JACOB'S FAMILY DYNAMICS: Climbing the Rungs of the Ladder
JACOB'S FAMILY DYNAMICS: Climbing the Rungs of the Ladder
by Gad Dishi
Softcover, 240 pages, includes photos
Devora Publishing, Urim Publications, 2010
Why doesn't Jacob divorce Leah and demand justice upon discovering Leah in the morning?
Why doesn't Esau chase Jacob to Haran?
Why is Jacob silent during the Dinah crisis?
In Jacob's Family Dynamics, Gad Dishi revives familiar terrain with a fresh perspective as Jacob's emotional odyssey is textually tracked to reveal newfound treasures of understanding integral to the Biblical story.
This book can serve the reader as a running commentary enjoyable to the layperson and scholar alike. Dishi provides a model of interpretation that is as notable for its breadth of knowledge as it is for its honesty and vulnerability.
About the Author:
In Jacob's Family Dynamics, Gad Dishi combines his experience as an educator and Orthodox rabbi, with his years of education at the New York University School of Law and his legal experience at the Israeli Ministry of Justice and the Israeli Supreme Court. Together with his private practice, these provide him with the knowledge of classical and modern Biblical commentaries while conveying a sensitivity to word choice and close readings that will be cherished by readers of the Bible around the world.
Praise for Jacob's Family Dynamics:
"The narratives of Genesis can be understood in many ways, not least as the struggle of human beings to find their way to God in the midst of personal conflict and stress. Gad Dishi has provided us with an intensely personal reading of the narratives of Jacob and his family, their crises and moral growth through the process of conflict itself. Challenging and provocative, this work invites us to a fresh encounter with the biblical text as a mirror in which to see ourselves as we too seek a path to God."
- Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth
"The genre of Biblical commentary is inundated with two kinds of books: vaguely irrelevant academic treatises on the one hand, and collections of light sermonics on the other. Dishi offers a fresh alternative: Analysis that is accessible and relevant without sacrificing intellectual rigor. His take on Biblical narratives is fresh, thoughtprovoking, surprising, and uplifiting."
- Rabbi David Fohrman, Resident scholar at the Hoffberger Foundation for Torah Studies, adjunct professor at The Johns Hopkins University, and author of The Beast that Crouches at the Door
"If you have any interest in the Bible, Rabbi Gad Dishi's new book, Jacob's Family Dynamics is a must-read. A warning is in order though. Dishi rips apart many long-held stereotypical images of the Patriarch Jacob and his relationships. He then puts them back together in often innovative, insightful and even brilliant ways.
What is beautiful and inspiring about Dishi's work is the weaving of a mostly fragmented narrative of the stories of Jacob into a fluid, consistent and comprehensive picture. Many students of the classical commentaries will want to jump down Dishi's throat as he repeatedly negates or contradicts centuries-old interpretations. However, they will find it a challenging battle. The strength of Dishi's book is his extreme adherence to the text.
Dishi makes Jacob very human, contrary to the often superhuman depiction that classical commentaries portrayed him as. Dishi justifies the dichotomy in his introduction:
"The human element brings readers back to the Bible repeatedly to experience the characters' dramatic, real-life choices, while the superhuman approach draws readers to the text to be inspired once more by the perfection of the characters' personal attributes. Thus, from a religious perspective, both approaches have validity and can operate in parallel, each appealing to a different audience."
The analysis is based on a laser-like focus on each phrase, word and language nuance. He builds the personas and action of the stories based on these careful readings. At the same time he keeps an eye on the big picture and the continuum of Jacob's life, actions, fears, insecurities, needs and driving forces. The scenes that are covered in detail include (but are not limited to):
- Jacob's impersonation of Esau to obtain Isaac's blessing;
- Jacob's arrival at Haran and his meeting of Rachel;
- The switch of Leah for Rachel on the wedding night and Jacob's response;
- The competition of Leah and Rachel for Jacob's affection;
- Laban's confrontation with Jacob at Gilead;
- Jacob's reunion/confrontation with Esau;
- Jacob's reaction to the rape of Dinah;
- The burial of Rachel.
What emerges is a very human, and perhaps because of that, a very heroic (and also tragic) figure of Jacob. Dishi also presents Jacob's family members (parents, brother, father-in-law, wives and sons) as characters that seem truer to the biblical text than what many other commentaries paint.
Just one example of Dishi's original interpretations can be found in his analysis of Jacob's stimulus in stealing Esau's blessing. Dishi explains that Jacob was the initiator of the deception conspiracy as opposed to his mother, Rebecca. Furthermore, he argues that Jacob's motivation had less to do with achieving some still unknown blessing from his father, but rather to be the recipient of fatherly love and attention via this blessing before Isaac's death.
