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As We See It

What Jacob—the hero of this week’s parasha—and the Tea Party can teach us about politics

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Joe Manchin’s bill-shooting campaign ad. (Joe Manchin for West Virgina, via YouTube.)

Of all the absurdities we lovingly call journalism, my favorite bit of intellectual calisthenics is the “X—It’s Just Like Y!” routine. Here’s how it’s done: Choose a hotly contested topic (abortion, social media, the war in Iraq), conjure an unlikely or forgotten figure or movement (Pee-Wee Herman, the Boers, Jean Valjean), and then, exerting the cerebellum as much as is possible, claim that the two unrelated phenomena are secretly the same.

Do it properly, and you might convince your readers that the Tea Party is the uptight brainchild of the Beat movement, or that Mark Zuckerberg is really a slightly taller, slightly more Jewish version of Alberich, the villainous dwarf antagonist of Wagner’s Das Rheingold. Such are the glories of hyperlinked thinking—anything could pass off for anything else. Which goes a long way toward explaining this week’s midterm elections: When our pundits amuse themselves with games of conflation, we might be forgiven for thinking that a politician could be simultaneously a communist and a Nazi.

How to better understand this curious condition? Allow me to attempt an explanation by offering a flamboyant turn of my own: Jacob, the protagonist of this week’s parasha, is just like the Tea Party.

It’s a riveting story. After forcing his starving brother, Esau, to give up his birthright in return for a mess of pottage, Jacob collaborates with his mother, puts on Esau’s clothes, wraps animal hides around his arms to simulate his brother’s hairy limbs, and walks up to his elderly father. Isaac, frail and blind, is suspicious. “The voice is the voice of Jacob,” he says, “but the hands are the hands of Esau.” His doubts, however, aren’t strong enough; he blesses the disguised Jacob all the same.

In so doing, Isaac is like the rest of us. No matter what we hear, it’s what we see—and feel—that carries the day. Consider “Taking Television Seriously: A Sound and Image Bite Analysis of Presidential Campaign Coverage, 1992-2004,” a recent study by Indiana University’s Erik P. Bucy and Maria Elizabeth Grabe. The two scholars set out to examine the state of the sound bite, that ever-diminishing nugget of speech that is often the only form of political sustenance we get on TV. Updating earlier research, Bucy and Grabe confirmed that while in the late 1960s the average length of the sound bite was more than 40 seconds, the average in 2000 dropped below the 8-second mark. But sound bites, the two researchers discovered, weren’t the primal form of political communication on television. Image bites were.

“Even as candidate sound bites continue to shrink over time,” they wrote, “image-bite time is increasing in duration—and candidates are being presented in image bites almost twice as much as journalists.”

Taking a biological approach, the authors argued that their conclusion shouldn’t come as much surprise. They cited the renowned argument made by neurologist Antonio Damasio in his book Descartes’ Error, claiming that reason is far from being the final arbiter of perception. As vision is the most developed and sophisticated of our senses, the use of language, reading, and other complex and abstract forms of making meaning are “experientially remote,” Damasio said, and therefore less likely to guide us. Humans, Bucy and Grabe conclude, “are not primarily thinking beings who also feel but feeling beings who also think.”

This explains Isaac. Despite having reason to question Jacob, he dispelled his doubts and went ahead with his blessing. He knew it was wrong, but he felt it was right. Sensation spoke louder than words.

To hear Bucy and Grabe tell it, that’s true for us all. We may not go as far as to act in a way that would have tremendous implications on the well being of our family, but we would certainly let this vague, thumping, irrational feeling guide us as we go into the polling station. Which, in part, is why we have abandoned lengthy sound bites for radically shorter ones, and then abandoned those, too, in favor of images. Images appeal to the primal urges we have but that our minds sublimate, refute, alter, or manipulate. Our minds might have told us that Michael Dukakis, for example, was a serious, committed and intelligent public servant deserving of our trust, but our eyes saw a man who looked funny wearing a helmet aboard a tank. The same is even more profoundly true today: No wonder one of the most successful Democratic candidates this election cycle, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, won his Senate seat in part thanks to a highly visual stunt in which he shot the cap-and-trade bill with a rifle.

Like many reasonable voters, Esau, too, gawks with astonishment at the shenanigans that deprived him of his primacy. He can’t believe that all it takes for him to be cast out is a few dirty tricks. He shouldn’t be surprised, and neither should we. If there’s anything to learn from Jacob, and from this election cycle, and from modern communications research, it is that we are predisposed in favor of the emotional, the visual, the sensational, the mad, the impulsive, the liberating. To transcend all those and move into the elevated spheres of reason requires work, the kind of work that sets apart making statements about cutting the budget and being able to name a single program one might cut once in power, the kind of work so many of our newly elected officials seem disinclined to undertake. If we don’t want to end up like the dejected Esau, we must be vigilant and demand, at the very least, that they try.

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I think the author missed reading a couple of passages that are very important to this narrative. After Jacob buys the birth rights from Esau we read;

“And Jacob gave Esau bread and a pottage of lentils, and he ate and drank and arose and left, and Esau despised the birthright.” (verse 1-34)

If Esau was really so starved that he was on the verge of death he would have protested the sale of his birth right after he had been pull out of danger by eating the pottage. Instead he we see he eats drinks and leaves. Not a word of anger or protest for being “tricked.” Obviously he couldn’t have cared less about the birth right.

