Alicia Suskin Ostriker, Jewish poet, feminist, has written another book that should sit on all our bookshelves. For the Love of God: The Bible as an Open Book is Ostriker’s most recent book of essays addressing the and re-interpreting six of our richest biblical texts: Song of Songs, Ruth, Ecclesiastes, Psalms, Jonah and Job. Many of these are wells from which modern midrashists and feminists have drawn much water, but Ostriker is able to revisit many drawing new inspiration and showing how many of our traditional readings of these texts leave out a great deal that lies as subtext, and from which we can draw new strength and meaning.
Some of the readings address battles which have largely been fought, and which younger feminists, even younger Jewish feminists may feel are over. Yet, the truth is we keep revisiting them: in the secular world, when new movements form to try to make contraception illegal once again; in the Jewish world,women are still outnumbered as institutional leaders, presidents, and rabbis, in both worlds, getting paid less and receiving fewer benefits, being penalized for having children, and being constantly bombarded by bad science about how we ought to go back to the home. And of course, the battle is not won: not in Judaism, where there are still branches of Judaism in which women do not count, communities in which women have been so under pressure as those who lead men astray that against their rabbis’ wills, they have taken on wearing clothes that cover them more thoroughly than any Muslim full-body covering, some even covering their eyes and being led about inthe street by children.And of courswe, there is a world full of other traditions, religions and societies in which women remain bound, hand and foot by men to whom they did not wish to wed, where they live only to serve, to husbands (in the sense of that word: one who dominates or cultivates) to whom they remain property.
From her essay on Song of Songs:
“Open to me,” Says the lover, but women understandably hesitate to do so. “I have put off my coat; how shall I put it on? I have washed my feet; how shall I defile them?” Better to stay safely in one’s place, not make waves. For what happens -according to respected Jewish tradition- to a woman who goes public with her spiritual need, whose yearning is larger than a kitchen, who does not hide behind a mehitza? What happens to the learned Beruria…Her devoted husband Rabbi Meir instigates one of his disciples to seduce her in order to prove that women are flighty. When the disciple finally overcomes her resistance, she kills herself for shame, but no one seems to think Rabbi Meir should be ashamed….What happens to women at the Wall? We are not speaking of allegory here, but real life. Women who dare to pray aloud with Torah in hand at the Kotel, the Western Wall in Jeruslem, have been spat on, cursed, called whore. They have had chairs thrown at them, they have been beaten up and hospitalize, and they – they, not their assailants- have been arrested. ….As it is uncannily written, “The Keepers of the walls took away my veil from me.
Today, when women everywhere in the world are less willing to be silent, it becomes possible to dream of a time when women’s spiritual insights, experiences, revelations,and passions will contribute as much as men’s have done throughout history. As that time approaches the meanings we give to God and the soul, to truth and goodness, to reality itself, will inevitably change. Perhaps our longing for a divinity we can love without fear will come closer to being answered…
…When the Shulamite appeals to the daughters of Jerusalem with the solemnity of an oath,she should awaken our longing for justice: “Justice, justice shalt thou seek.” When she cries that she is sick with love -sick because of frustrated love- she should remind us of our won condition. She begs us to be her allies. We ought to answer her call.
But in the first place, we ought to respond to the call of the Holy One. Kol dodi! Kol dodi dofek! The voice of my beloved. My beloved knocking. Pitkhi li! Open to me, says the lover. And why? Though the language is somewhat obscure, the translations, converge on something like “For my head is filled with dew, my locks with the drops of night.” Which is to say that the Holy One, baruch ha-shem, our lover, is out there in night and fog. The night and fog that might be not only World War II (Could Resnais have possible been thinking of this image in the Song as an image for the incomprehensibility of the holocaust?) but all of human history. The night and fog (and it ought to break our hearts to think this) is all of Jewish history, too.
Kol dodi. In night and fog -from who knows how far back, from the time of the Kingdom, fro the time of exile, the time of Akiva, throughout the diaspora to this very moment – the lover knocks at our womanly door, saying Open to me. And we want to open, but we’re afraid, and when we go to the door it’s too late, and we regret our hesitation: Nafshi yatzeah ve-dabbero, my soul failed at his speech. But the Song is timeless, the Song is still there, the beloved still knocks. How long will it take us to answer fearlessly?
Translation must be the most difficult kind of writing to do. Literary translation in particular, and poetry? Fuggedabout it. Which makes those intrepid souls who actually succeed at it minor miracles, and perhaps, like beer, proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.
Recently Rabbi Morris M. Faierstein, scholar of Jewish mysticism, hasidism, history and Yiddish, author of numerous books and articles has come out with such a book. Poems of the Holocaust and Poems of Faith is a translation of the work of Aaron Zeitlin, , a Yiddish – and unusually- religious poet who survived the Shoah, as many did, filled with guilt and remorse. His poetry expresses his anguish and simultaneously memorializes his lost community.
Faierstein seems to have chosen to illuminate this poet for us based on two sympathies with him: Faierstein’s love of Yiddish language, and the exceptional use of Jewish texts, from talmud to zohar.
Israel’s Ashes (I:59)
Were Jeremiah to sit now on Israel’s ashes,
he would not have composed any Lamentation
and would not have washed the ruins with tears.
God himself could not open
the well of his tears. Together with the millions
of the burned nation, he would have kept silent-
the most secret silence.
Now even screaming is a lie,
even tears are only literature,
even prayers lie.
I am a Prayer (II:206)
(Based on a sayin go fR. SImhah Bunem of Przysucha)
You hear my prayer, you see it,
when you only look at,
my body, that piece of darkness and gloom.
What is my prayer and who?
I, your broken vessel.
I am a prayer –
my whole skin and bones,
I alone am the prayer.
My hand and my foot,
my eye and my ear –
all of this is a prayer, my God, a prayer of sorrow.