Toledot 5778: A Family of Covenant

[Written for the JTS Torah Commentary]

The stories of Genesis are presented as family portraits, but simultaneously they describe the origins of a religious civilization. How did the people of Israel acquire and maintain its distinctive religious mission? Genesis offers not only a window into Israel’s past, but a blueprint for its future. Implicit is an invitation to contribute to this unfolding narrative, attaching the threads of our lives to the tapestry woven by our ancestors.

Viewing one’s story within the scope of Israel’s past and future has significant repercussions. Even the most personal decision—the choice of whom to marry—becomes framed in covenantal terms: Will this marriage maintain the family’s distinct religious identity, or instead lead it to blend into the surrounding culture? This question plays a tense and tragic role within the first families and drives the central drama of Toledot.

Last week, Abraham demanded that his servant swear “that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites among whom I dwell, but will go to the land of my birth and get a wife for my son Isaac” (Gen. 24:3–4). In our portion Isaac and Rebecca’s first son Esau makes his own marital arrangements, taking Hittite wives who “were a source of bitterness to Isaac and Rebecca” (26:35). This brief passage is the catalyst for the painful narrative that unfolds in chapter 27. The marriage theme resumes when Jacob is sent off to find a wife who is not from the surrounding nations (27:46). The contest between Jacob and Esau for their father’s blessing is an episode within the larger drama of whether or not they will form families dedicated to worshipping the God of Abraham.

The insistence in Genesis that the ancestors not intermarry with the local population becomes even more explicit with the story of Dina and Shekhem. Skipping the most disturbing material—the rape and its bloody aftermath—the meta-question is: Will Jacob’s children intermarry with the local population, or act to preserve their distinct family identity? Hamor proposes this quite clearly: “Intermarry with us: give your daughters to us, and take our daughters for yourselves. You will dwell among us, and the land will be open before you” (34:9–10). It is clear to the people of Shekhem that their larger clan will absorb the newcomers. Intermarriage is both the condition and mechanism for assimilation.

Deuteronomy anticipates the desire to intermarry with the local population after entering Canaan. Inverting the offer of Hamor, God commands, “do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons. For they will turn your children away from Me to worship other gods” (7:3–4). This prediction is fulfilled when King Solomon marries women from many nations, and they “[turn] his heart” away from the God of Israel (I Kings 11:1–3). The book of Ezra places the policy of endogamy at the center of its plan for the restoration of Israel and the rebuilding of its temple (Chapters 9–10).

From the start to the finish, the Hebrew Bible is concerned with intermarriage, but not from any sense of national superiority. Indeed, the Torah emphasizes that Israel is “the least of the peoples” (Deut. 7:7). It is all about the Covenant—will this little people maintain its distinctive religious culture, exclusively worshipping the God of their ancestors, or will they merge with the larger population that surrounds them, relinquishing their distinctive faith and identity? The Torah commands Israel to dwell apart—and thereby to bring blessing to all families on earth (Gen. 12:3; 28:14).

Despite this clear policy there is also a counterpoint—the successful integration of outsiders into the family and faith of Israel. The most important of these is Ruth, the Moabite woman who marries an Israelite not once, but twice. When her first husband dies early, Ruth does something remarkable—she pledges allegiance to her mother-in-law Naomi, to Naomi’s people, and to their God (Ruth 1:16–17). This moving story is read as a conversion narrative; it leads Ruth back to Naomi’s homeland, and to a second marriage to Boaz. No longer considered an intermarriage, their union produces the grandfather of King David, founder of Israel’s greatest dynasty.

The Talmud builds upon the Torah’s insistence on in-marriage. Rabbi Shimon b. Yochai explains that the concern is that intermarriage will lead children and grandchildren away from Jewish identity (BT Avodah Zarah 36b). This comprehensive ban on intermarriage has been normative throughout Jewish history. It has been the cornerstone for the survival of Judaism as a distinctive religious civilization despite our settlement as a religious minority around the world. Even Jews who are ambivalent about rabbinic authority over their personal life may concede that this policy has allowed Jews and Judaism to survive in diverse settings and circumstances.

While the Rabbis reinforced the Torah’s insistence on in-marriage, they also developed a mechanism that would allow the best of both worlds—for Jews to marry wonderful people from other religious backgrounds while maintaining the distinctive religious civilization that had sustained them for over three millennia. That mechanism was conversion. The Torah commands Israel to “love the proselyte” (Deut. 10:19), and this remains one of the great obligations of our day. When non-Jews inquire about Judaism, they should be encouraged in their interest. If they commit to join the covenant of Israel, then they are to be welcomed with great honor.

Many of our most knowledgeable and committed Jews have entered the covenant in this way, strengthening the faith of their families and the entire household of Israel. Yet today a rising chorus calls for a new “post-Jewish” identity that will reframe Judaism as a component of spiritual life, rather than as a covenant with distinctive beliefs and practices. This is nothing new—individuals have always blended identities and disappeared from Israel. But three millennia of sacred texts have taught Jews to maintain a distinct religious identity, even while affirming the dignity of all people and respecting other spiritual expressions.

