Sophie's Choice

Shabbat Vayechi
December 25, 1993
Newton Centre Minyan


Sophie's Choice: What Abraham, Isaac, Jcaob and Me have in Common

Drash by Janna Kaplan.

My first actual reading of The Bible (not just adaptations of biblical stories) occurred rather recently, about fifteen years ago. I was 25 years old, and I had just become a refusenik [i] in, then, Leningrad. Some American or Israeli visitors, who regularly brought supplies and items of support to refuseniks, gave me The Bible, both Testaments in one volume to help pass it through the customs, in Russian, tightly printed double-sided on cigarette paper. Even then, at 25, it was almost painful for the eyes to read it, so tiny was the print. I still remember that first reading, largely because it was so different from the critical and interpretive way I usually read books: the possibility of there being GOD overwhelmed me with astonishment and curiosity, and that's what I remember the most.

At about the same time I was given another book to read. It was Joseph and His Brothers by Thomas Mann. With an irresistible power Thomas Mann, in Joseph and His Brothers, emphasizes the connectedness of every act, word, and aspect of the world and everyone's life in it, by a sense of higher purpose, and a higher, universal logic. One of the most incredible things about the story of the patriarchs is that nothing is left to chance. Reading The Bible and Joseph and His Brothers was enormously important to me. For the first time in my life I attempted to view myself, and my life, as a link in a chain. That chain was the history, the culture, the people - Am Israel - and the mission of the redemption of the world. The notion of MY PEOPLE for the first time appeared to me then. My life, and that of my family, with all the sufferings, pain, and sacrifices we endured, which all seemed so trivial, suddenly acquired logic and meaning. It was at about that time that I got determined to find out what my purpose in the world was, and what God wanted of me. It was at about that time that I got my first ideas on the issues I am going to talk about today.

But first, I want to thank the people in conversations with whom these ideas and thoughts took shape in preparation for this drash: My husband Ed, Robbie Apfel and Bennett Simon, and Hal Berman of Harvard & Emory Law Schools. Also, in addition to the text of The Bible, and Joseph and His Brothers, the books that I worked with include Martha Nussbaum's The Fragility of Goodness, and the commentaries to The Torah by Plaut, Hirsch, Hertz, and Rashi. Although it is not customary in a drash, I felt the need to mention all the credits and sources, as my scientific training so uncompromisingly requires. As I cannot help the fact that my scientific training probably to some extent shaped my interpretations of the Biblical events I would finally like to address.

It struck me then, as it does now, how many decisions, and choices, were made by The Bible's greatest leaders, and by G-d, in a way which I would consider immoral. It is at times so brutally immoral, that it angers and disgusts me despite of the fact that I don't take stories from The Bible literally, and never did since that first memorable reading I mentioned before. In my examples today I want to focus on the upbringing by the patriarchs of their children. The examples of parenting displayed by the patriarchs are really quite appalling. And, 'like fathers, like sons', they show lots of similarities, especially in their tireless favoritism which at times, quite often actually, borders with what we now may consider psychological and/or physical abuse. Let's quickly run through the facts.

Abraham throws Ishmael, with his mother Hagar, out of the house into the desert, where they nearly die. His, now undivided love goes to Isaac; yet, that does not prevent Abraham from nearly murdering the boy in a religious sacrifice, just like he would have, and does moments later, an animal. Isaac deliberately favors one of his TWIN sons, Esau, because he prefers this rough shepherd's meaty foods and masculine, animal-like body, to the more intellectual and cunning Jacob. However, at the end of his life, instead of repenting and embracing both kids, Isaac succumbs to Rebecca's favoritism and blesses Jacob, which sets the brothers - in mutual hatred - to break up and pursue their separate ways.

