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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"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.