The patriarch Jacob is the most maligned of all the patriarchs. With his seeming
deception of his blind father to gain the firstborn blessing from Esau and his
commercial manipulations of his father-in-law Laban, anti-Semites see him as the
prototype of the wily, cunning, dishonest Jew who will do anything for a
Jacob is the forerunner of Shylock, who mourns more for his lost
ducats then his lost daughter Jessica. In modern times, the State of Israel is
accused of engaging in questionable moral tactics to fight off its
And yet, we Jews celebrate Jacob. We call ourselves the children
of Israel, the name given to Jacob after he wrestled with, and defeated, an
angel. Why celebrate a man who seems so deceitful? We do this because Jacob was
the patriarch who entered the arena with evil. He fought it and defeated it,
unconcerned about the damage it might do to his reputation. He knew Esau
was a violent, dangerous man who would have abused the power that would have
come with the firstborn’s blessing. He was determined to stop him one way or
another, even if it partially impugned his soul.
The same was true of his
encounter with Laban, whose wealth would have been abused and misused (and was
in any event owed to Jacob for 14 years of unpaid labor).
that religion should distance itself from the corruption of the world and
maintain an unblemished integrity. Monastic life, divorced from the affairs of a
society ruled by greed and avarice, is where the pious flourish.
the Jewish world there are many who believe that the righteous man spends his
life studying, unsullied by materialism or commerce.
argument goes, observant Jews should avoid service in the Israeli army because
fighting evil taints the fighter and lacks the innocence of pure Torah study.
And in any event, the army is not sufficiently religious and ritual commitment
will suffer in its godless environment.
But this attitude flies in the
face of the lessons we learn from our forefather Jacob. His vision of religion
is one that celebrates not the subservient man of the spirit, but the rebellious
man of faith.
Historically, those who have been prepared to fight evil
even when accused of becoming unethical in the process have been vindicated by
saving civilization from monstrous injustice. Abraham Lincoln suspended habeus
corpus rights during the Civil War and insisted on continuing the bloody
campaign when much of the nation was crying out for peace. But today we remember
him as our greatest president, the man who purged America of the abomination of
slavery and kept the Union intact.
Seventy-five years later, Britain’s
Neville Chamberlain proclaimed “peace in our time” and portrayed himself as an
ethical man unwilling to shed blood, in contrast to the “warmonger” Winston
Churchill, who was supposedly itching for a fight with Hitler. Yet today the
latter is remembered as the 20th century’s greatest statesman.
When I was
at Oxford I heard world-renowned Jewish academics lamenting the State of
Israel’s existence. Prior to its creation, they maintained, the Jews had the
respect of the world as the people of the book and the pity of humanity as
Hitler’s victims. Now we were the people of the M-16 and seen as oppressors of
Yet these moral cowards would have Hezbollah, Hamas and
Iran take over the Middle East in order for the Jews to maintain a false
morality, predicated on ethical selfpreservation while the world is overtaken by
darkness. The desire to remain aloof from the world’s affairs and allow
wicked men to gain supremacy is the piety of cowards and betrays a fraudulent
For thousands of years religion has been perceived as demanding
and inculcating obedience. Faith demands bowing the head to the unassailable
will of God. But Judaism imparted to the world a revolutionary vision of global
social transformation and change, a time when men and women, through their
defiance, would cure the world of seemingly intractable ills.
would be defeated, as would disease and hunger. Human suffering, Judaism taught,
was not the fault of sinful man. Rather, the man of faith was he who demanded of
God Himself to keep his promises and His injunctions to choose life.
REBELLIOUS man of faith will continue to worship God after Auschwitz but He will
never excuse God’s seeming callousness in allowing a Holocaust against
innocents. To the contrary, as the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the greatest Jewish
religious leader of modern times, shouted in public on countless occasions,
defiantly and with fists pounding the table, “How long, Oh Lord, will you remain
silent as people suffer and die? How long will it be before You fulfill Your
promise to perfect the world and defeat death?”
The Rebbe challenged God, saying
the flaws of the world are now His responsibility. We have been a faithful
nation for generations, the Rebbe said, and concluded that our suffering is due
not to our sins or shortcomings, but rather to God’s failure to keep
When a bus carrying Israeli schoolchildren was hit by a train,
killing 27, and the Orthodox Israeli minister of the interior said they had died
because of Israelis’ disrespect for the Sabbath, the Rebbe dismissed the
comments as unmitigated chutzpah. When Israeli soldiers died while protecting
the Jewish people from further annihilation, the Rebbe raged against the
God commanded Moses to choose life. Why had He not made the same
choice? If only our Muslim brothers and sisters did the same.
they could stop bowing their heads to fanatical mullahs who pervert Islam in
favor of personal hatreds and insist that the faithful accept their exhortations
to violence, even as these foul teachings betray the humanity of a religion that
took in Jewish refugees after the Spanish and Portuguese expulsions when the
Jews were the most hated nation on earth.
The faithful have been obedient
long enough. It is time for the emergence of the new, defiant man of faith,
steeped in the tradition of Jacob, refusing to allow the iron hoofs of evil to
tread upon the vulnerable flesh of the innocent and the soft and trusting heart
of the righteous.The writer has just published
Ten Conversations You
Need to Have with Yourself (Wiley) and will shortly publish
Kosher Jesus. Follow
him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley