Keshet: May God Make You Like Ephraim and Manasseh

Originally published as part of  Torah Queeries.

So [Jacob] blessed them that day, saving, “By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying: ‘May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.’” (Genesis 48:20)

Every Shabbat evening, Jews around the world recall this week’s Torah portion by blessing their sons with the words “May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh,” fulfilling Jacob’s deathbed pronouncement. I did not grow up with this particular tradition in my family, so when I learned about it, two questions immediately sprang to mind: If Jacob says that all of Israel shall invoke blessings in this way, why do we limit our use of the blessing to boys? Perhaps more fundamentally, what’s so special about Ephraim and Manasseh that we pray to make our children like them?

The Torah itself gives us shockingly little information about these two brothers, the sons of Jacob’s favorite son, Joseph, and Joseph’s Egyptian wife, Asenath. We know that they lived their entire lives in Egypt, that Manasseh is the older of the two (although some scholars suggest they might have been twins), that they were born before the famine came to Egypt, and that Genesis and Chronicles disagree a bit about whether one of Manasseh’s descendants was his son or grandson. Otherwise, all we have are conjectures based on this one scene at their grandfather’s deathbed.  Continue reading

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Keshet: Nature vs. Nurture: A Story of Generation(s)

Originally published as part of  Torah Queeries, and then later republished on Keshet’s Blog on MyJewishLearning.com.

Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Torah Queeries online collection. This week, David Levy looks at Biblical twins Jacob and Esau through the lens of nature versus nurture.

 

"The Birth of Esau and Jacob," Master of Jean de Mandeville.

“The Birth of Esau and Jacob,” Master of Jean de Mandeville. Image courtesy of Wiki Commons.

Toldot, the name given to this week’s parasha, has many layers to its definition. Coming from the Hebrew root meaning “birth,” it literally means “generations.” Its use in the Torah introduces genealogical lists, and also marks the beginning of important stories related to the members of Abraham’s particular genealogical line – some translations even give the word as it appears at the beginning of this week’s parasha as “story.” Toldot is a particularly fitting name for this section of the Torah, because the story begins with the birth of Jacob and Esau, and hinges on both the relationship between the older and younger generations and the question of who shall lead the generations to follow.

To me, Parashat Toldot reads like a divine statement on the “nature versus nurture” debate: are our identities and destinies somehow inherent in us, or are we shaped by the environment in which we are brought up, formed by the generation before us? In queer culture, this debate at times looms large. Are we “born that way” or are there external factors that “make us gay”? And if we adopt children, will our nurturing homes be enough to bring up a next generation in our image, or will adopted children turn out like their birth parents…whoever they might be?

While these questions may at times feel like irrelevant cocktail conversation, they also have a sinister side. If it turns out that queerness can be genetically predicted, will narrow-minded potential parents terminate pregnancies rather than bear queer children? If research points toward environmental factors, will it only fuel “ex-gay ministries” that attempt to “rehabilitate” queer people from their lifestyle?  Continue reading