My familiarity with Tisha b’Av goes back to summer camps. As a child and teenager in Camps Massad and as a married adult to Cejwin Camps. I took fasting very seriously in camp and only ate dairy for the 9 days before Tisha b’Av. In 1967 after the Six Day War (which was instrumental in our coming to Israel), I decided that I no longer needed to fast. Oh, the optimistic euphoria! I thought the war was the Second Coming! In camp as a child I sat on the floor with a candle in a potato and played with the wax while being bored out of my mind listening to Eicha (Lamentations) and the various piyyutim moaning about ancient history. As an adult counselor in Cejwin, I was in charge of culture, which meant that I had to teach teenagers about the meaning of Tisha B’Av. I then taught that the most important message was in the middle of Eicha was a verse which stated that we were responsible for what had happened to us as a nation. That we had to look into ourselves: “Let us search and examine our ways, and turn back to God” (Lamentations 3:40). In other words, I blamed the victim. In those days, pre-feminism, I did not notice that the victim was depicted as female and that the speaker in chapter 3 was masculine, “I am the man…” אני הגבר (Lamentations 3:1).
JERUSALEM THE WIDOW
In Lamentations, Jerusalem is described as a widow after the destruction of the Temple:
Lonely sits the city once great with people! She that was great among nations is become like a widow [כאלמנה] … Bitterly she weeps in the night… There is none to comfort her of all her lovers…” (Lam 1.1-2).
Jewish theology tends to be self-blaming for what has happened: “u-mipnei hata’einu…”, “on account of our sins, we have been exiled from our land [Israel]” goes the refrain in our prayers. If we look carefully at chapter three, the male speaker, in a sort of “man-splaining” manner tells us exactly that! If we repent and behave ourselves all will be well. He is so sure of himself! However, there are women’s’ voices which predominate in most of Lamentations, voices which do not hesitate to speak of overkill on the part of God. This past year, I have been teaching the book of Job to my Hebrew speaking group and we as modern adult female readers find it hard to accept a god who seems to punish without reason.
The theological intent of chapter one of Lamentations is to justify God’s destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem as punishment for sin. The disaster that befell the community is because of the sin and infidelity of the people, not God’s failure. The widow accepts the blame and says, “The Lord is in the right, for I rebelled against His word” (Lamentations 1.18). But is a “widow” guilty of sin? If the City of Jerusalem is “as a widow,” the modern reader would view the metaphorical widow, not as a sinner but as a “victim” of God’s anger—who herself has not sinned? Should we be blaming ourselves for being the subject of God’s aggression? Our modern sensibility suggests that perhaps we should be blaming the Angry God who has caused the destruction. On the other hand, if Jerusalem/Israel is a widow, then God is dead. Hence the wording כאלמנה “like” a widow. For a believing Jew, this is not a blasphemous stance, for in our tradition there is a heritage of doubt and protest.
What are the implications of Jerusalem the downtrodden victim being described in feminine terms? And what specifically are the implications of her being a widow? In chapter one of Lamentations, the city of Jerusalem is described in uncomplimentary female metaphoric terms. The metaphors that are used to describe women in this chapter include the menstruant, the rape victim, and the battered woman. These female symbols are used to blame the people of Israel for their sins. Women are symbolically blamed for the destruction of the city. The depiction of Jerusalem as an unprotected widow (usually lumped together with the stranger and the orphan), abandoned by her husband/God, destroyed by her supposed protector can be seen as a metaphorical justification of abuse of women by men. Lamentations assigns blame to Israel for its abandonment by God. Israel is considered responsible for her own downfall—and therefore deserving of punishment.
Widowhood can be constructed positively; it can mean freedom from an abusive marriage. Yet widowhood has been constructed by most societies as a tragedy. Today when women are single by choice, live longer than their husbands, widowhood has become a normative, not a deviant, status. Yet there are many who think they (or others) are missing something when they are not married. Widowhood, therefore, is often still constructed as loss (of more than just the husband) and not gain.
This was certainly true in rabbinic times when the Talmud had to legislate the rights of widows in order that they be protected from rapacious children (b Ketuvot 103a). The marriage of a widow was not a blessed event unless the husband himself was a widower (b Ketuvot 7a). In the Bible and midrash, the widow is always paired with the orphan and stranger. In the Talmud she is paired with the divorcee. Why? Because all of them are miserable. They lack something—a husband, a father, a protector.
And who are these orphans, they are Israel…and who are these widows, they are Zion and Jerusalem, as it is said: How the great city has become like a widow (The Midrash on Psalms, Psalm 146.9).
JERUSALEM IS NOT A REAL WIDOW
Our sages sense that it is unjust to blame the widow as a sinner, so they say she is not a real widow. She is in the situation of a woman whose husband has gone off for a while—leaving her as a “grass widow.” It could not be that Jerusalem, or the people of Israel, can be likened to a real widow. Obviously as stated above, were that to be the case it would imply that God is dead and so the letter “kaf” (which means “like”) is emphasized. She is not a real widow, just like one whose father or husband has gone abroad and who intends to return to her, for it is said that Israel and Judah are not widowed from their God as is stated by the prophet Jeremiah towards the end of his book (The Midrash on Psalms, Psalm 68:3)..
