Posts Tagged 'Lavan'

Lavan the Aramean: Our Seder and the Origins of White Supremacy

Every year in the traditional Seder we read, “Go and learn what Lavan the Aramean sought to do to our father Yaakov. A Pharaoh made his decree only about the males, whereas Lavan sought to destroy everything.”  It is scary to realize that every year we rehearse the “they tried to kill us, let’s eat” as if it is normal or at the least expected. Why do we introduce our children to antisemites throughout history every year as if it is normative if not normal?

I have thought about this question for years, but it takes on a whole new level of meaning on this our first Passover after the Tree of Life Shooting where a White Supremacists went in and killed 11 Jews in a Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Long before Robert Gregory Bowers, Hitler, Haman, or even Pharoah, there was Lavan.

The spike in acts of hate speech and even hate crime against Jews over the last two years has made me ask the question about origin of Antisemitism. Why is there such a long history of people hating us? Where did that all start? That search brought me back to the Torah portion of Chaye Sara. There we meet Rebecca’s brother Lavan. If we accept the premise set forward in the Hagadah that Lavan is paradigmatic Antisemite, what do we learn from Lavan about the origin of Antisemitism?

There we read:

Now Rivka had a brother whose name was Lavan, and Lavan ran to the man outside, to the fountain. (Genesis 24:29)

From this we do not see anything so horrible. Quoting the Midrash Rashi explains his running:

and Lavan ran: Why did he run and for what did he run? “Now it came to pass, when he saw the nose ring,” he said, “This person is rich,” and he set his eyes on the money. — [Gen. Rabbah 60:7]

Lavan is not being hospitable but rather interested in filling his pockets with wealth. This is an obvious counter-distinction to his sister’s emulation of Avraham’s generosity toward strangers in looking after the needs of Eliezer and even his camels. Where Rivka was clearly in line with the hospitality of Avraham, her brother was running after his own interests.  On this the Or HaChaim has another opinion. He writes:

The fact is that Lavan was sincerely concerned about his sister’s innocence, suspecting that the gifts to her of the jewelry by a total stranger could have been the beginning of an immoral relationship between them. The Torah here describes Lavan as if he were a righteous person because it acknowledges his concern for his sister’s chastity. When the Torah states: “it was when he saw,” this shows that Lavan reacted first to what he saw and subsequently to what he heard. As long as he had not yet heard what transpired between the two he put an ugly interpretation on the manner in which he thought his sister had obtained the jewelry, suspecting Eliezer of seducing Rivka. ( Or HaChaim on Genesis 24:29)

At first glance in the text Lavan is simply Rebecca’s brother. He even seems to be hospitable, but according to Rashi he really is just motivated by self-interest. According to the Or HaChaim Lavan is worried about a stranger taking advantage of his sister. On the surface based on his assumptions this does not seem so horrible. This is actually endearing and would not remotely make him an Antisemite, let alone the paradigm of it in our history.

And then I got to thinking about the meaning of his name. Here we are discussing the Rabbinic origin of Antisemitism and Lavan’s name means white. This demanded some exploration. My mind jumped to last summer’s White Supremacists’ Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville. On the evening of Friday, August 11, a group of white nationalists gathered for a march through the University of Virginia’s campus. They marched towards the University’s Lawn chanting Nazi and white supremacist slogans, including “White lives matter”; “You will not replace us“; and “Jews will not replace us”. Their hate seems to spring from a fear that Jews who they define as non-white will replace Whites. On one level the fear of being replaced is in reference to white power, privileged, and money. On another level I cannot help read “Jews will not replace us” as a reference to Jared Kushner. This mob of white men are disgruntled that this Jew has replaced them in being married to Ivanka, the first daughter and their model of Teutonic blond beauty. The myth of the noble defender of our women’s honor against the raping foreigner is not something new that Trump has created. It is but a thin veil of valor to cover over the cowardice of xenophobia and the ugliness of hatred.

Image result for Jews will not replace us

Months ago my wife sent me an amazing article Skin in the Game: How Antisemitsm Animates White Nationalism by Eric K. Ward.  There he writes:

American White nationalism, which emerged in the wake of the 1960s civil rights struggle and descends from White supremacism, is a revolutionary social movement committed to building a Whites-only nation, and antisemitism forms its theoretical core. That last part—antisemitism forms the theoretical core of White nationalism— bears repeating.

Ward argues that Antisemitism fuels the White nationalism which is a genocidal movement now enthroned in the highest seats of American power. Fighting Antisemitism cuts off that fuel for the sake of all marginalized communities under siege from the Trump regime and the social movement that helped raise it up.

