Thursday, 28 Dec 2017

Written by Anthony Lazarus

Vayechi

There is a (possibly apocryphal) etymology of the English word ‘testimony’, which claims that the oath-giver (in Latin testis) of various ancient societies would grasp either his own or his pledge’s testicles (in Latin, occasionally, also testis) before making an oath. This is because the testicles were felt to ‘evidence’ the full manhood of both participants in the contract: the oath was guaranteed by a gesture to the swearers’ most intimate, embodied person.

This last parasha of Sefer Bereishit repeatedly turns on such intimate regions: the thighs from which shy Ephraim and Menasseh emerge to receive their grandfather’s blessing [48.12]; the lap upon which Joseph bounces his great-grandchildren [50.23]; and Jacob’s under-thigh which Joseph grasps when swearing that he will bury him in the Machpelah [47.29]. Why is this last gesture, the grasping under a thigh, the requisite sign of an oath for our forefathers? For the Lubavitcher Rebbe, these oaths swear by the covenant of brit mila: the hand grasps near the circumcised member in order that the oath should carry the full weight of our Abrahamic covenant with God. An alternative understanding of our forefathers’ oaths is closer to that suggested by my etymology of the word ‘testimony’: here too they swore by their most intimate organs. I choose to understand the oath giving of Genesis somewhere between these two interpretations: any oath which we give to our parents should be the most intimate oath of which we are capable—this is essential to Kibud Av v’Em— and there is always something vulnerable-making about such acts of intimacy and commitment. When Joseph and Jacob are locked in this embrace of oathing, their bodies are tied with just such surety as is entailed by the oath itself. They are bound by their words, and bound by their bodies. This is why the parasha keeps coming back to the centre of our anatomy: our laps, our groins. These are the source of our descendants, where our children hide as they slink about our legs, and where we grasp each-other in moments of love and interdependency.

Jacob is a man with thigh-history. His wrestling with God left him with a new name (Yisrael), and an injury to his thigh which gave him with a life-long limp. We might contrast, idiomatically, Joseph and Jacob’s having of someone ‘by-the-thigh’—a mark of struggle and intimacy which empowers Israel’s relationship with God, and guarantees our forefathers’ pledges—with a far cruder idiom of wannabe masculinity: to have someone ‘by-the-balls’. Indeed, the Talmud suggests that this oath is intimately tied-up with a perfect example of ‘having-someone-by-the-balls’. This comes from the Gemara to Tractate Sotah 36b:

When Pharaoh said to Joseph: “And without you no man shall lift up his hand or his foot in all the land of Egypt” (Genesis 41:44), Pharaoh’s astrologers said: “You will appoint a slave whose master bought him for twenty silver coins to rule over us?” He said to them: “I perceive royal characteristics in him and see that he was not initially a slave.” They said to him: “If that is so and he is a child of royalty, he should know the seventy languages that all kings’ children learn.” 

The angel Gabriel then came and taught him the seventy languages […] and the next day, when he appeared before Pharaoh, in every language that Pharaoh spoke with him, he answered him. Joseph then spoke in the sacred tongue, Hebrew, and Pharaoh did not know what he was saying. Pharaoh said to him: “Teach me that language.” He taught him, but he could not learn it. Pharaoh said to him: “Take an oath for my benefit that you will not reveal that I do not know this language.” He took an oath for his benefit. 

Years later, when Joseph said to Pharaoh: “My father made me swear, saying” (Genesis 50:5) that I would bury him in Eretz Yisrael, Pharaoh said to him: “Go request the dissolution of your oath.” Joseph said to him: “And should I also request dissolution for the oath that I took for your benefit?” And consequently, even though Pharaoh was not amenable to letting Joseph go, he worried that Joseph would then request dissolution for the oath that he had taken for his benefit, and Pharaoh therefore said to him: “Go up and bury your father according to what he made you swear” (Genesis 50:6).

Joseph is cunning. Here he brings Pharaoh’s shameful secret to bear against him: that Pharaoh cannot, try as he might, learn Hebrew. Not knowing Hebrew is Pharaoh’s greatest weakness, robbing him of the power and autonomy which should rightly be his. Joseph had Jacob by the thigh, and now he has Pharaoh ‘by-the-balls’; and he’s damned if he’s not going to twist until he gets his way.

Some of you may have (rightly) taken issue with the fact that I have only provided this text in English. Sometimes, we speak in English because working within a linguistic framework in which the average English Jew can participate is empowering: Judaism has a long tradition of accommodating Jews for whom Hebrew is not a first language. Sometimes, as in this case, though, the use an English text in the context of my polemic is precisely the opposite: it is disempowering. By not including the Hebrew/Aramaic text from Sotah I have robbed you of the ability to disagree with my reading, and by trusting me you risk being thoroughly defrauded. Who knows what mistellings a Rabbinic student can get away with by speaking only in English?! Homiletically speaking: I have you by the what-do-you-call-‘ems whenever I appropriate a text and do not give you equal access to the resources of our Jewish tradition. It is a well-worn truism of Jewish educators everywhere that, without Hebrew, our children sink in a sea of tradition which remains sadly beyond their grasp.

This goes both ways: Jewish children should be empowered to the best of their abilities within Jewish texts of all languages, because Jewish tradition does not only happen in Hebrew. My feeling, though, is that our Chedarim do a better job at enabling our children within English-language Jewish texts than Hebrew-language Jewish texts. The Talmud brings Joseph as an example of how distance from Hebrew can leave our children vulnerable to manipulation, and disempowerment. My question would be, are we doing enough empowering? Are we trying hard enough to swim in this endless sea? If we want to empower Jewish learning, bilingualism is the only future and we should always aspire to do better.

Anthony Lazarus LBC rabbinic student