What would Rachel say?

Rabbi Noah Arnow serves Kol Rinah and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.


A man sees an attractive young woman and goes up to her and, without a word, kisses her. This sounds all too familiar in the midst of our national conversation about sexual assault and harassment of women. But the episode to which I am referring is not ripped from the headlines; it is from the parasha, the weekly Torah portion, that focuses this week on the story of Jacob.  

Jacob goes to find a wife among his father’s people, sees Rachel and rolls the stone off the mouth of the well and waters her flock. Then, “Jacob kissed Rachel, and broke into tears. Jacob told Rachel that he was her father’s kinsman … and she ran and told her father” (Genesis 29:11-12).  

There are so many problems with and questions about this. This is exactly the kind of unwelcome physical contact that we condemn. Unmarried, unrelated people kissing!? Where, exactly, does he kiss her, and how? Wasn’t this violating both boundaries and norms? And why then does Jacob cry?  

These are not merely modern concerns that we are foisting onto an ancient text; commentators for the past 2,000 years have been struggling with this story, trying to make sense of what Jacob does and trying to vindicate our patriarch from any inappropriate or unseemly act.  


And they find all sorts of ways of exonerating Jacob. Perhaps it was a most chaste kiss, on the hand, or head, let’s say. Others suggest that the story is not actually told in order. First, Jacob introduces himself as her kinsman, then kisses her (naturally, in a chaste way).  

Rachel saw all that Jacob did for her, and then welcomed the kiss, suggests one commentator. And there’s nothing wrong with looking at this scene that way. We could also suggest that it was love at first sight and that Jacob did not need to ask for consent  — their mooning at each other made her feelings abundantly clear.  

But these are all men’s perspectives.  “The Five Books of Miriam: A Woman’s Commentary on the Torah” by Ellen Frankel says: “One cannot help but wonder about Rachel’s response to the stranger who kisses her, weeps and then declares that he is her cousin.”  

And we can’t help but wonder, because Rachel never expresses love for Jacob. She is jealous of her sister Leah, who bears Jacob children, but we never actually know Rachel’s impressions of this episode or much of anything regarding Jacob. 

When she goes back and tells her father what happened, he says to Jacob, “You are truly my bone and flesh.” This could indicate recognition of Jacob as a kinsman or, less generously, of approval of Jacob’s unsolicited kissing of Rachel.  

We are finally hearing the perspective of women about how it feels to be kissed without permission. We don’t know what happened with Jacob and Rachel; it could have been entirely appropriate and most romantic, à la “Some Enchanted Evening”  from “South Pacific.” 

Or it could have been very different. Only Rachel could have told us.