Rituals of Preservation and Elimination

Rituals of Preservation and Elimination: Vayikra Leviticus 1:1-5:26


Howard Adelman

There is almost an overwhelming consensus that the Book of Leviticus is the volume most remote from modern sensibilities. After all, it is about sacrifices, priestly garments and rites, ancient medical practices dealing with conditions such as leprosy, all apparently alien experiences. Leviticus seems so “primitive.” The volume focuses on all the distinctions among the tribes rather than the unity of Judaism. Some have dubbed it a spiritual challenge while others have been more forthright and called the Book of Leviticus a spiritual wasteland.

For Reform Jews, this section of the Torah is particularly formidable since Reform Judaism from the start repudiated a dynastic priesthood and the practice of sacrifice. Of special relevance is Reform Judaism’s explicit rejection of attempting to rebuild and restore the Temple. Calling Holy Blossom a temple instead of a synagogue was an overt and blatant exemplification of that rejection.

Rejection went along with substitution – the people, all the people, were priestly. Their mission was not to rebuild the Temple, but to be a light unto the world as they spread through the diaspora. Whether this meant upholding monotheism and the God of the Hebrews as the one true God or simply standing up for lofty ethical values of justice and peace were still matters that needed resolution, though the Reform movement has developed in the latter much more than the former direction. Sanctification was moral, not cultic. Sincerity of devotion replaced ritualistic practices as the highest ideal.

What do we do with one of the five books that is almost completely devoted to cultic practices? Do were merely focus on a few sections of the text that deal with mitzvot and the covenantal relationship to God requiring following God’s ethical and spiritual commandments? Does the purported spiritual bliss that should follow have nothing to do with the cultic practices? What do rituals, especially ones that seem both foreign and alien, have to do with spiritual enrichment? If alien, how can the passages in Vayikra be used to guide life and increase holiness in the world?

What happened to the sense of “purity”? What happened to the stress on a specific diet? What happened to the emphasis, not simply on being well-dressed, but on dressing in a special costume? Is Leviticus to be relegated to the dustbin of history, a relic of the past no longer relevant to our contemporary life? Is Leviticus a dated fossil of a species or religion that has become extinct? Alternatively, are the passages to be treated as metaphors upon which can be erected transformed practices with very different ideals wherein a burnt sacrifice becomes merely a literary tool to explore a deeper form of spiritual being?

I want to suggest that the dismissal of Leviticus may have been a mistake and that Leviticus has more to teach us that we need to recognize. This is because the prophetic voice is not the only source of authenticity. We need judges and lawyers, administrators and accountants, doctors and dentists as well as all the tradesmen, skilled artisans, labourers and suppliers of materials who helped build the mishkan in the last chapters of Exodus. We need practitioners of rituals and not just shit-disturbers who challenge those in power. I write as someone who has always revered the prophetic voice. However, we need people to do what is right and not just preachers calling for righteousness. Leviticus is a text for the practices of a spiritual community rather than about its goals, though the latter are not entirely neglected.

The mishkan was described in great detail in Exodus. It was where the holy tablets were kept, where God, when in residence as a cloud, filled the place. A tent of meeting preceded the construction of the mishkan. It was a portable place where Moses met with God. A tent of meeting is not a place for a political rally or a town hall, but a place where humans encounter God in his dwelling place. Vayikrah does not open with God occupying the holy of holies within the mishkan. Vayikrah does not open with God speaking through the priesthood. Vayikrah begins with God calling Moses, not Aaron, out of the tent of meeting. (I:1) God offers detailed instructions about the purity of the animals to be sacrificed by the people. If a burnt offering, it had to be brought before the tent of meeting as a request for atonement, as a request for expiation. Leviticus is primarily about the politics and administration of the Jewish religion to remove a blood-stain from the body politic, to clean the air of pollution.

In Christianity, Jesus personally replaced the sacrifice of animals. The blood of Jesus was offered as a sacrifice to atone for the sins of humans. Jesus body was the “more perfect tent of meeting,” for it was through the body of Christ that humans could meet with God. Jesus as the Lamb of God would forgive sins, not just specific ones, but all sins. And do so for eternal redemption. Thus, Christianity preserved, transformed and raised to a higher level the bones and blood of the Leviticus story.

Hebrews 9:11 literally depicts Jesus as personally the replacement for the high priest, himself the more perfect and greater tent offering, his own body as a sacrifice so that the God of wrath would be transformed completely into the God of love forever. Instead of a pure animal without physical blemish being sacrificed on the altar, the pure blood of Christ without a spiritual blemish would be sacrificed on a cross, not so humans could atone for specific sins, but as an atonement for all sin. Through ingesting the body of Christ into one’s own body, through surrendering oneself totally to the spirit of Christ, the Lamb of God would cleanse everyone of their sins, provided, of course, that one accepted Jesus as one’s saviour and redeemer.

