One of the favorite philosophical moves of modern traditionalists like myself is well-captured in the approach of thinkers like Martin Buber and Hans Georg Gadamer, which says that a text does not become complete until it is read. That is, in the act of interpretation, the reader in essence makes a world, one which unites author and reader through the text. When the act of interepretation takes place among a community of readers, they too become part of the world when the reader interprets the text.

The reason modern traditionalists like this approach (at least speaking for myself) is that it both honors the integrity and agency of the reader while simultaneously honoring the integrity of the text. A text doesn’t stand alone–it is there to be read and interpreted, made and remade anew with each reading. Its meaning is never fixed, it is only established by a community of readers with each reading. But the reader also must submit him/herself to the text, and engage it unabusively and in good faith. An interpretation completely at odds with, or oblivious to, the interpretations of the community of readers, has a hard time becoming part of the tradition of interpretation. It can do so, but it must show itself to be made with respect for the text.

The Jacob story, and the commentaries on it, are extremely rich in this regard. Most of the significant events in Jacob’s life take place in darkness, beginning with his deception of his father in last week’s Torah reading, and continuing this week with his dream (at night) and Laban’s nighttime subterfuge in exchanging Leah for Rachel. Next week we will find another sleepless night as Jacob divides his camp and wrestles with a mysterious man. The darkness theme is picked up by modern thinkers like Aviva Zornberg, who emphasize the psychological nature of the narrative. Jacob, Zornberg has taught, is capable of being in multiple places at once, the consummate ability of a modern adult psyche. See Rashi’s comment on 28:17, for instance, when he explains that the stone on which Jacob sleeps is both Bethel and Jerusalem, because “Mount Moriah [in Jerusalem] was torn away and came to this place [Bethel].” Zornberg reads this statement of Rashi as signifying Jacob’s ability to inhabit multiple places at once, just as we might be physically present at home but imagine or fantasize about being somewhere else at the same time.

In this interpretation, the text–including Rashi’s commentary on it–is interpreted to reveal a meaning well beyond the its simple meaning. The question is, does it hold water? And what criteria do we use to determine whether such an interpretation is good? One could say, “That works for you Dr. Zornberg, but I don’t see it.” The same could be said of Rashi. (Admittedly I find Zornberg’s reading of Rashi more persuasive than Rashi taken literally.) So when confronted with the murkiness of interpretive possibilities, how do we decide if a particular interpretation is adequate, or if it is to be rejected?

Jacob himself may help us determine an answer, though it may not be entirely satisfying if you’re looking for certainty. Jacob’s life is an exercise in trust. Trust in Jacob’s life is often violated: by Laban, by Joseph’s brothers, by Jacob himself vis-a-vis his father. And it is frequently subject to question: regarding Esau, with whom it is never clear whether there is real rapproachment; regarding his wives and his children–see especially Simeon and Levi after the rape of Dinah. These are all important lessons, realistic teachings in the uses, abuses, and workings of trust.

Jacob’s ultimate relationship, with God, is also marked by questions and a tested faith. The best example of this comes at the beginning of his journey, in this week’s Torah reading, when he vows, “If God will be with me and guard me on my way, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and return me to my father’s house in peace, the Lord will be my God.” (28:20-21) This begs the question: Would God not be Jacob’s God if God didn’t live up to Jacob’s terms? To bring us back full circle, does Jacob’s acceptance of God in fact bring about the world in which God exists? If God is the author of texts–the text of Creation and the text of Torah–then, as readers of those texts, do we in fact complete their creation when we interpret them?

This is the difficult and exhilirating kind of question that this kind of interpretive approach enables. Jacob–Israel–is the ancestor about whom we know the most, and about whom we are invited to ask and imagine the most. In many ways, he is the one whose life is most instructive for our own. The uncertainty of Jacob’s life is the condition in which we live. And the wrestling with both God and man, for which he was dubbed Israel and became the father of our own nation, is the mission of our lives.

Shabbat shalom.

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