What does it mean to "Wrestle God"?

Today’s Torah portion includes the famous Godwrestle passage, which give the people Yisrael its name – Godwrestler. In a nutshell, Jacob, with a retinue of wives, children, workers, sheep, and goats is on his way returning home. He hears that his brother Esau, whose birthright and blessing as the first born he has stolen, is on his way to meet him with four hundred men. He sends his entire retinue across a river with gifts for Esau, and he stays alone for a momentous night.

He stays alone, and yet the story says he wrestles with men and with God. In the wrestle he is wounded so that he limps the rest of his life. He demands to know the name of the Being with Whom he wrestles, but the Being turns aside the question and changes his name from Jacob/Heel-Sneak to Godwrestler. The next morning he meets his brother, who embraces and kisses him. They both weep.

The story raises at least two deep questions, and gives several hints toward answers. The first question is: What does it mean to wrestle God, for Jacob and for each of us and for the People Yisrael? (and perhaps for other Peoples?) The second: Why does this Wrestle make it possible for the two brothers to reconcile?

One hint: In Hebrew, his name is Yaakov. The river where he stays “alone” is the Yabok – his own name inside out. And the first word for his wrestling with the Being is yaavayk – again, a wounded version of his own name. So he learns that his own name has many faces he must learn.

Another hint: When Jacob sends gifts to Esau, he says to himself (Gen. 32:21; Everett Fox trans.): “I will wipe the anger from his face, with the gift that goes ahead of my face; afterward, when I see his face, perhaps he will lift up my face!” Four times, the word “face,” in a single verse! And after the Godwrestle, after he has asked the name of his wrestling-partner and been turned aside, after he has named the place where it all happened “God’s Face,” after he and Esau have embraced, he says to his brother, “I have, after all, seen your face, as one sees the face of God.”  (Gen. 33: 10)

So he seems to have discovered at least one of the names and faces of the Being with whom he wrestled. And where he began wanting Esau to see his face, he ends by realizing it is crucial for him to see Esau’s face.

So I ask again: What does it mean to wrestle Giod, and why did it matter? I will tell you my answer, but first – stop reading here, or pause the video – and let your own answer come to you. When you feel ready, come back to me.  Then let us together wrestle God ...


A few answers

[Dear folks, I only had time to check with two people to see whether it would be OK to quote their responses to my question: What do they feel is the meaning of “Godwrestling” --  the heart of the Torah portion this Shabbat?   Shalom, AW, editor]


It means to come face-to-face with, and more than that, because face-to-face is not a merger, the faces are still exterior to each 

other. It means acknowledging the pains and injustices of the world and experiencing that they are internal to yourself, both as causer and as 

sufferer. It's a terrible wrestling, and leaves you wounded. You are yourself the hate and the love, and the helplessness to "fix" any of it. 

It all just IS. And you are of it. But in the end you are still walking.

 By Mary Weinstock Gilbert, that Quaker up near Boston whose father grew up 

in the Hebrew Orphan Asylum in Manhattan, as yours did in Baltimore.


I believe that, as I've learned from meditation with Ram Dass:  "Self, soul and G!d are one”  When we are searching deeply within, we meet ourselves in our G!d soul. Then we must recognize that the One is within – is -- each of us. Jacob must have seen this. The way to see that ‘face’, that four-in-one face, is to see his brother in his G!d, soul, self. Love (or use another word, compassion, understanding) is what we meet in that reflection of seeing ourselves and G!d in everyone. That way Jacob went forward and Esau ’saw’ himself reflected in this loving way. 

 By Linda Tobin, Cleveland, Board member, The Shalom Center


OK, I'm back again: Jacob said, aloud, with his whole body, heart, mind, soul: “Why is the world this way? I know, my mother taught me, and I know, who I aim to be. Why is the world so built that I needed to lie, to rob, to steal, to make my way there? Is there no other way? There must be other way!”

And his challenging the world as it was, opened up a world as it could be.