However, Judaism is not about personal redemption as the ultimate goal. Individuals do have to atone for their personal sins through a guilt-offering and atonement through compensation. And the form of atonement depends on their station in the religious hierarchy – high priest, tribal chief or an ordinary individual. However, atonement is also needed to preserve the community; atonement for sins of the whole community is a distinct act itself. Judaism is about the eternal nation, עַם הַנֶּצַח (ahm hah-NEH-tsahkh). Eternal is not about that which remains unchanged forever, that which is above and beyond change.

Judaism is about a nation that will not and cannot be allowed to die and must change in order to live. The Jewish nation is timeless, is immortal, is everlasting – not in the sense of having a transcendent existence, but as being an everlasting and perpetual cause. Israel, Judaism, is the eternal nation, the body politic that must be preserved in perpetuity. Israel is about creating נִצְחִי (neets-KHEE) that nation. The study of Torah is the means to reconcile the God of history with the current historical moment. The ritual of Torah has to do with discriminating between that which must be expiated and eliminated or wiped and hidden away, on the one hand, and that which must be preserved, raised up and put on high on the other hand.

God is referred to as עוֹלָם (olam), as existing always and forever, permanently and perpetually. God is everlasting and lives continually for and in all time. God is not transcendent, living beyond time. God is a creative spirit who lives in time, in history, and even occupies space, though God is not embodied. The Jewish people as a collectivity have the responsibility for embodying the spirit of God.

Adam and Eve could not eat of the Tree of Life, could not live for eternity, lest they live forever וְאָכַ֖ל וָחַ֥י לְעֹלָֽם. (Genesis 3:22). Contrary to Christianity, God and man would not be together in spirit forever, וּחִ֤י בָֽאָדָם֙ לְעֹלָ֔ם בְּשַׁגַּ֖ם ה֣וּא (Genesis 6:3) God has a reputation, has renown, that lasts forever. And the goal of the Jewish people was to become a mighty nation with a reputation and renown that would live forever. רוּחִ֤י בָֽאָדָם֙ לְעֹלָ֔ם בְּשַׁגַּ֖ם ה֣וּא (Genesis 6:4) The message is not about one’s soul living forever outside of time and space in some transcendent heaven, but about humans living in this world as embodied creatures trying to earn renown for the people as a whole. Any nation can be a holy nation. Israel must be a holy nation.

That is why the Torah is a tale that runs from generation to generation (Genesis 9:12) so that we may pass on such ideals from parents to children and convey the mission of themselves as individuals to serve one’s people and thereby to serve God. Eternity is about succession and not about transcendence. That is why Jews are bound by an everlasting covenant and why Canaan for committed Jews must be an everlasting possession.

That does not mean that other people cannot live in Canaan. That does not mean that Canaan cannot be a national home for another people. In fact, if Canaan is to be an everlasting home for Jews, it must become a home not only for the Jewish nation, but can be a home for the Palestinian nation. Not their exclusive home. And not the exclusive home of Jews. But a home where Jews can dedicate themselves to a body politic that will glorify God’s name forever.  (Genesis 48:4) Jews must not only be embodied, but their national being must also have a body. But a body dedicated to the service of God’s name, for God is forever. God’s name is forever. God’s name is לְעֹלָ֔ם. (Exodus 3:15)

Jews are commanded to celebrate God’s name as a permanent ordinance, as a permanent covenant between God and his chosen people. Not His superior people, but a people chosen to carry the burden of the covenant. It is that which must be remembered. It is that which must be celebrated. And Leviticus is about that celebration. That celebration involves statutes that are passed on from generation to generation. That celebration is about a nation that lives under the rule of law and for the sake of justice. And that is why the nation requires the equivalent of a priesthood as a group dedicated to the perpetuity of the covenant, of the statute, of the law (כְּהֻנָּ֖ה לְחֻקַּ֣ת עוֹלָ֑ם וּמִלֵּאתָ֥ יַֽד־ Exodus 29:28) in addition to the responsibility of individuals to perform mitzvot.

Leviticus is about putting that obligation into practice. It is about administrative justice. Why start off with a sacrifice on the altar in front of the tent of meeting? Why only a male animal for a blood sacrifice, and one without blemish?  Because sacrifice must be about our works – about the best of our flocks and the best of our agriculture. It is not about the sacrifice of humans, any human, and not about the sacrifice of Jesus. The sacrifice of a male animal without blemish means that the best of what we can make or do must be in service of perpetuating God’s name.

