Rachel and Her Children

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One way of telling the story of rabbinic Judaism is to say that it was born in a conversation between Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai and the Roman general Vespasian, in the shadow of a besieged Jerusalem. Rabbi Yochanan had feigned death in order to be smuggled out of the walled city in a coffin despite the opposition of the Jewish zealots, who were not interested in negotiations with the enemy. Vespasian, impressed by Rabbi Yochanan’s bravery and his prediction that Vespasian would eventually become emperor of Rome, asked him what he wanted. Rabbi Yochanan’s famous answer was “give me Yavneh and its [Torah] sages,” thus establishing a center of Jewish learning independent of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Rabbi Yochanan’s foresight transformed the brick-and-mortar reality of a Temple-centered Judaism into the port- able diaspora-ready religion with which we are familiar, and thus granted a powerful second wind to a Jewish nation that might have been otherwise brought to its knees by Roman oppression.

Dara Horn’s mind- bending new novel, Eternal Life, takes place from the perspective of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai’s heretofore unknown mother Rachel. Rachel embodies a gruelingly literal interpretation of Rabbi Yochanan’s lofty project. Like a Judaism that endures beyond destruction, Rachel cannot die because of a vow she took at the Temple in order to save an ailing Yochanan. With the Temple’s destruction she is left in this liminal state, along with her lover, Elazar ben Haninah, the son of the high priest and the child’s real father. The novel, and Rachel and Elazar’s occasionally intersecting lives, span the centuries between Second Temple Jerusalem and modern-day New York…

To read the full review please see the Winter issue of the Jewish Review of Books.

Was Sarah Right to Drive Her Maidservant Hagar from Her Home?

The Chapter of the Bible in Which Four Nations Are Born

If the first chapters of Genesis explore the universal origins of humanity, this week’s Torah reading of Lekh l’kha (Genesis 12-17) turns to a more particularistic narrative. Beginning with God’s command to Abraham to uproot himself from his father’s home and travel to an unknown land, it caps the command with a divine promise:

I will make of you a great nation,
And I will bless you;
I will make your name great.
And you shall be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you
And curse him that curses you;
And all the families of the earth
Shall bless themselves by you.

To this, God adds: “I will assign this land to your offspring.”

But there is one problem: Abraham and his wife Sarah are unable to have children.

Thus, the very beginning of the Jewish people’s existence is framed within the context of marriage and of marital discontent. If Sarah can’t conceive, the fulfillment of God’s promise is in jeopardy. Both Abraham and Sarah must struggle to reconcile that promise with their immediate reality. Although they will ultimately overcome this and other tests of faith, Sarah’s conduct in particular has been subjected to censure in both traditional and more modern Jewish sources.

The full essay appears in this week’s Mosaic Magazine.