by Rabbi Jill Hammer
One of the foci of rabbinic midrash (creative interpretation of the revealed sacred text) is interpretation of revelation itself. Midrash Tanhuma, a ninth-century midrash, imagines Torah as black fire on white fire, a primordial document written by the finger of God at the dawn of creation, before speech is invented or humans are formed (Berman, Bereishit 1). Another text from Midrash Tanhuma (eleventh century) describes revelation as overlapping divine voices speaking to each individual at Sinai according to his or her strengths, and even speaking to sages far in the future (Berman, Shemot 21). A later midrash from the Zohar (twelfth century Spanish kabbalistic work) imagines Torah as a woman, slowly exposing her veils and adornments to exegetes who seek her layered beauty (Simon, II, 99a). These descriptions of how Torah comes into the world allow the classical midrashists to see their own writings as part of an unfolding process of revelation. How do modern midrashim address the nature of revelation? For many modern midrashists, the divine nature of Torah is questionable, yet these writers are drawn to the notion of participating in the imaginative, mysterious exegetical process. How do contemporary writers of midrash depict revelation—and by extension, their own connection to the divine voice?
For a number of modern writers, sexuality becomes a primary metaphor for revelation. Like the mystical midrash from the Zohar mentioned above, these writers depict the intimacy, mystery, and ambiguity of sexual encounter as analogous to the intimacy, mystery, and ambiguity of encounter with sacred text and/or with God. This comparison of sex with divine meeting is both traditional and radical. It is traditional because much of rabbinic tradition sees the unfolding process of Torah exposition as erotically charged and intimate. It is radical because the revelation that occurs within sexual encounter is personal and subjective—it cannot claim objective truth or ultimate authority, but rather represents a powerful moment within the inner lives of the participants. So too, many contemporary midrashic writers find the impetus for their midrashic work not in the anchor of a text dictated by God, but in the subjective depths of their own complex relationship to Jewish tradition.
Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000), known as the poet laureate of Israel, remains an unchallenged master of the ambiguous contemporary voice of Torah. Born in Germany to an Orthodox family, he later emigrated to Israel, studied the Bible and Hebrew literature, and became one of the greatest voices of modern Israeli life: a life both secular and in dialogue with its Jewish roots. Many of his poems deal with the philosophical tangles of love, spirituality, war, and tradition in a world without clear moral authority. Amichai’s God is car mechanic, mother, magician, card player—sometimes present, sometimes entirely absent. Amichai frequently writes about sexuality in all of its modern plainness: sometimes between an old married couple, sometimes anonymous. One of Amichai’s poems demonstrates clearly the synergy between sexuality and revelation that exists in much of his work.
“Jacob and the Angel” from Amichai’s book Love Poems (1981) presents itself as a midrash first through its title: a reference to the Genesis tale in which Jacob, on his way to an encounter with his brother Esau, meets and wrestles a mysterious divine entity (Genesis 32:23-33). Throughout the night, the two battle, yet neither can defeat the other. At daybreak, the angelic being gifts Jacob with a new name, Israel, but will not reveal his own name.
The opening line of Amichai’s poem re-envisions the two grapplers as a man and a woman:
Before dawn she groaned and grasped him
just that way, and defeated him.
And he grabbed her just that way, and defeated her.
They both knew that grasping brings death.
They allowed one another to go without names. (1-6)1
Here, the sacred encounter becomes an intimate night in which both parties equally conquer one another through their sexual meeting. Amichai plays with the notion of erotic pleasure as a kind of defeat, a letting go into the sensations aroused by the other. The encounter is anonymous: both parties know that the joy they share will disappear if they begin to reveal names, characteristics, or a desire to hold on to one another. Amichai implies that the sexual “revelation” can occur only under these conditions: both parties must be free to leave without strings.
If we apply this to Torah, the implication is that no moment of revelation can be written down and turned into law. “Grasping brings death”—the attempt to carve the revelation in stone, to codify it, will kill it. Only the one who is willing to “go without names”—to experience the sacred numinous presence without needing to define it—can truly be transformed by it.
