God, Jeremiah, and the Closet

Alex Braver
May 17, 2012
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One of the exciting things about being involved in the Jewish world now, at this very moment, is that we live in a time in which new faces of Torah are being revealed.  People who have traditionally been barred from being authorized interpreters of Torah—women and queer-identified people–are, more and more, allowed to “claim Torah” as their own, and through this, allow the rest of the Jewish community to see revealed the changing nature of Torah, radical and new, but deeply traditional, true to their roots.  My hope is that this brief reading of a major theme in the book of Jeremiah can contribute to this effort.

 

Jeremiah is a text that is as deeply concerned with the fate of Jerusalem as it is with the inner lives of its two main characters–God and Jeremiah.  Both have a complex set of emotions and thoughts, both are deeply ambivalent about their role in the saga of Israel’s downfall and exile, and both have a difficult time keeping their pathos contained within them.   As a literary character, God has struggled throughout the Tanakh to be heard and known, to be understood and loved.  In fact, two of the primary metaphors for God’s relationship with Israel are of lover and child, and in the prophetic books, these metaphors are used to describe God’s longing–that God chooses Israel as a child or a lover, but Israel fails to reciprocate or to be faithful, to be a trustworthy recipient of God’s deep desire to love and be loved.  So too, Jeremiah wrestles with loneliness and despair, with a set of raging and wailing emotions that cannot be contained, and with a desire to be loved and accepted by both the public at large, or by an individual lover or children, that is never fulfilled.

 

In keeping with this month’s theme of “claiming Torah,” I think that the book of Jeremiah can have incredible emotional resonance when viewed through the lens of the “closet.”  It is a story that can be claimed by LGBT Jews and their allies as a powerful expression of some of their own personal narratives.  “The closet” functions as a metaphor that describes how a person keeps an essential secret deeply hidden, how a person may experience this “hiding-of-self,” and how a person may choose to selectively reveal this secret.  The metaphor of the closet can therefore be used to explore the difference between one’s outward presentation and one’s inward feelings, regardless of whether or not they are connected to one’s sexual identity.

 

The intent of this article is not to make a claim about the sexuality of Jeremiah or–so to speak–God.   It is difficult to make any definitive claims about the sexual orientations of the characters in the Bible.  Rather, the paradigm of “closeting” and “coming out” concerning sexuality can provide a lens through which to understand the ways in which the richly textured inner lives of God and Jeremiah are kept hidden away, or selectively revealed to each other.  Just as many modern queer people maintain a secret inner-life in regards to their relationship with their sexuality, so too both God and Jeremiah bear their particular emotional burdens in a sort of secrecy.  This applies especially to Jeremiah, through the “confessional” segments of the book, in which Jeremiah openly laments his harsh, prophetic charge, which clashes with the conflicting emotions he feels within.  These confessions may, then, be read as a “coming out” narrative; the prophet reveals his inner struggle and feelings, which in all likelihood were kept deeply hidden from the Judeans to whom he so harshly prophesied.

 

God’s Inner Life

 

God’s experience in Jeremiah, as in much of the prophetic literature, is one of estrangement from the people, especially as experienced through the metaphor of the lover.  At first, God recalls the idyllic past, in which Israel had “אַהֲבַת כְּלוּלֹתָיִךְ-” [love of your bride-hood] for God (Jeremiah 2:2).  Yet now, God feels abandoned, since Israel “ רָחֲקוּ, מֵעָלָי ” [distanced themselves from me], so much so that the people do not or can not listen to God, cannot empathize or understand the divine pathos, cannot be receptive to or reciprocate God’s need for love. (2:5). Without a lover to whom God may express these feelings, God’s true self is, in effect, “closeted.”

 

Heschel, in The Prophets, takes note of God’s pathos, of the incredible disconnect between God and the people, which becomes so vast that the prophets are the only people to whom God can reveal God’s self and God’s feelings in their overwhelming totality: overwhelming divine rage in the face of sin, and overwhelming divine love in response to justice.  In his book, Heschel speaks of God’s “implicit desire not to let the judgment fall upon Judah,” (Heschel 108).  God tries intensely to express God’s inner torment about the wrathful decision to destroy Jerusalem, and yet this anguish can only be felt and truly heard by the prophet himself.  The people only experience the divine anger in the form of the Babylonian siege and exile, whereas Jeremiah sees the inner torment, the sense of divine despair, the feeling of having run out of options.  In a sense, the only person receptive to God’s “coming out,” so-to-speak, is Jeremiah.  The prophet sees both God’s decision to act on God’s anger along with the rest of Judah, but is the only person in the book who truly understands God’s inner life.  For example, in 5:28-29, God tells Jeremiah:

 

שָׁמְנוּעָשְׁתוּ, גַּםעָבְרוּדִבְרֵירָעדִּיןלֹאדָנוּ, דִּיןיָתוֹםוְיַצְלִיחוּ; וּמִשְׁפַּטאֶבְיוֹנִים, לֹאשָׁפָטוּ.

