Dick Gregory and Rabbis Under Rome

Exploring Babylon Chapter 9.2

Dick Gregory’s Bible Tales with Commentary offers insights on the Joseph Story, begun in last week’s Torah portion, Vayeishev (Gen 37:1 – 40:23).

His remarks begin with notes on dreamers and dreaming:

Joseph found out it’s dangerous to be a dreamer. Just like Joseph’s brothers, society today has three ways of dealing with dreamers. Kill the dreamer. Throw the dreamer in jail (the contemporary “cisterns” in our society). Or sell the dreamer into slavery; purchase the dream with foundation grants or government deals, until the dreamer becomes enslaved to controlling financial or governmental interests. Society tries to buy off the dream and lull the dreamer to sleep. It’s called a “lull-a-buy.”
Dick Gregory’s Bible Tales, p.70 (full citation below)

Gregory (1932-2017) goes on to say, in his 1974 publication, that this country used all three tactics on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., adding: “Dreamers can be killed. Dreams live on.”

Gregory then suggests: “Maybe Joseph was a Black cat. That would certainly explain his taste in clothes and the wild colors he wore.” He relates Joseph’s experience with Potiphar’s wife (Gen 39) to the many Black men in this country “falsely accused of making advances to white women” (Bible Tales, p.72).

Regarding the final story in Vayeishev, Joseph’s incarceration and interpretation of dreams for fellow inmates (Gen 40), Gregory writes:

The butler in the Joseph story symbolizes America’s treatment of Black folks. The butler used Joseph’s talent as an interpret of dreams and he promised to tell Pharaoh about Joseph. As soon as the butler got himself comfortably back in Pharaoh’s palace, he forgot about his word to Joseph.

America was built on the sweat, toil, and talent of Black folks. But when the work was done and the talent utilized, America quickly forgot its debt to Blacks. Black folks helped lay down the railroad tracks, but they could only work as porters after the trains started running. Black slaves picked the cotton, but the garment industry belonged to white folks.
Bible Tales, p.73

Gregory’s commentary struck me as very like the commentary of the Rabbis under Roman rule. One famous example is this teaching of Gamaliel, son of Judah (Gamaliel III):

Be wary in your dealings with the ruling power, for they only befriend a man when it serves their needs. When it is to their advantage, they appear as friends, but they do not stand by a person in his hour of need.
Pirkei Avot 2:3

 

Torah of Exile, Again

The previous episode discussed the “Torah of Exile” and the Academy of Shem and Eber, offering lessons on keeping the faith when the surrounding culture seems alien, even hostile. The above-quoted passages from Gregory’s Bible Tales fit this curriculum in two importantly different ways.

First, dreams and dreamers. People from many communities — in 1974 and today — can relate to Gregory’s characterization of a system that tries to buy dreams in order to squash them. So, his comments on this comprise one kind of “Torah of Exile,” comfort and instruction for exiles.

…Let’s note, before continuing, that an individual might feel exiled around one aspect of life (gender or sexual orientation, for example) while feeling integrated into the surrounding community in other ways….

Second, the butler who “symbolizes America’s treatment of Black folks.” Gregory’s notes on the butler story are more specific to a particular form of exile. It’s not that people outside the Black community cannot relate to being used. But those of us who don’t directly experience what he is describing must pause and be sure to really hear what is said about an experience we don’t share. This is a second kind of “The Torah of Exile”: discomfort and instruction for those who are in relative safety with regard to a particular form of exile.

We should all, of course, seek to learn from many sources. We need all the ancient and contemporary wisdom we can find, and all that’s in between, to help us understand our own exilic circumstances and those of our neighbors. It’s essential, though, that we stay clear on the two kinds of Torah of Exile and be careful to learn about others’ suffering without mistaking it for our own.




Gregory_BibleTales
Dick Gregory’s Bible Tales with Commentary, James R. McGraw, ed.
NY: Stein and Day, 1974

This volume, by the way, is very funny and oddly current.
TOP

Torah of Exile

Exploring Babylon Chapter 9.1

Jacob studied “the Torah of exile” in his younger years, and that helped sustain him during his time with Laban. Joseph, in turn, uses this “Torah of exile” during his decades in Egypt. This idea, based on an odd expression in Gen 37:3, opens up all sorts of possibilities for #ExploringBabylon.

The Family Business

This week’s Torah portion (Vayeishev, Gen 37:1 – 40:23) begins with an odd expression that has engendered a variety of commentary:

כִּי-בֶן-זְקֻנִים
ki-ben-zakunim
— from Gen 37:3

Ben zakunim” is usually translated as something like “child of his old age.” But this failed to satisfy many readers over the centuries, because Joseph is, after all, not the youngest child. Another reading takes zaken (“old”) as a contraction of “זה שקנה הכמה [one who acquired wisdom]” and so identifies Joseph as wise or as one who learned from wise elders: Jacob taught Joseph what he learned in “the Academy of Shem and Eber” (Rashi quoting Onkelos).

