Mackie's preschool is closed for the moment because a teacher was exposed to COVID-19. Hopefully, everyone will be well. In the meantime, both children are home in the morning. This past Friday, the preschool had a pre-shabbat zoom lesson from the transgender rabbi from the local Conservative temple. (Yes, it is supposed to be the Reform who have temples.) In case you were wondering if she had an agenda, the rabbi opened with modeh ani and then informed the children that there were a female and a non-binary version of the word. Keep in mind that we are talking about pre-schoolers here.
The main lesson was about the upcoming Torah reading, Toldot. This deals with the story of Jacob and Esau. Jacob disguises himself as his hairy older brother and tricks their blind father, Isaac, into giving him the blessing meant for the firstborn. As someone who grew up believing that God made a mistake by not making me the oldest child, I empathize with Jacob. With my own children, I have emphasized Isaac's line of "the voice is the voice of Jacob but the hands are the hands of Esau." A Jew's superpower is in his voice, which he can use to pray and study Torah. We do not have big muscles and it is not our place to go around beating people up.
What the rabbi wanted the children to take from the story was that you are supposed to be yourself. In a sane world, anyone who feels that they needed to use chemicals and surgery to make radical changes to their body would think twice about preaching self-acceptance. Regardless of your gender identity, any teacher who subscribes to the Disney/Mr. Rogers Rousseauean school of self-esteem that children should be accepted for who they are (as opposed to the Nathaniel Branden Aristotelian version of self-esteem) renders themselves unfit to educate children.
I love Mackie. Those who know him will agree that he is a delightful child. That being said, he is illiterate and still in diapers. In essence, he is par for being three years old. I send him to school and work on him as his father precisely because I do not accept him for who he is. He needs to change to become someone else. For example, I insist that he become the kind of person who reads books and uses the potty.
Keep in mind that reading and using the potty are not just utilitarian skills. They involve fundamental shifts in how one perceives the world. To become literate means to confront the authority of texts through time and space as a counterweight to one's personal feelings. Using the potty means recognizing that there is something unclean within you that needs to be expelled in set places through a process of rigid bodily control. Critical to both activities is a recognition of your own limits as a person and the submission to an authority outside yourself. There is nothing natural about reading and potty training as evolution did not provide us with these skills. These are the products of the discipline of civilization. At its root, civilization is about a decision to reject your natural self, the savage.
Telling children that they are fine the way that they are and do not need to change is a terrible lie when mixed with on Torah portion of the year but to bring in the story of Jacob and Esau to make this point requires satanically perverse exegetical skills. There is a case to be made that Jacob's suffers from a mimetic need to have what rightfully belonged to Esau, culminating in dressing up like Esau to steal his blessing. This is still not a lesson in being yourself. It is a lesson in not trying to be like bad people. We try to be like the biblical patriarchs and not stay true to ourselves because they were better and holier people than us. In terms of being oneself, if there was anyone in the biblical narrative who needed to be himself less, it was Esau. He was set aside from the womb to be Jacob's antagonist. In essence, Esau was literally “born to be bad.”
Within Calvinist thought, Esau serves, along with Pharaoh, as proof for predestination. Do you have free will or did God decide, even before creation, who would be the righteous saved and who would be the sinful unsaved? In the case of Esau, it is hard to escape the conclusion that God's plan required Esau to be wicked and so God made Esau that way. Despite the fact that Esau never had a choice in the matter, God still hated him. It may have been God who created Esau as the embodiment of wickedness, but that is what Esau was and, as such, it was logically necessary for God, who is righteousness, to hate him.
If you are not a Calvinist you might say that Esau was the exception to prove the rule. Esau was chosen for evil but regular people are not so we, unlike Esau, have the ability to choose the right path and can be held responsible for failing to do so. Alternatively, you can make the case that Esau was more nuanced than a straightforward villain. Esau honored his father and, in the end, made peace with Jacob. If Esau was capable of good deeds, perhaps he was capable of going against his divinely ordained role in more profound ways. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks of blessed memory made a powerful case for Esau not being completely rejected from the covenant.
Nevertheless, one needs to admit that the Calvinists have a legitimate point in regards to Esau and, in arguing against them, one is fighting an uphill battle. You throw away all credibility when you pretend that there was never anything fundamentally wrong with Esau in his very being. The one thing that Esau needed was to not be himself.
I want Mackie to embrace the voice of Jacob and not the hands of Esau. This is not something natural that Mackie can achieve simply by being himself. It will happen because he has parents and teachers who will not let him be himself but will insist that he become something better.