On Jealousy: A Conversation Between Ilan Stavans and Max Page

Ilan Stavans and Max Page discuss the perils and virtues of jealousy.

On Jealousy: A Conversation Between Ilan Stavans and Max Page

יג  כִּי אֶת-מִזְבְּחֹתָם תִּתֹּצוּן, וְאֶת-מַצֵּבֹתָם תְּשַׁבֵּרוּן; וְאֶת-אֲשֵׁרָיו, תִּכְרֹתוּן.13 But ye shall break down their altars, and dash in pieces their pillars, and ye shall cut down their Asherim.יד  כִּי לֹא תִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה, לְאֵל אַחֵר:  כִּי יְהוָה קַנָּא שְׁמוֹ, אֵל קַנָּא הוּא.14 For thou shalt bow down to no other god; for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God;


REB NACHMAN OF BRATZLAV (1772–1810) once wrote:

You should know that controversy has the quality of creating the world. For the beginning of creation was by means of the vacant space […] since otherwise all would be Infinity, and there would be no room for creating the world. Therefore [God] withdrew the light to the sides, providing the vacant space, within which [God] created all that was created […] through words. The same applies to controversies. For if all the sages were of one [mind], there would be no room for creating the world. It is only by virtue of their controversies, in which they depart from one another, each taking himself to one side, that a quality of vacant space is provided between them […] the words each of them speaks are [therefore] all for the sake of creating the world.

But Reb Nachman also warned: although the sages “create everything through their words […] they must be careful not to speak too much.” (The Jewish Political Tradition, vol. 1)

The following discussion on jealousy between Ilan Stavans and Max Page took place in July 2017, in Amherst, Massachusetts.


ILAN STAVANS: This biblical passage that serves as entryway to this dialogue comes from Exodus 34:13-14, the section in which God, in Mount Sinai, appears in a cloud to Moses, giving him the second set of tables. This is a divinity that describes itself as gracious, merciful, forgiving, and abundant in goodness. In contrast, Moses portrays the Israelites as stiff-necked, sinful, and even unworthy. Still, God replies that He is making a covenant with them. As long as God is obeyed, “Before all thy people I will do marvels” (Exodus 34:10). As countless scholars have shown, the passage is part of the so-called Small Book of the Covenant.

The difference of the two partners, at least in terms of their portrayal, is striking. As it turns out, the two of them are capable of showing another side. On the surface, God will be less benevolent than it appeared at first sight. And the Israelites will raise to the occasion by finding a humility in themselves that isn’t visible in the majority of their desert performance.

But then, ipso facto, is the act of mercilessness. In return for choosing God, the Israelites will be protected from the Amorite, the Canaanite, the Hittite, and Perizzite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite. His wrath won’t stop there, though: he commands that their altars, their monuments, and sacred trees be destroyed.

In other words, this isn’t a peaceful, accommodating God. On the contrary, He is uncompromisingly violent.

This section, of course, comes after the shameful episode of the Golden Calf. Naturally, God is furious. He fears that His people will be led astray easily. Thus the rigidity toward pagan worship.

MAX PAGE: Why does God insist on the destruction of other people’s sacred places?

IS: On the surface, it is all about jealousy. Jealousy is an emotion that contains other feelings, such as rage and abandonment. It reacts to a perceived sense of inequality: a person desires an object, quality, or property possessed by someone else, feeling inferior as a result. Shakespeare, in Othello, described it as “the green-ey'd monster which doth mock / The meat it feeds on.” God in this pasuk is described as jealous, not only in name but in essence: “The Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.”

Revenge is a powerful emotion. Look at the role it plays in literature, from the Iliad to the Bible, from Hamlet to The Count of Monte Cristo and “Emma Zunz.” Characters become machines of aggression.

Ought God be blamed for feeling jealous after what happened with the Golden Calf? Jealousy is the engine of revenge. It seems to me that God wants no competition. In order to make His covenant successful, He wants total submission. He also requires a destructive spirit. The enemies of the Israelites must be abandoned, their religious infrastructure ruined. In my opinion, there is a hint in these two psukim of a profile of God that is ubiquitous in the Five Books of Moses: the God of the Israelites, obviously, is a warmonger.

