WRESTLING JACOB: Deception, Identity, and Freudian Slips in Genesis

WRESTLING JACOB: Deception, Identity, and Freudian Slips in Genesis
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    WRESTLING JACOB: Deception, Identity, and Freudian Slips in Genesis

    by Shmuel Klitsner

    Hardcover, 182 pages
    Urim Publications, 2006 
    ISBN: 965-7108-93-4

    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 subconscious.
    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 our identities.
    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 ancient text.

    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 "Lights."

    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 applied.

    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 fascinating.

    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) sound alike.

    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 here.

    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."  
    - Daniel Scheide, AJL Newsletter

    "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