Israel as Estranged Wives and Widows

The metaphor of Israel as the wife of God receives several potent and shocking midrashic reinterpretations as the rabbis reflect on Israel's suffering and persecution.

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Although the biblical book of Job presented a radical critique of the covenantal theology that suffering is punishment for sin, the rabbis, in general, chose to maintain a belief in the covenant. The most common rabbinic approach to the problem of suffering, and in particular, the suffering of the people of Israel in exile, involved relocating reward and punishment to Olam haBa, the next world. Even so, the rabbis could hardly escape the reality of the pain that people experienced in this world. In order to explain the failure of the covenant between God and Israel, the rabbis sought the closest analogue: the occasional failure of the human covenant between husband and wife. 

Love on the Rocks

When the covenant seems to work, the rabbis imagined the covenant as a love story. Most notably, the rabbis transformed the love poetry of the biblical book of Song of Songs into the love story of God and Israel. Yet, if Song of Songs Rabbah and the Targum (Aramaic interpretive translation) of SIsrael as God's Wife and Widowong of Songs preserve the love story, then a peculiar midrashic collection known as Midrash Song of Songs (edited by Eliezer Greenhut) presents the story of "love on the rocks." The one known manuscript of this midrash was apparently copied (or maybe even written) during the Crusades and was then lost during the Holocaust.

"'Show me your countenance' (Song of Songs 2:14). This is like a man who had an ugly wife whose name was Hannah. She honored her husband greatly, but he was sad, because although she had a good name and beautiful deeds, her face was ugly. A dream maker came and asked why he was distressed, and he explained why. 'Do you want her to be beautiful?' 'Yes,' came the reply. In the morning, she became beautiful. She saw herself and she began to lord herself over her husband. In the night, the dream maker came again and asked what he wanted. 'Please make Hannah ugly again.' 'For your voice is pleasant and your face becoming' (Song of Songs 2:14). The Holy Blessed One said to Israel, 'When is your voice pleasant to me? When you are pressed down by persecution…'" (Midrash Song of Songs Greenhut 2:14).

The flip side of the biblical and rabbinic suspicion of wealth and good times ("You will eat and be satisfied. Be careful lest your hearts stray," [Deuteronomy 11:16, and cf. Deuteronomy 8:11-20]) is the belief that bad times and, in particular, suffering and persecution somehow foster the kind of relationship that God wants from Israel. Suffering, according to this view, leads to Israel's devotion and even to a perverse beauty.

Israel as Loyal Widow

Although the previous passage does not reveal any bitterness or irony, that is not the case with other uses of the husband-wife metaphor. The book of Lamentations begins "How has the city, so full of people, become k-almanah, like a widow!" For the rabbis, the interpretive crux becomes the single letter-word, k-almanah, like-a widow. How is Israel like a widow without actually being one?

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Jeffrey Spitzer is Chair of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at Gann Academy, The New Jewish High School, Waltham, Mass., and a member of the Institute's Tichon Fellows Program.