MP: Yes, but I want to focus on the particular tactic of tearing down the buildings, the physical manifestations of the other’s religion. One could outlaw the practice of that religion by destroying tablets and scrolls, and — as was done so often to Jews later in history — by burning books. But God demands here the total demolition of the physical, visible representations of another faith. It is a disturbing command, one that a modern, liberal (or left) Jew wants to flee from, but must wrestle with. Coming at a crucial moment in the story of the development of the Jewish people, it holds extra weight — indeed, it weighs on us because we would like to throw it off, but it is part of our tradition.

IS: Present events infringe on our discussion. One of the most controversial — and, in my view, hateful — aspects of Israel’s occupation of Gaza and the West Bank is that after a terrorist attack targeting Jews, the Israeli government’s reaction is the destruction of the homes of the families of those who perpetrated the attack. Two corollaries emerge from this response: one is that families are made to pay for the sins; and that, as you say it, punishment comes in the form of the demolition of physical entities linked to the enemy.

This clearly is a model that comes from the biblical God. In my view, it is immoral. But let me put that aside in order to call attention to another important aspect. There is a difference of degree between God destroying the altars and pillars of the enemies of the Israelites, even when He commands the Israelites to perform such acts, and the Israelites themselves commanding such action. When God is the one making the decision, the action is seen as a manifestation of his jealousy. When the Israelites are in charge of the command, the action is earthly, that is, a form of human anger, meaning it isn’t theological but psychological.

MP: I study architecture, as well as historic places and memorials. But Judaism as I understand and live it is deeply skeptical of finding the sacred in a place. Abraham Joshua Heschel famously said that Judaism is a religion of time and not of space. Exiled from Jerusalem and the Temple, Judaism developed as a religion based on texts, on prayer in groups, on study and action. A synagogue itself it not sacred; it only becomes sacred when 10 people come to pray, or when a group gathers to study and debate.

I am struck that even as God demands that the Israelites “dash in pieces their pillars,” He leads the Israelites with a “rising of the pillar of cloud” (Numbers 9:17), a column, awesome and powerful, which can disappear in an instant. The Golden Calf, the statuary of gods, the pillars and altars to false Gods — these have a childlike power that Judaism stands against. The sacred will be found in the ephemeral.

IS: I have a dissenting opinion. Heschel’s eloquent description of Judaism relates only to the diaspora, where it is indeed time, not space, that allows Jews to travel from one context to another. In the long term, it is that travel that allows them to survive: the need to live in a particular place but as outsiders. The revolutionary quality of rabbinical Judaism, and the essence of Talmudic theology, is that a nation isn’t attached to a place. Instead, it is portable. It doesn’t need a specific site to exist.

This, I believe, is what flares the animosity of anti-Semites: the capacity of Jews to be outsiders, that is, to be loyal to a particular nation but nurture more transcendent goals. Rabbinical Judaism needs no army, no flag, no currency. It has its own mythology, its own code of ethics. Therein the power of the ephemeral.

In contrast, biblical Judaism, by which I mean the religion of the Israelites in Canaan, as well as the condition of modern Israel, is anything but ethereal. When Jews have their own homeland, the need to defend it is unavoidable. That defense is more about space than it is about time, because it is set in a particular geographical location.

MP: I agree that what is revolutionary about Judaism lived in exile, which, for most of its history, is its placelessness: sacred space can be found anywhere where texts are studied, where 10 adults gather to pray, where acts of Tzedakah are made. I can’t help but think of the tale recently told by a friend of man about a man planting a tree when the messiah arrives. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai teaches that first you should finish planting the tree and then greet the Messiah (Avot d’Rabbi Natan B31). Some have used this teaching to underscore environmental commitments — the planting of a tree, the tending to the earth, is so important, so central to redemption of the world, that even the redeemer himself should wait. But a friend taught me to see it another way: the tree is a reliable start to building a landscape, a home in a new place. The messiah? We should always be skeptical of promises of the messiah, that the end of days has come, that the wandering and repeated settling, making of home, has come to an end.

