Rabbi Neil Schuman

Judging Earlier Generations: Progress, Not Perfection
While the actions of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs at times seem highly questionable, the rabbis rarely criticize them. One of the notable exceptions is when Jacob openly favors Joseph by giving him “the coat of many colors” (Talmud Shabbat 10B):
 ואמר רבא בר מחסיא אמר רב חמא בר גוריא אמר רב לעולם אל ישנה אדם בנו בין הבנים שבשביל משקל שני סלעים מילת שנתן יעקב ליוסף יותר משאר בניו נתקנאו בו אחיו ונתגלגל הדבר וירדו אבותינו למצרים:
“A person should never distinguish one of his sons from among the other sons by giving him preferential treatment. As, due to the weight of two sela of fine wool that Jacob gave to Joseph, beyond what he gave the rest of his sons, in making him the colored coat, his brothers became jealous of him and the matter unfolded and our forefathers descended to Egypt.”
To us, this seems like a natural rule, almost one that should not have to be stated. Yet, having learned about my family history as well as the families of numerous others, it appears that this dynamic was very prevalent in the early 1900s and, unfortunately, is often still practiced. Even if violence does not result, as it did with Joseph’s brothers, lack of confidence and self-respect will be consistent collateral damage.
Showing favorites, though, is one thing, but to say that the other siblings should be subservient to the favored child seems outlandish. Nonetheless, this appears to be the ancient norm as well.
In our parsha, Toldot, Isaac blesses (who he thinks is) his oldest son, saying (Genesis 27:29):
“Let peoples serve you,
And nations bow to you;
Be master over your brothers,
And let your mother’s sons bow to you.”
As I read this with seemingly new eyes, I was incredulous. How could Isaac want to make Jacob and his descendants servants to Esau’s? Is this the way brothers and cousins should coexist?
Perplexingly, Jacob repeated this behavior multiple times as well. First, he openly favors Joseph with an exemption from manual labor with “the coat of many colors.” Then, upon his deathbed, he blesses Judah with domination (Genesis 49:8):
“You, O Judah, your brothers shall praise;
Your hand shall be on the nape of your foes;
Your father’s sons shall bow low to you.”
Obviously, Isaac and Jacob view blessing one son with command over the others as correct.
Abraham’s behavior is similar. He has children from two women (Hagar and Keturah) in addition to Isaac from Sarah, yet he drives all of them away so that Isaac remains his sole heir.
Furthermore, Joseph, the fourth generation, wants his firstborn to be given a loftier blessing by Jacob (Genesis 48:18): “Not so, Father,” Joseph said to his father, “for the other is the first-born; place your right hand on his head.”
How would an anthropologist understand this behavior? I propose that, instead of saying that this is a highly dysfunctional family, they might say, ‘favoritism, even to the point of servitude, is the norm given to the firstborn in ancient times.’
We, like the Talmud, might disagree with this manner of child-rearing, but it might have been a practice that served ancient society. In like manner, Columbus’, Thomas Jefferson’s, and Teddy Roosevelt’s actions, among many of the leaders of yesteryear, have come under sharp criticism lately. We could even label Moses as homophobic, racist and sexist if we’d like. Yet if we judge people from earlier generations with our modern-day set of values, who would be free of scrutiny? Society creates its norms, and when the need for change becomes strong enough, things change. Thankfully, we have reached a time when we recognize sexism, racism, homophobia, and favoritism among the family as wrong.
I agree that specific actions done by leaders of the past (or even our great- grandparents!) should be considered wrong by our standards, but that does not necessarily mean that they were wrong for their time and period.
“Progress, not perfection” is an excellent maxim. We need not be too hard on ourselves as we face the myriad challenges in our lives. Likewise, we should extend it to our ancestors: they did the best they could under their circumstances. We live and learn from their and our mistakes.
I will not follow Isaac and Jacob’s parenting methods; I hope to make all my children feel equally loved. Yet, I will refrain from being judgmental of past generations; we all are on a path of progress, not perfection.