But in the first light of dawn
he saw her body
that remained white
In the places that her bathing suit
had covered yesterday. (12-17)
The male anonymous lover is privileged to get an intimate glimpse of the woman lover’s body: a glimpse that shows him a brief fragment of her life: she was out in the sun the day before in a bathing suit. This momentary vision of the sun’s writing on a woman’s body is almost like a name: a name given not by family or society but by the moment itself. From the brief encounter, the man takes away a memory of revelation: seeing the uncovered skin that was previously covered, knowing the contours of the now-missing piece of clothing by the shape it has left.
So too, the midrashist sees the text uncovered in a way that reveals new facets and insights. The exegete knows the meaning of God’s words, given long ago, by the shape they have left on the parchment. The “white” of the woman’s untanned skin compares to the “white” spaces around the letters where the commentators find room to scribble their innovations. Amichai, a learned Jew, plays with the Zohar’s depiction of Torah as woman. Yet for him, it is the woman who becomes central, not the Torah. Amichai lets us know that for him, revelation happens between two human beings grappling at dawn for sexual release and a brief but honest understanding of one another.
Amichai may also be letting us know that his own wrestling with sacred texts depends on not holding on to their authority or their supposed permanence, but rather letting them speak in the moment. This also applies to Amichai’s relationship with the appearing and disappearing God of his poems. As the man and the woman agree to go without names, Amichai and God must agree to go without names, and let their brief, yet resonant encounters speak for themselves.
After that, they called for her from upstairs
as one might call a little girl in from playing
in the courtyard,
and he knew her name, and let her go. (12-17)
The Hebrew word “from upstairs” is milmaalah, from above—the same word one might use to say “from heaven.” Through this double entendre, Amichai maintains the connection between his contemporary scene and the story of Jacob and the angel. Like the angel, the woman has to leave. Yet the woman is also the human being, and the man, the angel. The call from upstairs comes twice, just as God calls Abraham, Jacob, and Moses twice by their names. The man now knows her name, as the angel knows and reveals Jacob’s name—and releases her, letting her go to whatever destiny awaits.
At the end of his poem, Amichai plays out the irony that this encounter is forbidden by Jewish law: it is clearly an encounter between two people who are not married. Given that the woman is called twice from upstairs, she may be a young woman living with her parents, or she may even be a woman married to someone else. By saying “as one might call a little girl,” Amichai distances us from the woman’s youth in the present, leading the reader to imagine that it is not her parents who call the woman but her other family, her other life. As is typical for Amichai, the revelatory encounter occurs in a space of moral ambiguity. There is no law here; there is only the moment and the mark the moment leaves on the future—just as the sun leaves a mark on skin uncovered by a bathing suit.
Veronica Golos is a widely published and anthologized American poet who has taught poetry and drama in a variety of cultural centers, is the founder of a multiracial quartet of spoken word artists, has been a lifelong activist for social justice causes, works with Jewish and world myth in her poetry, and is particularly interested in narratives about women. Her book A Bell Buried Deep (2003) contains a series of midrashic poems on the story of Sa’rai/Sarah and Hagar in Genesis. Several of the poems in this sequence deal with Genesis 12:10-19, in which Abram and Sarai go to Egypt to avoid a famine in Canaan. Sa’rai is taken into the house of Pharaoh as a concubine. In the biblical narrative, God plagues Pharaoh because he has taken Sa’rai. Pharaoh returns Sa’rai to Abraham and gives him gifts, making him a wealthy man. Golos uses this scene as Amichai uses the story of Jacob and the angel, to imagine a brief but charged sexual encounter between two people—an encounter that at least partly represents the poet’s encounter with the sacred.
In her sequence entitled “Genesis,” Golos depicts Sa’rai as a woman prophet, one as adept as Abram at knowing hidden things. While Abram has visions of his god, Sa’rai’s visions are connected to the natural world. In the poem “Going into Egypt,” Golos writes of the marriage of an aging Abram to the young and beautiful Sa’rai:
About that, she could not prophesy
as she did the birth of ewes,
the dying of wells, the infestation of snakes.
