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SIDIC Periodical XX - 1987/2
Mary the Jewess (Pages 09 - 14)

Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French

Mary of Nazareth: Why the silence of Judaism
Avital Wohimann


Many Christians proclaim the Virgin Mary to be "root of Jesse"; they consider her role was to give to the world the Messiah, Son of David "Stirpis Davidicae regia proles". They pray to her as "Virgo WO Sion". These Christians may be disappointed to /earn that this linking of Mary with her own people does not arouse the slightest interest in the children of that same people, nor does it even give rise to a single question! Does this mean rejection, hostility, ignorance, reservations or just plain indifference? Since, therefore, there is nothing, or very little, explicit to be said, it seems to me that my task is rather to explain this silence on the part of Judaism.

In reality, Jewish tradition has no direct interest in the person of Mary. She is only mentioned indirectly in the polemic concerning the person and doctrine of Jesus. Sufficient has been said, nevertheless, to give rise to a legend, the memory of which has persisted; in particular it has been spread by a comparatively late work, which has exercised considerable influence on what might be called the anti-Christian folk lore of Jewish communities.

The Toledot Jeshu

Doubtless this sorry little story is already familiar. It can be read in many baraitot la baraita is a tradition from scholars, the tannaitic period, the first generation of Talmud, which was not included in the Mishnah. Although it does not enjoy the authority of the latter, it nevertheless reflects the mentality of the period). In many baraitot dating from the time of Rabbi Eleazer ben Hyrcanus and Rabbi Ishmael (towards the end of the first and the beginning of the second century), Jesus appeared under the name of Ben Pandera or Ben Pantera. The name is certainly very ancient because we know through Origen that, about the year 178, Celsus had heard of a Jewish account, according to which Mary was divorced by her husband, a carpenter, after she had been proved guilty of adultery. Repudiated by her husband and hiding herself out of shame, she gave birth to Jesus in secret. His father was held to be a certain Roman soldier by name of Pantera. This is not the place to go into all the historical or philological explanations which have been put forward to justify this name. The important thing is to grasp the significance of this legend and the mentality which gave rise to it.

The Jewish exegete and historian Joseph Klausner, in his celebrated book Jesus of Nazareth,' recalls the legend in his examination of Jewish sources and he shows its development throughout the Talmudic period, from the tannaim to the Amoraim, up to the use made of it in the Toledot Jeshu. It shows how the story expresses Jewish reaction to Christian belief in the virginal conception and the divine origin of Jesus. Just as the general tendency was to take the opposite point of view to the gospels, interpreting the words and actions of Jesus in a negative way, so the legend of Ben Pandera is no other than a response to all that is said of the divine origin of Jesus, the conception by the Holy Spirit and the presumed role of Joseph.

It shows how the legend grew in proportion to the development of anti-Christian polemic. It quotes certain of these amplifications which tended to show Jesus both as a bastard and a "son of impurity", accusations which vilified son and mother at one and the same time. Joseph Klausner denies any historical value to these sources, but he stresses their importance for the Jewish attitude both towards Jesus and the new sect which claimed him as founder. He takes into account what has already been written by Krauss in his "Life of Jesus":

I do not regard the Toledot Jeshu as a criterion of the fundamental truths of Christianity but it is clear that what is said there expresses those ideas about Christianity which are common currency among Jews. This is to say that they do not contain objective truths, but subjective ones, because they do not know what really happened, but rather how these events appeared to the Jews." 2

Thus the defamatory legend concerning the mother of Jesus must be understood as one of the criteria of the general attitude of the Jewish community towards the Christianity which persecuted it. It has to be understood in the perspective of the conflict between Church and Synagogue.

But, the author notes, there exist today witnesses who correct this bitter tradition. Since the time of Klausner Jewish authors such as Edmond Reg, David Flusser and others have become interested in the person of Jesus in an objective and positive way without paying any attention, however, to the person or role of Mary. There is one exception; the book of Schalom Asch: "Mary, Mother of Jesus? he has succeeded in putting himself into the period which could be called the Jewish prehistory of Myriam and her son Yeshuah, before the latter had been recognized by the Christian community as Messiah and Lord, and the former as Mother of God: it is a pen-portrait of Mary which gives us a glimpse of the mystery of her person.

