WRESTLING JACOB: Deception, Identity, and Freudian Slips in Genesis
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by Shmuel Klitsner
Hardcover, 182 pages
In Wrestling Jacob, a master teacher introduces us to
the biblical Jacob in an original and compelling psychological reading that
takes us inside the ancient Hebrew text.
As his lens focuses on the Bible’s artistic use of anomalous language and
intertextual allusion, Klitsner moves seamlessly from text to subtext, from
conscious to subconscious. Readers may be surprised to discover that
the dynamics of the Genesis narratives closely mirror the psychoanalytic
description of the universal human struggle for wholeness and autonomy.
Settle back and enjoy this intellectually exhilarating exploration of dreams,
Freudian slips, resistances and transference, as Jacob, mirroring everyman,
wrestles with men and God and struggles to be blessed.
The book Wrestling Jacob: Deception,
Identity, and Freudian Slips in Genesis
presents close readings of the biblical
stories of Jacob from both literary and
psychological perspectives. The readings
explore the relationship between
text and subtext as reflecting the
relationship between the conscious and
On one level, this book is about Jacob’s
personal wrestling with his own angels
and demons, his struggle to build a
ladder between his own internal heaven
and earth. On another level, it is about
deceptions – of ourselves and of others –
that threaten the fragile development of
Perhaps above all else, Wrestling Jacob
introduces a new way to read the Bible,
in which unusual word choices, odd
syntax, and striking parallels conspire
to reveal profound new meanings in an
About the Author:
Rabbi Shmuel (Steven) Klitsner,
a student of the late Nehama Leibowitz
and co-author of the acclaimed novel
The Lost Children of Tarshish, has
trained a generation of Bible teachers
at Jerusalem’s Midreshet Lindenbaum
College and at the London School of
Jewish Studies. His film credits include
the award winning Hannukah animation
Praise for Wrestling Jacob:
I recall Nechama Leibowitz's response to a student's request to define the
difference between 'peshat' and 'derash'. With a smile, she quipped, "If I
say it, it's peshat. If you say it, it's derash."
Indeed, students of midrash will recognize that many midrashim are based
on careful readings of the text, so that while the answers presented may
not emerge from the text, they are often sparked and inspired by the
anomalies the text presents. The problem is that those midrashim often do
not make the textual inspiration explicit, and do not follow their
interpretation through the broader text - that is left for the next
generation of interpreters.
Contemporary literal analysis of the Bible takes the midrashic genre to a
new level. It uses themes, 'leitwort', repetition, parallelism, puns,
twists, literary structure and form, etc. to generate meaning implied, but
not explicit in the text. Those readings can often be convincing, even
though the messages they suggest are only implicit. Indeed, the line
between 'derash' and 'peshat' becomes blurred, as the various textual
clues lay the foundation for what many medieval commentaries may have
called 'omek peshuto shel mikra', or the underlying message emerging from
reading between the lines. In Wrestling Jacob, Shmuel Klitsner combines
deep psychological insights, careful attention to the language and sounds
of the text, and creative intertextual reading to craft a fascinating and
thoughtful literary reading of the entire Jacob narrative.
The lengthy introductory chapter articulates a methodology that the rest
of the book carefully follows. While the book can be read without the
introduction (as Klitsner himself indicates), the introduction is itself
substantive enough to be read without the book. But after reading the
introduction the reader cannot resist but turn the page to see how it is
Klitsner is not a psychologist, but cites freely from a wide spectrum of
psychological theorists and offers his own insights in an attempt to
understand the text deeply. His application of psychology to the complex
character development he presents forces the reader to stop and think -
sometimes to try to take it all in, other times to wonder aloud, "why didn't
I think of that?" One example - the text presents Yitzhak's preference of
Esav as based on food, 'ki tzayid befiv'. Klitsner traces this back to the
defining moment of Yitzhak's life, 'akeidat Yitzhak'. He writes, "...is it
not likely that the provision of burnt meat to the mouth of Isaac by Esau,
serves to unblock the clogged arteries or pathways of love as it
unconsciously returns Isaac to the moment of relief in the terror of his
near sacrifice - namely, the substitution of the 'ram in the thicket' for
his own life?"
What stands out is not the individual insights, but the way multiple
observations are woven together to paint a rich picture, and in which
those images are strung together to form a themed narrative. Following the
theme of food, Klitsner suggests that Yaakov's cooking of the lentils was
an attempt to win Yitzhak's love, noting that the story which immediately
follows begins with a description of a famine in the land.
Another pillar of the methodology is Klitsner's careful attention to
language in the themed 'leitwort', the usage of anomalous words, and the
use of word plays. For example, as Yaakov tried to increase his flocks he
employs a strange usage of rods, and the words used to describe those are
'luz' and 'armon'. They do not escape Klitsner's eye, as he links 'luz'
with the name of the place of Yaakov's dream prior to his re-naming it to
Bet El, and links 'armon' to its root (meaning, deceit) and to Yitzhak's
declaration that Yaakov had taken the blessing 'bemirmah'. The play on
colors does not elude him either - in Yaakov's 'deception' of Lavan he
peels white ('lavan') strips from the rods, while in his deception of his
brother, who is also known as Edom (the red), he uses a ruddy lentil soup.
Similarly, much attention is paid to the wordplays in Yaakov's climatic
struggle at Yabok, a struggle described in the Hebrew as 'vaye-avek' -
with the switches of the letters part of what Klitsner suggests is
reflective of Yaakov being turned inside out.
I would be remiss if I did not mention his extensive use of
intertextuality. In simple terms, that includes examining parallel
stories, or stories in which parallel words and themes appear. This is a
rich and powerful tool, in which two texts illuminate each other in subtle
but powerful ways. For example, the language used in the story of 'akeidat
Yitzhak' ('avi', 'beni') highlights the relationship between father and
son, and focuses our attention to the tension inherent in that scene.
Klitsner notices the same focus, if not intensified, as Yaakov stands
before his father pretending to be Esav. Similarly, the use of 'hineni' in
both stories begs for our attention.
On the thematic level, Yaakov's mysterious nighttime encounter is played
off of Moshe's encounter at the 'malon', the sale of the birthright is
compared to the sale of the mandrakes, and Yaakov's deception of his
father paralleled to his confrontation with Lavan.
If the many references I cite sound like a tease, then you should read
this book. Klitsner's attention to detail is delicious, and those who
appreciate close reading of the text will not be disappointed. That does
not mean that they will agree with everything he writes. I found myself
questioning and challenging many of his readings, even as I found them
Some of the issues I have are technical. Klitsner suggests that after
twenty years of serving Lavan, Yaakov proposes the "famous and convoluted
bargain", but the Torah text seems to indicate that that bargain came at
the end of fourteen years. Klitsner plays with both the way words are
written and the way they sound - but in some cases, they only sound that
way to the contemporary Israeli Ashkenazi ear. No Sefardic Jew would think
that 'wa-yi-wa-ter' (with a 'vav' as the third letter) and 'wa-ye-ba-ter'
(with a 'bet' as the third letter) (my transliteration in both cases)
Beyond the few technical slips, I found myself disagreeing with many of
the conclusions he draws. For example, part of his assertion is that much
of what drives Yaakov in seeking the blessing is his desire for his
father's love. Yet the text never suggests that Yaakov is desirous of the
blessing (Klitsner addresses whether Yaakov participated in the ruse
willingly or only under duress), nor am I convinced that Yaakov was
seeking his father's love. Nearly every page presents the reader with
assertions and interpretations with which one can take issue; though I
often find literary analysis compelling, that was not necessarily the case
There is a well-known saying, 'ein meshivin al ha-derush' - loosely
translated as, it's hard to debate with the derash. Precisely because much
classical derash is creative interpretation loosely connected to the text,
it is difficult to engage in a substantive discussion of the correctness
of the interpretation. In scientific terms, any hypothesis which cannot
theoretically be proven incorrect is not a valid hypothesis. This work,
however, belongs to a different genre of derash - one which is tightly
connected to the text. It takes the text seriously even as it plays with
figurative readings. It is eisegesis (reading into the text) side by side
with exegesis (reading out from the text). It asks, and deserves, to be
taken seriously. And to be taken seriously means to understand it,
challenge it, and engage it.
