Knowledge, power and abuse

Doing the unthinkable in order to assure continuity

Painting by Pepe Fainberg (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Painting by Pepe Fainberg
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
IN ONE of the most important chapters of his magnum opus, the “Mishnah Torah,” Maimonides acknowledged a significant and troubling reality in the way we think about Torah and Jewish law, and used some of his most forceful language to counter it.
It comes in Law 3 of the second chapter of the Laws of Shabbat. Maimonides is discussing the law that in order to save the life of someone whose life is in danger or may be in danger, the laws of Shabbat are nullified – whatever needs to be done to save a life is done without any hesitation. He emphasizes that rescue must be immediate, and one should not try to get a non-Jew or a child to act in his or her stead; rather grown-ups, and especially rabbis and other leaders of the community, should themselves violate Shabbat for this purpose.
“This is to teach,” he writes, “that the laws of Torah are not things of jealousy, but rather mercy and loving-kindness and peace.”
Maimonides, and the Talmudic rabbis who preceded him, knew something about the psychology of behavior. They realized that there is a possibility, perhaps even a tendency, to use law, knowledge and language in abusive, non-altruistic ways. The laws of Shabbat are very powerful – they create a system of meaning and a common language for the initiated, and they delimit sacred time and space and activity from that of the rest of the week. But with that power comes the potential for abuse, for losing sight of the holy purpose of the law at its core.
This, Maimonides reminds us, is the greatest of all perversions: to forget the love and mercy, the hesed and rahamim , at the core of the Torah, and instead to become lost in the power of its law.
In the Torah portion Toldot , we find a story of abuse of language, knowledge and power. Jacob’s deception of his old, blind father ranks as one of the most troubling of our founding narratives. As much ink has been spilled in justifying Jacob’s actions in this portion as in trying to explain how Abraham could offer his own son as a sacrifice.
Which leads to two questions: First, why are we troubled by Jacob’s lying? Second, if readers have always been troubled by this story, why is it placed in the Torah as a pivotal moment in our people’s history? We are troubled by Jacob’s behavior because Jacob takes advantage of an old man. He puts a stumbling block before the blind, and that is a very grave sin. It is a form of abuse, of using language and knowledge for self-aggrandizement. So we apologize and say this was a necessary deception in order for the right son to inherit the blessing. But the fact remains it was a deception, an abuse, and the pain and heartache that it causes both Isaac and Esau are raw.
When writing history, however, we generally expect “the good news version.” So it is surprising to find such a self-critical narrative among the founding stories of the Jewish people. Why is it here? It could be to remind us of our precarious claim to chosenness: It really could have, and perhaps even should have, been Esau who received the blessing.
Beyond this, perhaps this story is here as a statement of an existential question: Can we attain knowledge and deploy language in ways that don’t devalue others, but lift them up? Can our knowledge be not only power, but a source of empowerment for others? Can our language and law be both exclusive (using power to exclude) and inclusive (using power to include)? Can we have our halakha and have our hesed too? The story of Jacob is the Torah’s most human narrative. We see him develop from his gestation in his mother’s womb, through his adolescence, early adulthood and marriage, separation from his adopted father figure Laban, reconciliation with his twin brother, tribulations with his own children, and, ultimately, death and burial. And a recur - ring question throughout his life, as in our own, is how he understands language – how he understands himself, others, and the world.
Perhaps the story of Jacob’s deception is included in the Torah as a demonstration that, like Jacob, we all encounter moments where we are tempted to use language and knowledge for abusive purposes, where we could take advantage of others in order to receive blessings.
The story of Jacob’s maturation is a story of learning to curb his power, to create room for others (Laban, Esau, his children) and there - by create room for himself.
Rabbi Josh Feigelson, of Skokie Illinois, is founder and director of Hillel’s Ask Big Questions initiative