However, I fear I am doing what the commentaries always want to do: massage overt calls to violence in the Torah into something more palatable.

IS: That’s because there is no sugarcoating it: the biblical God is a warmonger. He also plays favorites in paternalistic ways. He rewards those that comply with His mandates and punishes those who aren’t. What lays behind this divine destructiveness, in my view, is always turf. He is ready to flatten the architectural structures of the enemies in part because He wants to establish parameters of where His people ought to live. He is about delineating where the control of the land ought to be. And He is also about showcasing force: “My people, the Israelites, are protected within My sphere of influence.”

The cautionary tale is that even beyond that domain — that is, crossing into enemy territory — He approaches his own people as a traitor. What I’m arguing is that the psukim aren’t only about the enemy but about the parameters of acceptable behavior. This reminds me of Fidel Castro’s dictum, repeated by Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez: either you’re with me, or you’re against me.

The most emblematic of rabbinical characters who deviates from the norm is Acher, which is how the Talmud refers to Elisha ben Abuya. The Hebrew word is emblematic: acher in Hebrew means “other.” Louis Ginzberg’s The Legends of the Jews (1909) is eloquent about him, as is the probing novel by Milton Steinberg, As a Driven Leaf (1939). Ben Abuya is one of the four sages, along with Rabbi ben Azzai, Rabbi ben Zoma, and Rabbi Akiva, who is said to have entered “the garden,” in Hebrew pardes. We are told that he lost his path and, thus, that he was cut from the tribe. Historically, ben Abuya became infatuated with Greek philosophy, particularly with Epicureanism, which is said to have led him away from Judaism. Except that he didn’t abandon it altogether. Like Baruch Spinoza, a type of herem was implemented against him.

His rejection from the tribe is the equivalent of the flattening of the enemy’s structures.

MP: Before we solidify the reading of the words in Ki Tissa, that it is in fact God who is jealous and demands control of his “turf,” I want to suggest a different interpretation, one that has a long tradition in Midrashic writing. Nechama Leibowitz notes that the rabbis find it significant that the Tabernacle is only granted by God after the episode of the Golden Calf. God succumbs to the needs of the people to have an object, a place to experience and worship their God. She notes that “[h]oliness was applied to a place solely at the instance of Israel whereas the holiness of time was pronounced by God at the very beginning of things.” It is Moses, she notes, who sanctified the Tabernacle (Numbers 7:2), yet it is God herself who sanctifies Shabbat, the true holy palace.

These lines — “you shall break down the altars” — may be what the people need, not what God actually wants. Just as the people need a tangible sign of God — and the Tabernacle will replace the Golden Calf — so too, inevitably, will they have to dispense with other people’s tangible signs of faith. God give the people of frail faith exactly what they need.

IS: It is a compelling interpretation, one focused on what God’s creatures need. I must confess, however, to a feeling of discomfort. It is a feeling I frequently have when coming across an interpretation that stresses the value of what Israel needs in the eyes of God, and not what God wants for Himself. Leibowitz’s approach is that God allows for the construction of the Tabernacle after He sees what His creations are capable of. This stand, if I’m allowed a small dose of sarcasm, is “child-friendly.” The parent — and God as a parental figure is an established trope in liturgy, starting with the noun “Father” to describe him, which in English is a common denomination long before the King James Version of the Bible, published in 1611 — does what the child needs. It is a symptom of the times. Ours is a child-obsessed culture. It is compassionate, no doubt. We align our pedagogies to support this approach. But I’m of the view that we frequently overdo it, to the point of abdicating authority as a result. Not everything the child needs should be provided. The decision is left to the parent.

