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How Far Will Gershonides Go to Avoid Mystical Interpretations?

In short, he says the whole thing was a prophetic vision, a dream. There was no physical battle.

Israeli stamp commemorating Ralbag (who was also a renowned astronomer).

Israeli stamp commemorating Ralbag (who was also a renowned astronomer).

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Ralbag (Rabbi Levi ben Gershon 1288–1344, aka Gershonides) is famously rationalist and shuns all mystical interpretations in his commentary on the Chumash. Sometimes it seems impossible to avoid a mystical interpretation. One such section in the Chumash is the wrestling match between Jacob and the sar (minister) of Esau. They wrestle all night, Jacob is victorious, the sar says he needs to be on his way, Jacob asks for a blessing, he is blessed with the name Israel, and due to Jacob’s leg injury we do not eat the sciatic nerve.

Traditionally, the sar is interpreted as a heavenly angel who represents the spiritual side of Esau. I’ve always had a problem with this, my limited knowledge of angels notwithstanding, because I don’t understand why Esau has an angel who corresponds to his flesh and blood self. Do we all have corresponding angels? If not, why is Esau special? But I digress. Ralbag will have none of it. He does not subscribe to the view that angels exist. So what happened?

A couple of years ago Hakirah published an excellent article on Ralbag by Yitzhak Grossman. The article is a broad overview of Ralbag and provides a fairly thorough depiction of Ralbag. One section of the article is about how Ralbag would allegorize passages that could not be understood simply in his worldview. The primary example is the story of Jacob wrestling.

In short, he says the whole thing was a prophetic vision, a dream. There was no physical battle. There is no actual heavenly minister of Esau. Rather, Jacob was concerned about his upcoming battle and we know that what one thinks about will have an influence on their dreams. So Jacob dreamed the whole thing.

But how did he injure his leg in a dream? There is no reason to think Jacob did not actually injure his leg because the Torah prohibits us from eating the sciatic nerve based on the incident. Jacob’s leg must have been injured. But how? Ralbag gives two answers.

1. Sometimes a dream can feel real. It can activate our bodies in a way that causes a physical action despite the fact that what we are seeing or experiencing is not real. He mentions nocturnal emissions as an example. The person’s body reacts to the thoughts in the person’s dream. Sometimes we dream that we are jumping or running and it will cause our leg to suddenly move. We’ve all experienced this at some point.

Jacob was having an extremely visceral dream. When he saw his leg injury in his dream it caused him to move his leg in a way that caused him to severely injure himself. When we woke up, he was limping.

2. Sometimes we dream about the things that are happening to us during our sleep. If you are cold, you might dream about being in a cold place. If a man is aroused, he might dream he is with a woman. Our physical condition during our sleep can affect our dreams.

So it’s possible that Jacob dreamt about his leg becoming dislocated in a wrestling match with Esau’s heavenly angel because while he was moving his family and transporting his possessions across the river he actually hurt his leg. That night he dreamed about his aching leg and spiritual meaning became attached to it.

Pretty creative and pretty interesting, if you ask me.

This path of Torah study has been mostly neglected in our current system of Torah learning. We study the other commentaries. The ones who believed in angels and magic are much more popular. That’s just the way it is. Perhaps we could say this is some sort of “survival of the fittest” Torah and our Mesorah has evolved to focus more on the mystical side of things.

But I wonder how different Orthodox Judaism would look and feel if this Maimonidean version of Judaism had won the day. Would we be better off? Would we be worse off? Would it have any impact at all?

I can’t help but think that the Judaism of the Maimonidean persuasion flourished in a time and place that was not that different than our American Orthodox Judaism. Jews were not subject to violence and pogroms. Jews were protected under the law and by and large were able to live productive lives within the society of the Arab world. Mysticism was certainly found there as well, but mysticism really flourished in the European countries where Jews were living in constant fear for their lives.

Might our social environment be more similar to the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry? Might our world be more conducive to Maimonidean philosophy? I think it’s very possible.

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About the Author: Rabbi Eliyahu Fink, J.D. is the rabbi at the famous Pacific Jewish Center | The Shul on the Beach in Venice CA. He blogs at finkorswim.com. Connect with Rabbi Fink on Facebook and Twitter.


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8 Responses to “How Far Will Gershonides Go to Avoid Mystical Interpretations?”

  1. its real event not make beliefe, u r making it into yoshka "religion"

  2. Stephen Leavitt says:

    Perhaps Yaacov herniated his disc when he lifted the rock off the well for Rachel. Then, the extreme stress and anxiety he felt due to his upcoming meeting with Eisav caused the back muscles to tighten, squeezing the vertebrae together and causing him sciatica pain.

  3. Who is the "u"? Rav Fink, the Ralba"g, or both?

  4. whoever is saying such stuff, Yakov Avinu fought with actual Angel not some dream

  5. Arkadiy Avezbakiyev – Go back to the beit midrash…you are forgetting that there have always been different שיטות from very honorable and holy Jews that just might not be what you think or were taught. Why would you be so intimidated by the opinion of a recognized and renowned Rishon such as the רלב"ג?

    Best of luck finding out, and חנוכה שמח.

  6. Arkadiy Avezbakiyev – That's not much of an answer, that's all. Cheers.

  7. Ben Yosef Shomer says:

    LOL the prophetic vision IS REAL. Maybe r. Fink has a vision to change (or to reform) our Torah perspectives , but as he says, is just a dream …..from his daily activities…..

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