Another implication of being a “grass widow” or “like a widow” is that her widowhood is qualified: she cannot marry another man, nor can she live off of her husband’s earnings. Her actual status is that of the agunah, the chained or anchored woman: One whose husband is unaccounted for, yet who is not free to marry again. In many midrashim in Lamentations Rabba God is depicted as a king and Israel as his wife. The rabbis use a divorce scene to discuss the relationship between God and His people. The king/God reneges and snatches back the writ, saying as long as you wish to remarry another; you cannot, since you don’t have your divorce decree. On the other hand, he also says whenever she requests monetary support that it’s too bad, since I’ve already divorced you. The analogy with God is that when the people wish to worship other gods, God says that “you are mine” and when they ask God for a miracle to save them, God says, “But I’ve already divorced you” (Lamentations Rabba Chapter 1).
AN ABUSIVE GOD
What the king is doing is illegal. In a real divorce situation, once the get, the bill of divorce is given, it cannot be retracted. The king is lying when he denies divorcing her. There are no clear explanations for God/the King’s behavior. It is clear that God is both alienated from and bound to Israel. In anthropomorphizing God, the sages are able to portray God’s full complexity. The result is that the wife has the legal status of an aguna, the chained woman. We should all ask: What is the point of all of this? Is it to punish the wife even more?
The use of negative feminine metaphors to depict God’s relationship with Jerusalem is both dangerous and powerful. There is a midrash in which God is likened to a heroic figure with great strength. He hits another man and the man immediately dies from the blow. This hero then goes into his house and hits his wife and she withstands the blow. Her neighbors say to her, “all the great athletes have been killed from one of the hero’s blows—but you are able to survive more than one blow.” She answers them that “he hits them with all his might, out of anger, but to me, he gives what I am able to take” (Aggadat Bereshit 8:3). In a continuation of this same midrash, the rabbis ask why it is that the people of Israel can stand up to God’s anger? The answer is: because God hits us and then returns immediately and re-creates us. This is the comfort that Israel can take in their unique relationship to God.
Why do the prophets and rabbis need such myths and metaphors to depict their relationships with God? What is gained by blaming the people for their “female” weaknesses? Is the blame even full-hearted? What is whole-hearted is the depiction of the sinning city as female. The prophets condemn men and use female sexuality to represent male sin, which humiliates them, by placing them in the inferior female position. That may be the function of these metaphors. But what are we, the people, blaming ourselves for, besides the sins that came before? Isn’t the punishment of being a widow enough? Should we be punished for being menstruants as well? Why should the victim have to atone for her sins in feminine terms? It is not the people who need to revictimize themselves, it is God, depicted as masculine, who must atone for what He has done to His people and who must assure His people that He will not do it again.
TEACHING TROUBLING TEXTS
How should we teach such troubling texts? What, if any, are the redeeming possibilities of studying texts which depict the degradation and humiliation of women?
David Blumenthal in “Who is Battering Whom?”(here) suggested a theology of protest in response to the possibility that abusiveness is an attribute of God. He wrote that the definition of abuse is when the punishment is out of proportion to the sin. In his mind, God is sometimes abusive, and in wrestling with this truth, one must acknowledge and react to it. He uses Elie Wiesel’s oratorio, Ani Maamin (I Believe), which is a modern rereading of a midrash on Lamentations that ends with the patriarchs reproaching God and God crying. Wiesel also discusses God’s responsibility for the Holocaust in The Trial of God, a modern rereading of the Book of Job. The hero, Berish
insists to the very end that he will hold God responsible and yet stay loyal to his Jewish identity and to God… ‘If He insists upon going on with His methods, let Him—but I won’t say Amen. Let Him crush me, I won’t say Kaddish…. And because the end is near, I shall shout louder… I’ll tell Him that He’s more guilty than ever!’
Blumenthal raises the question of how God does teshuva (repentance, returning to God). The acknowledgment of abuse by the abuser is not enough. There must be a commitment, never to abuse again. Obviously, the abused person has to accept the commitment, and accept reconciliation; but even with it, it is difficult to maintain a relationship of mutual trust with the abusing God. This is part of a theology of protest and sustained suspicions which are a proper response to God’s abuse. Lamentations is clearly understood as a possible response and reaction to God’s specific abuse of the Jewish people (depicted as female) during the First Temple period.
It is time to ask some hard questions about the role of suffering in Judaism, and in particular the role of women’s suffering, since the suffering of the Jewish people is so often depicted through feminine images. We are now being forced to live with the consequences of a patriarchal world view. Rather than imprison abusive men, or at least putting electronic tags on their ankles, women go into hiding or run the risk of being killed. Conventional attitudes toward women are still being transmitted to us as part of our heritage and too often society responds unquestioningly to these views as if they were absolute truths. As we slowly slouch towards a theocracy, we should be hyper-alert to the dangers bought on by our patriarchal tradition.
I think that “The Second Coming”, a poem written by the Irish poet W. B. Yeats in 1919, to be very timely as a conclusion and a commentary on OUR times (the emphasis is totally mine):
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?