Jacob is the hero and Esau is the villain—this is how Jewish tradition has, for the most part, portrayed the two main characters in this week’s Torah portion, Toldot. For the Rabbis who interpreted the story, Jacob represents the Jewish people, while Esau becomes a stand-in for the brutal Roman empire that ruled over them. Thus they read the story as a kind of epic battle of good against evil.
But the actual Torah text is far more subtle, blurring moral lines and avoiding simplistic binaries. Esau comes across as a bit simple-minded and impetuous—he sells his birthright for a bowl of lentils—but also earnest and well-intentioned. Jacob is clever to a fault. He connives with his mother to steal his brother’s blessing, and accrues a fortune through deception. He is the classic trickster.
And so the Jacob and Esau of Genesis are a complicated mix of good and bad, their relationship a blend of love and hatred. They are bound together as friends and enemies and, above all, brothers.
I much prefer this complex version of the story to the Rabbis’ two-dimensional caricature. It feels far truer to life, which tends not to follow reductionist notions of virtue and vice. As Biti Roi, an Israeli student of kabbalah once taught me: Life is not about “either/or” but “both/and.” This is why Jewish tradition often starts out with binaries—pure and impure, light and dark, holy and ordinary—and then goes out of its way to blur the boundaries between them. Talmud is all about taking such simplistic distinctions and intentionally complicating them, in order to better reflect the multivalent nature of reality.
How fitting, then, that approaching this week of portion Toldot, the Reform movement took a historic step away from simplistic binaries of gender as male-female. At the Union for Reform Judaism’s biennial conference, delegates unanimously passed a sweeping resolution calling for inclusion of transgender and gender non-conforming individuals in our congregations, communities, and institutions. Among other things, it calls for congregations, clergy, camps and other movement affiliates to “begin or continue to work with local and national Jewish transgender, lesbian, gay and bisexual organizations to create inclusive and welcoming communities for people of all gender identities and expressions and to spread awareness and increase knowledge of issues related to gender identity and expression. . . ensure, to the extent feasible, the availability of gender-neutral restrooms and other physical site needs that ensure dignity and safety for transgender and gender non-conforming individuals. . . and review their use of language in prayers, forms and policies in an effort to ensure people of all gender identities and gender expressions are welcomed, included, accepted and respected.”
As a URJ member congregation, may we at CABI take pride in this milestone—and begin the process of working to meet the challenges set out by this resolution so that we can be even more welcoming to all of our community, wherever they fall on the spectrum of gender identity and sexual orientation.