The idea of the Academy of Shem and Eber, sometimes two separate “academies,” appears in a number of midrashim. This student essay explains that the academy is used as an explanation for periods of time when someone seems to disappear from the narrative: When Isaac disappears from the text, following the Akedah, he was learning from these elders (Gen. Rabbah 56:11). Fourteen missing years in Jacob’s chronology are attributed to the academy (Babylonian Talmud, Megilla 17a). In addition, when Rebecca went to “inquire of God” about her agitated twins (Gen 25:22), she is said to be visiting the Academy of Shem (Gen. Rabbah 45:10).

These midrashim reflect the Rabbinical propensity to see Torah learning as a useful and desired occupation — the family business, in a way — and even an eternal reward: Shem and Eber join Abraham, Isaac, Moses, and Aaron in the Beit Midrash of the world to come (Shir ha-Shirm Rabbah 6:2), open to all who learn Torah in this world. But there’s another thread here in that Shem and Eber have something specific to teach.

Academy for Exiles

Shem lived through the Flood and the conditions that preceded it. Eber had lived among those who built the Tower of Babel. The lessons they learned in these difficult circumstances, the “Academy” reasoning goes, helped Jacob and Joseph survive, and not assimilate, during their periods of exile.

In addition, Klahr notes in “The First Beit Midrash,” lessons from Shem and Eber helped Isaac “derive the inspiration to remain a committed Jew after he was almost killed for the sake of God.”

Centuries of Jews have faced similar challenges, and many individuals in tough circumstances, in which faith seems irrelevant or too hard, have found themselves, with Rebecca, asking: “Why am I thus!?”

The importance of the Yeshivah of Shem and Eber lies not in its historical accuracy, but rather in its representation of a culture in which one can maintain a relationship with God despite its difficulty….God did not simply appear to the Bible’s heroes. They were not born with deep strength and conviction; rather, the forefathers [and mothers] worked hard to develop their faith. They went to seek advice from those who knew more than they. They spent time contemplating God and life’s meaning.
— “The First Beit Midrash”

To take a different sort of example, consider the role of the Highlander Folk School in mid-20th Century U.S. history.

Academy for Today

Many of us were raised with some version of “Rosa was tired” as the narrative behind the Montgomery Bus Boycott. This makes it sound as though Mrs. Parks was a non-entity, calmly tolerating segregation until one day she just snapped, and that the boycott somehow just materialized after that. The real story, of course, is that the boycott was years in the planning by many people, including Mrs. Parks.

Moreover, before making her stand, so to speak, Mrs. Parks was active with the NAACP and attended the Highlander Folk School, where she made connections and developed resources that helped launch a huge part of the Civil Rights Movement.

For a little background, listen to Studs Terkel talk in 1973 with Rosa Parks and Myles Horton, founder of Highlander, about some of learning and work involved.

(BTW, be sure to check out the existing Studs Terkel Archive, see what’s new for 2018, and learn about WFMT’s call for support.)

What did Shem and Eber teach that we can use for #ExploringBabylon? What do we need for today’s “Academy for Exiles”?



Notes

Benjamin, the last born, is also a child of Jacob’s “old age” — and so this phrase would not explain why Jacob loved Joseph more than his youngest. Some commentators suggest that perhaps Rachel’s death giving birth to Benjamin made it hard for Jacob to relate to his youngest son. Others say that Jacob was already in “old age” when Joseph was born, and that father and son developed a strong bond before Benjamin was born. But these lines of reasoning did not satisfy many readers over the centuries, so other ways of reading “ben-zakunim were suggested. (Not tracking down the citations, sorry, as this is pretty far off-topic.)
TOP


Miriam Pearl Klahr, then a sophomore at Stern College, wrote “The First Beit Midrash: The Yeshiva of Shem and Eber,” for a 2014 edition of Kol Hamevaser, The Jewish Thought Magazine of the Yeshiva University Student Body.

This blog actively avoids choosing non-egalitarian sources for basic Jewish background or for default learning resources. But that practice is not meant to discount learning from any quarter. I found this a powerful and useful essay, and I appreciate the author’s careful attention to citing sources so we can all learn further from them. I definitely recommend checking out the whole article.
BACK

Vayeishev: Great Source(s)

The birth of Perez and Zerah recalls the birth of Esau and Jacob. The two sets of twins form a chiasmus. The “red hairy mantel” which distinguishes Esau, the oldest, becomes the red thread around the youngest’s wrist. By wearing Esau’s attire, Jacob makes Esau’s distinguishing marking — namely, is “red hairy mantle” — his own. Isaac’s blessing assures Jacob’s superiority over his brother, and the garment becomes the signifier of Jacob’s prominence. Similarly, when Jacob gives Joseph a long robe with sleeves, it symbolizes Joseph’s superiority; and, when the bloodied robe is returned to Jacob, it signals Joseph’s elimination from the line of succession….For Michael Fishbane,* the power of the Jacob cycle is that “it personalizes the tensions and dialects which are also crystallized on a national level at later points: the struggle for blessing; the threat of discontinuity; the conflicts between and within generations; and the wrestling for birth, name and identity.” In the Jacob cycle, garments form the subtext which upholds these concerns. From Jacob to Joseph to Judah to Zerah, the red thread establishes an order of filiation, a metaphorical umbilical cord that relates directly, without he mediation of women, father to son to grandson.Continue Reading