But now we are in the Anno Domini: the historical Jesus is for Christians the Christ of faith and Myriam has been defined by the Church as Mother of God. The Jew remains silent in the presence of this Christian concept. The question to be asked, therefore, concerns the relationship between the silence of the Jewish people on the subject of the Virgin Mother of God and the way it looks at the mystery of God as Totally Other. We will see that here there is a confrontation between two concepts of salvation and human activity before God. To render an account of our silence is to explain our inability to accept the terms in which Christian tradition has expressed the role played by Mary in the mystery of the Incarnation: Virgin and Mother of God, mother of divine grace, mediatrix between her son and the human race.

I have just mentioned our incapacity even to understand. It is not question of the royal we! Actually, the breadth of this we is very broad indeed; it covers a great number of different attitudes. If it concerns primarily the rejection of the person of Mary in the name of Jewish tradition by those among us for whom this tradition is still a living one. it also takes into account the reaction of those who reject this tradition in the name of the demands of our society, whether this means on the one hand equality between the sexes, or on the other, the demythologizing of the sacred. The emancipated Jew rejects the image of Mary. either because the presentation of her as a docile and obedient handmaid recalls too much the person's own Jewish world in those things he/she considers too rigid or completely out-of-date, or because the image of Mary, Virgin and mother, or Mother of God, recalls the pagan myths which also have no meaning for him.

Silence on the Subject of Mary la Traditional

If there is no objective and methodical study of the person of Mary in Jewish literature, apart from the rather negative exceptions already mentioned, neither is there any systematic reflection on the attributes by which she is designated in Christian tradition; virginity, maternity, woman's vocation in life. Thus we are reduced to trying to pick out some of the traits by which these ideas or concrete realities are characterized, especially in the Talmud. A Christian is bound to be put off by the very practical, legalistic, and even biological way in which they are seen in Jewish tradition.

Mary and Virginity

In Judaism virginity does not have the great symbolic and mystical value accorded to it by Christianity. The way in which it is approached in the halakhah is hardly an invitation to reflect on the special significance of Mary's virginity.

The largest of the six volumes of the Mishnah is the one called Tohorot ("cleannesses"). This volume treats among other things of the rules governing sexual emissions, the placenta, menstruation, different kinds of itches, gonorrhoea, impurity after touching a corpse etc. These are some of the topics with which the Halakhah is concerned in a scrupulously careful and detailed way. The reason for this is that these things are prerequisites of the human condition. It is not necessary to agree totally with Ecclesiastes that "this is the whole of man"; it is sufficient to accept that this is part of being human! Thus when we speak of the different forms that the desire of a man or woman can take, we must always remember first of all that sexual desire is one of the natural instincts of a human being, whose fleshly existence begins with the placenta and ends as a corpse. The halakhah introduces order into the situation. Confronted with these facts of human nature in an area in which Judaism reproaches Christianity for basically offering sublimation as a solution, Judaism itself chooses the way of regulation. "Increase and multiply". The command subdues and regulates desire by giving it shape within the context of marriage.

This is probably the reason for the reservations of a Jew who hears many Christians unhesitatingly translate the almah of Isaiah 7:14 by virgin, when this same word can also mean a young woman or even a young wife. Andre Chouraqui has overcome the difficulty with subtlety and good sense by translating it as la nubile. These reservations are all the more justified in that, in the instance quoted, the Bible itself does not support all the connotations this word can have for a Christian: purity. innocence. refinement. modesty, recollection, mystery. The very status of the virgin is dealt with in a legal way. and does not include, at least not directly, any spiritual significance. We meet the case of the virgin in the Bible in Exodus 22:16, in the context of laws concerning rape:

"If a man seduces a virgin who is not betrothed, and lies with her, he shall give the marriage present for her and make her his wife. If her father utterly refuses to give her to him, he shall pay the money equivalent to the marriage present for virgins."

