Friday, December 9, 2011


I hate confrontation.

I have no desire to argue with the airline that left my suitcase in Perth two days ago, now containing stinking spoiled Kosher hotdogs and “off” yoghurt that I bought for a Chabad Rabbi living in Adelaide. Or course, I should pluck up the courage and demand compensation for the damage caused by their incompetence.  It is surely problematic, in the grand scheme of things, to support the fight against the most evil but be too squeamish to fight ourselves[1]. I wonder what our tradition teaches us about appeasement vs. standing up and fighting. Some Jewish teachings for and against appeasement can be found in the case of Jacob’s humble or humiliating approach to his brother Esau[2], twenty years after having tricked their father to give him the blessings originally intended for Esau[3].

The Scene
Jacob had escaped to Haran when Easu’s thoughts turned to murdering him as soon as Isaac died[4]. Despite twenty years passing. Jacob was still afraid of Esau’s anger. He send messengers telling them exactly what to say to my master Esau. He is so keen to flatter Esau’s ego that he models subservience to his messengers[5], to be sure that the posture is absolutely clear to them[6]. By custom the first born was treated almost like a parent, when Jacob repeatedly refers to Esau as “my master” he implies that he completely relinquishes his claims to the right of the first born that Esau had sold him for a pot of lentils[7]. It brings to mind a snide comment about Jewish-Palestinian dialogue, “they accuse, we apologise”. My limited observations and experience of this dialogue is that it is about seeking to understand each others stories and experiences, yet the comment reflects the reluctance to give any ground in pursuit of positive relationships.

One View. “God: Jacob was wrong”
One classic source has God saying to Jacob “you lowered yourself by referring to Esau as my master eight times, by your life!, I will raise up 8 kings among the descendents of Esaue before your children will have any kings[8]. In another source[9]
 God is upset about Jacob’s submissiveness, because “I said the older will serve the younger”[10].  

Long Term Damage of Appeasement or Is that of Assertiveness?
A later commentary sees a sign of things to come in Jacobs’ deference to Esau for what would happen in subsequent generations. We began our own defeat by the Edom/Rome because of the Hasmonean kings seeking a pact with the Romans[11].

While seeking the favour of the Romans might have started our defeat. It was in fact the reckless, extremist, pedantic standing up to
Rome that sealer our fate. One case related to the custom that when a boy was born they would plant a cedar tree and when a girl was born to plant a pine tree, and when they married, the tree was cut down and a canopy made of the branches. One day the daughter of the Emperor was passing when the shaft of her litter broke, so they lopped some branches off a cedar tree and brought it to her. The Jews thereupon fell upon them and beat them[12]. In another case, a sacrifice offering from the emperor was rejected on a technicality. In the end when the Romans laid siege to Jerusalem the guidance of the sage Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai was ignored, instead a desperate and futile battle was fought by tiny Judea against Rome[13].  

Alternative View
The same source that  brings us critical views of Jacob also offers an opposite perspective[14]. Rabbi Judah the President[15], said to his secretary Rabbi Efes, “write a letter from me to the master, the King Antoninus (Pius?[16]). So Efes wrote a letter and signed it from Judah the President to the Master King Antoninus. Rabbi Judah took the letter, read it and tore it up. “Write to the master, King Antoninus from Judah your servant”. Effes replied ,but Rabbi, why are you degrading your honour. Rabbi Judah told him, “how am I better than my grandfather (Jacob) who said so shall you say to my master Esau. Another source also praised Jacob’s humility[17].

The Argument continues in the Aftermath of a Bloodbath
The merits of assertiveness and even aggression vs. appeasement plays out even more dramatically after Jacob’s sons kill the whole city of Shchem in revenge for the rape of their sister Dina. Jacob is concerned about the repercussions of this violence, but his sons assert, “Should they make our sister into a prostitute?![18]  Jacob is silent in the face of this emotive, battle cry retort. What was he supposed to say, “yes, I think it doesn’t matter that my daughter and your sister was raped”. Only years later at the end of Jacobs life does he curse their anger and show disapproval again about this episode[19].

The wisdom of the ages tells us that there are pitfalls with appeasement, yet there is also great wisdom in it. Neville Chamberlain’s portrait can hang on the walls of all war enthusiasts because of his role in discrediting appeasement. Yet, I would argue that not every trigger happy, evil, despotic nut-job is a Hitler. I guess, I should fight with the airline for my money, but more broadly, careful consideration of the pros and cons of each choice is needed.

“Everything has an appointed season, and there is a time for every matter under the heaven… A time to kill and a time to heal; a time to break and a time to build… a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing... a time to keep and a time to cast away… a time to be silent and a time to speak…A time to love and a time to hate; a time for war and a time for peace[20].

[1] Judah L Magnes, a leading Pacifist during WWI. Wrote to Ghandi in 1939, “ I know I would pray with all my heart for the defeat of the Hitler inhumanity; and am I then to stand aside and let others do the fighting? During the last war I prayed for a peace without defeat or victory. The answer given by Romain Rolland in his little book Par la revolution la paix (1935), seems to be, that while he himself as an individual continues to refuse to bear arms, he will do everything he can to help his side (in this case, Russia) to win the war. That is hardly a satisfying answer.” from Judah L. Magnes to Gandhi, February 26, 1939
[2] Genesis 32:4-33:15
[3] Genesis 27
[4] Genesis 27:41, Esau either delayed his plan to kill Jacob out of his respect for his father, or perhaps did not want to repeat the mistake of Cain, who still had to split his inheritance despite the murder of Abel because their father had another son Seth. (Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel)
[5] Ramban
[6] Ibn Ezra
[7] Ramban
[8] Beresheet Rabba 75:2
[9] Daat Zekainim Mebaalei Hatosafot
[10] Genesis 25:23
[11] Ramban
[12] Talmud Gittin 57a
[14] Beresheet Rabba 75
[15] often referred to as Rabbi Judah the prince, in Hebrew it is Rabbi Judah Hanasi, probably better translated as president than prince.
[16]A. Mischcon, Abodah Zara, p.10a Soncino, 1988. Mischcon cites various sources, "SJ Rappaport... is of opinion that our Antoninus is Antoninus Pius." Other opinions cited suggest "Antoninus" was CaracallaLucius Verus or Alexander Severus”. See
[17] Mishnat Rabbi Eliezer parsha 10, 182
[18] Genesis 34
[19] Genesis 49:5
[20] Ecclesiastes 3:1-8


  1. Using as the starting link on one of my day's blog post. Very complicated.
    Thank you.