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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"'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?!"

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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.