Maggid

Maggid
Elliott batTzedek

 

This is the story we tell:
 

We were a small tribe, extended family, really, in a small part of a small land. Drought came. We followed the rumors of food and water, immigrated to where a family member had set already a footprint.
 

We stayed there, had children, intermarried, took on parts of the culture we lived in. Some of us spoke only our own language – Ivrit – some were bilingual, some lost our language completely. We didn’t look so different, especially after generations there, but neither language nor look mattered when The Troubles came, when warring and monument building ate the extra money of the rulers and they turned to forced labor so their lives could go on unchanged. One generation we were all but inseparable from our neighbors, the next generation most of us were no longer being paid, no longer trading, no longer running our small shops, the next generation we were by law and custom slaves outright. The next generation we no longer looked the same – the work, the bad food when we had food, the clothing worn until there was nothing left to wear, the sun – we were turned into the Dark Strangers they now feared. Forbidden from speaking any language but our own, we stopped being able to communicate, grew utterly separate.
 

Except for the secrets of the new moon nights, when those who remembered they had been family would gather far from the palaces and brick pits, when everyone spoke every language, even if harsh and slow and thick of tongue. But what odd families – never any children, for a single story, a single word spoken to a friend, would put all of our lives in danger. Imagine, then, the day a child became an adult, the day he learned that the Dark Strangers he’d been taught to rule were his very own family, the day she learned the truth of how the well fed and well-dressed came to rule over every part of her life.
 

And in those days from among us a warrior arose. And was killed and flayed in front of us. And then another. Each generation, a new rebel leader, a new mystic, a new prophet, and some came close, so very close, that our rulers would tear into our community, slaughtering, raping, terrorizing.
 

And then from among THEM a warrior arose, much to his own surprise. Maybe he was fully Hebrew. Maybe he was half-breed, half-blood, child of forbidden love, child of rape – the legends are many and the facts are few. But from the boundary where he dwelled a revolution could arise, we could all discover our own fearlessness, slaves who hauled water found they could drain it, slaves who tended flocks found they could spread disease, slaves who grew cops found they could fail, slaves who delivered babies found they could lie, slaves kept in houses, regarded as nearly one of the family, found they could, all on one bloody night, kill the firstborns in their soft warm beds.
 

And we all found that, fearless now, we could simply lay down our slavery and walk away. That we could run to our New Moon families and that they would lay down their privilege and walk away with this. That we could pack wagonloads of reparation-goods and take these with us. That every way they had not seen us until we took action meant they could not understand the calm logic of our actions so believed us to be holders of a dangerous magic.
 

This is the story we tell, how, no longer an extended family, a single tribe, a single language, a single culture, the fact of leaving together could not unite us. Every second or fifth or sixth week of hunger, every bitter cold night sleeping exposed on rock, every fear of water running out, every disagreement about a sheep, every moment other than the glory of the leaving, tore into us, tore us apart, scabs that could never heal before being split and split again. How some of us had still the family story of the small area in the small land that an ancestor had purchased. How some of us were never part of that family and couldn’t see how any small land could be a home to this crowd. How some us wanted only the home we had just left, dreamt every night that somehow the idea of Ruling Over could be destroyed and we could go back. How some of us lashed out in violence at anyone who used the word “back.”
 

This is the story we tell, of forty years of following weather and seasons and rain and rumor. Of disease and disturbance and disagreement leaving dead by the dozens or dozens of dozens.  Of how the generation who dreamed of “back” fell into the silence of their final dreaming and spoke no more of that home. Of how the cult of The Land of Our Father Abraham waxed and waned. Of how a class of Priests arose from that cult, claiming a magic rod, two magic stones, a god who could not be seen but could and did demand endless wealth and sacrifice and could and did punish brutally. Of how that cult and its priests swayed and cowed enough of the crowd to push all of us over the river and into a campaign of slaughter and appropriation, justified by forged documents of a sale of land so many generations back the world was all but new. Of how our god slayed the troops before us with his mighty right hand and we settled peacefully into what was rightfully ours and created a community where all were priests and holy.
 

