Women and Mourning

After Sarah's death comes the first biblical account of mourning.

Reprinted with permission from
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary
, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).

“And Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her” (Genesis 23:2). With this verse, our parashah invites us to consider the history of a significant yet often obscured tradition in women’s discourse, namely, mourning.

urj women's commentaryIn this parashah we have the first account of mourning (even though death has figured prominently earlier). Here a woman, Sarah, is mourned, and the mourner is a man, Abraham her husband. Yet sources disclose that in the ancient world the act of mourning was typically associated with women. Margaret Alexiou’s landmark study, The Ritual Lament in Greek Tradition (1974), calls attention to the gendered characteristics of mourning practices and language. Throughout antiquity, in both Greek and Middle Eastern cultures, the lament–a standard feature of ritual life–belonged largely to women who gathered to lead the community in the rites of grief in the Bible, just as in the Classical tradition, the lament was associated with the feminine. The book of Jeremiah lets us hear the bitter weeping of Rachel, mourning over her absent children (Jeremiah 31:15). That book also conspicuously presents songs of communal loss as a maternal legacy; because of disaster, the prophet instructs the women thus: “Teach your daughters wailing, and one another lamentation” (Jeremiah 9:19). When the world splits open, when history fails, the feminine voice is made audible.

The Bible does not preserve actual descriptions of mourning rituals or women’s laments. What we do have is the book of Lamentations, a national lament, in which–as is common in laments–the poet repeatedly appropriates a female persona, singing as if a woman: “My children are forlorn, / For the foe has prevailed” (1:16). Composed in response to the destruction of Jerusalem (586 B.C.E.) at the hands of the Neo-Babylonian army, Lamentations chronicles a nation’s effort to know itself in the aftermath of a profound severing of its relation to God–the divine principle that confers meaning upon the social order. And in this book, catastrophe is repeatedly gendered.

The female is the subject reciting the lament; she is also the object of exploitation, since to the poet the feminine body represents the site of social disrepair. In this way, Lamentations provides yet another textual example of the widespread symbol of nation-as-woman, ever vulnerable to foreign invasion. Women are cast as the ideal speakers of loss and rupture, for that is a condition which they embody.

Lamentations opens with a cluster of images figuring Jerusalem as an abandoned woman; she is variously to a slave, a fallen princess, and a widow–an almanah, a term Alan Mintz points out “designates so much a woman who has lost her husband as the social status of a woman who has no legal protector and who may thus be abused with impunity” (Reading Hebrew Literature, 2002, p. 24). Indeed, almanah may etymologically linked to the Hebrew verb that to be mute or dumb (with the letters aleph, lamed, mem). This association deepens our sense of the widow as one who cannot speak on her own behalf. Focusing on the structures of meaning in the Hebrew Bible, Elaine Scarry identifies a crucial division between God manifested as a voice and humanity as embodied: “To have a body is to be creatable, … and woundable. To have no body, to have only a voice, is to be none of these things; it is to be the wounder but not woundable” (The Body in Pain, 1985, p. 206). The distinction is central to Lamentations, where “daughter Zion” is represented, especially in the first chapters, as virtually all body, broken and disabled.

adrienne rich
Adrienne Rich.

Turning to the post-biblical period, women continue to dominate in the mention of laments. Rabbinic tractates include a few such references. For example, in Mishnah K’tubot (4:4), Rabbi Yehuda rules that even the poorest husband must provide one lament-singing woman for his wife’s funeral, as a minimum display of honor. In the Talmud, we find a suite of poetic fragments which suggest that the lament, as a standard feature of ritual life, belonged largely to the women who gathered to lead the community in the fires. Attributed to the sage Raba, we read: “The women of Shkanziv say: ‘Woe for his leaving / woe for our grieving'” (BT Moed Katan 28b). To this day, Yemenite and Kurdistani women living in Israel continue to assume a large role in mourning the dead in their communiries. (See Susan Sered, Women as Ritual Experts, 1992.)

In Western culture, meanwhile, the genre of lament has become a useful frame for women poets. Dahlia Ravikovitch, who emerged as an important Israeli poet during the 1950s, has been described as a “lamenting poetess in the ancient biblical tradition” (Shirley Kaufinan et al., eds., Hebrew Feminist Poems, 1999, p. 13). A particularly beautiful and haunting example of Ravikovitch’s contribution to the genre may be found in her poem “They Required a Song of Us.” The poem begins with a line from another well-known Israeli poet, Lea Goldberg, who asks: “How shall we sing a song of Zion / when we have not even begun to hear?”

Like Goldberg’s query, Ravikovitch’s poem meditates on Psalm 137, a famous expression of exilic despair in the Bible, where the speaker asks: “How can we sing a song of God on alien soil?” Ravikovitch answers this ancient query by recognizing the need for a new kind of utterance: “Sing intimate songs / that the soul shies away from singing … ” (Tal Nizan, ed., With an Iron Pen: Hebrew Protest Poetry 1984-2004, 2005).

Turning to twentieth-century Jewish American poetry, we find new variations on the lament in the work
of Adrienne Rich. Wrestling with the expressive limitations of other forms of poetic mourning, Rich writes of her frustration in “A Woman Dead In Her Forties.”

Here the speaker first confronts the genre of lament’s potential inadequacy, feeling “half-afraid” to write a lament for one who did not “read it much”–and then gropes for an alternative: “from here on I want,” she writes, “more crazy mourning, more howl, more keening” (Facts on a Doorframe, 2002, p. 255). This discontent compels Rich to reactivate the lament in her 1991 volume An Atlas of the Difficult World. In a later collection, written in the aftermath of the Gulf War crisis (1991-92), Rich longs to convey what she knows to be true: that poetry can be a powerful, socially constructive force for reconfiguring community (What is Found There, 1993, p. xiv). Poets such as Merle Feld, Esther Broner, and Penina Adelman also explore the power of mourning. Their versions of lament, along with Rich’s, alert us to the reconstructive possibilities of an ancient biblical form.

The product of fourteen years of work and the contributions of more than 100 scholars, theologians, poets, and rabbis–all of them women–The Torah: A Women’s Commentary is a landmark achievement in biblical scholarship and an essential resource for the study of the Bible. For more information or to order a copy, visit URJBooksandMusic.com.

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