Exodus 1:3

Rabbi Arthur Waskow 

Trump Tries to Trump Philip Roth’s Worst Forebodings

One of Philip Roth’s least funny books, though it had a somewhat happy ending, was The Plot Against America (2004). In it Charles Lindbergh wins the Presidency against FDR in 1940 and, in cahoots with Hitler, slowly brings anti-Semitic pressures, pogrom, relocation camps, etc., to the United States. Not without American help, even from Jews –- as Roth shows varying versions of collaboration.

Roth was interviewed in The New Yorker about similarities between his novel and the election of Trump. Roth responded,

"It is easier to comprehend the election of an imaginary President like Charles Lindbergh than an actual President like Donald Trump. Lindbergh, despite his Nazi sympathies and racist proclivities, was a great aviation hero ... Trump is just a con artist."[

But a con artist with a genius for cruelty and for being able to call forth the dormant impulse for cruelty that had lain quiet in many Americans who are frightened about the future.

It is hardly surprising, for instance, that a man who bragged about “grabbing women by the pussy” is now, by trying to close down Planned Parenthood,  sexually assaulting almost three million low-income American women a year. 

How? Precisely by attacking their sexual freedom – not only their right to choose abortion but their right to choose birth control and to have low-cost or free care for uterine cancer. He wants for him, not them, to control their genitals. What better response to the #MeToo women’s resistance than multiplying cruelty a million times?

And now, after threatening to destroy in nuclear “fire and fury” the millions of citizens of North Korea, and then toying with the notion of a summit meeting with its chief, he cancels the summit. (Who cares about such a war not only roasting and vaporizing Koreans of both North and South, but probably hundreds of thousands of Japanese, and many US soldiers and their wives and children? Most of them gooks anyway.)

 Why cancel the summit? Because, he says, the North Korean government has displayed “tremendous anger and open hostility in your most recent statement.”  What was this anger?  Statements condemning Vice-President Pence for threatening to turn North Korea into “Libya” if it did not accept American definitions of a deal.

What was, and is, the Libyan solution? First the US persuaded its dictator to give up the nuclear weapons he had claimed to be pursuing as a deterrent against attack by the US and its allies.  Then the US encouraged his overthrow, and his being killed. And then the US sat by while Libya was turned into a place of helter-skelter war of all against all. The nation was shattered, its people made desperate.

So one North Korean leader called Pence's remarks "unbridled and impudent."

Might one think that Pence’s threat showed “tremendous anger and open hostility”?  Of course not. When Trump and his buddies celebrate cruelty, they are making America great. When their opponents are infuriated, they deserve more threats of war, of fire and fury and utter destruction.

If you want to explore how cruelty plays out in politics and war, read a brilliant “simulation” by the New York Times on line, following the different likely/ possible pathways of a US war against North Korea. <>

Back to Philip Roth. Two of his early books --  Goodbye Columbus [Ohio] (1959)  and  Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), the latter published a few months before the Freedom Seder, satirized the stuffy, boring, complacent leaders of American Jewry in those days (and many still). They proved how accurate his satire was by going crazy in hostility.  

Tens of thousands of young Jews, me among them,  helplessly galumphed and guffawed at the masturbatory obsession of  young Portnoy, and then collapsed in laughter all over again as iconic Jewish scholars like Gershom Scholem wrote the novel was worse than the “Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion.”  

“Icon?” Another word for an idol.  To paraphrase Psalm 115 about idols, “They have gullets but guffaw not, larynxes but laugh not, phalluses but ------.”

For me, Roth’s novel Operation Shylock: A Confession (1993) was a brilliant satire on Zionism and its deformities, just as he had satirized the American Diaspora and its deformities. And the book is a satire on himself and his own deformities.

Visiting Israel, Roth the author hears about someone who is claiming to be Philip Roth and who calls for a “Diasporanist” movement. He wants the Israeli Jews to save themselves by returning to Europe, where the Europeans will great them in fervid joy: “At last, our Jews have come back to us!”

But this strange character is not just the butt of a joke. For Roth’s epigraph to the book quotes Torah (Gen. 32:24) on the night when Jacob, the Grabby Heel, became Yisrael, the Godwrestler. The epigraph  (in Hebrew text and typography, then in English) says,  “So Jacob was left alone … and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.”

Alone – yet a wrestle. Clearly with himself – who else?