The book also raises important questions for the reader of the Torah. Are
there limits to intertextuality? Can earlier texts "wait" for later texts
to elucidate them? Was the Torah meant to be studied as a written text or
listened to as an oral-aural tradition? Do wordplays really have deep
meanings, or could it be that sometimes, to paraphrase a popular quip,
they are just wordplays? And when we read psychological insights into a
text, how much of that is a reflection [of] the text as opposed to a reflection
of the reader? (Much discussion regarding psychoanalysis itself focuses on
how much of it is tied to Freud's own psychological baggage.)
Klitsner's work is valuable - for its careful reading of the text, for its
psychological insights, and for its incisive derash. Ultimately, the deep
readings in this book are not about wordplay, psychology or
intertextuality. Those are but tools available to the student of the text
serving a greater purpose - to uncover the ultimate meaning of the
stories. That message, according to Klitsner, relates to the struggle of
biblical heroes caught in a "double bind of moral responsibility vs.
covenantal destiny - evident when biblical characters try to advance the
divine objective in ways that bypass their own integrity." Biblical heroes
are expected to grow into a position in which their moral autonomy is
paramount, regardless of what they perceive to be a prophetic imperative.
The book explores "the tense and often contradictory relationship between
what the divine plan seems to be and the implicit condemnation of dubious
human machinations to bring about the divinely mandated result."
Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with specific
interpretations offered in this volume, its overall moral message is a
clarion call. In the end, it's not about our judgment of the biblical
characters, but about what we can learn from them.
-Zvi Grumet, Lookstein Digest
A Bible Commentary for the 21st Century?
In recent years, a new "school" of Israeli Bible interpretation has developed. It is often called, informally, Tanach begovah einayim or "Bible at eye level." Its practitioners are expert readers of Hebrew who have deep literary sensibilities. They try to strike a balance between "over-reading" and "under-reading"; and their commentaries often relate to extended units of texts. They provide insightful close readings of biblical texts, readings that generally portray biblical characters - even the greatest of our ancestors – as complex individuals with weaknesses and strengths, sometimes more weaknesses than strengths. Even though the leaders of this interpretive school are devout learned rabbis (from national religious circle in Israel), their work is considered anathema by members of the haredi or semi-haredi community, as it consciously and purposely makes biblical characters look like us, and not like virtually faultless role models whose moral and spiritual level exceeds ours.
Until recently most of the works of this school of interpretation, including the works of Rabbi Yoel bin Nun and Rabbi Yaacov Meidan, have been available only to Hebrew readers. But now an Israeli rabbi of American background, Shmuel (Steve) Klitsner has published a fascinating analysis of the Jacob stories from the book of Genesis in English: Wrestling Jacob: Deception, Identity and Freudian Slips in Genesis (Urim Publications, Jerusalem and New York, 2006). The book also includes a careful analysis of a number of other biblical stories that, Klitsner argues, can only be understood properly if their intertextual links with the Jacob stories are revealed. This book should provide the English reader with an excellent entree into the Tanach begovah einayim school of exegesis.
Klitsner's book is not for everyone. It is not a good introduction to the Bible for the beginner student who does not really remember the basic outline of the story of Jacob in the Bible. At the other end of the spectrum, it is inappropriate for the deeply pious traditionalist who is convinced (and wants to remain convinced) that father Jacob was a much holier, more spiritual and more moral person than we are. And finally, it is not the right Bible commentary for the Bible critic who insists that the Bible is understood only by tearing it apart and reducing it to its alleged original documents. Klitsner (p. 23) describes the approach that he follows as "the stance of the talmudic generations... and the stance of the most sensitive secular readers of the Bible, who humbly accept the integrity of the text while freely and fully interpreting its complexity."
