Jewish Family on the Verge of Breakdown
Rabbi Mati Kirschenbaum
Angels climbing up and down the ladder that symbolise Jacob’s special connection to the Eternal. Jacob being tricked into marrying Leah instead of his beloved Rachel. The births of eleven out of twelve sons of Jacob. The tragedy of Jacob’s only (known) daughter, Dinah. These are the things that come to our minds when we think of this week’s parashah, Vayetzei. Rarely do we focus on the later part of the current Torah portion, which deals with the separation of Laban and Jacob’s households. Poignantly, it has something to teach us about the state of Israel’s relation to Progressive and Conservative Judaism. Still, in order to understand its message, we need to remind ourselves of events that led to the deterioration of the relationship between Laban, Rebecca’s brother, and his nephew Jacob.
Their relationship starts with a heart-warming family reunion. Laban receives Jacob, fleeing from the wrath of Esau, with great hospitality and treats him as an honoured guest for a month. Sadly, Laban soon starts to take advantage of his nephew’s love at first sight for his younger daughter, Rachel. First, he makes Jacob work seven years to earn the right to marry his beloved. Yet on their long-awaited wedding day, Laban tricks Jacob into marrying his elder daughter Leah instead of Rachel. Laban’s intrigue forces Jacob to endure seven more years of indentured servitude before he is able to marry Rachel. It also sparks bitter reproductive rivalry between two sisters who now vie for attention of their shared husband.
This rivalry results in births of twelve children (eleven sons and Dinah). Blessed (and burdened) with such numerous offspring, Jacob realises that his full economic dependency on Laban does not allow him to adequately provide for his children. He asks Laban for permission to leave with his family. In response, Laban offers to name a price Jacob would accept in exchange for staying. Wisely, Jacob does not ask for a fixed wage. Instead, he requests the freedom to test his cattle and goat breeding skills. From now on, Jacob’s fortune shall be dependent on his herding expertise and adaptability, not on Laban’s favour. Jacob’s decision finds grace in the eyes of the Eternal; soon he becomes a wealthy man. This newly gained affluence irritates Laban’s sons who feel threatened by Jacob’s success. Their dissatisfaction is infectious; soon Laban’s attitude towards him visibly changes. This is when God commands Jacob to leave Laban and embark on the second journey of his life. Rachel and Leah wholeheartedly support his decision. They say:
Are we not accounted by him (Laban) as strangers? Not only has he sold us, but he has used up what was paid for us. Surely all the wealth that Eternal took away from our father belongs to us and our children. So do whatever Eternal has told you.
Jacob and his family flee in secret. But before they depart, Rachel steals her father’s teraphim, mysterious objects often associated with divination. Unfortunately for the fugitives, after a short pursuit, an angry Laban catches up with them. Because Rachel prevents her father from finding teraphim, Laban lacks an obvious excuse for chasing them. This means that Jacob and Laban need to address the key sore points in their relationship: Laban’s ongoing exploitation of Jacob and Laban’s unwillingness to recognise the autonomy of his son-in-law’s family.
Optimistically, the story finds a peaceful resolution. Laban and Jacob swear an oath not to harm each other; their oath evokes the memory of their common ancestry and shared beliefs. They also put up a stone to establish a border between their domains and to remind next generations about their mutual commitment to peaceful coexistence.
The shifting dynamics between Laban, Laban’s daughters and Jacob reminds me of the complicated relationship between the State of Israel/Zionism and Progressive Judaism. Just like Jacob fleeing Esau found refuge in Laban’s shelter, Progressive Jews embraced Zionism as the threat of Nazism became clear in the 1930s. When the State of Israel became independent, Progressive Judaism fell in love with its cultural vitality just as Jacob (Israel) fell in love with Rachel. It did not matter that the State of Israel, not unlike Jacob’s first bride, turned out to be not quite what they yearned for. Its founders handed over the control of religious matters to Orthodox authorities, putting the Progressive movement in Leah’s position. Still, just like Leah committed to win Jacob’s recognition, and eventually love, Progressive Judaism has faithfully supported the Jewish State even though it didn’t recognise Progressive weddings and gave Orthodoxy monopoly in the area of Jewish funerals.
Sadly, with time the attitude of many Israeli politicians to Progressive Judaism at home and abroad started to resemble Laban’s treatment of Jacob. Promises of giving more recognition to the Reform movement in Israel were repeatedly made and subsequently revoked. However, the new Israeli government has marked a new low in the relationship between Progressive Judaism and the Jewish State. This past week, pressured by its ultra-Orthodox prospective coalition partners, Likud, the winner of the November 2022 parliamentary elections, agreed to end the recognition of non-Orthodox conversion for purposes of citizenship. If this law comes into force, Progressive converts without any Jewish roots will not be able to make aliyah.
In such a situation, it would not be surprising for the Jews by choice to say, after Rachel and Leah:
Is there yet any portion or inheritance for us in our father’s house? […] Are we not accounted by Laban as strangers? For he has sold us.
As contemporary Progressive Jews we cannot allow Israel to become a stranger to us. Now is the time to speak loudly about our contributions to the Jewish State, to support the congregations and organisations that promote Progressive worship and values in Israel.
We might not be able to build a ladder that reaches the sky. And we don’t have to. All we need to do now is to set boundaries in conversations we are ready to engage in, to establish norms that would enable both Progressive and Conservative Diaspora Jews as well as Progressive and Masorti Israelis to be noticed and respected by the rest of the Jewish people.
God, you are called Tzuri – our rock, the rock set on the border of Laban and Jacob’s domain to remind them how much they had in common. We ask for Your assistance to remind the Israeli government that Torah calls for Jewish unity in diversity. We hope that these words of Torah shall one day become the foundation of a more equitable and respectful relationship between Progressive and Masorti Jews and Israel. May this time come speedily and in our days. Amen and Shabbat Shalom!