Of course, God in this instance is making such a decision: He allows a Tabernacle because He visualizes what a life without such structures might be like for His creation. But then why is He such tyrant in other circumstances, not allowing for much leniency? I already see what Leibowitz and her supporters might respond: God’s wisdom is infinite, and it is also unknowledgeable. Frankly, whenever I find this wishy-washy answer, my reaction is frustration. Rabbinical debates are extraordinarily rational … until they give in to a suspension of judgment. If we’re intent on understanding the meaning of divine action, let’s not suddenly opt out by invoking the maxim, God’s behavior is incomprehensible.

At any rate, Leibowitz’s approach doesn’t take away from the exclusivism showcased in the quote. The millennial history of the Jews in the diaspora is about the endless contact with other civilizations. The question remains: why the need to dispense with other people’s tangible signs of faith?

The reason we have a strong reaction to this statement is that it clashes with our modern views of tolerance, along with diversity and pluralism. The Enlightenment went further than any time in history in establishing a rationale for the ninth commandment: “You shall not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” In other words, respect and live in peace with others so that others respect and live in peace with you.

On the face of it, it is a rather tall order: accept others that aren’t like you. Let them have their own faith. Let them prosper and multiply. British philosopher Isaiah Berlin is invaluable on this matter. Liberty, in his view, needs to be seen as a negative attribute: less about what we can do and more about what we can’t. To be free isn’t about having no limits whatsoever but about exercising our free will within the confines of the possible.

For me, the flattening of the altars in Ki Tissa is a negation of the right of others.

MP: May I come back to a line from a book you no doubt know well: Carlos Fuentes, The Buried Mirror (1992)? He writes, hopefully, that “people and their cultures perish in isolation, but they are born and reborn in contact with other men and women.” Our passage from Ki Tissa demands the opposite. It demands purity. It demands excising the other from view, from the presence of the other in our cities and on the land. Contact with other religions, rather than giving birth, or rebirth, to Jewish culture, would be its death. And yet our experience, Jews in the United States, one of us an immigrant, another the son of an immigrant, resonates with Fuentes, and draws us away from the Torah’s angry calls for use of the religious bulldozer. I feel alienated from this tradition when I read these lines. I think of how I turned to my mother when we read the “Children’s Bible” together and asking her, Why is God so mad?

IS: Ours is an age of intolerance, an age that gives ample room to supremacies of all kinds. The word supremacy, according to Merriam-Webster, is “the quality or state of being supreme,” e.g., supreme authority, supreme power. Our commander-in-chief is a bully whose strategy, whenever he faces dissent, is to ridicule it in public. He looks at himself as the best, most intelligent, most righteous, most charismatic, most accomplished. In and around him, there is little room for humility.

Yet he is far from the only one endorsing supremacy these days. White, Islamic, and Jewish fundamentalism do as well. Fundamentalism is a movement convinced that certain principles are essential, inalienable, and best interpreted in the strictest sense of the text. The US Supreme Court, the highest organ of justice in the land, whose basic structure is based on rationality, also has members endorse a type of fundamentalism.

I am fearful of these excesses. I believe in a balanced life, one based on the control of all of one’s capacities: our reason, our emotions, our instincts. Politically speaking, the best, most durable systems of government are those capable of balance as well, swinging from the left to the right and back without allowing extremes to reach the center.

Jealousy is a most human emotion. Spinoza, whom I wholeheartedly admire, states, in Ethics (1677), that envy, an emotion that may subsume jealousy (which, he argues, may lead to spitefulness), “is hatred in so far as it affects a man so that he is sad at the good fortune of another person and is glad when any evil happens to him.” I would add that there is good envy and bad envy. To envy others might also serve as traction to improve ourselves. In other words, the question is not how to get rid of envy but how to control it, how to domesticate it. Flattening our neighbor’s religious site isn’t proof of control. Just the opposite, it is an example of excess.

But again, this viewpoint is based on the principles we have inherited from the Enlightenment. In biblical times — and, therefore, in the Bible — the idea of tolerance is often anachronistic.

