Monday, January 26, 2009

mother rachel returns

Ynet news, English website of Yediot Acharonot newspaper, reports at least two rabbis having stated that the matriarch Rachel, wife of Jacob and mother of Joseph and Benjamin, appeared in Gaza and assisted Israeli soldiers in the fighting. According to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, a former Chief Rabbi and spiritual mentor to the Shas (Sephardic religious) party, she appeared at the entrance of a house and warned the soldiers to be careful because terrorists were inside. Rabbi Mordecai Eliyahu went a step further, claiming to have sent Rachel himself, although at least one other Rabbi disputes this.

It's easy to make fun of stories like this, but they reflect an important point. Most people (and especially most men) associate their mothers with warmth and protection and their fathers with a rather more distant, judgmental aspect. Accordingly there is an enormous hunger for a female as well as, or in place of, a male deity. But men, who have most of the power, generally do not want to give it up.

Different religions resolve this tension in different ways. In Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christianity, the figure of Mary accomplishes the task, nominally the mother of God but, in popular versions of the religion, a co-equal or even dominant figure. Hinduism similarly features goddesses like Lakshmi and Paravathi who--while officially serving as the consorts of male deities--often play a no less important role.

Judaism, which is more vehemently monotheistic--and some would say, male dominated--has no precise equivalent. Here is where Mother Rachel (Rachel Imenu, pronounced with a hard "ch" in Hebrew) is so important. Although she has limited theological significance, Rachel has long been a symbol of physical redemption and return from exile, largely because of the passage in Jeremiah that portrays her weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted because they are no longer nearby. Probably the most emotional song following the Six Day War was entitled "Re'i Rachel Re'i" [Look Rachel Look], encouraging the Matriarch to take notice of the Israelis' return to Bethlehem; and Rachel's Tomb [Kever Rachel Imenu] in that city has, after the Western Wall, been the most emotional pilgrimage site since that period. Rachel has thus, in a popular if not official sense, taken on at least part of the role played by female saints and deities in less purist religions: forgiver, comforter, the familial/emotional as opposed to the national/political side of exile and redemption.

What troubles me about the Gaza story is not its improbability--I find the appearance of a Biblical Matriarch no more improbable than many other things that happen in the Middle East, and considerably less so than some--as the nature of her intervention. In the story as related by Yediot, Rachel warns the soldiers not to enter a house because there might be dangerous men waiting inside. But every Israeli soldier was aware of this danger, anyway: it would not have taken a supernatural intervention to tell them.

Even more disturbing is the outcome. In the story, the soldiers hearken to Rachel, enter the house very carefully . . . and kill the inhabitants. It is difficult to believe that Rachel, who died in childbirth, would be happy with this result, even if the inhabitants were all heavily armed (I shudder to think if they weren't).

I haven't seen Rachel lately, but as I write this I am conjuring up a definite image. She is sitting in Bethlehem and, for the first time since 1967, has begun crying again. Why are you crying, I ask her? I am crying because my children have returned only to begin killing each other, she replies. In the Biblical version God tells Rachel to refrain from weeping because her children will someday return. Who, using what argument, will tell her to stop crying now?


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