Also we find that after Issac finds out about Jacob impersonating his brother he doesn’t curse him or rescind his blessing (by the way you can do that under Jewish law as it was given & taken under false pretenses.) In fact Issac reiterates the blessing realizing that Esau never deserved in the first place:

“And Isaac shuddered a great shudder, and he said, “Who then is the one who hunted game and brought it to me, and I ate of everything while you had not yet come, and I blessed him? He, too, shall be blessed.” (verse 6-33))

And as Issac said HE. TOO, SHALL BE BLESSED. He didn’t say cursed be your brother for taking the blessing or anything similar.

So as we see unfortunately this author has yet again taken our sacred text and twisted it to fit an agenda. The author wants to identify with Esau and not Jacob which is truly yet not surprising. The Talmud tells us we shouldn’t use the Torah as a Spade to work with. I also think we shouldn’t use the Torah as a gun with which to kill ourselves with.

Very, very sad.

Aliza

Exegesis is a useful tactic to get your point across without actually teaching (or learning) anything about G-d or what He has to say at all.

For example, one could easily look at Obama’s entire 2008 campaign of “hope and change” and make the argument that what people voted for was “the emotional, the visual, the sensational, the mad, the impulsive, the liberating” — you can either read the catalog of incidents in books like “Obama Zombies” or just check out Oprah’s show the day after the election and you’ll have your proof.

So, in the end, what did we actually learn about the patriarchs? About G-d and His plan for Israel? About our own calling to live out the mitzvot in order to bless G-d and the world around us? The only thing I garnered from this lesson is that the 66% of Jewish Americans who voted Democrat in this election would probably be easily led to scorn their history and Divine calling because they’re walking away from a Torah lesson believing that their patriarch is comparable to the Tea Party they’ve been taught to despise.

“We shouldn’t use the Torah as a Spade to work with,” indeed.

There’s nothing new about using the Torah as a spade to buttress your own arguments, or, putting it more mildly, to look for precedent and find relevance in it. Which is ironically what both previous comments are doing, while denouncing the practice…

And there’s nothing new about using emotional and visual appeals in politics, either. In fact, in the age of ubiquitous visual media you could hardly expect anything else.

As my favorite book in the bible says: “There’s nothing new under the sun”.

“There’s nothing new about using the Torah as a spade to buttress your own arguments, or, putting it more mildly, to look for precedent and find relevance in it. Which is ironically what both previous comments are doing, while denouncing the practice…”

The difference in my post is that the commentary is actually Rashi and Onkelos and not from my own understanding. Also the author ignored many parts of the narrative that are actually written in the source text and therefore not subject to interpretation. I don’t pretend to know these deep things based on my own flawed perceptions without looking for scholarly reference (of which there are many.) If one doesn’t seek many wise and diverse councils one will fall back on preconceived notions and ultimately be bribed by self indulgence.

Aliza

taylorco says:

It’s my sincere hope that you have other means of making a living other than writing. your logic has no reasoning and your reasoning has no logical conclusion. the “sensation” i got after reading your piece was that of nausea.

What’s with the slavish devotion to certain classical commentaries? It saddens me to see fellow Orthodox Jews who can’t seem to think for themselves, let alone acknowledge that there are other classical commentators who have different interpretations of this story. In any event, Liel’s summary is certainly within the pshat.

And for those of you who don’t seem to get it yet, the whole point of this column is to relate the biblical narrative to political events of our day. If that premise offends you, may I suggest you not come here but rather limit your consideration of the portion of the week to reading it in Hebrew twice, and once again with with Onkelos and Rashi.

By the way, I don’t know what Rivka Imeinu would have made of the likes of Sarah Palin, but no question that like her mother-in-law Sarah, she was a Mama Grizzly.

“And for those of you who don’t seem to get it yet, the whole point of this column is to relate the biblical narrative to political events of our day. If that premise offends you, may I suggest you not come here but rather limit your consideration of the portion of the week to reading it in Hebrew twice, and once again with with Onkelos and Rashi.”

I can also wildly extrapolate all sorts of conclusions from the parsha but that does not make them right. The oral tradition and rishonim certainly set the bench mark for the general significance of the torah portion. Within the proper context there is certainly room for creative interpretation however to deviate from the general tone of the parsha and then sew all sorts of agenda ridden (not to mention dispicable) intentions on the stories of the patriarchs is certainly not on the level.

Aliza

“Humans are not primarily thinking beings who also feel but feeling beings who also think.”

That’s a great line.

This was a good “Blessed Week Ever” Liel.

I can see the liberal cry you make “we did not win!”
I do like your mag though

As I read Aliza’s comments, I thought, “How interesting. I have a prism through which I can read Lebovich’s analysis of the Tea Party.” Then along come Goldberg with the word “exegesis.” I have been meaning to look up that word since I sat in a lecture at UCLA about Martin Buber over 45 years ago (needless to say I did not understand a word of the lecture). I just looked it up and it seems the definition is it is the opposite of “eisengesis.” I am still confused. Oh well. I still like Aliza, if only because he seem to rile so many. (I wonder if that has to do with reality getting in the way of theory or fantasy). It reminds me of when I was watching my son learn at the yeshiva in Israel and all of the student seemed to be shouting at their partner, but enjoying it. Enjoy ladies and gentlemen.

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As We See It

What Jacob—the hero of this week’s parasha—and the Tea Party can teach us about politics

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