To Ward’s conception Whites hatred of Ashkenazic Jews is a clear case of the narcissism of small differences, they are both white. Ashkenazic Jews are genetically related to White Europeasn just as Rivka was Lavan’s sister. Like Rashi interpretation of Lavan, these Whites Supremacists are also in pursuit of the privileges and money they believe they are due. On another level we can read Or HaChaim’s understanding of Lavan expressing his paternalistic fear of preserving the sexual purity of his sister as an age-old slur of maligning a marginalized group as rapists. We can see that Whites Supremacists and these rabbis’ reading of Lavan’s introduction might argue that hatred and violence could be painted as legitimate or even virtuous even if founded on bad information and a lack of desire to engage the “other”. And worse we see that White Supremacy origins might just an expression of self-interest and unfounded fear-mongering.

As we get ready for Seder we should prepare to confront the Lavan of the Seder. What rituals and conversations will we have at our Seder to inspire us to confront White Supremacy today? Passover is not just celebration of our “freedom from” (e.g. reclining), but also our “freedom to” (e.g. opening our homes to guests). We desperately need now more than ever the Seder, itself as a ritual, that models the primacy of questions in engaging with different worldviews. We should be liberated to experience empathy of the “other”. We need to remember that even if we do not agree or get along, from its origins, like Rivka and Lavan, we are still family and we should strive to understand each other.

For All Those Years

In Vayetei, this week’s Torah portion, we read of Yakov’s escape to Haran. Last week he stole the birthright and the blessing from Esav and now he wants to evade Esav’s wrath.  There in Haran he falls in love with Rachel. Lavan convincing him to work for 7 years for Rachel’s hand in marriage. Lavan dupes Yakov into marrying Rachel’s older sister Leah instead. When confronted for deceiving Yakov, Lavan replies, “It is not so done in our place, to give the younger before the first-born” ( Genesis 29:26). Many questions arise from this situation. I wanted to discuss two now. How in the world did Yakov not realize that he was sleeping with Leah and not Rachel? What did Lavan mean by his response to Yakov?

On the first question I refer us back to Toldot, last week’s Torah portion. There we read of Rivka’s deception of Yitzhak. There the blind Yitzhak asks Esav for some food. There we read:

Now therefore take, I pray of you, your weapons, your quiver and your bow, and go out to the field, and take me venison; and make me savory food, such as I love, and bring it to me, that I may eat; that my soul may bless you before I die.’ ( Genesis 27: 3-4)

Rivka overhears this plan and tells Yakov to intervene and to follow her plan. There we read:

Go now to the flock, and fetch me from two good kids of the goats from there; and I will make them savory food for your father, such as he loves; and you shall bring it to your father, that he may eat, so that he may bless you before his death.’ ( Genesis 27: 9-10)

At the core of this deception is the issue of perception. ( I realize that I am reading this differently then I did last week.) Yitzhak is blind, but that does not mean that we cannot taste. So how did this deception work? How might someone mistake goat for venison? Either Yitzhak is just not that perceptive or Rivka has been serving him goat meat for years and telling him it is venison.

In either case we might have some answers to our questions. Maybe Yakov like Yitzhak is just not that perceptive. While that is not that satisfying, it is interesting to realize how much Yakov is like Yitzhak.  This leaves us with the second question. What did Lavan mean?

It is hard as the reader not to read it as sarcastic. So we would read Lavan’s reply as, “It is not so done in our place as compared to your place, to give the younger before the first-born as you stole the birthright and blessing from your older brother Esav.”  But we the readers of the Torah know what Yakov did, but how would Lavan have known of Yakov’s decption of Esav and Yitzhak? It is possible that Lavan does not know anything of Yakov’s misdeeds. Maybe he is referring in a back-handed way to Rivka and her ways. She did grow up there with him in Haran. Maybe Rivka like Lavan are tricksters. For all of those years maybe Rivka was deceiving Yitzhak serving him goat and claiming it was venison. In this way Lavan is claiming that Yakov is no different from Rivka who is no different from himself.  As the Roman Philospher  Marcus Tullius Cicero said, ” It is the peculiar quality of a fool to perceive the faults of others and to forget his own”. We know that Lavan is a fool, but what is Yakov? It takes Yakov much of his life to realizing his similarities to both the positive and negative qualities of his parents. Like many of us, Yakov spends his whole life reconciling his identities. In this process of wrestling with our various identities we all become Yisrael.


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