And then the epigraph continues with Kierkegaard: “The whole content of my being shrieks in contradiction against itself.  Existence is surely a debate.”

So the two Philip Roths are the one Philip Roth, affirming that his self is in self-contradiction.  His Jewishness exists in a debate within himself –- all in the service not of  ruining Judaism but of purifying it from its dross in satirical fire. How better to do that than with a novel that by quoting and transcending Torah names itself a midrash?  – affirming Torah by contradicting Torah, contradicting Torah by affirming Torah.

The internal contradictions go deeper. Roth claimed – sometimes – that the book was, as its subtitle says, not fiction but a “confession.” But then he told a reporter .

“As you know, at the end of the book a  Mossad operative made me realize it was in my interest to say this book was fiction. And I became quite convinced that it was in my interest to do that. So I added the note to the reader as I was asked to do. I'm just a good Mossadnik.”

 In the [novel? confession?], the writer Philip Roth is detained [kidnapped?] by the Mossad, the Israeli CIA  He writes that he wrote a chapter about his detention. But, he writes, the Mossad convinced [threatened?] him till he agreed to drop the chapter and then, on the very last page of the book, to write:

“This book is a work of fiction … Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. This confession is false.”

What?! “This confession is false.”  Which confession? The whole book or this statement at the end? One can see and hear the prisoner standing at the show trial muttering in ultimate defiance, “This confession is false.”  Defying the Mossad. Defying God. Defying “reality.”

“Existence is surely a debate.”

In Hebrew, the word “existence” is “Havayah,” the four-letter name of God, YHWH, backwards. Philip Roth was a true “Yisrael,”  a true Godwrestler -– wrestling with the very innards of whatever for him was or wasn’t God.

One of his last books, all of them written about the encroachments and diminishments brought on by impending death, was Nemesis. He was born just six months before me, and I read those books about him / me weeping and laughing.

But Roth’s real Nemesis was Trump, is Trump. No laughter, no contradictions, no wrestling, there. Pure Grab, pure egomania, pure violence, pure cruelty. And war. And death.

Occupation 50

“Israel” is the Name of a People Also.

It means We Wrestle even God –-

Are we Allowed to Wrestle with the State?

This week marks the 50th  anniversary of the Israeli Occupation of the only land –- the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem -- where an independent and peaceful State of Palestine could arise to live alongside Israel.

In facing this moment, I also face my own long struggle with the Occupation since 1969 -– just a few months after my first serious engagement with Judaism, through creating the original Freedom Seder.  That summer, for the first time I visited Israel and for the first time met with Palestinians. I came home clear that we needed to end the Occupation and make peace possible between Palestine and Israel.

And I cannot avoid facing the fact that twice in my life I have been pushed out of working for presumably liberal Jewish institutions because I criticized the Occupation.   So I am especially sensitive to the ways in which establishment Jewish organizations today are trying to enforce Jewish support for the Occupation and an increasingly right-wing, repressive Israeli government, by punishing those who criticize it.


The Occupation makes utterly clear the knife edge between winning one’s own freedom —  winning for one’s self  enough empowerment to assert and protect that freedom — and letting the hunger for empowerment became an addiction to power — power that becomes the subjugation that  destroys the freedom of another. It is all too easy for human beings to move from one side of that knife edge to the other. 


The danger afflicts not only Israelis but us all. Notice how many of those  Americans who voted for Trump to win their own freedom from economic disemployment and cultural marginalization crossed that edge  into trying to subjugate others — immigrants, Muslims, Blacks, independent-minded women among them. 


Realizing how easy is the slop-over and how hard it is to balance on the edge of the knife should  call us not to the complicity of silence but to the caring of compassionate rebuke, challenge, opposition.

As this 50th anniversary approached, I wrote two essays not only on the meaning of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict itself, but even more about its impact on the American Jewish community. .

One of them, “Atzma’ut 69, Occupation 50: Does That Add Up?” has just been published in a special issue of Tikkun magazine. My article is available at


The whole issue is valuable, and I encourage you to buy it. Click to --


My article begins this way:

For Israel, this summer marks the 50th anniversary (June 10, 2017) of the end of the Six-Day War and the beginning of the Israeli Occupation of the Palestinian West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza.