Klitsner's book is filled with insights into the psychology of biblical characters, based on a close reading of the text. He does not limit himself to reading short passages but tries to integrate the Jacob stories (which stretch over 26 chapters of the book of Genesis and echo in many other biblical passages) into one extended essay. Klitsner sees Jacob as a man who was unloved by his father (Genesis 25:28) and who, when he was in his 40s, was still not taking personal autonomy for his actions, passively accepting his mother's advice not to be concerned about duping his father, Isaac, since she would take responsibility for the negative fallout (Genesis 27:10-12).
While I have studied the story of Jacob hundreds of times, now that I have read Klitsner's book I will never see it the same way. Klitsner's close readings of texts demonstrate that Jacob remained psychologically hated for many years by the fact that he had duped his own father. Others have suggested this theory, but no one has proved it as extensively and as well as Klitsner does. Both Klitsner and I, when each of us studied (separately) with the Bible master of the 20th century, Nehama Leibowitz, learned from her that you can see Jacob's guilt feelings when he turns to his brother, Esau, years after stealing his blessing through his masquerade, and says: "Please take my present" (Genesis 33: 11). The problem is that Jacob seems to slip up. He does not use any of the standard Hebrew words for "Present"; rather he tells Esau to take his "blessing"; the very item that Jacob had purloined (Genesis 27:30).
Klitsner builds on this, piling up text that proves that Jacob was psychologically haunted for many years by his own duplicity. In one example, when Jacob has a big showdown with his father-in-law, Laban, he asks him (Genesis 31:37) "Why have you rummaged through [mishshashta] all of my possessions?" (referring to Laban's search for household gods that had been, unbeknownst to Jacob, stolen by his wife, Rachel). Again Jacob seems to use the "wrong" Hebrew word for "rummaging through." The Hebrew root m-sh-sh is invariably used in the Bible to describe how a blind person or someone who is searching in the dark feels for items that they cannot see. But Laban was conducting his search in broad daylight! Klitsner sees here another example of how Jacob was haunted years later by his own trickery, in which he was "felt" by his blind father (as the text repeatedly tells us, using that same verb m-sh-sh, Genesis 27:12, 27:21, 27:22), thus duping Isaac into mistaking him for Esau. A series of Freudian slips like this in the Bible builds up an impressive case for Klitsner's thesis.
Perhaps the most compelling part of Klitsner's book is his comparison of three stories in which a biblical character encounters God or an angel at a crucial juncture in his life, and ends up being injured as a result: Jacob's wrestling with the angel just before he meets up with Esau face to face (Genesis 32:25-31); Moses' encounter with God in the lodging place on his way back to Egypt when God "sought to kill him" (Exodus 4:24-26); and Balaam's encounter with God's angel as he was on his way to attempt to curse the Israelites (Numbers 22:22-35). The first to note the parallel between these three texts was, as Klitsner notes, Rabbi Samuel ben Meir (Rashbam, 12th century), but Klitsner develops the comparison in novel ways. He points out that all these texts are about men at crucial junctures in their lives wrestling with themselves, and with their own indecision. Klitsner manages to pair astounding intertextual references with deep psychological insights.
Is this pshat or midrash? I would say that it is a little of both. Klitsner and others from the Tanach begovah einayim school base their work on careful lexical, syntactical and grammatical analysis - the traditional tools of the pshat commentator. But their work is didactic, edifying and inspiring in the best tradition of midrash. One of Klitsner's strongest messages is that biblical characters (and we modern Jews, too) cannot simply give up our own moral autonomy (as Jacob did when he duped his father) when we think that God's plan forces us to do something. Perhaps a Bible commentary like this is just what the Jewish people needs today.