Jacob from my point of view, outdoes them all with his many children, enough almost to play a chess game. Having chosen Joseph as his favorite upon his birth, Jacob's imagination knows no boundaries for the signs of affection he pours on the poor kid, in full view of all his other children and their mothers. When Joseph disappears, Jacob chooses another favorite, Benjamin. Dina, Jacob's only daughter, and the only female contender for parental love among the patriarchs, is eliminated in mid-story, together with her issue, to the extent that Jacob does not even mention her on his death-bed. At that time of the final blessings, Jacob changes his favors again, and chooses as the carrier of the legacy of the patriarchs and the power of the house of Israel, not Joseph, or Benjamin, but from my point of view, definitively Judah, the fourth child by the birth order. Not stopping there, although already barely alive, he proceeds to choose among the sons of Joseph, against their father's wishes favoring the younger boy over the first born, and (this is REALLY outrageous!!!) decides that those children of Joseph YET UNBORN will be subordinate to Ephraim!

Let us notice that all the patriarchs do their favoring and choosing under the pretense of following the law that requires bestowing on the first-born male child a special blessing and the majority of inheritance. Such law was in practice in most cultures at the time, and for most of civilized history. None of the patriarchs, however, were first-born, or choose the first-born. They all deliberately find their ways out of it, showing an unprecedented pattern of search for something OTHER than the primacy of birth. What was it they were looking for? And why were they looking for anything at all, if the instruction for lineage preference was clearly defined by law and common practices? What kind of process, other then just an irresponsible parenting was at play and has become their lifeline, providing on maybe even a subconscious level reasons for the treatment and judgment of their children?

It seems to me that the patriarchs were busy not so much with parenting as with BUILDING A NATION. By virtue of the Covenant, that nation had to be a strong, sustainable and moral one. Being a scientist and a devoted evolutionist, I cannot help but see how major steps of the evolutionary process are followed in The Bible using the model of parenting. The comparison is quite superficial, but useful for me here for the sake of an argument. As in the natural evolution, the selection is made of a feature that occurred not in response to a certain act but by itself, as a random mutation, yet which happens to contribute to better adaptation; what matters for the patriarchs' judgment is not what the kids were asked to do, and then did; but what they did on their own, following voices from the depths of their own souls. As in the natural evolution, the process of selection first deals with gross and major characteristics that would define the species, and then progresses into the area of much finer and subtler features; in the case of the patriarchs, the choosing which first goes by major characteristics of occupation: shepherds vs. farmers (remember also Cain and Abel), physical appearance (masculine and hairy vs. more delicate and gentle), legitimacy of marriage to, and fertility of, the mother; by the time Jacob, the last of the patriarchs, is ready to pronounce his judgment, the selection takes place on an extremely fine and subtle level of features of character, of thoughts, and feelings.

My analysis of Judah finds precisely that: it is in the area of THE POTENTIAL FOR MORAL LIFE that Judah is so different from the other brothers. Judah in his lifestyle and appearance is not much different from his brothers (Joseph's striking beauty and cleverness notwithstanding). He is by no means what we would call a 'positive protagonist'. He is an active planner and participant in the plot against Joseph, he is resenting Jacob for his favoritism of Rachel's children over Leah's, he drinks, sleeps with prostitutes, and himself is portrayed as a parent of questionable quality towards his own sons. So what is it about Judah that makes him the choice of Jacob for a special blessing, the blessing which would give him the power over his brothers, would give him the destiny of becoming the forefather of the greatest kings of Israel, and would give his name to the land, and to the people of Israel? From my point of view, it is Judah's capacity to feel REMORSE that distinguishes him from the rest of the contenders. It is Judah, who, after the disappearance of Joseph and breaking the news to Jacob, leaves the tribe, and goes on a lonely journey, haunted by guilt and remorse. He finds a wife on that voyage, a woman from outside of the tribe, as if to separate himself even further from the crime that unites the brothers. He does wrong to Tamar, but he acknowledges that wrong, and takes care of Tamar and their twin sons, all of whom otherwise would have been probably killed. It is from a son of Tamar that the house of David would come to be several generations later. Judah offers himself to be punished and imprisoned instead of Benjamin during the encounters between Joseph and his brothers in Egypt. And more...