And that historical marker quickly follows another one: the 69th anniversary of Israel’s statehood, commemorated by Israelis as Yom Ha'Atzma'ut (May 1 and 2).

Yom Ha'Atzma'ut is usually translated as "Israeli Independence Day." That English word means “not hanging on.” But the Hebrew would be more accurately translated as "Day for Standing on One's Own Feet, Day of Affirming One's Own Essence" (Etzem, the linguistic root of “atzma’ut,”  means “bone, skeleton, internal essential structure.”)

From that deeper perspective, the 50th anniversary of the Occupation casts a deep pall of doubt upon the 69th birthday of the State. Has Israel really been independently “standing on its own feet” or has it for five-sevenths of its history been simultaneously standing in military boots on a subjugated people and depending (not “independing”) on the military and money support of the United States government to do so? 

My essay looks into the moral and spiritual meaning of the Occupation in the light of Torah.

  • What is our own Atzma’ut, our own essence, the feet on which we might hope to stand?  
  • Is it possible to have compassion both for Israeli Jews traumatically imprisoned in the history of their own abuse and in the fear of continuing attacks,  as well as for Palestinians caught in the torment of being abused right now?
  • What does it mean that Israel – the word means "Godwrestler"  -- is the name of a People also, not only the State? When we face the State that is no longer wrestling God and history by struggling toward an ethic of justice, must the Godwrestling People take up that task?

And I also wrote an essay, published by the Forward, which is available under the title “A Tale of two Hillels,” at


That one focuses on what the Occupation is doing to American Jewish life, where some “official” organizations are trying to occupy and subjugate the minds of American Jews, forbidding serious criticism of the State of Israel.

It looks especially at how Hillel International has banned from campus Hillel buildings any deep critique of Israel  -- shoving away from Jewish life precisely the most exploratory and creative young Jews at precisely the time of life they are likeliest to choose or shun Judaism.

In both essays, I take as central the question, When and how may admiration or love for the State of Israel become idolatry?

I suggest that prohibiting criticism of any institution is precisely what makes it not lovable, not admirable, but an idol.

And I recall that Psalms 115 and 135 warn that those who make or put their trust in idols become like them –-  dead.

And yet –- 48 years after I called out the need for peace between Israel and Palestine, there is still an Israeli military Occupation of  Palestine, now much more brutal and much more self-corrupting than it was 48 years ago. And much more both threatening to and inspiring of Jewish creativity in America --  already forcing many Jews to think anew and far more deeply about their relationship to the State that calls itself Jewish.

So at this moment I cannot hold my tongue, even though I continue to believe that our most urgent task as Jews, Americans, and human beings is to heal the Earth, including all humanity, from impending climate chaos.

In my two recent articles, I not only explore the present conflict from a transformative-Torah perspective, but suggest how to shape a path forward. I welcome your comments – either on our Website or in reply to this letter.

Oseh shalom bimromav, hu yaaseh shalom alenu – v’al kol Yisrael, v’al kol Yishmael, v’al kol yoshvei tevel.

May the One Who makes harmony in the ultimate reaches of the universe teach us to make peace within our selves, among our selves, for the Godwrestling Children of Israel, for the God-hearing Children of Ishmael, and for all who dwell within this planet.

Ameyn selah! --  Arthur 

"Israel" is the Name of a People Also

Today  is "Yom Ha'Atzma'ut": Accurately & Profoundly Translated, A Day to Stand on Our Own Feet, Affirm Our Own Essence

"Yom Ha'Atzma’ut” is usually translated as "Israeli Independence Day." But the word “Atzma’ut” has as its root Etzem = “bone, skeleton, internal essential structure.”  So it would be more accurate – and raise more profound questions -- to call it "Day for Standing on One's Own Feet, Day of Affirming One's Own Essence."

Have we actually gotten to stand on our own feet?  Who is the “we”? A nation-state? A transnational people? What is our “essence”?

These are profound spiritual questions. I would like to look at this day from the standpoint of Torah and the Holy One Who is the Breath of Life  -- not from the conventional categories of political analysis.