And then there is the story we tell about the story we tell, or rather the thousands of stories we have told about the story we tell.  For sometimes the story is triumphalist, sometimes a warning, sometimes a yearning, sometimes a myth told only for the comfort of the telling.  In every land, in every time, the story we tell is told in different tongues and with the new words come new foods, new rituals, new ways for the details to shift and sift and come out so samely different. Or differently same.
 

In every land, in every time, every generation was inexorably shaped by the world we lived in, making it impossible to know how the story had meant before. After the destruction of Jerusalem none could comprehend what it had meant to tell our story when the city still stood. After the Expulsion from Spain none of us who told the story could tell it without the shudder of knowing that in each generation a Pharaoh will arise. After immigrations, exiles, mass conversions, decades upon decades of good and peaceful years, after ghettos, after blood-libel slaughters, after messiahs failed and communities disintegrated, after after after – the story we tell is always the same story and can never ever be the same story.
 

The story we tell, here, tonight, is an after, after, after story. After the Holocaust. After the nation state. After a global rebellion of women. After a despair too huge to have any words to describe it other than itself. After a violent triumphalism that saw the story’s ancient real-estate deal again put forward by the cult of the Land of Our Father. After a generation that noticed there were no women in our story as we told it and went looking for whoever they could find. After a generation who, still not satisfied by the limits of text and memory,  began to invent, to add more after what little was there had won, grudgingly, a few words in the story we tell as it was then told.
 

The story we tell is always the story told after the generation before us and always this will be true. The story we tell is always more complicated, more complex, more contradictory, more cantankerous, than the story we tell about the story we tell. The story we tell has no one people, no one god, no one agreed upon set of rules, no one agreed upon text. The story we tell about the story we tell may have that false unity, but the story itself is a story of resistance that resists being made clear, made simple, made clear for the simple.
 

The story we tell is that we tell the story. The story we tell is that we tell the story, and that the we that tells it is large, is vast, contains multitudes. The story we tell is more accurate than history and more mythic than myth. The story we tell arose before the concepts of myth and history were invented.  The story we tell will go on being told, and we who tell it this year, in this place, have no idea what our story will mean in ten years, in a hundred, in a hundred hundred.
 

The story we tell is our story, and we are its storytellers.

Poem a day #28 The First Defense Attorney Addresses the Jury of History

The First Defense Attorney Addresses
The Jury of History

I ask you to consider events
of that day, the circumstances—
no one had ever died before.
How can this young man be held to blame
for murder when he hadn’t been told
humans were not immortal? His
parents never mentioned the apple
incident. How could Cain then know
they’d been evicted before they found
the fruit of eternal life? What had
been brother was now bloody meat,
so he is innocent of lying as well—
he spoke only the truth when he said
he did not know where his brother had gone.

Miriam (and why one should clean from time to time)

Today was Clean Out the Office Day. Well, step one, anyway, with several steps to go. My reward is that I found an entire outline of a novel I meant to start but had mainly forgotten about. And I still like it. Yeah!

It grows from this poem, Miriam speaking about the plague of the killing of the first born children and exactly how that act of tremendous violence came about.

Miriam

Who killed the children?
Can you bear to know the answer?
Would you rather revere
ancestors who killed children
or worship a God
who killed children?
Can you possibly tell the story
of the killing of the children
without keening
as if the world itself were dying?

Some thoughts on Midrash and the women of Judges

So I set out, as a writing assignment, to create poems about the characters Deborah, Yael, Sisera, and Sisera’s mother from the stories in chapters four and five of Judges. Chapter 4 tells their story in prose – Deborah was a “judge”, which was a kind of charismatic leader/seer. She pushed the general Barak to take on King Jabin, who was oppressing the Israelites. Jabin’s army was wiped out, except for the general Sisera, who ran off to the tent of Yael the Kenite, who killed him. The story then shifts to Sisera’s mother, who is waiting for her son to come home triumphant. Chapter 5 tells the same story, but in a war poem which is one of the most ancient texts incorporated into what became the Bible/Tanakh, so clearly comes from a much earlier tradition.

