Israel as Estranged Wives and Widows

The metaphor of Israel as the wife of God receives several potent and shocking midrashic reinterpretations as the rabbis reflect on Israel's suffering and persecution.

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Although the biblical book of Job presented a radical critique of the covenantal theology that suffering is punishment for sin, the rabbis, in general, chose to maintain a belief in the covenant. The most common rabbinic approach to the problem of suffering, and in particular, the suffering of the people of Israel in exile, involved relocating reward and punishment to Olam haBa, the next world. Even so, the rabbis could hardly escape the reality of the pain that people experienced in this world. In order to explain the failure of the covenant between God and Israel, the rabbis sought the closest analogue: the occasional failure of the human covenant between husband and wife. 

Love on the Rocks

When the covenant seems to work, the rabbis imagined the covenant as a love story. Most notably, the rabbis transformed the love poetry of the biblical book of Song of Songs into the love story of God and Israel. Yet, if Song of Songs Rabbah and the Targum (Aramaic interpretive translation) of SIsrael as God's Wife and Widowong of Songs preserve the love story, then a peculiar midrashic collection known as Midrash Song of Songs (edited by Eliezer Greenhut) presents the story of "love on the rocks." The one known manuscript of this midrash was apparently copied (or maybe even written) during the Crusades and was then lost during the Holocaust.

"'Show me your countenance' (Song of Songs 2:14). This is like a man who had an ugly wife whose name was Hannah. She honored her husband greatly, but he was sad, because although she had a good name and beautiful deeds, her face was ugly. A dream maker came and asked why he was distressed, and he explained why. 'Do you want her to be beautiful?' 'Yes,' came the reply. In the morning, she became beautiful. She saw herself and she began to lord herself over her husband. In the night, the dream maker came again and asked what he wanted. 'Please make Hannah ugly again.' 'For your voice is pleasant and your face becoming' (Song of Songs 2:14). The Holy Blessed One said to Israel, 'When is your voice pleasant to me? When you are pressed down by persecution…'" (Midrash Song of Songs Greenhut 2:14).

The flip side of the biblical and rabbinic suspicion of wealth and good times ("You will eat and be satisfied. Be careful lest your hearts stray," [Deuteronomy 11:16, and cf. Deuteronomy 8:11-20]) is the belief that bad times and, in particular, suffering and persecution somehow foster the kind of relationship that God wants from Israel. Suffering, according to this view, leads to Israel's devotion and even to a perverse beauty.

Israel as Loyal Widow

Although the previous passage does not reveal any bitterness or irony, that is not the case with other uses of the husband-wife metaphor. The book of Lamentations begins "How has the city, so full of people, become k-almanah, like a widow!" For the rabbis, the interpretive crux becomes the single letter-word, k-almanah, like-a widow. How is Israel like a widow without actually being one?

"'How has the city, so full of people, become like a widow!'…R. Hama bar Ukba and the rabbis [disagreed]. R. Hama bar Ukba said: She is like a widow who chose continued support (in the house of her deceased husband) rather than her ketubah (her marriage settlement which would have required her to find a new husband)…"

R. Hama's approach needs a little explanation. According to the Talmud (Ketubot 52b), a woman has two choices upon the death of her husband. The common choice is that she receives the ketubah settlement that would support her for a year or so until she could be remarried. Instead, Israel is seen as a widow who chooses to stay in the house of her deceased husband rather than go somewhere else.

Although Lamentations mourns the destruction of the Temple and of Jerusalem, R. Hama's analogy raises the specter of what, in modern times, would be seen as a metaphor for the death of God. Israel's continued faithfulness to the land and religion of Israel, is seen as the widow who maintains a posthumous fidelity towards her husband. Yet, Israel's God/Husband is not really dead, so Israel is only like a widow and not one in reality.

God as Abusive Husband

The rabbis' parable, however, takes the understanding of  "like a widow" and not really a widow in a totally different direction.

"The rabbis said: It is like a king who was angry with his matron and wrote out her divorce document, but then got up and snatched it from her. Whenever she wished to remarry, he said to her, 'Where is your divorce document?' And whenever she demanded monetary support, he said to her, 'But have I not divorced you?'"

"Similarly, whenever Israel wished to worship idols, the Holy Blessed One said to them, 'Where is your mother's divorce document?' (Isaiah 50:1); and whenever they wished that God should perform miracles for them as in the past, the Holy Blessed One, said to them, 'Have I not already divorced you?' That is what is written, 'I sent her away and I gave her divorce document' (Jeremiah 3:8)" (Lamentations Rabbah 1:1.3).

For the rabbis in this midrash, God's behavior is that of a wicked husband who takes advantage of the inequity in Jewish law which puts the power of divorce exclusively in the hands of the man. Although the woman in this parable is divorced and not widowed, as in the biblical verse, the woman is only "like a widow" in that she lacks the support of a husband and yet, she lacks the freedom of the widow to remarry. Israel suffers, and lacks the support of God who does not even allow Israel the freedom to depart and join with other gods.

Together Forever

A final example of the rabbinic response to suffering, however, contrasts sharply with this last vision of a powerless Israel. R. Joshua of Sikhnin reports this parable of R. Levi:

"R. Joshua of Sikhnin said in the name of R. Levi: 'I am the man' (Lamentations 3:1); I am the one who has learned from suffering. Have I benefited from what you thought fit?!"

"It is like a king who got angry at his wife and forced her out of the palace. She went and pushed her face up behind one of the pillars, [staying in the palace, but hiding]. The king saw her as he was walking by and said 'Such impudence!' She responded, 'My lord king, this is the right and appropriate thing for me, since no other woman besides me has accepted you.' He retorted, 'Only because I disqualified all other women [from marrying me] for your sake.' She said to him, 'If that is the case, why did you go to that house on that street if not to meet with a woman who ended up rejecting you?'"

"Similarly, the Holy Blessed One said to Israel, 'Such impudence!' But Israel said, 'Master of the Universe, it is right and proper for us since no other nation besides us has accepted the Torah.' God retorted, 'Only because I disqualified all other nations for your sake.' Israel said, 'If that is the case, why did you offer the Torah to all of the nations, only to have them reject it!'" (Lamentations Rabbah 3:1.1)

Although the Temple was destroyed, Israel remains attached to God. But she is far from powerless. Like the woman of the parable, ejected from her home, Israel can turn to God and say, "You may be angry with us, but we're all You've got!" This translation follows the reading of R. Samuel ben Isaac Jaffe, the sixteenth century author of the commentary Yefeh Anaf. Jaffe comments:

"'I am the man' who has suffered as a result of having accepted Your Torah. Instead of You doing good for me, You have done me evil; had I not accepted Your Torah, then I would be free and I would not have suffered for having not fulfilled it."

Rabbi Jaffe affirms the theology of the covenant, but nevertheless bemoans the consequences. Other rabbinic texts present God in ways that are even more transgressive of the basic terms of the covenant, including describing God as a wife-batterer.

Later theologians developed different kinds of theologies to explain suffering in this world; in comparison to modern theological responses, the rabbinic repertoire seems rather limited. Nevertheless, working from within the covenantal theology that suffering is punishment for violation of the Torah's norms, the rabbis found effective ways to subvert and rework the metaphor of covenant to express their own theological discomfort, and more importantly, their own voices of protest to the suffering which they saw as a violation of a divine covenant.

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Jeffrey Spitzer is Chair of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at Gann Academy, The New Jewish High School, Waltham, Mass., and a member of the Institute's Tichon Fellows Program.