I. "Yisra'el" Means "Godwrestler"

Not only is the word “Atzma’ut” deeper than its usual translation – so is the name “Yisra’el.” First of all, there is an "Israel" broader than the State. "Israel" is the name of a People also. And the name itself bears a meaning , a commitment, a covenant.

The Torah of Esau and Jacob, Gaza and Israel

This coming Shabbat (December 1, 2012)  of Torah readings completes a three-week saga of the struggle between two brothers –- Esau, older, stronger, rougher; and Jacob, weaker, smoother, sneakier, wilier. This is one of the many-times repeated exploration in the Book of Genesis of the struggle between older and younger siblings – all, I think, to teach the same lesson.  In this third week, the Esau-Jacob struggle is resolved in reconciliation.

Ironically, these three weeks are the same three weeks in which we’ve been suffering the Gaza-Israel War –-  its lead-up, its explosion, and its cease-fire. The cease-fire certainly does not mean Israel and Palestine have yet achieved a reconciliation.  But the arc of our just-lived history and the arc of the Torah story bear some resemblance. Indeed, the Torah story might teach us

Long-term Truce or Another Gaza War?

This Haaretz article raises profound questions about the Israeli government's decision to assassinate a leader of Hamas. It appeared on November 15. Haaretz is often called “the New York Times of Israel.” My own comments will follow the article, both on the realpolitik of today and on how Torah might address these issues.  -- AW
Israeli peace activist: Hamas leader Jabari killed amid talks on long-term truce

Gershon Baskin, who helped mediate between Israel and Hamas in the deal to release Gilad Shalit, says Israel made a mistake that will cost the lives of 'innocent people on both sides.'
   By Nir Hasson      |   Haaretz /    Nov.15, 2012 | 1:55 PM |  38
Hours before Hamas strongman Ahmed Jabari was assassinated, he received the draft of a permanent truce agreement with Israel, which included mechanisms for maintaining the cease-fire in the case of a flare-up between Israel and the factions in the Gaza Strip. This, according to Israeli peace activist Gershon Baskin, who helped mediate between Israel and Hamas in the deal to release Gilad Shalit and has since then maintained a relationship with Hamas leaders.

Baskin told Haaretz on Thursday that senior officials in Israel knew about his contacts with Hamas and Egyptian intelligence aimed at formulating the permanent truce, but nevertheless approved the assassination.

“I think that they have made a strategic mistake," Baskin said, an error "which will cost the lives of quite a number of innocent people on both sides."
"This blood could have been spared. Those who made the decision must be judged by the voters, but to my regret they will get more votes because of this,” he added.

Baskin made Jabari’s acquaintance when he served as a mediator between David Meidin, Israel’s representative to the Shalit negotiations, and Jabari. “Jabari was the all-powerful man in charge. He always received the messages via a third party, Razi Hamad of Hamas, who called him Mister J.”
For months, Baskin sent daily messages in advance of the formulation of the deal. He kept the channel of communication with Gaza open even after the Shalit deal was completed.

According to Baskin, during the past two years Jabari internalized the realization that the rounds of hostilities with Israel were beneficial neither to Hamas

Shalom Ctr Honors Cindy Sheehan & 3 Others as 'Prophetic Voices'


More than 250 people joined with The Shalom Center Sunday, February 5, at a Philadelphia synagogue to honor the prophetic voices of Cindy Sheehan and three Philadelphia activists.

The event was covered with long news stories and photos by both Philadelphia daily newspapers and by three TV stations.

Eight rabbis, two cantors, and three choirs from various congregations took part in the event, which was held at the Reconstructionist synagogue Mishkan Shalom.

"We are members of the human race first and we are Americans second," Sheehan said during the ceremony. "We are members of the human race first and Jews second, Muslims second, Christians second, Iraqis second, Israelis second, Palestinians second. Our love of our fellow human beings does not stop at the border."

Wordless Dina, Dark & Light

Rabbi Phyllis Berman & Rabbi Arthur Waskow, 12/10/2003

The same Hassidim who teach that the Torah is Divine Light also teach that there is no way to light except through darkness: "There was evening, there was morning: one day." Creation begins in t

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