Thursday, November 22, 2007

Vayishlach: Did Yaakov Struggle With An Angel? Or With God Himself?

Standard traditional reading is that Yaakov struggled with an angel of Hashem. But we already saw in Vayera the possible reading of Hashem assuming human form. Perhaps we should say the same here as well. The relevant local pesukim read {Bereishit 32}:

כג וַיָּקָם בַּלַּיְלָה הוּא, וַיִּקַּח אֶת-שְׁתֵּי נָשָׁיו וְאֶת-שְׁתֵּי שִׁפְחֹתָיו, וְאֶת-אַחַד עָשָׂר, יְלָדָיו; וַיַּעֲבֹר, אֵת מַעֲבַר יַבֹּק. 23 And he rose up that night, and took his two wives, and his two handmaids, and his eleven children, and passed over the ford of the Jabbok.
כד וַיִּקָּחֵם--וַיַּעֲבִרֵם, אֶת-הַנָּחַל; וַיַּעֲבֵר, אֶת-אֲשֶׁר-לוֹ. 24 And he took them, and sent them over the stream, and sent over that which he had.
כה וַיִּוָּתֵר יַעֲקֹב, לְבַדּוֹ; וַיֵּאָבֵק אִישׁ עִמּוֹ, עַד עֲלוֹת הַשָּׁחַר. 25 And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.
כו וַיַּרְא, כִּי לֹא יָכֹל לוֹ, וַיִּגַּע, בְּכַף-יְרֵכוֹ; וַתֵּקַע כַּף-יֶרֶךְ יַעֲקֹב, בְּהֵאָבְקוֹ עִמּוֹ. 26 And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob's thigh was strained, as he wrestled with him.
כז וַיֹּאמֶר שַׁלְּחֵנִי, כִּי עָלָה הַשָּׁחַר; וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא אֲשַׁלֵּחֲךָ, כִּי אִם-בֵּרַכְתָּנִי. 27 And he said: 'Let me go, for the day breaketh.' And he said: 'I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.'
כח וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, מַה-שְּׁמֶךָ; וַיֹּאמֶר, יַעֲקֹב. 28 And he said unto him: 'What is thy name?' And he said: 'Jacob.'
כט וַיֹּאמֶר, לֹא יַעֲקֹב יֵאָמֵר עוֹד שִׁמְךָ--כִּי, אִם-יִשְׂרָאֵל: כִּי-שָׂרִיתָ עִם-אֱלֹהִים וְעִם-אֲנָשִׁים, וַתּוּכָל. 29 And he said: 'Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel; for thou hast striven with God and with men, and hast prevailed.'
ל וַיִּשְׁאַל יַעֲקֹב, וַיֹּאמֶר הַגִּידָה-נָּא שְׁמֶךָ, וַיֹּאמֶר, לָמָּה זֶּה תִּשְׁאַל לִשְׁמִי; וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתוֹ, שָׁם 30 And Jacob asked him, and said: 'Tell me, I pray thee, thy name.' And he said: 'Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name?' And he blessed him there.
לא וַיִּקְרָא יַעֲקֹב שֵׁם הַמָּקוֹם, פְּנִיאֵל: כִּי-רָאִיתִי אֱלֹהִים פָּנִים אֶל-פָּנִים, וַתִּנָּצֵל נַפְשִׁי. 31 And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: 'for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.'

Note that it does not say in all these places "an angel," in the JPS translation, but rather God. Of course, Elohim might be taken to mean "angel." Also, check out Judaica Press translation, which consistently renders it as an angel of God, or just angel. This is consistent with Rashi's explanation of the pesukim, which make this "man" a guardian angel for the nation from Esav, have the angel wish to leave at dawn to recite a song of praise to God, and have the promise being that Yaakov will meet Hashem later, who will rename him at Bet-El.

Yet, Yaakov calls the place Peniel, for seeing Elohim face to face. That may mean nothing, though. Compare with earlier in the same perek, where he talks of an encampment of God after seeing God's angels.
ב וְיַעֲקֹב, הָלַךְ לְדַרְכּוֹ; וַיִּפְגְּעוּ-בוֹ, מַלְאֲכֵי אֱלֹהִים. 2 And Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God met him.
ג וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב כַּאֲשֶׁר רָאָם, מַחֲנֵה אֱלֹהִים זֶה; וַיִּקְרָא שֵׁם-הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא, מַחֲנָיִם. {פ} 3 And Jacob said when he saw them: 'This is God's camp.' And he called the name of that place Mahanaim. {P}
Yet the angels also says that Yaakov has striven with both God and man. And there is a parallel to later, in perek 35,
ט וַיֵּרָא אֱלֹהִים אֶל-יַעֲקֹב עוֹד, בְּבֹאוֹ מִפַּדַּן אֲרָם; וַיְבָרֶךְ, אֹתוֹ. 9 And God appeared unto Jacob again, when he came from Paddan-aram, and blessed him.
י וַיֹּאמֶר-לוֹ אֱלֹהִים, שִׁמְךָ יַעֲקֹב: לֹא-יִקָּרֵא שִׁמְךָ עוֹד יַעֲקֹב, כִּי אִם-יִשְׂרָאֵל יִהְיֶה שְׁמֶךָ, וַיִּקְרָא אֶת-שְׁמוֹ, יִשְׂרָאֵל. 10 And God said unto him: 'Thy name is Jacob: thy name shall not be called any more Jacob, but Israel shall be thy name'; and He called his name Israel.
I would read this not as a separate incident (and not at Bet-El), but rather a summary, macro-statement, as opposed to the zooming-in narrative which happened in perek 32 in Maavar Yabbok. If the same incident, then it was Hashem who struggled with Yaakov. (If we wished to argue this, we would either have to appeal to the Documentary Hypothesis, leaving it as Bet-El as the location {and resolving the issue of the twice naming of Yisrael}, or else argue that pasuk 11 is indeed a separate prophecy, and that one happened in Bet-El, while the former one happened where it states, בְּבֹאוֹ מִפַּדַּן אֲרָם in general.)

