Parashat Shemini 5781


7 April 2021 – 25 Nisan 5781

Rabbi Judith Rosen-Berry

 
Thinking about: ‘Don’t touch the dead bodies of unclean animals’ (Leviticus 11:24) and Gerald Stern’s ‘Behaving Like a Jew’.

How did a great Red-Tailed Hawk
Come to lie – all stiff and dry –
On the shoulder of
Interstate 5?

Gary Synder, ‘The Dead by the Side of the Road’.

It’s a common sight – the inert bodies of wildlife lying in the verges; the upturned hedgehog on the road that it was too slow to cross, the flattened wings of birds fluttering disconcertingly as the traffic moves past them. Thousands upon thousands of rabbits, hares, badgers, squirrels, frogs and foxes – litter our highways. What our evasive eye catches brief sight of is only a fraction of the total number killed. The cumulative scale is ungraspable, its ubiquity paradoxically rendering it all but invisible. Of course, some large animal remains are inelegantly removed, but most are left – discarded on hard shoulders or decomposing on warm tarmac. Even so, we mostly don’t see them in the sense at least, that we pay them critical attention. But the time may have arrived for this wildlife carnage, to coin Roland Barthes phrase, to work as a ‘punctum of death’ – the image of their remains ‘pricking’ us, leaving an indelible bruise on our conscience.

The carcasses of these obliterated wild animals are treyf, mangled and torn apart – the rules are clear – they are not to be touched (let alone consumed). This uncleanliness defiles everything it comes into contact with. And yet, despite its intangible quality impurity is somehow to be managed. Articles of clothing, implements, and bodies must be washed, periods of time must lapse, and parameters must be drawn for imperceptible cleanliness to be restored. It makes sense. Death and physical corruption disturbs in incalculable ways. Some distance must be maintained (from the decaying animal carcass) – and our rituals make meaning out of our instinct to hold back – but perhaps this isn’t the only way. Increasingly poets, artists, and essayists are pointing (y.r.h.) us in another direction. In their work we can begin to see how the unholy scraps of the disintegrating road-killed might be met differently.

One among these is the American poet Gerald Stern. In his work ‘Burying an Animal on the Way to New York’ he suggests: ‘Don’t flinch when you come across a dead animal lying in the road; you are being shown the secret of life’. But it’s in his better-known poem: ‘Behaving Like a Jew’ that a new attentiveness to those animals killed on our roads is explored. The work begins:

‘When I got there the dead opossum looked like / an enormous baby sleeping on the road. / It took me only a few seconds – just / seeing him there – with the hole in his back / and the wind blowing through his hair / to get back again into my animal sorrow’.

The poet sees the dead opossum, its actual being – its body and hair, and he feels tenderness for the creature. Intimacy is not coincidentally solicited but demanded from him. He continues:

‘ – I am going to be unappeased at the opossum’s death. / I am going to behave like a Jew / and touch his face, and stare into his eyes, / and pull him off the road’.

In these verses it feels as though the repetitive ‘I am’ is creating an anaphoric echo of Torah instruction – but in reverse. The untouchable animal must be touched. Nothing less than unmediated contact with this now lifeless body is demanded. Stern goes on to write:

‘I am not going to stand in a wet ditch / with the Toyotas and Chevies passing over me / at sixty miles and hour / and praise the beauty and balance / and loose myself in the immortal lifestream / when my hands are still a little shaky / from his stiffness and his bulk / and my eyes are still weak and misty / from his round belly and his curved fingers / and his black whiskers and his little dancing feet’.

The poet knows that every death, even this death, is specific – the crushed features of the opossum’s body are recounted – detailed and particular, they tell a unique story. Holding the dead animal there is the unavoidable realisation that in the midst of something (a singular life) the opossum was obliterated for nothing. The poet is unappeasable. A life has been taken carelessly and unjustly and our response to it, Stern’s response to it, is not to avoid contact with the corrupted – rather it is nothing less than the Jewish response: to be profoundly touched by it.

See:

Desmond. Jane, C. (2016) Displaying Death and Animating Life/, University of Chicago Press.

Moscaliuc. M. (ed) (2016) Insane Devotion: On the Writing of Gerald Stern, Trinity University Press.

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