With an open mind

Sermons, essays, articles, arguments and thought pieces from a Liberal Jewish perspective.


Sermons and Thoughts

Wrestling with God

10 December 2022
Rabbi Lea Mühlstein
Sermon Parashat Vayishlach

You can watch a recording of this sermon on our YouTube channel.

The great Hebrew poet Amichai wrote:

The God of the Christians is a Jew, a bit of a whiner,
And the God of the Muslims is an Arab Jew from the
desert, a bit hoarse.
Only the God of the Jews isn’t Jewish.
The way Herod the Edomite was brought in to be king of the Jews,
so God was brought back from the infinite future,
an abstract God: neither painting nor graven image
nor tree nor stone.

As Prof. Tzahi Weiss of the Open University of Israel reflects: “The Jewish God is described in this poem as a God, distant in time and space, who has been “brought back from the infinite future.” The Jewish God seems alienated, an absolutely transcendent God. Beside the criticism expressed in the poem in regard to the distant Jewish God, one can hear a longing for a different God: whether Christian, Muslim, or imaginary— a human God, “one of us” as Jews and as human beings.”

Likewise in our Torah portion we detect this desire to identify and hold on to God. In Parashat Vayishlach, we just read:

25 Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. 26 When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him. 27 Then he said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” But he answered, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 28 Said the other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.” 29 Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” 30 Jacob asked, “Pray tell me your name.” But he said, “You must not ask my name! [or more literally: Why do you ask me my name?]” And he took leave of him there.

God, or at the very least God’s messenger, seems at first sight to be rather immanent – so present in the physical world that Jacob is able to wrestle with the divine being. But at the same time, God and the divine being are beyond human reality: as the Bible scholar Dr Avivah Zornberg highlights, we can’t even be sure who the aggressor is – maybe “in some enigmatic sense, Jacob is the aggressor, who has waited, “alone,” for the man, whose struggle is expressed in the passive form – as though it is Jacob who engages with him, or who has conjured the man’s spirit out of the lonely air.”

The transcendent nature of the divine is further emphasised by the rejection of Jacob’s desire to name the divine being.

Just like in our portion, there exists a tension in Judaism between the transcendent God and the immanent God, between the God who acts in history and the God who seems abstract, distant, and lacking any real interest in the world. Amichai depicts this tension beautifully, although we might disagree with his conclusion:

God’s love to His people Israel is an upside- down love.
First crude and physical, with a strong hand and an outstretched arm:
miracles, ten plagues and ten commandments,
almost violent, on a no-name basis.
Then more: more emotion, more soul
but no body, an unrequited ever-longing love
for an invisible god in the high heavens. A hopeless love.

Through much of his poetry Amichai is quite clear that he does not believe in God. Yet, like Jacob in our portion, Amichai finds himself repeatedly wrestling with God because for him God is not just a theological notion but rather a national possession – if God disappears, do the Jews disappear as well? Like Jacob in our portion, Amichai wrestles with God in a desire to know God.

The contemporary French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy writes in his book “The Genius of Judaism”: “There remains one stance, the Jewish, that stubbornly insists: What one knows, one knows; when one knows something, there is no need for belief; and if one believes it, that is because one has stopped trying to know it, one has chosen to save time, to roll the dice to abolish not chance but the need to keep thinking…” and he continues: “To have a relationship with God through belief is the point of departure, the birth certificate, of Christianity—but, for the Jew, it can be a failing; this surrender to the heart, this recourse to naïve faith on the grounds that it is impossible to know, is a way of deferring intellection, which is the reason the Jews were put here.”

Having just spent a week at two different interfaith conferences I freely admit that I am somewhat jealous of the deep belief that seems so effortlessly to anchor God for religious Christians and Muslims. I too feel some of Amichai’s longing for a God who is revealed clearly. And yet, there is something incredibly powerful in knowing that my faith does not demand of me a surrender to the heart and challenges me not to give up on the quest to know. For to be a Jew, is to be Israel – the one who wrestles with God.

And there is something else that our Torah portion teaches us about the quest to knowing God: Jacob demands a blessing. It is the blessing that connects Jacob to God, Jacob won’t let go before being granted that blessing. But blessings in the Jewish tradition are not a one-way street. As much as human beings seek blessings from God, the Jewish God seeks blessings from us. Prayer creates the connection even in moments when knowledge of God seems to be beyond reach.

As Amichai puts it with the title of the poem from which I have quoted – Gods change, Prayers are Here to Stay.

And so, let us return from a reflection of wrestling with God to our prayers, to the familiar words that connect us to God – not a painting nor graven image / nor tree nor stone – whether we belief or not. As we continue to wrestle to know God.