Why a male? Why not an ewe? After all, female goats without blemish can be sacrificed for a guilt offering, for a sin committed by an individual against another. (Leviticus 4:27) However, males in general need to be reminded that though they, like women, are created in the image of God and must serve God in the activity of creation, they are embodied. Adam was a geek who thought he was there simply to be a scientist, to offer at its most basic a taxonomy for the world. He had to learn that he was an embodied creature with sex drives and an obligation to reproduce and raise children and to raise them to serve God. That is why one sacrifices a male animal’s body without blemish as a burnt offering to atone for being oblivious of what a male’s obligation is and remains. Eve knew it in her body. Adam did not. Lest we forget, sacrifice of a male animal without blemish is intended to atone for forgetting.

However, preservation, putting away and raising up are not the only functions. Sins must also be expiated, eliminated or removed. They must be wiped away (Akkadian kuppuru) and covered (Arabic kafara) rather than raised up. In Macbeth, as much as the Lady cries out, “Out, out damn spot,” the blood stain remains unless there is expiation.

Man in the form of Jesus is not a substitute for an animal sacrifice. Rather, an animal sacrifice is a substitute for human sacrifice which reminds man what he must give his life for – an embodied existence, a life that commemorates the renown of God and raises up the nation of Israel as a memorial to God. We give of our blood and sweat to make a better world and do not rely on the blood of a God-man to escape this world for eternal salvation. For what must be saved is the here and now, the moment that must serve all time. There is NO eternal redemption, only the task of continual, of perpetual redemption.

There is eternal damnation, not by being sent to purgatory, but by being put to “death,” destroyed spiritually as a Jew, by being cut off from one’s people. Execution means exile from the community, most generally, self-inflicted.  Why is idolatry the greatest sin? Because idolatry is the worship of a material artifact as divine rather than the human collectivity in a divine relationship. What is a sin offering (hattat)? In Yitz Greenberg’s words, it is “a purification rite brought for sins committed by people which generated impurity in society.” (my italics) Moral impiety becomes a sin and not just a state of guilt because society is polluted. The public is therefore ultimately responsible for moral pollution. Humanity, handed the gift of freedom by God, has the responsibility of tilting the balance of creative versus destructive forces in favour of creativity.

As individualism was stressed more and more, Jews became even more removed from cultic practices precisely at a time when rituals were more important than ever for preserving the cohesion of the community. Reform Jews have emphasized and extolled non-cultic piety at the expense of ritual piety, stressing the importance of the individual Jew rather than the preservation of the community. Reform rabbis argued that this was the way Jews survived the destruction of the Temple. However, one could argue that the reverse was true, that the preservation, transformation and raising up of cultic piety and the practices of expiation as removal, as wiping away rather than covering up sin, preserved the people; the over-emphasis on the individual simply leads to the creation of ethical humanistic Judaism and the gradual erosion of Jews as a people. This argument suggests that performing other-oriented mitzvot is insufficient for preserving cohesion among the people.

Like Christianity, Judaism must preserve, transform and raise to a higher level the bones and blood of the Leviticus story, but in a very opposite way to the Christian path, through service to God via service to God’s people, to God’s nation, to making that nation an exemplification of the preservation of the covenant. We have not discarded the Kohanim on the dustbin of history. These patrilineal descendants of the Aaronite priesthood are given special privileges and duties in the rituals of worship in a synagogue. Reform in rejecting the priesthood took away those privileges. They should be restored for that is how memory is preserved from generation to generation, by preserving, by raising up and putting a traditional political practice onto a bima of ritual. That is a function of ritual – to preserve, to transform and to raise up on a more formal plane what was once a core embodiment of the nation’s spiritual richness and to remove and wipe away the blood stains of its historical sins.

Should a blood inheritance be the instrument of such preservation? Or should the inheritance of the spirit of special dedication allow anyone to become spiritually a Koan? Or can we do both? Should each synagogue collectively recognize a dedicated group who are assigned the responsibility of maintaining the schedule of synagogue service on a rotating basis? We already do so without designating the group as priests. Volunteers come forth and serve that function. They should be esteemed and given recognition in what they wear and in the deeds they perform in the service.

We could consider resurrecting the Davidic practice of giving over to six families the responsibilities for two of the fifty-two weeks of the services, with one family performing those roles for each day of the week that their collectivity carries that responsibility. That means 26 x 6 = 136 families assuming very systemic and recognized roles in the life of synagogue worship.

The ritualistic practices of old can be preserved, can be transformed and, in being transformed, raised up so that the Jewish people can perpetuate itself as a people in a covenantal relationship to God.  At the same time, this restoration also requires elimination, rituals of wiping out and covering up sins by unveiling them, by eviscerating the body politic and exposing the blood stains that pollute and make impure our political life.


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.