Beit Midrash

  • Torah Portion and Tanach
  • Toldot
To dedicate this lesson

This Culture is Not For Us

Understanding the difference between Judaism and Christianity via the story of Yaakov and Esav. Challenging the concept of a "Judeo-Christian" culture


Rabbi Netanel Yossifun

Kislev 1 5782
Translated by Hillel Fendel

One of the greatest Talmudic commentators was R. Shmuel Eliezer HaLevi Ideles, known most often as the Maharsha. He was a tremendous scholar who wasted no time from Torah study. When he would feel himself getting tired, he would tie his long hair with a rope to the ceiling, so that he would not be able to nod off.

It was said that though the Maharsha studied Torah every single night, there was one night on which he did not – Christmas, when it was felt that the forces of impurity were too great for Torah learning. On this night, he would review his financial accounts instead. One year, anti-Semites informed on him to the authorities that he was scorning the holy Christian holiday by not studying Torah on their festival.

That very year, on Christmas night, the Maharsha was reviewing his expenses as he did every year, when suddenly one of his Torah books fell from the shelf. He picked it up, kissed it, and returned it to its place. A few minutes later, the book fell again – and the Maharsha picked it up, this time placing it more firmly in place. When it then fell a third time, the Maharsha said to himself, "There is a Divine message here." He thereupon opened the holy book and began to search for the message – and precisely at that moment, policemen burst into his home to see if he was studying Torah as he did every night…

This story alludes to a perpetual spiritual struggle between Judaism and Christianity that began back in Biblical times; it is recounted in the Torah portion of Toldot read aloud in synagogues around the world this very Shabbat. Toldot recounts the birth of the twins Yaakov and Esav, whose mother Rivka was informed - during her pregnancy with them! - that her two sons will ultimately head nations that will perpetually rival each other.

When Yaakov and Esav competed for their father Yitzchak's blessing, Yaakov won out, with Rivka's help. He received the stronger, more eternal blessing, giving him ultimate superiority over Esav.

What's uniquely fascinating about this struggle is that the two competing forces are very similar. They are twins who nourished from the very same source. It is very blatant that Yaakov received the blessing precisely when he was dressed up as Esav, from whom he had previously purchased the birthright. That is to say: The wicked Esav had something very important that Yaakov needed for the completion of his own character and personality. In Kabbalistic language, we can say that Esav had a spark of holiness within his impure shell, and that Yaakov was unable to represent sanctity in the world until he restored to him that missing spark.

The Hassidic masters taught that Esav and Yaakov were identical twins with identical forces, but that Esav dressed them in foreign garb, and that it is up to Yaakov to redeem these forces and restore them to sanctity.

This is the background for that which our rabbis taught throughout the generations, that Christianity is the successor to Esav. This religion took a Jew, and parts of Judaism, and turned them into the foundations stone of its spiritual path. However, like Esav, it took these points of truth and dressed it in foreign and distorted garb. Christianity thrived because of these points that it took from us, but the small amount of truth it possessed actually contained also much lies and deception.

It has become a widespread custom in some Jewish communities, particularly those in the Diaspora, where impurity is rampant, not to learn Torah on Christmas night. This, so that its holiness will not fall into the hands of the impure, for we do not need additional forces of Yaakov falling into Esav's hands. On the contrary, our task is to remove the Jewish costume in which Esav is dressed and restore to our hands whatever sanctity he might have.

In recent generations, this struggle has taken on a new and even more complex nature, and it is important that we not be misled by it. We know that the leading culture in the world, as well as the top-ranked morality, is currently that of the West. Both of these are forms of "upgraded Christianity," giving the religion a more gentle and pretty face.

Unfortunately, many Jews who meet up with this morality find in it an echo of Judaism, and are incline to believe that this is an "upgraded Judaism," Heaven forbid.

Their senses are on the mark. There is in fact something of Yaakov in this modern-day Esav, but it is precisely that spark that became corrupted when it fell into his impure hands. As stated by the Prophet Malachi, "Is not Esav brother to Yaakov? I loved Yaakov, but Esav I hated." That is, they are similar but different, and the same parts that are beloved when they are with Yaakov are hated when they are with Esav.

To those Jews who mistakenly say that they identify with Western culture because it took the best of Judaism, we say: "Pure Judaism is certainly more loyal to Judaism than are isolated facets of Judaism that became mixed up with pagan conceptions and foreign cultures." But we know that when we engage with them, this is not a new struggle; it began many centuries ago between the two famous twin brothers.

And just like the Maharsha received Divine providence that cold, impure night, so may we merit to maintain our purity and the purity of our Judaism, and proudly facilitate Yitzchak's blessing to Yaakov: "May the older serve the younger!"

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