Nor did she foresee,
as they entered Egypt, the prince—brown as wetted earth—
nor his necklace of coral
nor the linen breathing in the doorway. (20-26)
In this poem, Sa’rai can see the future shape of the natural world, but she is unable to foresee her own desire for the Egyptian ruler who will engage her in sexual encounter. Golos will return again and again to the unforeseen nature of this event. It is unforeseen in two ways: Sa’rai does not know it, and the Torah does not know it. The sexual love of Sa’rai and Pharaoh becomes a symbol of all that sacred text is not telling us, and cannot tell us. The forbidden love of Sa’rai and Pharaoh becomes a kind of rebellion against the biblical narrative itself. Indeed, his skin, brown as earth, draws us to an earthly and physical vision of the sacred, one at odds with the Bible’s transcendent view of the world.
In another poem in the sequence, “Sa’rai and Pharaoh,” we hear of the meeting of Sa’rai and Pharaoh in the heart of the palace, “far away from famine,” where “torches lengthen from pale walls” (1, 7, 8). While rabbinic tradition imagines a chaste Sa’rai who resists Pharaoh’s advances and summons angels to her aid, Golos imagines a young and passionate Sa’rai who is eager to have a young prince as her sexual partner in place of the “hunched ox” that is Abram (“Going into Egypt” 2).
The sun dips
their bodies gold.
Her purpose is clear.
He does not
know how he knows,
it wills him back
and back again,
Again, the poet creates a dialogue between knowing and not knowing. The Pharaoh knows Sa’rai’s purpose, but does not know how he knows. He circles around her like a moon around a planet, drawn by her will. We, the readers, must now wonder exactly what Sa’rai’s purpose is: sexual pleasure, conception, rebellion against her master/husband Abram? It is certain,however, that she purposes to say yes, to acquiesce to her own desire, to defy both her marital duty and the Torah text that makes her desire invisible. The gold that washes the scene reminds us of the gold of Egypt, the gold of the Golden Calf—the beauty of the physical world that is a heresy against the invisible god.
In the next poem in the cycle, “Perhaps,” Golos delves even more deeply into the indeterminacy of the encounter of Sarai and Pharaoh. She reminds us through her title that since the text obscures what happens in Pharaoh’s harem, we cannot read it. We cannot know what unfolded between Sa’rai and Pharaoh, we can only (as Monique Wittig says in Les Guerilleres )invent it. So too we cannot know the real-life truth of any of our sacred ancestor-icons. Their hidden rebellions, Golos implies, must exist, and when we imagine these hidden rebellions, we too become rebels against codified text. For Golos, midrash does not only add to the text, it subverts the notion that the text can tell us what happened.
At first, for both, it was like a pear
cut in half. The muscle of the fruit,
the soft insides, tasted. Perhaps they swallowed.
Perhaps she was eager, being young.
And the musk of her newness was a wick
kindling against reason; his full mouth
working at a word. (1-8)
Golos imagines for us the soft and delectable coming together of the two lovers. Her image of the pear, her suggestion that “perhaps they swallowed,” puts the reader in mind of the fruit tasted in Eden. Sa’rai and Pharaoh become Everycouple—their discovery of sexuality is like the very first discovery of sexuality. In other words, it is a revelation.
Pharaoh’s surprise at the “musk of her newness” leaves him dumbfounded, “working at a word” (6, 8). This phrase serves as a door into Golos’ metaprocess of midrashic creativity. “Working at a word” is exactly what interpreters do when they try to clarify a text. Yet Pharaoh does not seek to enter text, but a woman. Sa’rai kindles his desire “against reason”—that is, her sexuality overpowers his rules, limits, expectations, just as a divine revelation overpowers one’s beliefs about what is. Golos is also trying to enter a woman—the tantalizingly central, yet largely unimagined character of Sarah/Sa’rai in Genesis—and she too allows the woman she discovers to overcome all that she has been told about Torah.