MP: You mention envy. We have neglected to discuss that envy — a form of jealousy — is not just proscribed by the Torah, but is one of the Ten Commandments: “you shall not covet.” The rabbis have debated this commandment for centuries because it is the only commandment that proscribes a thought. Stealing your neighbor’s donkey would be the sin of stealing. Having sex with your neighbor’s wife would violate the commandment against adultery. But can thinking of these sinful acts be an abomination as well? We think of Judaism as a religion of action — the Mitzvot are divided between positive and negative actions, things we must do and things we must abstain from doing — but they are all about how we act in the world, toward God and fellow human beings.

And yet, it is in the Ten Commandments. The most convincing interpretation I know is that envy, covetousness, and jealousy are such powerful emotions that they lead so often, so disastrously to actions that they must be declared a fundamental sin, as destructive of the good life as murder and stealing and adultery.

My discomfort, Ilan, is made more so when I realize that what God declares a sin of such importance that it is inscribed on tablets and carried by the people in the ark across their travels and today sits above the bima in most synagogues, is exactly a characteristic by which God defines God’s self. God is not just “a jealous God,” but a God “whose name is Jealous.” That is, we have a God who is, by God’s own words, jealous. He envies the adoration bestowed upon the Golden Calf, turning it into rage. He is blinded by the very emotion He knows to be blinding and which He declares an abomination when embraced by His people.

IS: This is an extraordinary point: the name of God is “Jealous.” As you’ve argued, it signals a contradiction between the way God wants the Israelites to behave by means of the Ten Commandments, putting envy aside, and the fact that such emotion is Him in essence.

I’m a teacher of literature. I spend my life in the classroom with two invaluable companions: students and books. After years of doing it, I’ve learned one invaluable lesson: these two companions are astonishingly fragile — as I am, too. “Fragile” is a synonym of delicate, malleable, maybe even breakable. Another synonym is imperfect. All of us, in that classroom, are works in progress: limited, intemperate, obtuse.

The books I read with my students are frequently considered classics. That is, they are books that survive by being reread, generation after generation. These, Max, are probably the most imperfect of all. Try to reread a book you love. You’ll find it rewarding as well as predictable. And, most importantly, now that you’re paying close attention, you’ll find all sorts of faults with it.

The Bible is my companion, Max. This doesn’t mean it is perfect. In fact, I rejoice in it precisely because of its contradictions. You’ve pointed to an important one. There are scores of others. The difference between reading the Bible through with either an orthodox or a heterodox mindset lies in the recognition of its faults. As far as I’m concerned, this makes it more human. Humanity is what books are meant to express.

MP: It is also worth remembering, Ilan, what happens to the Golden Calf. It is crushed into dust and then mixed with water. The Jews are made to eat it; they are made to eat their sin of envy.

IS: Yes, that too: we eat our own vileness. Isn’t that what we always do? The pure and the impure are in constant mix.

MP: The news intervenes. While we discuss these issues, a debate over the fate of Confederate war monuments in the American South has erupted again, this time leading to the removal of many of the statues of Southern Civil War “heroes.” The statues to the leaders of the Confederacy — Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, P. G. T. Beauregard, Jefferson Davis, and others — have dominated the public squares of Southern cities since the end of the 19th century. Many African Americans and their allies have long hated them, as they were the visible symbols of the “Lost Cause” ideology, ones that inspired other forms of repression of African Americans: segregation, lynching, resistance to integration. And yet, they remained long after the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Only now, this year, have several cities decided that enough is enough. Not long ago, Mayor of New Orleans Mitch Landrieu spoke eloquently, saying that

To literally put the Confederacy on a pedestal in our most prominent places of honor is an inaccurate recitation of our full past […] As a community, we must recognize the significance of removing New Orleans’ Confederate monuments. It is our acknowledgment that now is the time to take stock of, and then move past, a painful part of our history.

Many still argue — as in Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, where there is a Black mayor — that we should add other statues, or markers that will contextualize the statues. I used to believe that thinking that removing them would be tantamount to erasure of the past. I have changed my view. I don’t want to “dash in pieces their pillars,” but I do think that their visual dominance of Southern cities is an affront. “To everything there is a season” (Ecclesiastes 3). Maybe the long season of these monuments is finally over.