Dishi consistently uses a plethora of commentators both classical and modern to support his points. The pure erudition required to create this masterpiece is impressive, besides the excellence of his theories themselves.
Dishi successfully pulls off another feat. That of writing a scholarly work that will be accessible to the layman. The language is never too heavy or difficult. The prose is clear and flows. Even the extensive footnotes are fun and enlightening. It is as if one was sitting next to Dishi while he is typing and he shares yet another brilliant and related nugget of information or insight.
There is a special treat in Chapter 7 of a pair of color maps and pictures that delightfully illustrate Dishi's explanation of what really happened in the preparation and encounter of Jacob and Esau after their twenty year separation.
There are two minor flaws in this diamond of a book. Both can be attributed to the Herculean task of attempting to write for the two very different worlds of the layman and the biblical scholar in one volume. Dishi explains in a footnote of the first chapter that he uses the translation of Robert Alter's The Five Books of Moses. He then repeatedly cites him in much of the subsequent translation in the footnotes, which is presumably the scholarly thing to do. However, it is a minor annoyance in the otherwise entertaining footnotes.
The second and perhaps more significant flaw for biblical scholars (but one that they may enjoy finding and pouncing on), are the cases where Dishi continues his theories with limited substantiation or support. From a layman's point-of-view the theories still hold. They are compelling -- even convincing at points. An analogy that comes to mind is a skater approaching a patch of thin ice. The skater takes advantage of the solid ice to forcefully propel himself as quickly as possible over the thinner section.
Because Dishi has done such a superb and persuasive job in the highly detailed and corroborated sections, one is more willing to go along for the ride and follow where Dishi leads.
It is hard to believe that there could be surprises left in a biblical narrative that is so well known to many. Dishi however keeps the suspense and the original interpretations flowing, from the first to the last chapter.
Jacob's Family Dynamics should be part of the library of every Jewish home. It should also become required reading for any Bible/Genesis course from high school level to post-graduate degrees.
In Jacob's Family Dynamics Dishi has set a new standard for reading of biblical text. A student of the Bible will not be able to look at Jacob or at the text the same way again.
Dishi hopes in his introduction "that Jacob's Family Dynamics will lift the habitual blinders that have subdued the full power of the text." In this he has succeeded admirably.
- Ben-Tzion Spitz, Lookstein Book Digest
"In my Torah in Motion class on new approaches to studying Tanakh, I discussed three new approaches -- those of Nechama Leibowitz, R. Yoel Bin Nun and R. Mordechai Breuer. Nechama believed in looking at the different commentaries and finding the textual cues that prompted them to propose different explanations. R. Yoel Bin Nun looks at only the text, takes a broad view, and offers his own innovative explanations. And R. Breuer divides the text based on biblical criticism and then explains this split based on his Theory of Attributes. All admittedly generalizations -- it's impossible to sum up the life work of a great person in one sentence.
I have in my hands Gad Dishi's engrossing new book, Jacob's Family Dynamics: Climbing the Rungs of the Ladder. While reading it, I tried to see which of three approaches he generally followed. Who was the biggest influence on him? The answer is -- none. His book is totally different from what I regularly see in the growing Tanakh literature.
Instead of following one of the "big three" I mentioned above, he carefully reads the text and analyzes it from a psychological and literary perspective. He is more influenced by Robert Alter and Aviva Zornberg than Nechama Leibowitz. He carefully -- very carefully -- reads the text, notices subtle cues, and see in them information about what the characters were thinking and doing. The blurb on the back of the book says that Dishi offers us a "fresh perspective" and it is true. Not only have I never heard his answers, I have never even heard his questions".
In the end, I'm not sure I was convinced that Dishi's explanations are the best. I'm more of a traditional kind of guy. But I found his close readings enlightening and I enjoyed the well-written and broadly conceived treatments of Yaakov's life from birth through the death of Rachel.
- Rabbi Gil Student, Hirhurim Blog
"Gad Dishi, an Orthodox rabbi and teacher as well as a practicing attorney living in Israel, provides fresh insights into the biblical story of Jacob. There is something new and interesting for the reader with little background as well as for the scholar. The author's thorough analysis of the biblical text demonstrates that much of what we have always believed is based on assumptions. He urges the reader to go back to the source and to draw conclusions on that basis. The book...is recommended for synagogue and university libraries."
- AJL Newsletter