The subject of intermarriage is complicated and often painful. Many Jews intermarry, even if their Judaism is a precious part of their identity. Many non-Jews support the Jewish identity of their spouse and children, even while declining to become Jewish. These realities deserve respectful and kind responses. Yet the Torah’s insistence that its distinctive faith begins and is transmitted in the family is a norm that has defined and sustained the Jewish people since our origins with Abraham. Though unpopular in an open society, in-marriage remains an essential ingredient for the continuation of Judaism and the Jewish people. Only if we maintain our distinct identity and faith can we fulfill the mandate of our ancient covenant—to be a source of blessing to the entire world.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee (z”l) and Harold Hassenfeld (z”l).

בראשית פרק כד, ב-ד

(ב) וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אַבְרָהָ֗ם אֶל־עַבְדּוֹ֙ זְקַ֣ן בֵּית֔וֹ הַמֹּשֵׁ֖ל בְּכָל־אֲשֶׁר־ל֑וֹ שִֽׂים־נָ֥א יָדְךָ֖ תַּ֥חַת יְרֵכִֽי: (ג) וְאַשְׁבִּ֣יעֲךָ֔ בַּֽיקֹוָק֙ אֱלֹהֵ֣י הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וֵֽאלֹהֵ֖י הָאָ֑רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֨ר לֹֽא־ תִקַּ֤ח אִשָּׁה֙ לִבְנִ֔י מִבְּנוֹת֙ הַֽכְּנַעֲנִ֔י אֲשֶׁ֥ר אָנֹכִ֖י יוֹשֵׁ֥ב בְּקִרְבּֽוֹ: (ד) כִּ֧י אֶל־אַרְצִ֛י וְאֶל־מוֹלַדְתִּ֖י תֵּלֵ֑ךְ וְלָקַחְתָּ֥ אִשָּׁ֖ה לִבְנִ֥י לְיִצְחָֽק:

בראשית פרק כו, לד-לה

(לד) וַיְהִ֤י עֵשָׂו֙ בֶּן־אַרְבָּעִ֣ים שָׁנָ֔ה וַיִּקַּ֤ח אִשָּׁה֙ אֶת־יְהוּדִ֔ית בַּת־ בְּאֵרִ֖י הַֽחִתִּ֑י וְאֶת־בָּ֣שְׂמַ֔ת בַּת־אֵילֹ֖ן הַֽחִתִּֽי: (לה) וַתִּהְיֶ֖יןָ מֹ֣רַת ר֑וּחַ לְיִצְחָ֖ק וּלְרִבְקָֽה:

בראשית פרק לד, ח-י

(ח) וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר חֲמ֖וֹר אִתָּ֣ם לֵאמֹ֑ר שְׁכֶ֣ם בְּנִ֗י חָֽשְׁקָ֤ה נַפְשׁוֹ֙ בְּבִתְּכֶ֔ם תְּנ֨וּ נָ֥א אֹתָ֛הּ ל֖וֹ לְאִשָּֽׁה: (ט) וְהִֽתְחַתְּנ֖וּ אֹתָ֑נוּ בְּנֹֽתֵיכֶם֙ תִּתְּנוּ־לָ֔נוּ וְאֶת־בְּנֹתֵ֖ינוּ תִּקְח֥וּ לָכֶֽם: (י) וְאִתָּ֖נוּ תֵּשֵׁ֑בוּ וְהָאָ֙רֶץ֙ תִּהְיֶ֣ה לִפְנֵיכֶ֔ם שְׁבוּ֙ וּסְחָר֔וּהָ וְהֵֽאָחֲז֖וּ בָּֽהּ:

דברים פרק ז, ג-ד

(ג) וְלֹ֥א תִתְחַתֵּ֖ן בָּ֑ם בִּתְּךָ֙ לֹא־תִתֵּ֣ן לִבְנ֔וֹ וּבִתּ֖וֹ לֹא־תִקַּ֥ח לִבְנֶֽךָ: (ד) כִּֽי־יָסִ֤יר אֶת־בִּנְךָ֙ מֵֽאַחֲרַ֔י וְעָבְד֖וּ אֱלֹהִ֣ים אֲחֵרִ֑ים וְחָרָ֤ה אַף־ יְקֹוָק֙ בָּכֶ֔ם וְהִשְׁמִידְךָ֖ מַהֵֽר:

