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Epistemology and Fatherhood: Yaakov and Joseph

mascettiBy Yaakov Mascetti*

As the father of two adolescents, I find myself thinking a lot about the education, influence, freedom of and control over another human being who is not me. Parenting is inherently complex, to say the least, because it entails, by definition, the human reproduction of the self, the multiplication of two adults into a ramified set of future possibilities. From a religious perspective, when a man and a woman join in the effort to bring a child to this world, they cooperate with God in the creation of a new human being – and that is essentially the main problem, because human beings were created, as the narrative goes, in God’s image and after his likeness. Pro-creation is, thus, the most delicate act a human being engages in throughout his life – the formation of an image, the multiplication of himself / herself, and the education of the new being to perform independently.

The inevitable sin parents commit, over and over again, can be labeled with what William Kolbrener calls “impoverished epistemology”: the need to consider that image as a perfect replica of his or her expectations, of his or her essence. In other words, in my humble opinion parents and limited experience, adults often lack what Sanford Budick calls the “cognitive vigilance” with which they may acknowledge the existence of an “image component that is excluded from our imaginative control” and “which stands as a sign of our incomplete cognitive power.” Or, in simpler terms, children are a kind of image of ourselves which is always already a problematic source of fetishizing control, and as they walk away and carry that image beyond the limits of our reach, the image proves itself as a “genuine Other,” and forces the parent to cut apart the signifier and the signified, himself / herself and the child. Image creation is thus, when it comes to parenting but also in other spheres of human activity, not a matter of compulsive control of the icon, of the representation, but rather one of loving release, accepting, embracing and ultimately granting freedom.

Yaakov loves Joseph for unknown reasons. The Torah gives us little or no information on this specific matter – but from the text we know that Israel loves Joseph because he is “the child of his old age,” and he thus makes for him “an ornamented tunic” (Gen. 37:3). Rashi comments on this, quoting from the Midrash and states that Yaakov’s great love for Joseph was due to the fact that the latter carried the “facial features” of the former – the word used in Hebrew is a Greek term, eikonin, that is icon, image. Yaakov is a tribulated man who lives his life wrestling with events, with destiny, with God – but most of all, in my opinion, this path starts with his dissimulation as Esav in order to get his blessing from their blind father.

Yaakov’s unacceptable fashioning of himself into a representation, an image of his brother, is both a success and a catastrophe, for while he manages to get the blessing, he is forced into a long exile. Yaakov’s experience with images is one of the obsessive need for control, and the inevitable ensuing loss thereof – and when he sees that his second to last son carries his facial features, he is once again surprised by the iconodulic sin, and loves Joseph more than his other children for the simple fact that he is his own image.

From my own very obviously postmodern and iconoclastic perspective, the Torah channels this iconodulic need for control of the image in the direction of a catastrophic loss of control – because of Yaakov’s obsessive love for his son, Joseph is hated by his brothers, is almost killed by the latter and ultimately sold to Ishmaelite merchants. Of course, when read retroactively, from within Pharaoh’s palace in Egypt, in the midst of a seven-year-long draught which strikes the entire Middle East, what appeared to be a catastrophic narrative was actually the necessary evolution of a Divine plan – but that becomes clear to Joseph and his brothers and to Yaakov himself only post facto. So is there a contradiction here? Is Yaakov’s iconodulic passion a sin? And if so, why does God ultimately weave the narrative as one of success and ultimately of redemption? And most of all, what does all this have to do with the initial statements about parenting?

Children are not our icons – and if a parent truly wants to see herself or himself reflected or duplicated in his offspring, it is essential that the child be allowed to be an “image component that is excluded from our imaginative control.” Or, to put it otherwise, paternal / maternal love is, ultimately, all about freedom, giving space, letting go. The image, by definition, replicates something – but as opposed to the traditional mimesis, children, as our eikonin, are the representation of both us and not us, and any temptation for control, that obsessive and fetishistic urge to duplicate our lifestyle and features, is frustrated by their growth into human beings who are different from us.

Presenting Yaakov’s iconodulic love for Joseph, the Torah undermines the patriarch’s sense of certainty, and brings chaos and sadness to unhinge his urge to control. Yaakov wrestles with Divine providence, dissimulates his appearance to steal his brother’s blessing, is called Israel then Yaakov then Israel again, loves Rachel but is fooled into marrying Leah, and lives a life of uncertainty and exile – so, whether he wants to or not, Yaakov lives, uncomfortably and chaotically, within that gap diving the image from its source. Divine providence reveals itself within that gap, within the absence of certainty, in the interstice that separates the parent from his son – God’s ways are justified only upon losing control, when our choices produce unwanted results, and when our obsession for control is frustrated. Can we therefore say that our children are truly “in our image and after our likes” only when their being eikonin develops into all its potential and glorious alterity? The truly Divine image is the one that does not represent its represented.

*Yaakov Mascetti holds a Ph.D. and teaches at the Department of Comparative Literature, Bar Ilan University.