It should be noticed that the text regards virginity as a temporary state: a virgin who is notbetrothed. We will come back to this point. But the interest of the text for our purpose lies in the implied unimportance of the fault which has been committed: it can be put right either by marriage or the payment of a fine!

!Deuteronomy 22:28 says more precisely that, in the case of a virgin not betrothed:

"she shall be his wife because he has violated her. He may not put her away..."

The unimportance of the fault which consists in violating a virgin is emphasized when comparison is made with the violation of a betrothed virgin. Again I quote:

"If there is a betrothed virgin, and a man meets her in the city and lies with her, then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city, and you shall stone them to death with stones, the young woman because she did not cry for help though she was in the city, and the man because he violates his neighbour's wife" (Deut 22:23-24).

What is stressed here is the betrothed state of the young woman, which should have obliged her to call for help, and which should have been respected by the man, because she belonged to another. Virginity as such is only a minor detail. This spirit is found throughout the Talmud. The state of virginity is seen as a temporary one, the prolongation of which is as much an imperfection as a danger.

Is marriage therefore obligatory? Undoubtedly it is for the man, for whom the obligation to procreate is the first and most important of the mitzvot; the Talmud insists on the impossibility of reneging on this duty:

"Any man who has no wife lives without joy, without blessing. without goodness" Nab. 62 b).
"Any man who has no wife is no proper man; for it is said: male and female created He them and called their name Adam"
(Gen 5:2; Yob. 63 a).

Certainly it is almost unthinkable that a young woman could live without a husband. As soon as she is nubile she must be given a husband as quickly as possible. Otherwise. does she not run the risk of falling into prostitution? (Sanhed. 76 a). Also, "it is better to dwell in grief with a load than to dwell in widowhood (Kid. 7 a) (i.e. a woman prefers an unhappy married life to a happy single life). It is well-known that "the shame of a woman is greater than that of a man" (Ket. 67 b).

What has just been said is by way of preparation for an understanding of the spirit in which Jewish tradition would regard the case of a virgin who became pregnant. These observations are sufficient to show in what way, and why, the traditional Jewish understanding of the state of virginity is totally removed from the mystery of Mary's virginity.

Mary, Dearly-Beloved and Mother

We find a similar alienation when we turn to the mystery of Mary, mother of God. It is a Christian teaching which a Jew finds difficult to understand, on account of the union of two symbols which to him seem irreconcilable. When you think about it, this lack of understanding is inevitable, because Christian teaching on Mary-mother and Mary-dearly-beloved is closely bound up with the mysteries of the Incarnation and the Trinity.

The author goes on to show how she sees Christian thought uniting in Mary two images, that of a mother and that of a dearly beloved. Jewish symbolism is quite different, rejecting the joining of the two ideas. According to Judaism, the mother is the one left behind, the land of Egypt, the house of slavery, The dearly-beloved, on the contrary, is the Promised Land, the land of Israel, of freedom, which must be made fruitful. (Therefore a man leaves his . . . mother and cleaves to his wife... Gen 2:24). Seen from such a perspective, Christian teaching on Mary, mother and dearly beloved, is alien to Jewish thought.

Mary, Mother of God and Mediatrix

There is another aspect of the mystery of Mary on which a Jew can only remain silent because he is a stranger not only to its natural ethic, as in the case of virginity, not only to its symbolism, as in the image of Mary, dearly-beloved and mother, but to its very concept of God, creation and man's free action in the sight of God. I refer to the role attributed to Mary by Christian theology, that of mother of God, and of the mediation resulting from it. Jewish tradition is opposed to this vision of the world, that of creation renewed by the Incarnation, on two counts. It refuses to escape from the ambiguity of this present world: it also rejects all mediation between God and man. Both denials are on account of the primordial affirmation of the transcendence of God and the liberty of the human race It is a vast subject. The entire Jewish philosophical tradition has been built on the foundation of this intuition. Here I only make use of the one aspect which involves the theology of grace and the role Mary plays therein, according to the titles attributed to her: full of grace, mother of divine grace, mediatrix of all graces.