Even if we say they are separate incidents, if in the second naming it was Hashem who did it, and in the first naming the "man" quacked like a Deity, then ...

However, we do not only have Chumash. We also have Nach. And in Nach, we have Hoshea 12:

ד בַּבֶּטֶן, עָקַב אֶת-אָחִיו; וּבְאוֹנוֹ, שָׂרָה אֶת-אֱלֹהִים. 4 In the womb he took his brother by the heel, and by his strength he strove with a godlike being;
ה וַיָּשַׂר אֶל-מַלְאָךְ וַיֻּכָל, בָּכָה וַיִּתְחַנֶּן-לוֹ; בֵּית-אֵל, יִמְצָאֶנּוּ, וְשָׁם, יְדַבֵּר עִמָּנוּ. 5 So he strove with an angel, and prevailed; he wept, and made supplication unto him; at Beth-el he would find him, and there he would speak with us;
Here, it is clear in pasuk 5 that he strove with an angel -- וַיָּשַׂר אֶל-מַלְאָךְ. Then, it would not be Hashem, but rather an angel, with whom Yaakov struggled. But then there is pasuk 4, which states שָׂרָה אֶת-אֱלֹהִים, preserving the ambiguity. Since the ambiguity is immediately resolved, a good translation, as above, is "a godlike being." And the end of pasuk 5, that he would find him at Bet-El is the link to perek 25, where Hashem repeats the angel's renaming. Indeed, this is a firm basis for Rashi's explanation.

However, we must realize that Hoshea was written well after Bereishit. It reflects one understanding of what happened in Vayishlach, and how those pesukim are to be understood. But, just perhaps, this is not the only interpretation of these pesukim.

This is a difficult position to put forth. After all, Hoshea is a Navi, and thus wrote his sefer, and delivered his prophecy, with nevua, much greater than the ruach hakodesh attributed to Rashi. Yet while the message comes from Hashem, the specific coloring and presentation is up to the prophet himself. And the point here was one to Hoshea's contemporaries, not to give absolute interpretation to other Biblical verses. Perhaps akin to how sometimes prophets speak not as prophecy, but as talmidei chachamim.

This particular issue might be what condemns this view all the more so to heresy. While the third principle establishes God's incorporeality, the sixth of Rambam's principles establishes that all the words of the prophets are true. The question is to what extent to take this principle.


Anonymous said...

I don't understand why you put so much effort into defending what are basically kefiradik interpretations of chumash.

joshwaxman said...

because it is only kefiradik if that is not what was actually intended by Chumash (and Hashem). (at least in terms of the corporeality.) Otherwise, it is truth. Rambam formulated the ikkarim after understanding Chumash, Chazal, and philosophy. But some of his (religious Jewish) contemporaries argued with him, and cited various pesukim/maamarei Chazal to that end.

Anonymous said...

Are you saying that peshuto shel mikra must always be an acceptable theological position? That could get you into problems. According to many people, isn't the pshat of "mi kamocha baelim hashem" that more than one god exists?

joshwaxman said...

it would seem to be so ("that peshuto shel mikra must always be an acceptable theological position"), if we take "ain mikra yotzei midei peshuto" as some take it. That is, the peshat remains valid.

I would imagine that even Rambam would hold that position. For his argument that the peshat in pesukim seeming to address corporeality of God it that it is really a metaphor seems to assume that peshat has validity. Otherwise perhaps he could say that that is the peshat, but we follow the derash that this is not so.

The result of this might be, for some people, that a theologically untenable explanation simply cannot be peshat. Someone was telling me today (in response to the above) that the interpretation of the aforementioned pesukim (and the reference to Elohim) must be like Rashi, that it is an angel, and that that has to be peshat. So it can go both ways.

About "mi kamocha," if people think that that is peshat, then there are two possibilities (assuming peshuto shel mikra is by definition theologically tenable): 1) they are correct, in which case it is not kefira, but rather truth. Or 2) despite the fact that they think this is the peshat, in fact it is not, and so their position is both incorrect and kefirah.

It certainly would be a good thing to know.

My take on "mi kamocha" as a matter of peshat is approximated by what I wrote in a post on parshat Yitro.

That is, we need not accept the reality of other gods, so much as take it as a reference to the fact that others believe in deities with power. Hashem is more powerful than all of these, either because His actual deeds are greater than even their purported deeds, or because His deeds are actual while they and their deeds are fictional.

But perhaps one can argue with me and say that the position in Torah is that there are indeed other powerful beings, but they are subservient to Hashem, and assigned their tasks by Hashem. Just like the Sun exists and shines for the world at Hashem's command. But even so, Hashem tells the Jews that "Lo Yihyeh lecha Elohim Acherim Al Panai."


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