July 28, 2021
WHAT DO WE DO WITH A TROUBLING TEXT?
Suddenly, the text I have been working on began to trouble me. What to do? Throwing the baby out with the bathwater (itself a truly troubling image) is not an option; I am working on the haftarah, the prophetic reading, for Shabbat on the 21st of August a month from now, and I do not get to decide what the weekly haftarah reading ought to be. And this haftarah is from Isaiah, one of the major prophets (not that I have more leeway tossing aside minor prophets). And it is the “Fifth Haftarah of Consolation”, the fifth of seven readings especially chosen a very long time ago for the seven weeks between Tisha B’Av and Rosh Hashanah. I cannot simply wish away this text. What to do?
My specific project offers me opportunities. I have set out to prepare this Fifth Haftarah for chanting in English, using the traditional Ashkenazic melodies for chanting haftarah. My choice to chant this text in English forces me to make translation decisions and adapt the text to singing. The very different vocabulary and grammar and style of Biblical Hebrew and modern American English preclude a simple application to English text of the rules for chanting Hebrew haftarah. So my project already is midrash in some sense – interpretive, reactive, adaptive, expansive. This gives me courage (and license, I suppose) to confront what troubles me about this specific text.
The text is Isaiah 54:1-10. You can find it here: https://www.sefaria.org/Isaiah.54.1-10?lang=bi The context is our movement from the Tisha B’Av experience of exile and destruction, being estranged and refugees from the Divine Presence, toward the infinite possibilities of the World reborn on Rosh Hashanah. The central message is beautiful – we are not to feel desolated or ashamed or dishonored, because God has hidden God’s self from us for only the blink of an eye; we will return to Zion with God’s love, compassion and covenant of peace all rousingly affirmed.
The author of this text uses images that were and are moving and meaningful. The People Yisrael, in exile in Babylon, are addressed as if a childless woman, an abandoned wife, and a widow, all metaphors for a person at the margins of society in that time in that world. God is portrayed as the one who will espouse this degraded person, comfort her, take her back, and make her prosper, the metaphor for which is having a multitude of children who will return to the Land and reinhabit the abandoned towns. I thought I had captured this in words that stayed faithful (no pun intended) to the Hebrew, yet could be sung in English with haftarah melody.
And suddenly the text troubled me. Can we not in this time and in this world encode the same message of God’s grace and love and covenant without the overlay of patriarchy (hierarchy in a relationship between us and God is a given, I would say) and the narrow view of a women’s worth measured in progeny produced? I have an inkling that we can, and in my mode of midrash I am going to give it a try. I will keep you posted.
With blessings for a week of peace, good health and abundant happiness.