Jacob the God Wrestler

Jacob the God Wrestler


Howard Adelman

For those who are tired and dismissive of Torah study, forgive me. But it is important to complete my thinking, especially on one of the most memorable parts of the Torah. Besides, this one is central to figuring out the character of Jews, for it is in this story that Jacob is renamed Israel and becomes the father of the Jewish people. This snippet of a tale has always been important to me, even when I was totally dismissive of religion.

When I was seventeen and my late brother, Al, was eighteen, we wrestled on a beach, not all night, but for three hours during the late evening. I was taller than my brother, but he was better built and stronger. We were about the same weight. The wrestling match had no reference to the biblical one. Playfulness had just turned into a long wrestling bout. My brother and I were best friends. Our arguments interrupted our relationship that seesawed between silence and then long discussions of something of interest to Al. It was late August. We were about to enter medical school together.

No one won. Nothing was said while we wrestled. Like Gauguin’s painting of “Jacob Wrestling With the Angel,” and unlike the biblical tale, Jacob was not alone. Friends watched the wrestling match between myself and my brother even as it shifted into Lake Simcoe. But they were not puritan onlookers, but rather friends bemused and puzzled by the event. Unlike Jacob’s fight, this was not between two strangers or between two brothers who had been estranged. There was no anger from either side in the fight. It ended in a draw and my brother and I never fought again.

One of my readers sent the following note in response to my last blog:

I like your interpretation. A lot.

How about going a step further into the same direction and interpreting god as the growing autonomy of the SELF of Jacob, a self that Jacob relies on with more and more confidence, sense of entitlement and chutzpah. He becomes Israel, “he who struggles with god” (who else on earth dares to do that?) and god gives his blessing to this unique dynamics (as this is what he had in mind for humans to become like). Becoming Israel does not mean that Jacob can ever take this elevated title for granted, or that from here on onward he can sit back and relax; rather it means that he will be fully and acutely self-aware and will protect and maintain that (god-like) self through questioning and struggle with, for and against the seductiveness of the material world. The repeated “trickery” planned or committed by Jacob, by Rachel, and later by Jacob’s sons, and others, may not have been frowned upon by their first chroniclers as much as we today may think. It might have been viewed as the new, sophisticated mental weaponry in the survival of the fittest instead of the usual brute physical force employed. Genesis as evolutionary theory?

“Tricking” another does not annihilate them, unlike a lethal physical attack; they stay alive, and, in principle, have the possibility to fight back by ways of some counter trickery. We should all just play chess.

As it turned out, yesterday morning in Torah study, we accompanied the text of the encounter between Jacob and the male stranger (Esau, an angel, God, himself???) with Elie Wiesel’s chapter, “And Jacob Fought the Angel,” from his book, Memories of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends. Before I comment on Wiesel in my next blog, I start with art, for another reader of my blog reminded me of the Art Gallery of Ontario show, “Mystical Landscapes” that portrays both Gauguin’s and Denis’ interpretations of Jacob fighting the angel along with an audio guide. Paintings and the history of art over the last millennium of this story offer a contrast and comparison with my account.

The paintings to which I refer can be seen on the following site: http://the-toast.net/2014/09/16/famous-paintings-jacob-wrestling-angel-ranked-much-actions-resemble-slow-dancing/ A very early Russian painter (c. 1000) portrayed the angelic figure as very large. Jacob is the much smaller figure. The two are not wrestling, but are in a loving embrace, more akin to an adult cuddling a child. An early German miniature (c. 1350) depicted the intertwining of Jacob and an angel also as a loving embrace where the angel is still the larger figure, but not so disproportionately larger. Further, the angel has wings the same colour as Jacob’s robe as well as the forest in the background. It is a more earthly angel.

In Rembrandt’s 1659 very famous painting, “Jacob Wrestling with the Angel,” the angel is again the larger figure and both the angel and Jacob have their eyes closed. Once again, the portrait is much more of an embrace rather than a struggle or wrestling match, but the angel’s hands seem to be caressing Jacob’s back. In Niccolò Bambini’s “Jacob Wrestling with the Angel,” the two are depicted side by side, Jacob is almost a cupid figure, a youth – which he certainly was not at the time. The two are side by side and of equal size. Though the angel is holding Jacob’s wrist, there is little sense of struggle and even less sense that Jacob will prevail. In fact, the angel, rather than being bothered and irked by Jacob’s determination to fight on, wears a beatific smile. There is little concern that the text refers to Jacob’s wrestling partner as a man.