The vocation of Mary is the starting point for the work of salvation, the aim and object of which is the plenitude of hope fulfilled. This fulfilment of the promise is described in a text from Revelation, in which certain exegetes also make a typological identification between Mary and the Church:

"I saw a new heaven and a new earth... And I saw the Holy City, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God... I heard a great voice from the throne saying: 'Behold, the dwelling of God is with men... he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more... for the former things have passed away'" (Rev. 21:1-4).

This text presents the fulfilment of an ancient dream of humanity, that of the subsuming of time into eternity, the trials and tensions of the world lost in the unity and harmony of the final dwelling place, the gap between what is and what should be, absorbed at last in the truth and stability of what is, because God has come to man, raising him up to himself and bringing him into the place where happiness is at last a reality. The fulfilment of this dream is already written into the promise and grace is, as from now, that which develops into this glory.

It is interesting to compare this biblical text with another, which is the inspiration of Jewish morality and behavior, and which also deals with hope and the happiness promised to the human race. It is concerned likewise with the yearning for life and well-being, with this difference (a decisive one), that the fulfilment of the yearning is clearly seen as a work offered to the free choice of humanity. The text in question is the one where Moses, before his death, addresses the children of Israel in the name of God. He says to them:

"See, I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil . . I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live" (Deut. 30:15,19).

Thus humanity is placed at the cross-roads, and it is up to the individual to decide what direction his life will take.

God does not intervene therefore in human action; he is radically other and man stands alone in his presence. But Torah is precisely the rule he has given to man to enable him, by means of precepts, to choose that which gives life. It is in this sense that he is Master of life and death. To attach oneself to the Master of life and death is, for the faithful Jew, to reject definitively any intermediary and to refuse all servitude, because both the one and the other are idolatry in his eyes, the worst kind of infidelity for a Jew. The primordial principle of this program of education, the principle of principles as it is called by Maimonides in the opening book of the Mishneh Torah, is to know that everything which exists is dependent on the One God, who himself depends on nothing and no-one. Thus the first duty of a Jew is to combat anything which might tempt him to attribute to God faces or names which belong to his creatures. In this respect, both the prohibition against making graven images, as well as Maimonides' reticence on the subject of all human discourse concerning God, arise out of the same rejection of all mediators. made in the name of the absolute transcendence of the one God, One can understand that in such a vision of humanity and the universe, grace has neither place nor role as mediator. The affirmation of Christian faith, according to which God became man so that man could share in the divine life, has no meaning for Judaism. For the same reason. the role of Mary as Mother of God and mediatrix is also meaningless.

These are some of the ways a religious Jew might explain the silence of his/her tradition on Myriam of Nazareth. There is silence concerning her virginity, a concept which for him is neither a reality nor an image whose symbolic value might be a source of inspiration. He is silent on the double mystery of her femininity and maternity, values which are summed up for him in those precepts of the law which regulate desire in order to safeguard the ever-present duty of the going-out of Egypt. There is silence, finally, on her mediation,in the very name of Jewish understanding of the ambiguity of the world and the transcendence of He-who-is. There remains for consideration the silence of those for whom Jewish tradition is no longer a rule of life, nor even a subject, the memory or poetic value of which might inspire fidelity to Jewish identity.

The Silence of the Secular Jew concerning Mary

In contrast to the silence of the religious Jew, which is, so to speak, only the reverse side of the coin of fidelity in the name of the Law and of tradition, the silence of the secular Jew in regard to Mary inevitably reveals a serious and gnawing problem, that of his own identity. The phenomenon of Jewish secularization, the desire of a Jew to be as other men, in the end comes back to forgetting, refusing or misunderstanding a wisdom which sometimes, to the secular Jew, seems to be simply a suffocating collection of rites and patterns of behavior, a yoke of rigid practice cut off from its spiritual content and denuded of vital strength. In actual fact, a secular Jew can only say No to a series of practices which he can no longer recognize as a response, because the very question seems stifled by what appears to him as a sterile reading of texts. Thus he can only remain silent about his own tradition, which has become in his eyes an obsolete social and anthropological image, especially if it is imposed by a rabbinic clericalism, whose authority he rejects. It can be understood easily that, in such a context, the image of Mary would be unknown or misunderstood, so to speak, to the nth degree! The secular Jew either does not know or rejects his own tradition, and he does not know or he rejects an image of Mary which, as we have seen, has no meaning for that tradition! Paradoxically, it can come about that the image of Mary is rejected precisely because Christians present her as the fulfilment of Jewish tradition. One is bound to say, therefore, that the principal reason for the secular Jew's silence on the subject of Mary stems from this rejection of his own tradition.

