Wrestling Jacob: Decep­tion, Iden­ti­ty and Freudi­an Slips in Genesis

Shmuel Klit­sner
  • Review
By – March 30, 2012

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, Ph.D., serves as asso­ciate super­in­ten­dent of the Asso­ci­at­ed Tal­mud Torahs of Chica­go, direc­tor of its Mor­ris and Rose Gold­man Com­put­er Depart­ment for Jew­ish Stud­ies, dean of Ida Crown Jew­ish Acad­e­my, and rab­bi of Con­gre­ga­tion K.I.N.S. of West Rogers Park (Chica­go).

Discussion Questions