Wrestling With God

Headshot of Elliot Dorff
Headshot of Elliot Dorff
Rabbi Elliot Dorff, PhD

Sol & Anne Distinguished Professor in Philosophy, Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
University Rector, American Jewish University

Rabbi Elliot Dorff, PhD is AJU’s Rector and Sol & Anne Dorff Distinguished Service Professor in Philosophy. He is Chair of the Conservative Movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards and served on the editorial committee of Etz Hayim, the new Torah commentary for the Conservative Movement. He has chaired four scholarly organizations: the Academy of Jewish Philosophy, the Jewish Law Association, the Society of Jewish Ethics, and the Academy of Judaic, Christian, and Islamic Studies. He was elected Honorary President of the Jewish Law Association for the term of 2012-2016.  In Spring 1993, he served on the Ethics Committee of Hillary Rodham Clinton's Health Care Task Force. In March 1997 and May 1999, he testified on behalf of the Jewish tradition on the subjects of human cloning and stem cell research before the President's National Bioethics Advisory Commission. In 1999 and 2000 he was part of the Surgeon General’s commission to draft a Call to Action for Responsible Sexual Behavior; and from 2000 to 2002 he served on the National Human Resources Protections Advisory Commission, charged with reviewing and revising the federal guidelines for protecting human subjects in research projects. Rabbi Dorff is also a member of an advisory committee for the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History on the social, ethical, and religious implications of their exhibits. He is also a member of the Ethics Advisory Committee for the state of California on stem cell research.

He has been an officer of the FaithTrust Institute, a national organization that produces seminars and educational materials to help people avoid or extricate themselves from domestic violence.  For eight years he was also been a member of the Board of Directors of the Jewish Federation Council of Los Angeles, chairing its committee on serving the vulnerable.  In Los Angeles, he is a Past President of Jewish Family Services and a member of the Ethics committee at U.C.L.A. Medical Center. He serves as Co-Chair of the Priest-Rabbi Dialogue of the Los Angeles Archdiocese and the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.  

posted on December 4, 2011
Torah Reading
Haftarah Reading

Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn….Said he: "Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human and have prevailed." (Genesis 32:25, 29)

As the commentary in Etz Hayim indicates, this admittedly strange story and the change of name that accompanies it have been variously interpreted. The "man" in Gen. 32:25 or the "divine being" (Elohim) in Gen. 32: 29 and 31 is interpreted in most of the classical commentaries as a spirit bent on doing Jacob harm. It could be Esau’s guardian angel (Genesis Rabbah 77:3) or, as in more anthropologically based commentaries, the demonic guardian of the river he was about to cross. Yet again, it might be Jacob wrestling with his own conscience, for he emerges as a changed man who is whole (Gen. 33:18, shalem) in that he now contends with God and people instead of avoiding or manipulating them. And the whole story may just be an etiological myth to explain why Jews do not eat the gid ha-nasheh of even a kosher animal, translated in the Jewish Publication Society translation as the "thigh muscle" (Gen. 32:33), interpreted as the sciatic nerve in Rabbinic law, and probably referring to the animal’s genitals in its original meaning.

This story for me, though, has long had a critical meaning that is different from any of those suggested above. Camp Ramah has had a major effect on my life. At age 12, when I first spent a summer as a camper, I was taken by the way in which Judaism became a way of life that affected every part of it, including the language in which we spoke (Hebrew), the songs we sang, the dances we danced, the plays we put on, how we played sports and swam, and especially the discussions we had about serious moral and communal issues. What really made a difference for me, though, was a series of discussions led by the Director of the camp, Rabbi David Mogilner z"l, when I was fifteen. On the eight Monday nights of the camp season, he met with those of us in Machon – fifteen and sixteen-year-olds – to challenge our Jewish convictions. Beginning with concrete aspects of Judaism like the dietary laws and the laws of the Sabbath and continuing to more abstract topics like prayer, revelation, and God, he was on the offensive, asking us why anyone in his or her right mind would ever believe any of these Jewish beliefs or act in accordance with any of these Jewish laws. I now know that he was using a clever educational technique because it forced us to defend the tradition and to identify why and how we were connected to it rather than letting us sit back and take pot shots at the tradition and have him defend it. During that summer he showed me that someone as committed to Judaism as he was did not need to close off one’s mind to be a serious Jew. After all, he was a rabbi who had devoted his life to living and teaching the Jewish tradition, and yet he was not only willing, but eager to raise questions that, if taken as seriously as he took them, would undermine the entire structure of the Jewish tradition. He was not afraid to subject Judaism to deep philosophical questions, and, he was telling us in the process, neither should we be. It was after that summer that I started keeping kosher outside of our house as well as in it and praying each morning with tefillin on the weekdays.

In this process, the symbol for me that this kind of deep questioning of Judaism was not only permitted but encouraged by the Jewish tradition was Jacob wrestling with the angel. Traditional texts sometimes identify us Jews as b’nei ya’akov, the children of Jacob, but the name that the Torah and we ourselves use much more often is b’nai yisra’el, the children of Israel. Jacob becomes Israel, however, only after he wrestles with the angel. So to be authentic Israelites we too must wrestle with God.

This is not an obvious thing to do with no risks involved; Jacob, after all, is injured in the encounter, and some Jews raised in traditional households or who jump from little or no Jewish practice to Orthodoxy are really threatened by the kinds of questions Rabbi Mogilner was asking us to consider. The reverse is also true, however: if we do not wrestle with such questions, Judaism can never be for us what the Shema asks of us – that our love of God, and, by extension, of the entire Jewish tradition, be "with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our might" (Deuteronomy 6:5). We should not be intellectually schizophrenic, thinking about everything else in life with a sharp critical eye but somehow fail to do that when it comes to our Jewish convictions. We instead need to integrate our Judaism into our entire world view – in how we think about morality, science, health care, history, economics, art, and everything else as well as distinctly Jewish topics like God, the People Israel, and the commandments. We must trust Judaism enough to throw our strongest intellectual punches at it and then let it punch us back. If we do not do that, we do not really have emunah, the kind of faith in God and the Jewish tradition that can withstand challenges of all sorts, including intellectual ones.

Jacob wrestling with the angel and only then meriting the name Israel is only a symbol, one that may have many other meanings as well. For me, though, it signifies that to be an authentic Jew one not only may, but should raise hard questions about Judaism and life in general and be prepared to dig into our tradition to see how our ancestors did likewise. Often the questions are better than the answers, and not all the answers in our tradition are good ones; but the very permission and encouragement to ask hard questions honestly and persistently have made my Judaism all the more meaningful.

May your own God-wrestlings be deep and honest, with no topic left untouched, but may they also be for you as reaffirming as mine have been for me of the integrity, moral and communal meaning, and sheer joy of being a Jew.

Shabbat shalom.