The Image that is Rejected

What in fact is the image of womanhood, according to the precepts and traditional practices. such as it might be understood by the average Jew? Certain details will help to explain why it is resisted, or rejected, by the secular Jew. Here the author gives a number of examples, taken from the liturgy and customary practices, which she considers signify a lack of confidence in woman (purity laws, traditional understanding of a girl's education etc.). Even if there have been and still are exceptions, it seems in her view as if Orthodox Judaism has not been able to safeguard the spirit of a living interpretation of the Law.

If religious Jewish women had reason to consider themselves frustrated, one can understand even better the reaction of their secular liberated and liberal counterparts to all edifying discourses which celebrate the feminine virtues according to Jewish tradition. They can only reject such a discourse in so far as it reflects the image they themselves have of tradition. From this could also come a distrust with regard to Mary "Mother and handmaid of the Lord". "humble and docile guardian of the home". These are the very attributes they reject in the name of emancipation and liberty. In this they share the reaction of their peers, the women of secularized Western Christianity. For women who have undergone the trauma of a certain modernization, the expressions Virgin and Mother, and the virtues associated with thorn, are no longer values likely to attract support. It is interesting to read, in the writings of a Marian theologian, Rene Laurentin, these same ideas, expressing this conceptual and spiritual time-lag which closes many women of today to a perception of the mystery of Mary. Mary is no longer understood; she no longer evokes admiration and interest

"because, as virgin, she implies frustration and sexual repression. As mother and even mother par excellence, she inculcates the idea of a woman reduced to motherhood at the expense of her personal existence. Finally. as Virgin-Mother, she is a unique and contradictory model, beyond the reach of every other woman, thereby giving rise to despair."

This applies to all women in our secularized world, whether they be Jews or Christians. But, in the case of the Jewish woman, reticence on the subject of Mary is also an expression of her rejection of a world which was that of her mother and grandmother, and indeed of all women throughout Jewish tradition.

To sum up, I was asked to show the way in which Jews speak of Mary today. In the event, I have rather had to explain their silence. What meaning can be given to this silence? Remember that the silence maintained by our tradition on the accusations which denigrate both Jesus and his mother, is an embarrassed silence. It is a sign of the difficulty of going back on what was formerly the Jewish community's defensive attitude towards their persecutors. Sure of their tradition and their identity, the Jewish people do not need to denigrate the faith of others in order to protect their own. The silence they keep in the name of their tradition is the silence of those who reject a world-view different from their own.

They keep silence on the subject of the Virgin, Mother of God, because she symbolizes the rejection of both sexuality and the Law. As E. Levinas says, they do not find the face of God in the Trinity, nor an image of this life in desexualized sublimation: "The feminine !principle will never take on the divine appearance, neither in the Virgin Mary nor in Beatrice". Finally, what about the silence of the secular, self-styled atheistic Jew? For the most part, this is the silence of the fourth son during the Seder meal of Passover: the one who does not know what question to ask. This silence often conceals failure to appreciate his own tradition, lack of interest in the distorted image he has of it. But the best way to speak of silence is to be silent oneself. One only experiences silence by keeping it!

* Avital Wohiman lectures In Philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Her contribution to the Symposium on Mary in Judaism and Islam Today has been shortened with her very kind permission. The complete text, in French. may be found in the volume indicated on p. 23.

1. J. Klausner, Jesus of Nazareth, His Life, Times and Teaching, Allen, London 1925.
2 Ibid.
3. S. Asch, Marie, Mere de Jesus, Calmann-Levy, Paris 1951.
4. R. Laurentin, r Jesus et les Femmes: Une Revolution Móconnue ». Concilium no. 154, 1980, P. 79. note 1.


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