-Professor Martin Lockshin, Canadian Jewish News
Too many Biblical commentaries today consider anomalies within the text of the Torah from either one of two extremes: as problems needing to be resolved, or as mistakes needing to be dismissed. In this fascinating new work, Rabbi Shmuel Klitsner proposes following a third approach: to consider these anomalies of syntax or grammar as the way that the Torah communicates both text and subtext. This approach, which the author ties to Freudian interpretation of language, allows Klitsner to find new meaning and motivation in the Genesis narrative.
One brief example of this method is found at the beginning of Klitsner’s third chapter, where he analyzes the episode of Jacob’s blessing of Esau. Opening this discussion, Klitsner immediately notes a parallel between the language used at the Akaida [lit. “the binding” of Isaac] and the language used when Isaac invites Esau to receive a blessing (both episodes use the word hineini, while one uses avi [lit. “my father”] and the other bni [lit. “my son”]). This echo of a previous dialogue sets the tone for Isaac’s intended blessing of Esau—“in order that my soul bless him before I die”—which tragically is misunderstood by Isaac’s wife, Rachel, as if Isaac wanted to confer upon Esau the Abrahamic blessing of G-d, or in her retelling of his conversation “and I will bless you before God.” All of this transforms this episode into a tragic misunderstanding between husband and wife, which Klitsner develops with great skill and precision, drawing upon a wealth of classic and contemporary commentaries.
Rabbi Klitsner is a master teacher whose knowledge and ability have created a scholarly work that will be of great value to bible scholar and layman alike. But even more, in this work he presents a paradigm of how to read a biblical text that can be applied to other texts beyond the scope of this current study.
-Leonard A. Matanky
Jewish Book World
A book that really snuck under the radar last year but is a very creative and insightful piece of biblical commentary is Wrestling Jacob by Rabbi Shmuel Klitsner, who teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum in Jerusalem. Rabbi Klitsner and his wife, Judy, are renowned Tanach specialists, and in this book, Rabbi Klitsner analyzes, with great care and sensitivity, the passages in Genesis that tell the story of Jacob. His approach is psychological and literary while firmly based in traditional exegesis.
-Elliott Malamet, Canadian Jewish News
In Wrestling Jacob, Shmuel Klitsner presents a fascinating and insightful exegesis of the biblical stories of Jacob, Isaac and Moses. Drawing upon both traditional and modern scholarship, as well as psychology, his close reading of the text will, no doubt, bring to mind the work of his teacher, Nechama Leibowitz. Considering the approach Shmuel Klistner has taken, it is practically criminal that this book lacks both a bibliography and index. The audience for this book is unclear. Academic scholars might not be able to get past the basic premise of a single Pentateuchal author and frankly Orthodox point of view. At the same time, many in the Orthodox community may shrink at the notion of the patriarchs being portrayed as anything less than perfect, despite the faults that the Bible and rabbinic interpretation have depicted. Klistner's use of psychological concepts and terminology will be sure to offend some, but it is a book well worth the risk.
A work that utilizes more nuanced and sophisticated literary technique to explore character development is Shmuel Klitsner's Wrestling Jacob. Longtime teacher of Tanach at Jerusalem's Midreshet Lindenbaum, Klitsner focuses on the 2nd half of Sefer Breishit and the story of Jacob. Klitsner uses unique word choices and parallels to argue that difficult literary passages should not be "resolved," but should rather be understood as delivering a deeper subtext or meaning. Klitsner uses these literary nuances to analyze Jacob's moral development and his struggle with his family relationships and his own role within the divine covenant.
As he writes, "It would seem that the real drama of the biblical text lay precisely in the thorny complexity of intensely human (and at times tragically faulted) heroes functioning in the arena of morally ambiguous interaction with friends, family, and foes and simultaneously in the orbit of divine covenant."
This is an innovative and scholarly work that deserves careful study.
-Rabbi Shlomo Brody
Tradition Journal online