I wanted to write about these women, but I just couldn’t. I started reading Judges, and writing about Judges, and was just totally stopped. Like a lot of Jews, I never actually read all that stuff that’s in the Tanakh but not in the 5 books of Torah. And while a lot of Feminist midrash has been created about women in Torah, the women from the rest of the Bible are rarely mentioned. Reading Judges was astounding and awful, as it has a subtext that is completely about the continued transfer of power from women to men, and the ongoing decay of women’s status as the Israelites moved from tribes toward a central government with a central temple and priesthood. The story is all told from the point of view of these central powers, of course, who in the book are explaining why life had become so morally decayed that they HAD to take over, with the repeated refrain “there was no king in Israel/every man did as he pleased.” Which became the justification for the ultimate imposition of patrilocal, patrilineal rule, headed by male king, male priests, and their male god.

Now I know that this book, in part, is wish fulfillment on behalf of the cult of the single male war god, since women continued to have power in home and society, and continued to have goddesses in the Temple until it was destroyed. Judges is a fantasy of class, caste, and gender, pretending that if they tell the story it will mean only what they said it means.

Yet even so, the steady decline of women in the book is awful. At the beginning is Deborah, clearly the story of a culturally vital woman, incorporated into this story with only a few additions of text linking her to this god. Oh, and thousands of years of intentionally obtuse translation which insists that both she and Yael are identified by their husbands, when the Hebrew probably identifies them by where they are from. Next, an unnamed woman kills off the evil Abimelech by dropping a millstone on his head from a tower in which the people had taken refuge. Also an earlier story, I think, incorporated here with another odd twist – Abimelech asks his attendant to stab him, so that they will not say of him “he was killed by a woman.” Yeah, gotta get rid of THAT story.

Next up is Jepthah, son of a tribal leader but whose mother was a “prostitute.” Nonetheless he comes to power, after his tribe begs him, vowing that, if he wins, he’ll sacrifice the first thing that comes out of his house when he returns home. This is his daughter, unnamed, who gladly gives herself up to sacrifice, asking only that she and the other maidens have two months in the mountains to bewail her maidenhood. Granted, sure, then she was killed. Fun, huh? Leaves me wondering if Jepthah’s mother was in fact a priestess who conceived him in a power/fertility rite with a locally powerful man, conferring on Jepthah special powers. If this was the original story, then the priestly class that shaped these stories into Judges needed to delegitimatize Jepthah and end his line, so why not invent this story of the vow and child sacrifice? I’m not a Hebrew scholar, but I have read a lot, and the whole set up does make me wonder.

Next up in Judges is Samson, which is really interesting to read. Also clearly a much older story, probably a cycle of stories and legends about a local hero, his story is full of puns, riddles, humor, vows and reversals. The woman here is Delilah, who betrays her husband three times and ultimately was killed along with all her people. She had no power of her own, a far cry from Deborah and Yael, but at least she had a name.

Next, and this is my favorite, a Levite from Ephraim takes a concubine, who runs away from him. He tracks her to her father’s house, who welcomes him warmly and gives her back to him (with her consent, it seems, but we know who wrote the story). They travel to the town of Gibeah, where, in a re-telling of the also disturbing Sodom story, the men of the town storm the door and demand the man be turned over to them “to be intimate.” His host instead offers the concubine and his own “virgin daughter, “ saying “have your pleasure with them, do what you like with them; but don’t do that outrageous thing to this man.” So the man shoves his concubine out the door, and, in the morning, seems surprised that she has been raped to death. So, to get revenge, he cuts her into twelve pieces and sends her to 12 tribes as evidence of the crimes of the men of the town. Some of the tribes come to his aid, war breaks out, the Benjamites are defeated.

