Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Life and Times of Yaakov Avinu

In my Torah in Motion class on new approaches to studying Tanakh (link - part 4), I discussed three new approaches -- those of Nechama Leibowitz, R. Yoel Bin Nun and R. Mordechai Breuer. Nechama believed in looking at the different commentaries and finding the textual cues that prompted them to propose different explanations. R. Yoel Bin Nun looks at only the text, takes a broad view, and offers his own innovative explanations. And R. Breuer divides the text based on biblical criticism and then explains this split based on his Theory of Attributes. All admittedly generalizations -- it's impossible to sum up the life work of a great person in one sentence.

I have in my hands Gad Dishi's engrossing new book, Jacob's Family Dynamics: Climbing the Rungs of the Ladder.

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I have in my hands Gad Dishi's engrossing new book, Jacob's Family Dynamics: Climbing the Rungs of the Ladder. While reading it, I tried to see which of three approaches he generally followed. Who was the biggest influence on him? The answer is -- none. His book is totally different from what I regularly see in the growing Tanakh literature.

Instead of following one of the "big three" I mentioned above, he carefully reads the text and analyzes it from a psychological and literary perspective. He is more influenced by Robert Alter and Aviva Zornberg than Nechama Leibowitz. He carefully -- very carefully -- reads the text, notices subtle cues, and see in them information about what the characters were thinking and doing. The blurb on the back of the book says that Dishi offers us a "fresh perspective" and it is true. Not only have I never heard his answers, I have never even heard his questions.

For example, consider the exchange that Yaakov has with the shepherds when he arrives at Charan (Gen. 29:4-8):

And Jacob said to them, "My brethren, where are you from?" And they said, "We are from Haran." Then he said to them, "Do you know Laban the son of Nahor?" And they said, "We know him." So he said to them, "Is he well?" And they said, "He is well. And look, his daughter Rachel is coming with the sheep." Then he said, "Look, it is still high day; it is not time for the cattle to be gathered together. Water the sheep, and go and feed them." But they said, "We cannot until all the flocks are gathered together, and they have rolled the stone from the well's mouth; then we water the sheep."
Dishi asks the simple question that had never occurred to me: Why are the shepherds so rude? They answer Yaakov's questions with very terse, uncivil replies. And also notice that Yaakov said "to them" but they just "said" -- not "to him". Dishi explains this and much more with his theory that the people in Charan had a very materialistic attitude, focusing on things and not on people. This was a very seductive attitude which Yaakov had to fight, and for a time succumbed to it (note that his last question was not addressed "to them").

We can debate whether this is a peshat approach or text-based derash, but either way it is fascinating -- a close read with a broad psychological explanation to resolve many aspects of the text. Not everyone is comfortable with the humanizing and psychoanalyzing of biblical characters. It is for this reason that Dishi begins his book with a religious defense of this approach (much like R. Mosheh Lichtenstein has at the end of his book, Moses: Envoy of God, Envoy of His People, although R. Lichtenstein's defense is stronger).

In the end, I'm not sure I was convinced that Dishi's explanations are the best. I'm more of a traditional kind of guy. But I found his close readings enlightening and I enjoyed the well-written and broadly conceived treatments of Yaakov's life from birth through the death of Rachel.

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