy description.

Dr. Aaron’s critique moves freely among the anthropological, genealogical, theological, and personal. His distaste for any sense of Jewish identity emerging out of descent is clear and governs his analysis. My perspective embraces the reality and necessity of some form of descent or identity that creates and sustains a core community. It is from the wrestling of that core community with the texts, values, and demands of Jewish life that the most profound products of Jewish creativity emerge.

We cannot be compelled to be Jews or to embrace our family. We cannot compel others to be Jews or to embrace our family. But we are a family, a people if you will, and we are bound together not only in a pattern of behavior and by a vision of a world redeemed, but also by an inner sense that there is always more to being a Jew than a matter of "a meaningful engagement with Jewish living.”

Rabbi Stanley M. Davids was ordained from the Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in 1965 and was subsequently awarded his doctor of divinity from HUC-JIR. His most significant commitments have been to ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America, which he served as national president 2004–2008. It was through ARZA that Rabbi Davids founded the Reform Zionist Think Tank, an endeavor that led to the historic adoption of the CCAR's Reform Zionist Platform (Miami, 1997), which among other issues embraced for the first time aliyah as a Reform mitzvah.  At the time of this writing in 2008, Rabbi Davids was a member of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel, and in April 2008 he was elected to the Executive Committee of the World Zionist Organization.

Reference Materials: 

Noach, Genesis 6:9?11:32
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp.57–91; Revised Edition, pp.57–83;
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, pp. 35–58
Haftarah, Isaiah 54:1–55:5
The Torah: A Modern Commentary , pp. 326–329; Revised Edition, pp.85–87