Student Teaching in the New Millenium

5771 The Prophet’s Wife

In General on January 19, 2011 at 5:25 am

I finished reading “The Prophet’s Wife” by Milton Steinberg today.  A little background:  Milton Steinberg was a Reconstructionist rabbi who lived during the first half of the 20th century.  Most of his output was non-fiction, but his 1.5 fictional works are what I feel he will be truly remembered for.  In the strictest sense, they are novels.  In reality, his works are perhaps the most important contributions to midrashic literature of our times.

His first work novel, As A Driven Leaf, presents the life of a shadowy Talmudic figure, Rabbi Elisha ben Abuya, who is mentioned only briefly in the Talmud and then as a traitor.  In Steinberg’s tale, Elisha embraces the rigorous logical systems of philosphical thought championed by the Greeks, leaving rabbinic Judaism behind.  There are varied interpretations of this.  Regardlesss, Elisha is a noble though flawed persona, bereft of imagination, his critical flaw.

In this way, Elisha may be a prototype to Steinberg’s Hosea in The Prohet’s Wife, which chronicles Hosea’s marriage to Gomer.  Though unfinished, and liberties with the text are taken, as any interpretation tends to do, it is clear that Steinberg’s intent was to transmit what may have been the real Hosea’s feelings on his life to the reader.  The anguish he felt when he realized Gomer had committed adultery (and, in Steinberg’s version, incest), his inability to have Gomer put to death (supported by Gomer’s having three children in the biblical text), and his reading of Israel’s relationship with God against his own circumstances.  The narrative states Hosea’s critical flaw is pity, particularly when the alternative causes suffering to others, however well deserved.

This raises some interesting questions.  An obvious one is how close did Steinberg hit the mark on Hosea’s feelings?  Or, is Steinberg’s depiction of Hosea’s reading of the Torah text, and Israelite history, accurate?

How about, how can pity be a flaw?  Can pity be sin?  Because the aspects of God we meet in Exodus are Faithfulness and Justice, is pity a sin when it gets in the way of these things?  Or, is Hosea more merciful than God?  Let’s suppose, accepting Torah writ, that killing adulterers is unjust.  Then, is Hosea more just than God?  Or is God always just in these matters?  Can humans be right as Abraham was right at Sodom and Gomorrah?  I imagine this idea is heresy to many people, but is it heresy?  If this capacity has been given us, isn’t it more accurately a heresy to reject our responsibility to hold others, God included, accountable for their actions?  Even though an aspect of God is justice, can God make mistakes?  If God can make mistakes, are we capable of helping him correct those mistakes?  If we are charged to pursue justice in all things, wouldn’t speaking up to God qualify as a just course of action?  So, are these characteristics of Hosea sins?  Or gifts?

Hosea’s pity puts him into situations where he cannot act on what he perceives is just.  Is it more important that his pity prevents him from doing what he wants to do, repeatedly, and that his inaction causes him incredible hurt?  How can someone put up with this kind of pain, whether it be ordained by God or not?  Steinberg doesn’t get this far, but is his intent to show how Hosea’s feelings and experiences coalesced to produce the prophet he would become?  Is this productive, or merely apologetic?  These things could lead to Hosea’s becoming a prophet, but couldn’t they also lead him away from that path, particularly if Hosea was righteous?  If the reward for being righteous is to be a prophet, and prophet-hood entails suffering, what incentive is there to being a prophet, and does prophet-hood qualify as a blessing?  Is it justice that a prophet is righteous but suffers for the benefit of wicked people?  Is prophet-hood, then, worth it?

How can someone persevere in Hosea’s circumstances?

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  1. Hosea in my mind is a humorist, like Stewart and Colbert.
    He marries Gomer
    which means “you are a goner.”
    The overly serious will have a difficult time with this prophet.

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