הַעַלאֵלֶּהלֹאאֶפְקֹד, נְאֻםה’; אִםבְּגוֹיאֲשֶׁרכָּזֶה, לֹאתִתְנַקֵּםנַפְשִׁי.

 

They have become fat, and sleek, they also overpass in deeds of wickedness; they will not judge the cause, the cause of the fatherless, and they prosper; the right of the needy they do not judge.

Shall I not punish for these things–says the Lord–shall I not bring retribution on a nation such as this?

 

Here, God’s feelings about the people he is about to destroy–the fact that his “implicit desire” not to destroy them is overcome by the people’s rampant sinfulness– are only truly understood and made known to Jeremiah.  God has run out of options, God has no recourse but to send destruction: “Shall I not punish for these things?” God asks.  God begs Jeremiah, “Do I have any other choice?”  The people, who are to be punished, only experience God as the punisher.  Their blindness to God’s true feelings, their inability to understand God’s inner life, in effect forces God to be a “closeted” character in the theology of the book of Jeremiah.  This closeting is effected by the pathological insensitivity of the Judeans to God’s pathos, an insensitivity that is mirrored here by their parallel insensitivity to the stories and feelings of the יָתוֹם[orphan] and the אֶבְיוֹנִים [needy], whose cases they also refuse to hear.  Yet Jeremiah, and only Jeremiah, understands.  Jeremiah is the only appropriate person to hear God’s “coming out”.

 

The “Emotional Nexus”

 

God revealing God’s “implicit desire” and inner pathos to Jeremiah mirror’s Jeremiah’s own confessions, in which he reveals his own inner struggle with his prophetic mission that none but God can understand.  In fact, it is Jeremiah’s great capacity for empathy, according to Heschel, that allows him to feel “the divine wrath as springing up from within.” (Heschel 116).  It also causes him so much emotional torment that he must “closet” himself in the face of the insensitivity of the Judean people.  Yet even though Jeremiah feels the divine wrath as “spring up from within,” it seems that it is placed there somewhat externally in 1:9, where God says:

וַיִּשְׁלַח ה’ אֶת-יָדוֹ, וַיַּגַּע עַל-פִּי; וַיֹּאמֶר ה’ אֵלַי, הִנֵּה נָתַתִּי דְבָרַי בְּפִיךָ.

And God sent out God’s hand and touched my mouth.  And God said to me, “Behold: I put My words in your mouth.”

 

It is no coincidence that the way in which God’s pathos is made clear to Jeremiah is through the דבר [word] (later reemphasized in 15:16), the speech-act, the method by which a person “outs” themselves.  Here, God’s “outing” of God’s self to Jeremiah through an act of speech initiates Jeremiah’s own process of “closeting” and “outing” throughout the rest of the book.  This experience of sharing the דבר creates what Heschel describes as an “emotional nexus,” the experience that is at the heart of any revelation of one’s deep inner truth to another (Heschel 119).  Any act of “coming out” has the potential to create a similar “emotional nexus” between two people, and to profoundly change the inner lives of both parties to the exchange.

 

Jeremiah’s Inner Life

The Judeans failed to understand the complexity of Jeremiah’s inner life.  In fact Jeremiah’s mission required that he hide his belief that his task was “distasteful in the extreme”, and hide the fact that he was truly “gentle and compassionate by nature,” (Heschel 123).  John Bright, in his introduction to the Anchor Bible commentary on Jeremiah, captures this dynamic well:

..we should know nothing of this turmoil and tension, nothing of Jeremiah’s feelings at all, if he had not in his “confessions” confided in us.  We may safely assume that his enemies, and the public generally, did not know of his weakness, but must, on the contrary, since neither reason nor threats could sway him, have thought him a person inflexibly, not to say mulishly, stubborn.  (c-ci)

 

This struggle relates to the struggle of many contemporary gay men, as described by psychologist Alan Downs, in which a man:

experiences a hunger for validation and a hypersensitivity to invalidation that he begins to see it everywhere he turns in life.  His vision narrows, as if by intention he were eliminating from sight all traces of validation.  What he does allow himself to see is a life full of invalidation (81).

