Parashat Shoftim 5776

Rabbi Dalia Marx, 9 September 2016

Is Jerusalem God’s Wife? (and, What’s in It for Women?)

In many cultures a city, typically a capital city, the symbol of the nation’s spirit, is referred to as a feminine figure that needs protection. The honor of the city has to be guarded as that of a woman, while its violation is often compared to that of a woman. The Hebrew Bible too reflects such imagery, as the prophets often refer to Jerusalem, as a mother, a daughter or as a wife. These images are frequent in the second part of Isaiah (chapters 40-66), which contain the words of a prophet, who prophesied after the destruction of the first Temple.

In many of these prophecies, God turns to the desolated Jerusalem to console, encourage and promise her that the salvation in coming soon. God is depicted as a husband who wants to reconcile with his wife after a dispute. For example, “For a small moment have I forsaken you; but with great compassion will I gather you” (Isaiah 54:7). These images have incited Jews’ hopes not only after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, but during times of trouble throughout the generations. They are frequent in the Haftarot, the prophetic readings for the seven weeks of consolation beginning from the Shabbat after the 9th of Av and leading up to Rosh Hashanah.

From Prophecy to Liturgy
Quite a few expressions from Isaiah, and especially from the prophetic reading of the Seven Weeks are cited and embedded in Lecha Dodi. This liturgical poem, composed by Rabbi Shlomo Elkabetz in Tzfat in the 16th century, is located at the heart of Kabbalat Shabbat. It is a love song for the Sabbath – the bride and the queen but also for Jerusalem and the Shekhinah – all of these beloved objects have feminine grammatical form but also are treated as feminine entities. Consider this line, for example: “Awake, awake, your light is coming, rise up and shine”, citing Isaiah 52:1 (in our haftarah), and 60:1.

Today, when many women are involved in synagogue life and in Jewish worship, one may ask: where are the women? What are we to do with these images that refer to the feminine (Shabbat, Jerusalem, the Shechinah) as beloved yet as objects of this love, not expressing their own feelings? Where can we actually hear women’s voices?

Women can of course be impressed with the prophet’s words, with the salvation promises to the people and with the beauty of the poetic language, but how can they be deeply connected to the love story that placed them always as desirable and loved, but silent and passive? How can women feel connected to a tradition in which they are always passive recipients but never the speakers and never active? How can it be that the women who are told about are never active partners in its narration?

Finding Our Voice[s]
Obviously, I do not propose to rewrite the Bible so that it would be more inclusive to women’s experiences and voices, and I am not too keen on changing Lecha Dodi either. I do think though that it is our duty, to enrich the Jewish language – to create new commentaries, rituals and prayers that reflect a diverse and rich Judaism and to celebrate its richness. It is our duty to add to the choir of the people of Israel myriad voices that were excluded before. When we do that, the words of the prophet in our haftara: “together shall they sing” (Isaiah 52:8) will come true.

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