IS: Should these statues be crushed into dust and mixed with water? Should people eat them? Frankly, I love the image, as disgusting as it is. Weren’t we, the descendants of the Israelites who ate the Golden Calf, forced to eat whatever dust was available in the camps? Am I being vengeful now?

Either way, I want to go a step further than you, though not for the reason you imply. A few weeks ago, I had a conversation on the radio with a colleague of ours, James Young, author of The Stages of Memory (2016), about precisely the topic of museums, monuments, and memorials. My impression is that we’ve overindulged in building them. We have too many, to the point of neutralizing their function. Are we remembering too much?

At a time when governments prefer amnesia, I know this is anathema.

MP: Horrible as it may sound, I find the image of a communal meal — a great stew, cooked in vast cauldrons, with ground dust of Confederate statues — an uplifting image. Indeed, tables could be lined around the traffic circles where the statues once stood. Together, black and white, could sit together and joyfully realize that the best way to process this past is physically through each individual. That could bring a certain sense of closure.

On the larger point about memorials, Ilan, I of course agree with you. Although I have spent a significant part of my academic career thinking about monument and memorials, and have learned much from James Young and the artists he has written about, I found myself a number of years ago feeling gently, and then more so, repelled by our ever-growing emphasis on memorialization. What began with the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial reached an extreme peak with the 9/11 Memorial. $2 billion. Several acres. Two vast waterfalls. I started to wish that instead we should return to a different notion of memorial: to investing in schools and housing and parks in honor of those individuals who died. To building university buildings in their name. Endowing scholarships and research grants. Paying for libraries to be open longer; museums to be free. In our town, Ilan, the World War II memorial is not a large statue, implicitly celebrating soldiers and war. It is the town pool — the War Memorial Pool — built for succeeding generations of children to enjoy their summers, all in living honor of those who served.

And maybe that’s what we might read from this passage, in light of our current day. It is a hopeful interpretation, which stands at odds with a rightful and righteous disgust at violence done in the name of Jews, which you have articulated and which I also share. I am hesitant to suggest it. But can we, perhaps, find in the commandment to destroy physical remnants, a call to move in the direction of Judaism’s most radical notion? Remember that what God offers as a replacement for the Golden Calf is Shabbat — a day without money, without tools, where time takes precedence over space, where prayer and connection with family and friends is the altar. It is a remarkable substitution, one that is radical and frightening to a people whose world was surrounded by the notion of the physical being the connection, or even the embodiment, of the divine.

We are asked — yes, angrily ordered — to clear the land to make way for a new way of living, one whose name is peace.

IS: I talked before of good envy and bad envy. For me, envy is usable in psychological terms. Of course, when envy is destructive it leads to chaos. But we also improve because we envy others.

Pertinently, you asked a while ago why Jews are hated. In my teens, I read a book by Jean-Paul Sartre that made me quite uncomfortable: Anti-Semite and Jew (1942). In it, Sartre argues that anti-Semites need Jews as much as Jews need anti-Semites. There is something unappealing in the premise. But something of value too. In mythical tales as well as in the stories of superheroes, the figure of the nemesis serves a crucial role: it drives the hero toward action. Is it possible to consider that jealousy is precisely what makes us better, that it is as a conduit for goodness?

Maybe the function of the psuk in Exodus is to force us to explore the other side of ourselves. But I shall stop here, lest I forget that Rabbi Nachman cautioned against getting infatuated with our own words.


Ilan Stavans is a Mexican-American author and translator, the publisher of Restless Books, and Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College.

Max Page is a professor of Architecture at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the author, most recently, of Why Preservation Matters (Yale).

LARB Contributor

Ilan Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities, Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, the publisher of Restless Books, and the host of the NEPR podcast In Contrast. He has written Quixote: The Novel and the World (2015), Oy, Caramba!: An Anthology of Jewish Stories from Latin America (2016), Borges, the Jew (2017), and The Wall (2018).  He has recently written The Seventh Heaven: Travels through Jewish Latin America (Pittsburgh), and his book-long poem “The Wall” (also Pittsburgh) won the 2019 Massachusetts Book Award in Poetry.


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