 

This disconnect between the inner and outer lives, felt both by many gay men and by Jeremiah, creates a disjointed sense of self: an inner-self, which is tormented with shame and depression, and an outer-self, which seeks but can only obtain the false-validation of the outer-self, never of the true inner-self.  In Jeremiah’s case, this problem is doubly difficult–he seeks validation from God by succeeding in carrying out the prophetic charge, but this charge necessarily results in an intense invalidation by his fellow Judeans.  As a result of his mission, and of his “hypersensitivity to invalidation,” Jeremiah feels the presence of “enemies” all around him, described particularly poignantly in 20:10

י כִּי שָׁמַעְתִּי דִּבַּת רַבִּים, מָגוֹר מִסָּבִיב, הַגִּידוּ וְנַגִּידֶנּוּ, כֹּל אֱנוֹשׁ שְׁלֹמִי שֹׁמְרֵי צַלְעִי; אוּלַי יְפֻתֶּה וְנוּכְלָה לוֹ, וְנִקְחָה נִקְמָתֵנוּ מִמֶּנּוּ.

For I have heard the whispering of many, terror all around: ‘Denounce, and we will denounce him’; even of all my familiar friends, they that watch for my halting: ‘Perhaps he will be enticed, and we can prevail against him, and we shall take our revenge on him.’

 

Jeremiah’s account of his enemies’ overbearing presence is both a reflection of the difficulty of Jeremiah’s mission, and of the intense sensitivity to invalidation that results from the bifurcation of one’s inner- and outer-lives.

John Bright, in the introduction to the Anchor Bible commentary on Jeremiah, continues:

In truth, Jeremiah, though inwardly hurt and in despair, remained to outward appearance a veritable “wall of bronze” a man of unflinching courage who never, so far as we know, tempered the word that his God had given him by omission of so much as a syllable.  In his weakness he was strong; or, better, he was driven by his calling to exhibit a strength that was not by nature his. (c-ci)

 

The metaphor of the חוֹמַתנְחֹשֶׁת [walls of bronze] in 15:20, and of the עִיר מִבְצָר [fortified city] in 1:18 is in fact incredibly appropriate in describing the process of “closeting,” especially given the book’s focus on the downfall of Jerusalem.  While Jerusalem itself is a fortified city resisting the Babylonian onslaught, inside the city the people are starving, and in fact the fortified city cannot hold out against a siege forever.  Perhaps “closeting” one’s inner emotional turmoil is a similarly fruitless endeavor, doomed to failure.

 

 

Confession as Coming Out–Chapter 18, verses 18-23

A close reading of Jeremiah’s confession in chapter 18, read through the lens of the “closet”, can help shed light on the prophet’s experience of a divided self, half concealed and half public.  This is particularly true given that Jeremiah’s anger in this text seems to match the “rage” felt by many gay men as described by Downs, a rage that is

the natural, emotional outcome of being placed in an impossible dilemma.  Nothing he does solves the enigmatic riddle that plagues him.  He is driven by a hunger for validation yet when he achieves it, the feeling is emptiness.  The harder he tries, the less he is satiated…Rage is the experience of intense anger that results from the failure to achieve authentic validation.  Since authentic validation can only occur in the context of one’s true, authentic self, he finds himself incapable of achieving the one thing that will bring him lasting contentment.  Like a cornered and terrified animal, he is provoked, snarling and demanding that he be set free from the cage to which he has been leashed. (32-33)

 

While of course this does perfectly describe Jeremiah, as no generalized psychological profile can, there are a number of similarities.  Jeremiah also finds himself in an “impossible dilemma”–on the one hand, Jeremiah seeks validation through the successful completion of his prophetic mission. On the other, this prophetic mission both leads to the spite of his fellow citizens, and fails to validate what Heschel described as his “gentle and compassionate nature” (123).  Surprisingly, this description can also parallel the rage that God feels in relation to Israel when God is depicted through the husband-wife metaphor; God has a “hunger for validation” from the wife-figure, and although there is some initial success (as in 2:2, זָכַרְתִּי לָךְ חֶסֶד נְעוּרַיִךְ, אַהֲבַת כְּלוּלֹתָיִךְ–לֶכְתֵּךְ אַחֲרַי בַּמִּדְבָּר [I remember for you the devotion of your youth, the love of your bride-hood, how you followed Me in the wilderness…]), it of course fails when Israel strays.  Since the lover is incapable of  recognizing and validating God’s “true, authentic self,” God is perceived by the prophet as “raging.”

