Onwards thru Sinai march the twelve tribes of Israel, to each a flag, an emblem, an appointed leader. This sacred geometry, a conquering army on its way to a promised land, is described in the opening chapters of the fourth book of Torah, made complete by the presence of a unifying center: The Divine, represented by the Ark of the Covenant, the ‘black box’ of the people. Carrying and maintaining the ark are the hallowed members of the thirteenth tribe – Levi, taking care of business, i.e. the Tabernacle. All seems to be, literally, ‘in order’ in this new Mosaic theocracy on the move, but as soon as the Book of Wilderness ends its fourth chapter with a detailed description of each Levites’ task list, it surprisingly leaves the serene scenes of the sacred center and goes south – right to the frayed fringes of camp, where order limps, and human messiness challenges the conceits of harmony.
Chapter 5, chanted this coming week in synagogues near you as part of the weekly Torah episode ‘Naso’, reports on four possible social situations that threaten the wellbeing of civilized society. Crudely translated, the four categories include lepers, criminals, and monks – and ‘wayward’ wives. Seemingly random, these four categories reflect different deviations from the ‘normal order of things’ – through disease, crime, religious zeal, or sexual drive. All four suggest a possible shake-up of the delicate balance between order and chaos, culture and nature- a tension familiar to our modern societies and personal lives as it was to the reality of Moses and his often-wayward people.
Our focus this week is, no surprise, the wayward and deviant – that mysterious woman: Did she or did she not have an affair? What’s the story? Then there’s the husband, suspicious but with no proof, having a ‘fit of jealousy’. What to do? Addressing this potential soap opera, Moses, speaking for the Lord, doesn’t say ‘If this happens’ – he says ‘when this will happen’. Frank and realistic, he goes on to describe a complex procedure for alleviation of jealousy, addressing the timeless and all too human tensions between the domestic and the erotic. Analyzed through Humanistic and Feminist lenses, this weird text can certainly be seen as an intolerable, archaic relic. But, like many other biblical passages, this text has also been widely read as mythic allegory- the deviant ‘feminine’ representing the people Israel, the betrayed ‘masculine’ is Israel’s God, and the lover as any of the ‘other’ idols, identities and foreign cultures favored so by endless generations of assimilating Jews. To read this text as literal legalism upholds a painful patriarchal reality where woman is property and sexuality merely a duty. The allegorical, mythic re-readings, on the other hand, free up some breathing space for a glimpse into deeper-than-surface implied meaning, hinting at our personal and perennial struggles with the boundaries of Eros.
The book says thus:
‘Any man whose wife may stray and betray his trust…and it is a secret, and she is defiled, and there are no witnesses, and she is not apprehended – it is then that a spirit of jealousy may come over that man…’ (12:14-15)
The English word ‘spirit’ as in ‘spirit of jealousy’ is based here on the Hebrew word ‘Ruach’ – meaning either a physical ‘wind’ or a metaphysical ‘spirit’. Other translators choose ‘fit of jealousy’, ‘a jealous rage’, or ‘jealous storm’ to present this violent picture. Remember Othello? Not unlike an Opera, this imaginary husband’s jealousy has larger than life proportions, possibly super human. The word ‘Ruach’ is loaded – appearing here and previously at the very beginning of Genesis – as the very wind or spirit of God hovering over the nascent planet.
To complicate things further – the Hebrew word used here for ‘jealousy’, such as that of a jealous lover or husband is ‘KINAA ‘ the very word used in the Torah to describe religious zeal- known today as ‘fundamentalism’. Even in English the words ‘jealousy’ and ‘zealotry’ come from the same Greek root – meaning ‘fermentation’, or ‘yeast’.
The concept of a ‘spirit of jealousy’ as a metaphysical, fuming wind is one of the reasons this text is often read as metaphor for divine wrath, or, more significantly, as the type of zealotry assumed and experienced by men on behalf of their God. From the late Jerry Falwell to the new Al Queida forces in Lebanon, and the rising ranks of right wing Zionist rabbis in Israel – zeal as a tool of righteous anger is certainly no obscure phenomena.
So what are we to do, in this age of excessive religious zealotry, with a verse about an allegorical God who is like a jealous husband whose rage festers like rising bread?
Options include: A. avoiding this painful verse and chapter altogether, B. dismissing it as yet another archaic chauvinistic bit of judeo literary history, C. read it as mythic commentary, beckoning a redemptive closer read, or D. Listen closely to the wind as it waves the flags and penetrates the rank and file of the marching tribes; a wild wind of jealousy, zeal, passion and possible, painful, inevitable change, the product of every necessary deviation. Option E. – all of the above. Option F. – anyone??