Wrestling Jacob: How a Genesis story speaks to Jews today

The Torah reading this week includes the famous passage in which a 'man' wrestles with Jacob (Genesis 32: 22-32). Who is this 'man' and what does it mean?

The 'man' has been interpreted as Esau's guardian angel, or Jacob's alter ego. The result is that Jacob prevails against the 'man' but is left with a limp.

Granger Collection, New YorkJacob Wrestling with the Angel, Gustave Doré.

This is a seminal moment for the Jewish people. No longer will the Jewish people be known as 'Jacob' – meaning heel, outwitting, deceit. From now on, the Jewish people will be known as 'Israel'. 'You have striven with G-d and with men and have prevailed'. And after that, Jacob (now Israel) is able to face Esau his brother, who he had deceived, in equanimity.

So what on earth does this story mean for us today? Surely it is the stuff that dreams are made on, almost on a par with mythology rather than religion. But in fact, this moment represents a lesson for all of us.

The more-than 2000-year story of Jews in the diaspora has been the story of Jacob: of fear and appeasement leading to piety, study and good works. This entails leaving the big decisions to others, resulting in persecutions, pogroms, expulsions and murder. Only rarely can we cite moments of real 'Israel'-type behaviour in the long diaspora story.

The last time I can remember 'Israel'-like behaviour in this country for instance is probably at the start of the Six-Day War in June 1967, when the Arab world threatened the tiny Jewish State with destruction. The then Chief Rabbi of the UK did not hesitate to break Shabbat in order to open the doors of his office. The State of Israel was in mortal danger, and the Chief Rabbi was encouraging people to enlist in the Israeli army. But that was exactly 50 years ago. Unlike so many Jews, the then Chief Rabbi was 'secure in his skin' and didn't hesitate to do the right thing – following the adage that 'saving life takes precedence over the observance of Shabbat.'

But countless diaspora Chief Rabbis in history have not acted like that. In 1897, the Chief Rabbi of Vienna told the founder of political Zionism, Theodore Herzl, not to rock the boat and to 'get lost'. The English gent Chief Rabbi, Adler (a favourite of Queen Victoria), tried his utmost to prevent Russian Jews who actually observed their religion from entering this country in the wake of the pogroms. During the Holocaust, the Swedish Chief Rabbi tried to scupper the work of the hero Raoul Wallenberg, and delayed his departure for Hungary with food and money for desperate Jews in Budapest. And most recently, the Romanian Chief Rabbi told the world that everything in that country was fine, thus delaying the prosecution of Ceaușescu by years, and bringing the Jewish community into disrepute.

The fact is that being nice all the time simply doesn't work and is often dishonest behaviour. A case in point is the present Pope's omission of the word 'Rohingya' in relation to Myanmar. He is more concerned to safeguard the small Christian minority in that country. But appeasement never works in the end.

'Israel'-like behaviour on the other hand takes courage and is often unpopular. It doesn't end in 'gongs', knighthoods, or recognition by the great and the good. It does not entail the feel-good factor and in fact often ends in distress, rejection and contempt.

In 2003 I met Professor Robert Wistrich of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He was regarded as the world's greatest expert in antisemitism. Robert told me that he had been thrown out of London University where he had been appointed in 1991-1995 as the first holder of the Chair of Jewish Studies at University College. Robert spoke around 10 languages. But unlike many academics, he also knew how to size people up.

He was guest of honour at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum, where he was addressing a gathering of academics and foreign ministers at its Holocaust Centre. He decided to hold an unscheduled seminar on current English antisemitism which he said was the worst in Europe. In ascending order of concern he singled out the unions, the left-wing media (including especially the BBC), the Churches (including the CofE) and – by far the worst – the universities, as he and I both knew from experience.

He told me I had to get involved in the situation in my own country. Many years earlier, the Dalai Lama had met me in Oslo and asked me to help with the Myanmar plight, so I was used to putting my head above the parapet, but this was much more risky, especially as the Anglo-Jewish 'powers that be' were bound to try and destroy me, he said.

Three years later, I moved to Israel, which helped me realise that my approach wasn't abnormal or overly assertive; it was simply the 'Israel' approach, which is the other side of the coin to the way of Jacob with which I had been familiar most of my life and which simply didn't work in the real world.

So, while in diaspora, the Yiddish word used to describe 'a religious Jew' is 'frum' (as in doom, gloom, tomb and womb), in Hebrew it is dati, a Persian loan-word from the biblical Book of Esther, brimming with energy.

To greet people on Shabbat in diaspora, you say 'gut shabbos', which reeks of negativity. In Hebrew it is Shabbat Shalom, which sounds open and optimistic.

In diaspora the Jews prefer to keep their heads down, pass the buck and get on with their lives just in case of trouble. But in fact, if those in the Jewish community started to raise their heads, take responsibility and think of the damage that is being done to the next generation, then they would act more like 'Israel' and, in my view at least, antisemitism would slowly disappear.

And it's all there in the Bible. It's not as if I'm making it up. And to be 'Israel' doesn't mean to be offensively aggressive (that's Ishmael and Esau). It simply means to act according to conscience and not to follow the crowd. To be like Moses, Ruth, Esther, Deborah, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos and Hosea, our dear ancestors and role models, who are probably turning in their graves right now.

After all, what's the point of the Bible, if we don't try and follow its core teachings?

Dr Irene Lancaster is a Jewish academic, author and translator who has established university courses on Jewish history, Jewish studies and the Hebrew Bible.