The loneliness of the widow on Tisha B’Av

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My familiarity with Tisha b’Av goes back to summer camps. As a child and teenager in Camps Massad and as a married adult in Cejwin Camps, I took fasting very seriously in camp and only ate dairy for the 9 days before TBA. In 1967 after the Six Day War (which was instrumental in our coming to Israel), I decided that I no longer needed to fast. As children in Massad we sat around on the floor with lit candles in our potatoes and played with the melting wax while we were “forced” to listen to Eicha (Lamentations) and the various piyyutim moaning about ancient history. As an adult counselor in Cejwin, I was the “culture vulture” which meant that I had to teach teenagers about the meaning of Tisha b’Av. I taught that the most important message appeared smack in the middle of Chapter Three of Eicha. It was a verse which stated that we were responsible for what had happened to us as a nation and 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 in the four other chapters of the scroll was depicted as female and that the speaker in chapter 3 was masculine. “I am the man…” (Lam 3:1) it began.

I have come a long way since then–both geographically and time wise (this was 55 years ago). Since my birthday falls this year on Tisha B’Av, it will be unseemly to celebrate, instead I plan to engage in introspection about Eicha, which describes the pillage of the First Temple. The opening verse of chapter one describes Jerusalem as a widow:

Lonely sits the city once great with people! She that was great among nations is become like a widow… Bitterly she weeps in the night… There is none to comfort her of all her lovers…” (Lam 1.1-2).

The loneliness of this woman stands out; she is bereft, she weeps, apparently she has no friends to comfort her–she may be likened to a widow, but her character is besmirched, she has lovers–she is unfaithful–and perhaps responsible for what has happened to her.

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 prayers Jews recite on the Sabbath celebrating Rosh Ḥodesh—the new month— the three major festivals of Succoth, Passover, and Pentecost, and the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The piyyutim also emphasize the refrain that we are responsible. And if we look carefully at chapter three, the male speaker, who engages in condescending and  patronizing mansplaining. He, the gever, the man, tells us exactly that, with a sense of surety and the implication that if we repent and behave ourselves all will be well. Rather than fault the enemy or God for what has befallen, he knows the answers. But the women’s voices which surround this chapter overrides his voice, for in most of the lament there is a sense of overkill on the part of God–sure we were wrong and sinned, but did You have to go so far, to “lay waste without pity” and to behave to us as if WE were the enemy (see Lam 2). As a modern reader and adult, I find this hard to accept.

The theological intent of chapter one of Eicha 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” (Lam 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 long 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 Eicha 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. The text of Eicha assigns blame to Israel for its abandonment by God. Israel is considered responsible for her own downfall—and therefore deserving of punishment.

Widowhood is usually 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).

The 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. So what is her actual status? It would seem that she is a classic case of the agunah, the chained or anchored woman: One whose husband is unaccounted for, yet who is not free to marry again. This is developed in an analogy (mashal) between God and a King who was angry at his wife and wrote her a bill of divorce. There are many meshalim (analogies) in the midrash in Eicha  Rabba which include women, either as object or subject. In most of them, God is depicted as a king and Israel as his wife.

The rabbis use this 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” (Eicha Rabba Chapter 1).

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. However, even today, it is possible to retract a get if some scribal error is found or if the authority of the rabbis is doubted or if the husband is considered to have been coerced into giving the get. The get serves the purpose of making the divorce, and as proof of divorce—in order to remarry, the wife must have the legal document in her hand to prove she is no longer married. Thus, 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”–presumably out of love (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.

I personally find this very uncomfortable. 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 who must atone for what he has done to his people and who must assure his people that he will not do it again.

Should we read and 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 an article “Who is Battering Whom?” (1993) 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 is a proper response to God’s abuse. The Book of 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 live with the consequences of a patriarchal world view. Just this last week a woman was killed by her husband because she wanted to see her children. Another woman was forced to go to a shelter because of her violent husband. Rather than imprison these men, it is the women who are forced to 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.

About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible from a feminist perspective on zoom.
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