Miracles of Birth and Water: Jewish Metaphors through a Feminist Lens

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April 1, 2011
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Lori Hope Lefkovitz

Language is pervasively, inescapably metaphoric. Whatever we know, we know by analogy, locating meaning where difference is perceived. Metaphor is embedded in etymology, and writ large in allegory, and it functions as cultural currency. But what we see when we look into the tradition — to extend the metaphor of sight — depends on the lenses we wear.

The bodiless, ubiquitous Jewish God is only accessible through metaphor. We notice, however, that the God of compassion (rachamim) possesses a metaphoric womb (rechem) only insofar as we make the linguistic association between rachamim and rechem; similarly, one name for God, El Shaddai (God Almighty), endows God with the nourishing power of maternal breasts to the extent that we notice that Shaddai is a derivation from the Hebrew shada’im (breasts), an observation that, in turn, leads to the happy discovery that as El Shaddai, God typically offers blessings of fecundity (Genesis 17: 1-2; 28:3; 48:3-4; 49:24-25). In Isaiah 66, Jerusalem is invited to suckle the divine breasts of consolation and be comforted by El Shaddai “as a mother comforts.”

Both Creation and the Exodus are susceptible to being read as birth stories: The voice of God reaches into the dark, wet swirl of chaos, tohu v’vohu, and organizes the universe in language by creating a classification system, just as babies emerge from the pre-linguistic chaos of the womb and acquire reality by learning the differences between “wet and dry” and “light and dark” and all the other distinctions that will ultimately transform random stimuli into meaningful existence. The national liberation story of our people, the founding myth of Judaism, begins with emergence from “narrow straits,” a punning rendering of Mitzraim (Egypt) as mi-tsar-im (“from the narrows”), through parted waters (the Red Sea), and into the desert of infancy, where food is provided magically and magnanimously, with ever-varying flavors, just like mother’s milk. God may be no more birth mother than “Lord” or “King,” though the more familiar analogies have inspired generations of children to picture a white-bearded God. When we expand the range of our metaphors, we extend the limits of what it might mean to be “made in God’s image.”

Metaphors proliferate, expanding our symbol systems and our imaginations. Among the triumvirate of sibling leaders of our liberation movement is Miriam, in whose name is embedded the word “yam” or “sea.” Aptly named, she saves her baby brother Moses at the River Nile, leads the women in song after the miracle at the sea, and at her death, the earth goes dry. Midrash accordingly identifies “Miriam’s well” as the well that quenches the thirst of the desert-wandering people wherever they sojourn. The constant Miriam-water association has now infiltrated the Jewish symbol system: On the seder table we have a Miriam’s cup filled with spring water, symbolizing the miracles of past and present (the ever-refilling waters of Miriam’s well). The cup complements the cup of Elijah, filled with wine, a time-honored Jewish symbol of redemption and blessing. At welcoming rituals for babies, a Miriam’s chair may stand vacant beside Elijah’s chair. And, just as we sing to Elijah at the havdalah ritual, asking him to hasten the Messiah, so many now also plead with Miriam (same tune, different words, by Rabbi Leila Berner) to lead us to the (metaphoric) waters of redemption.

The ceremony of havdalah (which means separation) has appropriately become an occasion to mark other separations: to recognize a child going off to kindergarten or college, or to honor a weaning (as Abraham honored Isaac’s, Genesis 21:8). One might recite this remarkable metaphor from Psalms: “Surely I have stilled and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with his mother, my soul is with me like a weaned child” (Psalm 131:2), an initially counterintuitive image for serenity. Metaphors force reconsiderations.

A caveat: In her poem, “Prayer to Eve,” Kathleen Norris writes: “Bless our metaphors, that we may eat them.” I love that line. If being a mother has taught me anything, it is the importance of blessing my words … so that I may eat them. (“No child of mine will ever play with Barbie dolls!”)

A wish: In her poem “Déjà vu,” Shirley Kaufman imagines Sarah and Hagar in a contemporary Jerusalem landscape and laments that the women, afraid, did not talk about the “miracles of birth and water.” I hope that someday they will, actualizing the metaphors that will herald peace and salvation.

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Lori Hope Lefkovitz is the Ruderman Professor of Jewish Studies and professor of English at Northeastern University, where she directs the Jewish studies program. Her newest book, In Scripture: The First Stories of Jewish Sexual Identities, was named a finalist for the 2010 National Jewish Book Awards in the Women’s Studies category.

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