Perhaps she danced: the roofs of the city lifting,
The sky unhinged, emptying into the Nile,
Which at first resists, then succumbs,
Then floods to its source.
Who, then, would write their secret
When finally he gave her back,
Sa’rai’s dance, described in the third stanza of the poem, is goddess-like. Her dance embodies an intense downpour of rain and the flooding of the Nile (an Egyptian deity). In response to the influx of water, the Nile “resists, then succumbs, then floods to its source” (11-12). The influx of new water, of overflow, overwhelms the Nile’s banks, just as the two lovers are overwhelmed by one another. Again, we feel a sense of boundaries lost, rationales broken down. True revelation, Golos says to us, floods us to our source, changing us forever. Letting Sa’rai’s dance into our understanding of Torah floods Torah itself to its source, making us re-examine how we understand the sacred and how truth enters the world.
The final two lines of this poem are the most crucial. Golos interrupts, playing the role of a clandestine narrator, and asking: “Who, then, would write their secret…” (13)? Who, indeed? If the Torah does not speak of the love of Sa’rai and Pharaoh, then it remains a secret—in fact, it does not exist at all. Yet by inventing herself as a witness to this sexual encounter, Golos creates a countertext—a text in which Sa’rai receives a revelation just as Abram does. Her revelation is not an idea; it is a coming together of bodies. Her revelation is not part of a text; it is part of a universal human experience of erotic love. By claiming her desire, the Sa’rai invented by Golos becomes a prophet of her own sexual being. Pharaoh gives her back undone—not only to Abram, but also to the Torah’s narrative. Having read Golos’s Sa’rai, the Sarah of Genesis cannot ever be the same for us; we must always wonder what other sacred secrets she holds.
Amichai and Golos may be radical midrashists, but they are midrashists nonetheless. They embrace the midrashic tradition, filling out the biblical characters as generations of Jews before them have done. They approach sacred text with a sense of its depth and import. They are reverent in the face of the mysterious, numinous spirit that hovers over our lives. Yet their views of revelation do not place Torah above human experience, but rather see it as a document that describes human experience.
For Amichai, the biblical Jacob and the Angel gives us insight into the spiritual ramifications of a one-night stand. For Golos, the biblical Sarah is an opportunity to explore how women can find their own erotic depths, even in a society that seeks to barter and dominate them. For Veronica Golos and Yehuda Amichai, as for other contemporary midrashic poets, revelation has more to do with the intimate encounter between souls/bodies than the meeting of heaven and earth. Or, perhaps we might say it this way: for these poets, the meeting of souls/bodies is all we can know of the meeting of heaven and earth. Golos and Amichai look into sacred text and see the lives of human beings, filled with eros and thanatos, exaltation and despair.
There is nothing codified or dull about this approach to Torah. In that sense, the two poets discussed here are heirs to the rabbinic tradition, which sought to make a text frozen in stone come alive in every generation. Contemporary midrash, for all its critical and individual focus, functions just as midrash always has: to break open ancestral narratives; to break us open through intimate moments of revelation across time, distance, personality. As Golos writes in her poem “Middle Passage,” “What’s speaking here, if not the rounding of spirit; the dead come to breath in our mouths?” (6-8).
Academy for Jewish Religion, Riverdale, New York
1. Here and elsewhere, I supply my own translation of the poem from the Hebrew. The
line numbers refer to the Hebrew text and occasionally, as here, do not quite correspond to
the number of lines in my translation.
Amichai, Yehuda. Poems of Jerusalem and Love Poems. Riverdale, NY: Sheep Meadow P, 1992.
Berman, Samuel A. Midrash Tanhuma-Yelammedenu: An English Translation of Genesis and Exodus
from the Printed Version of Tanhuma Yelammedenu with an Introduction, Notes, and Indexes. Jersey
City, NJ: Ktav, 1996.
Golos, Veronica. A Bell Buried Deep. Ashland, OR: Story Line P, 2003.
Simon, Maurice. The Zohar. New York: Soncino Press, 1984.
Wittig, Monique. Les Guerrilleres. Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1969.
Previously published in Journal of Religion and Literature.