In Johann Friedrich Glocker’s “Wrestling With the Angel,” (18th century), one does not even see Jacob’s face, for he has his back to us, but the angel is smiling and the two seem to be clearly dancing rather than wrestling. The angel has her palm on Jacob’s buttock. It is as if this is a satiric portrait of the history of art portraying the relationship of Jacob to his wrestling partner as a loving one, mostly with the divine figure painted as the larger one in the portrait. It takes until the nineteenth century and the truly modern era when the loving relationship between Jacob and the angel is reinterpreted to try to capture the plain meaning of the Torah text. We finally get beyond a Christian homiletic universe of a loving God with Jacob captured in His embrace, a God who is a female in the form of an angel.

ln Gauguin’s 1888 painting, subtitled, “Jacob Wrestling With the Angel,” we move on to a very different portrayal. The formal title is, “Vision after the Sermon.” It is much different than the earlier paintings, but to fully grasp its meaning, one should be aware of the contents of the Sermon on the Mount where, in chapter 5 of Matthew, Jesus preaches the beatitudes and then elaborates upon them. Hearing and understanding the Sermon on the Mount as well as its aftermath is critical to comprehending the painting.

3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Jacob was not poor, but had amassed considerable wealth, some of it through trickery. Jacob was not meek but was an ambitious schemer with far reaching goals and a determination to get his father’s and even God’s blessing. Jacob neither hungers nor thirsts for righteousness in the Christian sense. His righteousness is one of entitlement. Nor is there any occasion depicted in the Torah where Jacob is merciful. Though not a macho man, neither is he “blessed” with a bleeding heart. And most certainly, he is not pure of heart. He wants wealth. He wants to be the forefather of a nation. Yet it is he who claims to have seen God, not a divine figure who wrapped himself around him in a loving embrace. He is not a peacemaker, but he does try to evade violent conflict using a combination of bribes, stalling, flattery and clever calculation, as well as always having a Plan B. But he is persecuted, not because of his righteousness, but as a complement to his success and, let’s not forget it, his struggle.

And when he – or his people who are the product of his loins – is insulted and persecuted, when he is defamed and lied about, most specifically, when his creed is misrepresented and even represented as the embodiment of evil, his reward is not found in heaven, as Jesus claims, but on earth. Jesus did not seem to understand the nature of the persecution to which the prophets of old were subjected. So how could Jesus grasp in full the meaning of the Holocaust?

After declaring the 10 (or 11, depending on how you count) beatitudes, in clear contrast to the laws of Moses written on tablets of stone, Jesus goes on to utter some of his most memorable aphorisms. One only need reread them to understand what a powerful preacher he must have been.

13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again?”
14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” 15 “Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”

Then comes one that is perhaps its most famous, at least as far as Jews are concerned.

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Jesus preaches that Jews are and must remain the salt of the earth. They must also be a light unto the world where the good deeds are projected. Who would have thought that the light was coming from a lighthouse built on rocks almost put there deliberately to wreck ships. For the same deeds that can inspire can also breed jealousy, hatred and resentment. Instead of guiding ships away from the shoals, that light draws them nearer to destroy the source of the light from those who take one side of the message and ignore the other, insisting that Jews may be the salt of the earth, may be a light of inspiration, but they cannot be both. So they are either greedy materialists or false prophets who decry wealth and earthly delights only to lead people astray. So is born fascism of the right which insists on decrying the utopians by replacing the salt of the earth with a purported sentimental notion of sweetness and light. So is born the fascism of the left which appropriates and expropriates the salt of the earth for the collective polity and relegating all individual initiative and responsibility to the Party, the new God.

Jesus did not wish people to regard remaining the salt of the earth and becoming a light unto the nations as radically irreconcilable dichotomies, but put forth a both/and rather than an either/or logic. He claimed not to put aside the law but his main disciple, who was not one who knew him and heard him directly, preached precisely that – one could put aside the cumulative laws of the prophets for Jesus’ death and sacrifice on the crucifix and then his purported resurrection offered evidence that Jesus had fulfilled the law and the rule of law could be put aside for a higher mission.

Jesus was not teaching putting aside the laws when he opposed not only the priests in the temple but their opposition, the Pharisees. He was not offering a third alternative, going beyond the law and focusing on intent, going beyond the law and driving out what is a precondition to murder and mayhem, anger and insult, that which is a precondition of adultery, lust. When wronged, seek to mediate differences rather than insist on proving that you alone are right in a court of law. And seek righteousness by yanking out with your own fingers the one eye that looks upon another with deep sexual craving. “It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell,” taught Jesus. But Jacob would not put aside his passion for Rachel and do justice to his marriage to Leah. He wanted to have it both ways. Jacob would be the last to pluck out his own eye.

