Reclaiming Esau: Jewish Inclusivity

Book of Genesis Biblical illustrations by Jim Padgett via WikiMedia Commons.

By Rabbi Jonathan Leener

This week in synagogue we read the tales of Isaac and Rebecca’s children – Esau and Jacob. Ever since I first learned their stories in grade school – I’ve always been sympathetic to Esau’s plight and felt an obligation to defend his reputation. Till this day, I’m confused how Jacob emerges as the hero and Esau as the villain. After all, Jacob was the one who spent all day in his tent, while Esau worked the fields relentlessly to help their ageing father. Jacob was also the one who took advantage of his starving and exhausted brother, demanding the birthright before feeding him. And finally, Jacob was the brother who tricked his blind father by dressing like Esau, stealing the blessing intended for his older brother.

While rabbinic tradition largely makes Esau into a monster so much more can be learned about disenfranchised Jews of today if we retain Esau’s humanity and withhold the temptation of marginalizing him.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch in his commentary on the Torah was the first to raise concerns over Esau’s Jewish education and boldly holds Isaac and Rebecca responsible. “As long as Jacob and Esau were little, no attention was paid to the slumbering differences in their natures, both had exactly the same teaching and educational treatment, and the great law of education to ‘bring up each child in accordance with its own ways’ was completely forgotten” taught Rabbi Hirsch. He adds, “Each child must be treated differently, with an eye to the slumbering tendencies of his nature, and out of them, be educated to develop his special characteristics.” Had Isaac and Rebecca studied and respected Esau’s true character all his strength and energy could’ve been utilized.

This serves as a great reminder that each person is not only unique but has their own distinctive way of connecting with Judaism. This was the Torah that was made popular by the Baal-Shem Tov – “Every man should behave according to his ‘rung.’ If he does not, if he seizes the ‘rung’ of a fellow-man and abandons his own, he will actualize neither the one nor the other.” Esau too had his own way, but was never validated or supported and was forced to live a Jewish life exactly like his brother.

The Maggid of Zlotchov was once asked by a student, “Rebbe we are told in the Talmud that everyone is obligated to say: ‘When will my work approach the works of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? How are we to understand this? How could we ever venture to think that we could do what our fathers did?” The magid responded, “Just as our fathers founded new ways of serving God, each a new service according to his character: Abraham through love, Isaac through justice, and Jacob through compassion, so each one of us in his own way shall devise something new that has not yet been done.”

This remains the challenge for us today, creating Jewish communities that foster religious growth for all different types of Jews. Esau is emblematic of so many Jews who remain disconnected from Jewish life because they have no proper outlet to express their Jewishness. This is especially true of my generation who mostly feel disenfranchised from traditional Jewish establishments like the synagogue. Instead of forcing older models, we must seek new and creative ways of engagement. This is not antithetical to Judaism, but what it actually demands of us. We have a responsibility to help all Jews find the right channel to express their Jewishness, the future of American Jewry may even depend on it.

The concern is warranted after the findings of the 2013 Pew Study on American Jewry revealed that one-in-five Jews (22%) describe themselves as having no religion. Jewish identification has literally become a joke to many as more Jews say that having a good sense of humor (42%) is essential to their Jewish identity than being a part of a Jewish community (28%).

The results are perhaps more frightening when looking at the younger generations as nearly a quarter of Millennial Jews answered that being Jewish is “not too important” or “not at all important” in their lives. Millennial Jews also scored the lowest among all the generations in feeling a sense of belonging to the Jewish people, responsibility for Jews in need, and caring about Israel. Without a substantial shift in education and engagement – these numbers will only continue to increase. Perhaps the first step forward is reclaiming the Esau and finding ways to be more inclusive of all Jews.

Jon Leener is Rabbi of Base BKLYN.