Big problem ensues – everyone realizes they are not allowed to wipe out one of the 12 tribes, but they’ve also vowed to not let their daughters marry the Benjamites. But the B’s need women to continue! What to do? They decide the men of Jabesh-gilead weren’t sufficiently loyal, so everyone goes there, kills everyone except girls of marriageable age who are still virgins, and “marry off” all 400 of these girls to the B’s. But they need more women! What to do? Everyone treks off to Shiloh, to the annual Feast o’ The Lord, where the men of B are invited to kidnap every girl who comes out of town for the festival.

Gotta love it, yes? Women go from Deborah, of such power that her story could not be simply suppressed, to woman-as-temptress, to unnamed girl willingly sacrificed to keep a single man’s vow, to single unnamed woman raped and dismembered, and ends with hundreds of unnamed women kidnapped and raped to keep men’s vows.

What in the hell can a feminist say? I couldn’t write about any of these women, at least not the kind of midrash that exists to give them a name, tell the story from their point of view, because this would give some legitimacy to the original story. That’s my critique now of so much of what has evolved as “women’s” religious practice in Judaism – the stories are treated as stand-alone stories, and writers work to fill in the gaps. But Judges isn’t just a story, it’s a piece of political propaganda, created by someone for a specific reason, and that reason needs to be explored and questioned. As a feminist, I’m more interested in an analysis that understands personal relationships as the epicenter of social power, gendered power, yes, and also race, class, ethnicity, nationality, citizenship, and more. I need more than just finding the women – I want to find the power, and reveal it, and then reimagine and reshape. I want to re-understand history and so change the future. I’m just no longer interested in midrash whose goals is to elevate imahot to the same height as avot. I want to knock those damn fathers off their throne and figure out where we are all together, starting from new ground.

I want not just the why or the how, but the why.

And the why of the stories woven into Judges is a need to justify kingship to a people whose religious/cultural tradition had been as a people who lived under God and didn’t need kings. Power had to justify itself, had to explain why it was now legitimate, and the power stripped away from women was part of this process. The dead that pile up in these stories – and there are thousands upon thousands – aren’t supposed to matter, and we aren’t supposed to count them. The point of these stories is to enforce a peculiarly Jewish way of telling history, set in theology, in which the Jews sin against God so are handed over to their enemies until a leader rises to take them back to God’s law. Then they live “rightly” for some time, until they sin and the whole cycle starts over again. The sacrificed women, all those slaughtered, are only ways to advance the plot. We aren’t supposed to count them as people, we aren’t supposed to mourn them. They don’t matter—only we matter, the “we” who live to tell the story. This is how the survivors go on surviving, where genocide is such a given that it gives one no moral rise.

Which is exactly why I’m a Reconstructionist Jew and reject this doctrine of being “the chosen people.” History, oppression, war – these haven’t happened only because the Jews have pissed off their big daddy war god. That’s the storyline I’ve walked out of, to demand an end to that understanding of history. I want Jews, Jewish culture, and Judaism to enter shared history, where God is not the only cause, and where the dead count.

And when I count the dead in Judges, I find women’s lives, women’s truth, the story of women’s power and meaning all buried under the rubble of the record of Samson’s destruction. When I count the dead, I count the women of Judges: Deborah, Yael, the woman who defended her people by killing a king, Delilah the trickster, the daughter sacrificed, the woman killed and dismembered, all the women kidnapped and raped. I count them all.

To find out more:

I ended up writing two pieces: “________ bat Jepthah” and “Israel Beiteinu.” You can find them both here on my blog.

Alicia Ostriker, The Nakedness of the Fathers, “Judges, or Disasters of War”

Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Reading the Women of the Bible, “Warriors by Weapon and Word”

Marc Zvi Brettler, How to Read the Bible, “May My Lord King David Live Forever: Royal Ideology in Samuel and Judges”

Rabbi Jill Hammer, Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women “The Song of Devorah and Yael”