The concept of REMORSE, remorse not in the face of a punishment or external pressure, but from the depths of one's soul, it seems to me, is first introduced in The Bible with the image of Judah. In Judah himself, it is by no means a main feature of character. But it is prominent enough to ensure not that bad things or thoughts are never done or thought, but that if done or thought, they are acknowledged and recognized as bad. And that GUILT is felt. And it is that what I call REMORSE, which is the ultimate POSITIVE FEEDBACK in the progressive evolution necessary to build a sustainable moral nation that Jacob intuitively sensed in Judah. Internal remorse - unlike external, represented by goddesses like Furies chasing guilty people, for example, in Greek mythology, - this internal remorse is THE feature of individual and national character that can, if everything else fails, ensure the resistance to the seductions and temptations of other cultures and religions, and provide resilience necessary to survive the tragedies and cataclysms of history.

In conclusion, I want to add one more insight I had when thinking about the stories of the patriarchs. I used to read stories, novels, or plays about great people experiencing enormous tragedies or almost humanly unbearable passions, and think of myself as somebody who can never rise to these heights of passion, because circumstances just don't present themselves on such grand a scale to such an ordinary a person. But that is not true if we look at our own life as a link in a chain that goes back to the patriarchs. We, too, are part of that process, of that evolution. On us, too, is the responsibility for our choices and moral judgments, whether it is on the level of personal, family, national, or other decisions, - the responsibility to sustain the moral nation is ours too. That gives tremendous weight and significance to our decisions that, if viewed by themselves, seem to be not at all too important.

In her book, The Fragility of Goodness, Martha Nussbaum, who is a professor of philosophy and classics at Brown, analyses the story of Agamemnon, who, like Abraham on the mountain, was ordered by the gods to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia. In both cases the sacrificial child is at the last moment (and through divine intervention) replaced by an animal. What a monstrous, most horrible, humanly unbearable torment, to have to kill one's own beloved child. But if we look at it as a model of a conflict between, for example, one's religious or professional commitments, and one's parental responsibilities, it indeed becomes very similar to our own every day torments. As Nussbaum writes: "We are invited to see how easily, in human lives, with what dexterous sleight-of-hand, human beings substitute human for animal, and animal for human, and stranger for loved one, under pressure endemic to life in a world where choice is constrained by necessity" (The Fragility of Goodness, p.38). And then, further: "... the situation seems to describe quite precisely a kind of interaction between external constraint and personal choice that is found to one degree or another in any ordinary situation of choice." (p.34)

How do we make our choices? How do we decide when a choice we have to make is a moral choice? How do I decide, for example, when to prefer my job over my child, and when not. Do I attend my lab meeting, or my son's school party? And it does not have to be the kind of decision like Abraham's, or Agamemnon's, or a Sophie's Choice kind of decision, to be a decision that no matter what we chose will haunt us forever. Any mother who ever had to decide after giving birth whether to stay home with the child or return back to work, knows the excruciating agony of making this decision. Thus, through the reading of the story of the patriarchs, I learned to assign validity to the seemingly ordinary everyday life of mine, and in making decisions, always first see if the situation calls for a moral judgment as well. This I consider to be a long way from my original emotion of simple anger and disgust with the patriarchs for being such awful parents.

Shabbat Shalom.


i. Refuseniks in the Soviet Union were Jews who, because of state sponsored anti-Semitism, declared their desire to emigrate to Israel but were denied permission to leave by the state. Consequently, they were treated as enemies, deprived of jobs, sources of livelihood, and basic human rights. Severe persecutions affected adults and children alike. Refuseniks created a vibrant underground Jewish culture in Russia, in the late sixties, seventies, and eighties, which included an elaborate system of Jewish education, religious education and practices, arts, literature, music, and community life. Most of the refuseniks were finally given permissions to emigrate in the early 1990s.