מלכים א פרק יא, א-ו

(א) וְהַמֶּ֣לֶךְ שְׁלֹמֹ֗ה אָהַ֞ב נָשִׁ֧ים נָכְרִיּ֛וֹת רַבּ֖וֹת וְאֶת־בַּת־פַּרְעֹ֑ה מוֹאֲבִיּ֤וֹת עַמֳּנִיּוֹת֙ אֲדֹ֣מִיֹּ֔ת צֵדְנִיֹּ֖ת חִתִּיֹּֽת: (ב) מִן־הַגּוֹיִ֗ם אֲשֶׁ֣ר אָֽמַר־יְקֹוָק֩ אֶל־בְּנֵ֨י יִשְׂרָאֵ֜ל לֹֽא־תָבֹ֣אוּ בָהֶ֗ם וְהֵם֙ לֹא־יָבֹ֣אוּ בָכֶ֔ם אָכֵן֙ יַטּ֣וּ אֶת־לְבַבְכֶ֔ם אַחֲרֵ֖י אֱלֹהֵיהֶ֑ם בָּהֶ֛ם דָּבַ֥ק שְׁלֹמֹ֖ה לְאַהֲבָֽה: (ג) וַיְהִי־ל֣וֹ נָשִׁ֗ים שָׂרוֹת֙ שְׁבַ֣ע מֵא֔וֹת וּפִֽלַגְשִׁ֖ים שְׁלֹ֣שׁ מֵא֑וֹת וַיַטּ֥וּ נָשָׁ֖יו אֶת־לִבּֽוֹ: (ד) וַיְהִ֗י לְעֵת֙ זִקְנַ֣ת שְׁלֹמֹ֔ה נָשָׁיו֙ הִטּ֣וּ אֶת־לְבָב֔וֹ אַחֲרֵ֖י אֱלֹהִ֣ים אֲחֵרִ֑ים וְלֹא־הָיָ֨ה לְבָב֤וֹ שָׁלֵם֙ עִם־יְקֹוָ֣ק אֱלֹהָ֔יו כִּלְבַ֖ב דָּוִ֥יד אָבִֽיו: (ה) וַיֵּ֣לֶךְ שְׁלֹמֹ֔ה אַחֲרֵ֣י עַשְׁתֹּ֔רֶת אֱלֹהֵ֖י צִדֹנִ֑ים וְאַחֲרֵ֣י מִלְכֹּ֔ם שִׁקֻּ֖ץ עַמֹּנִֽים: (ו) וַיַּ֧עַשׂ שְׁלֹמֹ֛ה הָרַ֖ע בְּעֵינֵ֣י יְקֹוָ֑ק וְלֹ֥א מִלֵּ֛א אַחֲרֵ֥י יְקֹוָ֖ק כְּדָוִ֥ד אָבִֽיו:

רות פרק א, טז-יז

(טז) וַתֹּ֤אמֶר רוּת֙ אַל־תִּפְגְּעִי־בִ֔י לְעָזְבֵ֖ךְ לָשׁ֣וּב מֵאַחֲרָ֑יִךְ כִּ֠י אֶל־ אֲשֶׁ֨ר תֵּלְכִ֜י אֵלֵ֗ךְ וּבַאֲשֶׁ֤ר תָּלִ֙ינִי֙ אָלִ֔ין עַמֵּ֣ךְ עַמִּ֔י וֵאלֹהַ֖יִךְ אֱלֹהָֽי: (יז) בַּאֲשֶׁ֤ר תָּמ֙וּתִי֙ אָמ֔וּת וְשָׁ֖ם אֶקָּבֵ֑ר כֹּה֩ יַעֲשֶׂ֨ה יְקֹוָ֥ק לִי֙ וְכֹ֣ה יֹסִ֔יף כִּ֣י הַמָּ֔וֶת יַפְרִ֖יד בֵּינִ֥י וּבֵינֵֽךְ:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת עבודה זרה דף לו עמוד ב

ולר”ש בן יוחי דאמר: כי יסיר את בנך מאחרי – לרבות כל המסירות, מאי איכא למימר? אלא דאורייתא אישות דרך חתנות, ואתו אינהו גזור אפילו דרך זנות.

רמב”ם הלכות איסורי ביאה פרק יב הלכה א

ישראל שבעל עכו”ם משאר האומות דרך אישות, או ישראלית שנבעלה לעכו”ם דרך אישות הרי אלו לוקין מן התורה שנאמר לא תתחתן בם בתך לא תתן לבנו ובתו לא תקח לבנך, אחד שבעה עממין ואחד * כל אומות באיסור זה, וכן מפורש על ידי עזרא ואשר לא נתן בנותינו לעמי הארץ ואת בנותיהם לא נקח לבנינו.

שולחן ערוך אבן העזר הלכות אישות סימן טז סעיף א

א] ישראל [א] שבעל עובדת כוכבים, דרך אישות, (א) או ישראלית שנבעלה לעובד כוכבים (דרך אישות), הרי אלו לוקין מן התורה, שנאמר: לא תתחתן בם (דברים ז, ג) (א ב] [ב] <א> ויש חולקין בזה). ג] אבל הבא על העובדת כוכבים דרך זנות, במקרה, ב (ב) [ג] חייב עליה {א} מדרבנן (ג) משום עובדת כוכבים ד] ומשום זונה ה] ומכין אותו מכת מרדות.

 

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