GEN1230 The great talmudic examples of filial piety are drawn from the life of Dama ben Netinah, “a non-Jew from Ashkelon.” Kiddushin 31b, and elsewhere
. In this he followed in the footsteps of Esau, of whom R. Simeon ben Gamliel said, “I served my father all my life, but I never served him a hundredth as well as Esau served his father.” Genesis Rabbah 65:16
So highly valued was this filial devotion that God granted Rome (Esau) all “this glory” (or, dominion) as reward. Tanhuma (ed. Buber), Kedoshim 15 (p. 40a). Midrash ha-Gadol, cited by Theodore-Albeck (Genesis Rabbah, II, 728 [1:3], relates these last two midrashic statements: R. Simeon ben Gamliel contrasts the behavior of Esau, who served his father in royal costume, with his own habit of attending to his father in ordinary dress. Hence, the descendants of Esau merited secular dominion in this world. Middah ke-negged middah; kabod is returned for kibbud.
What induced the rabbis to find in Esau and his descendants models whom Jews might well emulate? The biblical suggestion that Esau was ever ready to fulfill his father’s command [Genesis 27:3-4
] hardly warrants, in itself, such fulsome exposition; furthermore, the Bible has already presented Esau as paining his father greatly through his marriage [this verse] and will show him cynically expectant of his father’s death [Genesis 27:41
] The rabbis differed on the interpretation of this verse. For some it showed Esau’s solicitousness toward his father; for others it indicated his eagerness to see his father dead. See Genesis Rabbah 67:8 (p. 764), and notes.
A reasonable suggestion is that the rabbis were, in fact, impressed with the gravity and importance of filial piety among the Romans. They were certainly aware of both patria potestas
and the concern for filial piety among the moralists and thinkers. Patria poestas
and, in fact, the entire “legal” conception of the family were in an irreversible decline during the rabbinic period, it is true, but as part of the history of Rome, they provided a good justification for the origins of Rome’s greatness. Furthermore, the ethic expressed in patria potestas
was imbued, in more humane fashion, throughout the Roman world in this period. In Hellenistic Alexandria, “the honor of parents was a popular theme of pedagogic moralizing,” I. Heinemann, Philons Griechische u. Judishe Bildung, pp. 257
and it was a staple of Stoic thought. Patria potestas
was doubtless considered savage and inhumane in allowing parents to expose an unwanted child and to deny all property rights to the son. But the rabbis found the Romans exemplary even when measured by the Jewish standard of filial ethics. The behavior singled out for rabbinic praise—Esau’s eagerness to satisfy his father’s wish and the royal clothes he wore while serving him; Dama’s refusal to disturb his father even at the price of financial loss and his patient and passive endurance of his mother’s rage and blows—is not that described by patria potestas
but rather by pietas
, the kind of filial respect and honor deemed exemplary in Jewish ethics. Clearly, then, this ethics was considered part of the heritage of all mankind. BLIDSTEIN 36
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