Collective Identity – Genesis 47:28 – 50:26 Vayechi

Do Jews have some collective social characteristics in common? Do sub-groups of Jews have? More importantly, does the Torah believe they do? I am not referring to physical conditions. We know that because Jews married within a very limited field, because they were segregated by force or custom or both, half of Ashkenazim carry at least one of 38 inherited diseases as a result of passing down recessive genes.

I am referring to social characteristics. As we know, DNA inheritance can and has been used to characterize and stereotype and discriminate against whole groups. I am not interested in biological transfer or whether a specific ethnic inheritance can be established with authority. It may even be the case that a specific mitochondrial DNA is a marker for over 90% of Ashkenazim. But are there any corresponding social characteristics?

The Torah had no knowledge of DNA. David Goldstein in hiss 2008 book, Jacob’s Legacy: A Genetic View of History, showed that any effort to translate biological differentiation into normative collective characteristics was not only misguided but demonstrated a drastic ignorance of science. From genetic science, no conclusions can be drawn about questions of social or cultural identity. At least, certainly not at this time even if genetics can be used to pinpoint the town from whence your parents or grandparents came. In the future, if we happened to learn that social differences can be correlated with a genetic inheritance, this would not justify racism, that is a sense of inherited racial purity and even superiority. It would merely add to our knowledge of diversity. It would not justify an ideology of essentialist identity through blood.

Torah implies that characteristics can be assigned to a whole group – such as a tribe or even a society. However, the main mode of transmission was the blessing a father bestowed on a son. It was both patrilineal and concerned males, sons not daughters. But if it has such powers, how does it work, or, at least, how is it believed to have worked? The judgement is not that Jews are more intelligent or more grasping, more wily or more shrewd, or more neurotic in certain ways

Reuben was a very unappreciated son. While enjoying rank and honour as the first born, Jacob depicts him as “unstable as water,” that is, not firm in his convictions. Jacob then accused Reuben of sleeping with his wife Bilhah (49:3-4) when Rachel died many years earlier in childbirth as Benjamin was born. (35:22) But is it true that Reuben was unstable in his behaviour? He seemed to have been full of good will.  Though he lacked the political smarts he needed to control his strong-willed brother, Judah, or lead his other brothers, Reuben did seem to have a moral compass.

He was kind and thoughtful, just like his mother Leah who gave the mandrake flowers Reuben brought her to her childless sister, Rachel, since mandrake flowers symbolize fertility. Reuben was not emotionally unstable, but he lacked the single-mindedness and political skills of his most forceful brother. If he wanted to inherit his father’s power and authority, sleeping with Bilhah when Rachel died might have led to Jacob giving preference to the children of Leah, but Reuben did not think it through for he may have simply set it up for Judah to inherit that power and authority.

Look at how Reuben handled the plan of his brothers to kill Joseph. He always dealt with his brothers as other, as you versus me. He put himself forth as the moral superego. Further, instead of sticking around and making sure everything went according to plan, he left his brothers unguarded and unwatched. Unlike Judah who picked the right moment and then sold his brothers on the utility of selling their brother Joseph before using the moral argument not to have blood on their hands, and only after he had made common cause and identified with his brothers, Reuben always stood outside the group.  

Reuben followed the same pattern when he returned from Egypt without his brother Simeon and asked if he could return to Egypt with Benjamin as Joseph had requested. What terrible timing. Jacob had seemingly just lost a second son. Further, Reuben asked at a time when the family had plenty of food; he failed to marry moral principles to need. And then he went overboard and offered to sacrifice his own two sons if he failed to return with both Benjamin and Simeon. Judah, on the other hand, only intervened when the family needed food again and they had to return to Egypt. Judah insisted on the positive value of going to Egypt rather than acting under duress – the family would survive. An family survival was worth risking his youngest son. Judah also personally guaranteed return.

Reuben emerges as the moralist who lacked the skills of political leadership that seemed to adumbrate the future of the northern kingdom dominated by the tribe of Reuben. Moral convictions and righteousness are insufficient. Perhaps that is why the Assyrians could defeat the northern tribes; once defeated, they did not resist assimilation. It is not enough to know what needs to be done; one also has to know how to accomplish the goal.

Simeon and Levi were the next two sons of Leah; they are described as a pair, but they were not twins. They are paired because they were both considered lawless, men of deep anger and wrath who took out their anger in fights with others. If Reuben was somewhat repressed, these two acted out their resentments. But this is a paradox; Simeon means an empath, one who listens and is sensitive to others.

The dilemma may perhaps be cleared up with what happened within the tribe of Simeon in the story of Zimri and Cozbi in Exodus. Cozbi was a Midianite princess with whom Zimri became involved. The fact that Moses was married to a Midianite was of no consequence to Phinehas, a grandson of Aaron and great-nephew of Moses, who slayed Zimri in self-righteous anger. Phinehas was a religious zealot. Apparently, many more assimilationists were murdered or ex-communicated, for the census of the tribe went from 60,000 to 22,000. In other words, perhaps the soft side of Simeon, the assimilationist side, the empathetic side, was expunged so that only the angry self-righteous side remained.