Jeremiah’s confession in chapter 18 begins:

יח וַיֹּאמְרוּ, לְכוּ וְנַחְשְׁבָה עַל-יִרְמְיָהוּ מַחֲשָׁבוֹת–כִּי לֹא-תֹאבַד תּוֹרָה מִכֹּהֵן וְעֵצָה מֵחָכָם, וְדָבָר מִנָּבִיא; לְכוּ וְנַכֵּהוּ בַלָּשׁוֹן, וְאַל-נַקְשִׁיבָה אֶל-כָּל-דְּבָרָיו.

18 Then said they: ‘Come, and let us devise devices against Jeremiah; for instruction shall not perish from the priest, nor counsel from the wise, nor the word from the prophet. Come, and let us smite him with the tongue, and let us not give heed to any of his words.’

 

As discussed earlier, Jeremiah’s predicament of having inner- and outer-lives that are out of sync causes him to be hyper-sensitive to any invalidation.  As such, finding that his fellow Judeans are plotting against him must have been incredibly painful for the prophet.  Also notable here is the weapon by which they plan to hurt Jeremiah–the tongue.  Whereas using language to reveal the inner-life and “come out” is the way in which Jeremiah attempts to come to terms with his inner pain, here that tool is used against him.  The power of words can be used for both healing and hurting, to help in Jeremiah’s need to “come out,” or to push him further back into the “closet.”  Finally, Jeremiah’s antagonists cite the “priests,” the “wise,” and the professional “prophet,” some of the cultural elites in Jeremiah’s milieu, as the ones to whom they will listen and receive instruction, counsel, and “דבר,” the “word.”  These figures push Jeremiah to further bury his true feelings, and only stoke his own rage–no one is receptive to his own “דבר”, his attempts to use the power of narrative and language to share his inner life and God’s inner life.  The authority figures in Jerusalem, however, have no problems getting people to listen and understand.

Jeremiah continues:

יט הַקְשִׁיבָה ה’, אֵלָי; וּשְׁמַע, לְקוֹל יְרִיבָי.

19 Listen to me, O LORD, and hearken to the voice of them that contend with me.

 

Jeremiah’s first desire is to be heard and understood.  “Listen to me!,” he says, imploring God as the only person to whom he can truly “come out.”  He also implores God to hear the voices of his enemies, here not so much so that God can understand them too, but so that God can understand how much they have wounded Jeremiah.

In the next verse, Jeremiah asks:

כ הַיְשֻׁלַּם תַּחַת-טוֹבָה רָעָה, כִּי-כָרוּ שׁוּחָה לְנַפְשִׁי; זְכֹר עָמְדִי לְפָנֶיךָ, לְדַבֵּר עֲלֵיהֶם טוֹבָה, לְהָשִׁיב אֶת-חֲמָתְךָ, מֵהֶם.

20 Shall evil be recompensed for good? for they have dug a pit for me. Remember how I stood before You to speak good of them, to turn away Your wrath from them.

 

Jeremiah rails against the intense unfairness of his situation, in which everything is backwards.  The payment for evil is goodness, the prophetic response to being attacked is to pray on behalf of the attackers.  So too, the outer-life is stern and prophetic, while the inner life is weak and tormented.  In addition, the “pit” provides an excellent alternative “closet” metaphor, a place where he is trapped and hidden in darkness, seeking escape.

כא לָכֵן תֵּן אֶת-בְּנֵיהֶם לָרָעָב, וְהַגִּרֵם עַל-יְדֵי-חֶרֶב, וְתִהְיֶנָה נְשֵׁיהֶם שַׁכֻּלוֹת וְאַלְמָנוֹת, וְאַנְשֵׁיהֶם יִהְיוּ הֲרֻגֵי מָוֶת; בַּחוּרֵיהֶם, מֻכֵּי-חֶרֶב בַּמִּלְחָמָה.

21 Therefore give up their children to the famine, and hurl them to the power of the sword; and let their wives be bereaved of their children, and widows; and let their men be slain of death, and their young men smitten of the sword in battle.