I could go on to the different approaches to divorce. For Jesus, unless she commits adultery with another, a legal divorce is just an excuse for adultery versus Jacob’s efforts, however, inadequate, to satisfy both his desires and his responsibilities to the other. There is a difference about oaths, Jesus insisting that, “do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King.” How do you respond to evil? Turn the other cheek. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’[h]39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person.”

This was not Jacob’s creed. 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[i] and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” Paul was correct. Jesus was not simply transforming Judaism as a legal system built on Torah, but was radically transforming it. Jesus was indeed founding a new religion with a quite different set of premises. And the turn back to the Torah and the rule of law does not obviate that reality. For, “by their fruit you will recognize them.”
What a phenomenal preacher! But Gauguin, such a prescient artist, uses Jacob wrestling with the angel to point to what came after the sermon on the mount, what came after the extreme emphasis on purity and righteousness in one’s heart, what came after the naiveté of the Christian religion. Persecution and puritanism of any kind are twins. By the fruits will you know them. True, those who attempt to be pure of heart will often be persecuted. But in the name of purity, in the name of distrusting and even hating those who would be both the salt of the earth and a light unto the nations, so will they also be the persecutors. The inquisitors will often insist on purity and expelling the evil force that exists among them as subversives to the realization of heaven on earth.

That is what Gauguin depicts. Joseph’s wrestling with an angel is not a pursuit of heaven. Joseph never strives to go up the ladder to heaven so he can never fall or climb down. He is grounded. Further, it is God who becomes embodied, just as Jesus’ followers claimed that their hero was the icon of God becoming flesh. God over whom Jacob prevails is physical, is material. The puritans and priests look on and pray, not from the side of heaven, but literally in the foreground. The angel is not a “pre-incarnation appearance of Christ in the form of a man.” Look at the title of the painting. Paul Gauguin adumbrated the Dreyfus case rather than looked back to an older vision of Christianity.

In contrast, Gustav Doré’s 1865 painting of the struggle between Jacob and the angel on a barren outcrop all alone offers a reversal on the past Christian depiction, but without Gauguin’s editorial commentary. Maurice Denis in his 1893 painting, “Jacob’s Battle With the Angel” (Lutte de Jacob avec l’Ange) depicts anything but a battle. Though he is reputedly a founder of cubism, fauvism and abstract art as new forms of expression, the painting has none of the sense of abstraction of Gauguin’s work. But it is the substantive component that really harks back to the past. He is explicitly a Christian painter, even reverting to the historical Christian mode of depicting the relationship between Jacob and the angel.

Denis seems to reverse the direction of representing the epic battle and paints Jacob and the angel holding hands with their arms aloft and dancing in a circle in a grove of trees in a moment of ecstasy. The path beside them looks like an enormous rattlesnake or a fox snake as the limbless scaly serpent winds around them as a path through the woods. Is this a critical commentary on Christianity or extolling how to get beyond the evil serpent in the Garden of Eden?

Contrast this subjective projection of Denis’ nostalgic longing for the truisms of the past with Gauguin’s radical revisionist view that is as much social commentary as personal expression. Further, the figures virtually spring out of the canvas in Gauguin, even when in the background, rather than being absorbed into its flat surface. Jacob is not alone, as in the text; there are witnesses. Further, they are on one side of a divide of the tree that diagonally slashes the painting in two cutting across the canvas to divide it into two very different triangles. In the lower and left triangle, there are seven apparently traditional women wearing bonnets (Dutch or perhaps from Brittany where Gauguin painted this work) and praying. (Denis painted in Normandy and the comparison between the two regions, the former the residue of the indigenous population and the latter founded by Vikings who came in conquest, can be epitomized in the contrast between Gauguin and Denis.)

There is also a partial portrait of a priest in the lower right-hand sector. The spectators are in black and white while the two wrestlers – and they are truly wrestling – are wildly coloured. They provide the life and vitality of the painting against a large splash of bloody red. None of the reversal of French thought found in the France of Pétain and Denis for Gauguin. The latter takes us into the twentieth century where there is a determined effort to extirpate Judaism and Jews, but also a century in which the truths of Judaism prevailed.

How Jacob prevails will be the subject of my next blog in commenting upon Elie Wiesel’s take on Jacob and how he portrays Jacob wrestling with the angel.


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