Further, Levi was named by his mother as a joiner, as the son she hoped would bring her close to Jacob who loved only Rachel. Given the way Jacob treated their mother, I would expect he and his brothers to be full of rage. It was Simeon and Levi who revenged the alleged “rape” of their sister Dinah by Shechem, the son of Hamor (Exodus 34:25-26), tricking him and his fellow male tribesmen into being circumcised so Shechem could marry Dinah. Simeon and Levi then murdered them all when they were recovering from the operation.

Jacob had then accused them of endangering the Hebrews by not living according to the law but indulging in vigilantism contrary to the law and thereby bringing both dishonour and danger to the nation. But it is Levi who is father of the priests of the Hebrews. However, in contrast to the Egyptians where the priests received land but paid no taxes and lived privileged lives, Levi was the only tribe that did not get any land in Canaan and relied on the charity of the children of their brothers.

If Levi was the epitome of lawlessness, why was it that the tribe of Levi was charged with maintaining the rites and rituals of worship and with enforcement of observances? Is it because ritual and moral norms do not encompass politics. Was the character of Levi unsuited to politics but instead adumbrated the underside of priestly rule. It seems that character need not be simple, but rather full of contradictions and tensions wherein one side, usually the more ruthless, dominates and even eliminates the other side.

To Judah, the fourth son of Leah, political leadership is assigned – for bad and for good. The Simeonites who lived adjacent or in the midst of Judah were absorbed by Judah or, left to fight alongside the Reubenites in the northern kingdom against the Assyrians and were sent into exile when they were defeated. It was Judah who convinced his brothers not to kill Joseph but to sell him into slavery. It was Judah who offered to take Benjamin’s place and become a slave of Joseph rather than see Benjamin not returned to his father. Further, it was Judah who probably saw through the accoutrements of the vizier and recognized his brother, Joseph, and then retold the story that brought Joseph to tears so that he confessed who he was and admitted that he was only playing with his brothers. It is the tribe of Judah that will survive and pass on the legacy of Jacob/Israel. Judah is a man of courage and guts, a lion king so that the scepter and the staff become his symbols. These are signs of authentic authority and neither of “might is right” nor opportunistic decisions as wrong and immoral.

Judah was wily and far from a saintly figure. Look what happened to his three sons of his Canaanite wife. Judah arranged a marriage for Er, his oldest, with Tamar from his own tribe. But Er died at God’s hand because he was wicked. (38:6-7). Judah instructed his next son, Onan, to marry the widow of his older brother. But Onan rebelled by practicing coitus interruptus and refused to give her a son. Onan then died for this (38:8-10) and Judah promised that when his third son, Shelah, was old enough, he would marry Tamar. However, fearing marriage to Tamar was cursed, he did not follow through.

Tamar took matters into her own hands to ensure she bore a son who would be heir to his father. She takes off her widow’s clothes, dresses as a harlot and seduces Judah, taking personal belongings (signet ring, cord and staff) as a guarantee of future payment because he was not carrying any cash. In the cause of family preservation, harlotry and deceit were justified. She used those pledged items to prove to Judah that it was he who got her pregnant. It is a tale worthy of any soap opera and Tamar gave birth to twins, Zerah and Perez, but this time, unlike Jacob and Esau where the younger had to take the leadership away from the older with craft, Perez did it in the birth canal when, although Zerah’s hand emerged first, Perez pushed the infant out of the way and became the first-born and the one from whom King David was descended.

Issachar       Is like a dog who watched and guards the sheep. Strong, dogged, hidden – a security guard for the Hebrew people

Zebulun      A Hebrew tribe that would take to the sea and become seamen.

Dan             Was the eldest son of Bilhah, Rachel’s handmaid and Jacob’s concubine who ended up sleeping with Reuben. Dan is also destined to be a ruler, a lesser ruler than Judah, but a ruler nonetheless. But one who protects from behind by serving as a serpent to bite the heel of any invader. He became a guerilla fighter.

Naphtali      Bilhah’s other son, is a “hind let loose” “which yields lovely fawns”

Gad             The older son of Leah’s handmaid, Zilpah, is destined to be ancestor of Viking-type raiders.

Asher          The younger son of Leah’s handmaid, Zilpah, is destined to be a rich businessman, but also a progenitor of “dainties.”

Joseph        Rachel’s eldest is called a “wild ass.” This seems to be a preposterous description of Joseph who is the epitome of domesticity, diplomacy and genuine charm. He bears no relationship to Esau or Abel. Except, Jacob described him as an archer whose grip remains firm on his bow even though he is assailed by arrows. He is “the elect of his brothers” due to the fact that he is the only brother under the guidance of the Lord

Benjamin    The youngest is the most accurately described as a “ravenous wolf” who consumes his foe, for the tribe of Benjamin became the strike force for the Hebrews, even though once, when it got totally out of line, it brought down the wrath of his brothers’ tribes on the tribe of Benjamin.

What we see is how a blessing can be a curse as children are coloured by how they are characterized by their fathers. We can also see that these social characteristics assigned to individuals and tribes are often offset by opposite traits and the divided self is at war within one person or one tribe. Further, traits are also othered so that the trait that is not wanted can be projected onto a brother for the boys often come in certain pairings.

There appear to be social characteristics that can be assigned to different tribes and nations that are exemplified in different types of behaviour, especially in the face of a crisis or severe challenge. These traits are propensities, not inborn, and change and alter over time. But they are there, not biologically inherited but passed down through acculturation and conditioning,


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