Jacob and Esau: Don't Ask. Don't Tell
November 20th, 2010
Rabbi Gary Creditor
In tomorrow morning's Torah portion we read of the very powerful encounter of Esau and Jacob. They have been separated for a very long time. The last time they were in proximity Esau swore to kill his brother because not only had Jacob gotten Esau to give him the birthright, Jacob had tricked their father to give him the blessing of the first born, thus ratifying the earlier transfer. The second born, Jacob, had in both instances, gotten that which should have gone to the first born, Esau. Many chapters ago, Esau hated his brother. Now they will finally meet. There are many questions demanding to be answered. We sit on the edge of our chairs waiting to see what will happen.
If I was Jacob I have at least two questions on the tip of my tongue: Do you still hate me? Do you still want to kill me? And: How is our father? Is he still alive? Can I see him?
If I was Esau I have at least two questions on the tip of my tongue: Why did you do it – why did you rob me, why did you con me, not just once but twice? And: Why did you run away? Why didn't you have the guts to meet me face to face?
Being the reader of the narrative, looking at the Biblical personages from the outside I have even more questions: How did Isaac let this happen? How did Rebecca let this happen?
When Jacob and Esau meet, not one of these questions are asked. Not one of these questions are answered. The questions are real. In the Torah, when it says that they embraced, the word "And they kissed" is doted. This is very odd and rare. The Rabbis explain the reason for the dots is because we don't really know what each brother was truly feeling at that moment. It is the greatest example in the Torah of: Don't Ask. Don't Tell. DADT.
In the Torah we never get these questions asked or answered because the Torah has a different focus. But in real life, hard, critical, core, existential questions can't be ignored and left unanswered. The questions always exist. The answers always exist. They are just hidden, even while active, just below the surface. Waiting. Waiting.
The idea of DADT has been active in all our lives in different and varying circumstances. There were times that I was very happy that my parents did not ask me what score I got on a test or homework assignment and I was surely not going to tell them of my own volition. In that case "silence was golden." But this example isn't really a good one, because it was about something external to me, a score on a test. It wasn't about me. That is very different.
Everyone here knows that "Don't Ask. Don't Tell" refers to the rule in the United States military that homosexual men and women can serve in the military if they keep their sexual identity hidden. The military won't ask so that these people won't have to tell. They do have to live a lie.
I have been following the Jewish conversation about this policy and the proposal to revoke it, namely to allow people who are LBGTQ to serve in the army and not have to lie about their sexuality. There have been many insightful comments that have prodded my thinking. I have also followed the conversation of those who do not want the policy changed and those who would dishonorably discharge all homosexual people serving in the military. A few thoughts:
1. For Judaism, the best quotation comes from the Muppets: People is people. A person is defined by the totality of the self, not one isolated component. Is there only one thing about me that defines me? Is it my age? Hair color? Sports inability? IQ? Religion? Why label a person by one trait/characterstic/component? Judaism would rather we look at the whole person.
2. Following that line of thought, in Judaism we don't call people by their transgression. There is no term in Judaism for 'homosexual.' At most you can refer to a passage in Leviticus that indicates that homosexual behavior is proscribed, not the individual. If you were in combat, what do you care about? I want someone who can shoot straight; who will have my back; that I can rely on. I would want a person, tried and true. What else counts?
3. Why can Israel make it work smoothly and the United States military fears that we can't? I will just leave that sit there.
4. Above the ark, the Aron HaKodesh, we have in symbolic relief the Ten Commandments. Number 9 states you should not be a lying witness against someone else. I believe that if I shouldn't lie about someone else, I shouldn't lie about myself.
5. In the same Ten Commandments, it includes robbery, murder, adultery, coveting as highest ranking sins. It doesn't list homosexual behavior. Who would you rather have in your building? Who would you rather have as second pilot or in the foxhole? Who would you not?
6. Labels are put on people usually to degrade them, disgrace them, and demean them. African-Americans, Catholics, Italians, Irish, and we, too, have had labels stuck on us, not for praise, but for ridicule and control. But times have changed. Nobody has called me a 'kike' in a long time. No one has looked for horns on my head. We have purged our language, my mother used to say that "she would wash my mouth out with soap," of words that demean, disgrace and degrade. Not because we are being PC but because we have a clearer picture of right and wrong; because we see all people being reflectors of God's holiness, because we take to heart the Rabbinic teaching that no person is higher, intrinsically or inherently better, than another. Our language shows what we think of "the other." We embody Hillel's dictum: "Love thy neighbor as thyself."
My list could extend much further, but I think that I have established sufficient foundation to say that from the perspective of Conservative Judaism, DADT should be repealed. Furthermore, I believe that Judaism would substantiate the position that men and women of the LBGTQ identification should be able to serve openly and honestly in the armed forces of the United States of America.
I want to close by referring to one of my greatest heroes. When I was as young as Mara, or maybe Kaleigh, I had many heroes, especially Roy Rogers and Dale Evens, Hopalong Cassidy, the Lone Ranger, and Gene Autry. These shows were morality plays. Every episode was about the struggle between good and bad, and they were the good guys – defending the weak, the widow, the disadvantaged, and the loner out on the prairie. Here is Gene Autry's Cowboy Code.
1. The cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take unfair advantage.
2. He must never go back on his word, or a trust confided in him.
3. He must always tell the truth.
4. He must be gentle with children, the elderly and animals.
5. He must not advocate or possess racially or religiously intolerant ideas.
6. He must help people in distress.
7. He must be a good worker.
8. He must keep himself clean in thought, speech, action and personal habits.
9. He must respect women, parents, and his nation's laws.
10. The cowboy is a patriot.
Jacob and Esau lied. They lied to each other. They lied to themselves. They lied to their parents. In doing so they lied to their children. In Jacob's case the Torah relates how his children lied to him. "Don't Ask. Don't Tell" is a lie. It destroys everyone and saves no one. Maybe Gene Autry's Cowboy Code should be posted in every barracks. The Lone Ranger rides Silver. Roy Rogers rides Trigger. Hopalong Cassidy rides Topper. And Gene Autry rides Campion, sings "Back in the Saddle Again," and bequeaths us a very special code. I always wanted to be a cowboy.