כב תִּשָּׁמַע זְעָקָה מִבָּתֵּיהֶם, כִּי-תָבִיא עֲלֵיהֶם גְּדוּד פִּתְאֹם:  כִּי-כָרוּ שיחה (שׁוּחָה) לְלָכְדֵנִי, וּפַחִים טָמְנוּ לְרַגְלָי.

22 Let a cry be heard from their houses, when You bring marauders suddenly upon them; for they have dug a pit to trap me, and hid snares for my feet.

 

 

Here, the “rage” spoken of by Downs comes into full force.  Jeremiah’s antagonists, the forces of invalidation, are now the targets of his rage, a rage similar to that felt by God in the husband-wife narrative.  Jeremiah chooses to speak of his enemies’ families, often the place where a person can best find an outlet to express their inner life, the place where it may be most safe to “out” oneself–where one can know that they are loved and validated.  Jeremiah, however, lacks any of these people in his life, since God decreed that he neither take a wife nor have children (16:2-4).  This particular choice in expressing his rage may therefore reflect an element of jealousy and personal tragedy in the mind of the prophet, since his prophetic mission and inner turmoil prevent him from finding a safe family in which to fully express his inner identity to anyone other than God.

The זְעָקָה (cry) is also notable, given Jeremiah’s relationship to speech and the speech-act as an experience of self-revelation and “un-closeting.”  Whereas God reveal’s God’s דבר, the fully-formed and articulated word, to Jeremiah, here the outcry that Jeremiah envisions is pure emotion without shape, an utter release of inner torment without the use of language or words to shape it.  Perhaps this is reflective of Jeremiah’s inability to sympathize–at least in this confession–with the plight of his enemies and their families.  If he could understand their inner lives, if he could receive the דברים of his fellow Judeans, perhaps his anger could be tempered or held back.  Instead, all he can imagine is hearing their outcry.

כג וְאַתָּה ה’ יָדַעְתָּ אֶת-כָּל-עֲצָתָם עָלַי, לַמָּוֶת–אַל-תְּכַפֵּר עַל-עֲו‍ֹנָם, וְחַטָּאתָם מִלְּפָנֶיךָ אַל-תֶּמְחִי; והיו (וְיִהְיוּ) מֻכְשָׁלִים לְפָנֶיךָ, בְּעֵת אַפְּךָ עֲשֵׂה בָהֶם.

23 Yet, LORD, You know all their counsel against me to slay me; do not forgive their iniquity, do not blot out their sin from Your sight; Let them be made to stumble before You; act against them  in the time of Your wrath.

 

Again, the prophet’s “hypersensitivity to invalidation” takes shape in the form of a type of paranoia, seeing the עצה, the wicked counsel and plotting of his enemies against him. Perhaps he is exaggerating it, but he is certainly reacting against their counsel with extreme violence, calling on God to abandon God’s primary orientation of mercy and love, and rather asking God to act in God’s brief moment of wrath, to not view their sinfulness with continued divine patience.

Conclusion

The destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of Judah may be viewed as a tipping point for God as a character that exists throughout the arc of the Tanakh, a point at which God’s need for self-expression and validation from others reaches a tipping point.  Jeremiah too shares in this struggle, which is what makes him an effective prophet–he is able to channel the divine emotion, which is so far above and beyond human comprehension, and express a tiny sliver of the divine pathos in a way that is comprehensible to our limited human capacity for understanding.  So too, the metaphor of the “closet” can provide yet another perspective from which we as readers of this text can come to claim Torah for ourselves, and to try and understand the immensity of God’s inner life, a life that contains infinite capacity for pain and torment, for anger and wrath, and for giving and receiving love.  Opening up this text and these characters to new human perspectives has the potential to broaden our understanding of God and God’s prophets, to continue to reveal the changing face of Torah.  It also has the potential to continue the prophetic project–to sympathize as best we can with the divine pathos, and to enter into relationship with the ever-flowing Fount of Living Waters.

 

 

Works Cited

Bright, John.  The Anchor Bible: Jeremiah.  Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1965.

Collins, John J.  Introduction to the Hebrew Bible. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004.

Downs, Alan.  The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing up Gay in a Straight Man’s World. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2006.

Heschel, Abraham J.  The Prophets.  New York: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1962.

 

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Alex Braver is a rabbinic fellow at B'nai Jeshurun and a third-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He has also served as a student chaplain, studied at Yeshivat Hadar, and tutored remedial math and English at a charter school in Boston. He graduated from Brandeis University in 2009 with majors in history and politics.

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