Julia Watts Belser. Rabbinic Tales of Destruction: Gender, Sex, and Disability in the Ruins of Jerusalem. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.
Julia Watts Belser’s methodological masterpiece marries the academic study of the Talmud with Jewish constructive theology. She combines a carefully crafted critical apparatus with creative close readings of tales of destruction from Bavli Gittin and associated midrashic texts. The volume incorporates insights from postcolonial theory, disability studies, ecological materialism, class critique, and gender and sexuality studies into a synthetic hermeneutic emphasizing embodiment as theorized in the rabbinic texts. Her central argument is two-fold. Firstly, her reading of tractate Gittin works to augment literary analyses of the destruction of Jerusalem that “have not yet grappled sufficiently with the consequences disaster has for ancient Jewish bodies”(xii). Her second aim is to rethink the typical “covenantal” (xiii) theological framework often presented in Biblical accounts of destruction in favor of a more nuanced understanding of divine responses to Jewish suffering in a post-Shoah world.
(It should be noted that the book frequently touches on the subject of sexual violence as it is portrayed in the rabbinic texts. Chapters 2 and 3, in particular, include quite graphic descriptions of rape and sexual assault.)
The first three chapters of Belser’s book focus primarily on gender and sexuality. In her first chapter, Belser argues that unlike the Biblical prophets and the Palestinian midrash Lamentations Rabbah, Bavli Gittin does not center women’s sexuality in its discourse on destruction. Rather, the beginning of Gittin dwells on men’s sexuality by “highlighting the bitter consequences of male indiscretion” (2) and presenting devastation as a site where “masculine virtue becomes a powerful force…an antidote to violence and violation” (3). Belser’s second chapter focuses on stories of rape and sexual violation. She explores how Gittin not only portrays “the dangers faced by Jewish women,” but also “the ways in which conquered men were also subject to sexual risk” (40). By “focusing attention on the vulnerability of the rabbinic body,” Belser argues, we gain “an alternative vantage point to consider the imprint of Roman colonialism on the construction of rabbinic masculinity, sexuality, and social power” (41). The third chapter continues Belser’s analysis of Gittin’s stories of sexual violence from chapter 2, but with a keen eye to the Bavli’s discourse of Jewish beauty. However, in “a striking departure from the Bavli’s usual rhetoric of beauty risk,” where beautiful bodies solicit sexual violence, the stories in Gittin, “place the blame squarely on the sexual aggressor: they imagine both Jewish women and men as the objects of depraved Roman desire” (61).
Chapter four adjusts Belser’s hermeneutic focus from the rabbinic body as sexed and gendered towards the materiality of embodiment. Incorporating insights from disability studies, she understands the stories about Rabbi Tsadok, who fasts in an effort to stave of Jerusalem’s destruction, as performing “two distinct, if intertwined pieces of cultural work: it laments the tangible loss wrought by Roman conquest and it protests Roman dominance” (78). The Bavli thus leverages disability as a critique of the colonialist regime. The next three chapters delve deeper into a materialist interpretation of Gittin. In her fifth chapter, Belser illuminates the connection in the Bavli between blood and land, blurred such that “blood lingers in the land, leaving visceral traces of Jewish bodies in the rivers and fields of Judea” (108). Chapter 6 turns from Jewish bodies to Roman bodies. Incorporating both postcolonial and materialist readings, Belser explores the variety of ways Bavli Gittin “dramatizes God’s power over Roman flesh (160). Her seventh chapter focuses on food. Belser argues that Gittin’s stories about feasting, such as in the story of Bar Qamtsa (b. Git. 55b-56a), as well as famine, e.g., Marta bat Boethus (b. Git. 56a), “underscores the ethical cost of elite status by highlighting the physical and moral dangers of social privilege” (176).
Beautifully written and clearly organized, the strength of Belser’s method for reading rabbinic tales is in not fitting the Bavli into any one theoretical framework, but rather in allowing her hermeneutic lenses to shift along with the text. One story may call for a feminist reading, while another deserves a more materialist analysis. This method, however, does not preclude a feminist interpretation of a text about wealth––for example, the tale of Marta bar Boethus, a woman whose opulent lifestyle leads her to starve to death during the famine following the siege of Jerusalem (186-193)––nor does it negate a class critique of a story that focuses on sexual impropriety––for example, the story in Bavli Gittin 58a about an apprentice who swindles his master out of wife and wealth (34-38). Rather, Belser takes a kind of kaleidoscopic approach to literary analysis allowing her to move seamlessly between different disciplinary hermeneutics to reveal the superb richness of the Gemara. In particular, Rabbinic Tales of Destruction opens the door for further academic study of Talmud in conversation with disability studies. For example, it would be interesting to see further work on Bavli Gittin that incorporates Jasbir Puar’s debility/disability distinction from her newest monograph, The Right to Maim (Duke: 2017).
Nevertheless, what remains most impressive, in my mind, is Belser’s willingness to wrestle with the moral ambiguity presented by her texts. As she notes in her postlude, Bavli Gittin presents a God who cares deeply about the suffering of individual Jews, while at the same time attenuating the presence of society’s most vulnerable: “This is a history of unshed tears, of unheard cries: the wronged wife, the raped whore, the slave boys bound to Roman beds, the daughters drowning in the sea––all the silenced voices that linger like a haunting in the margins of these tales” (207). One might imagine an equally compelling interpretation of Gittin where God emerges as “in solidarity with bodies overrun by empire” (206)––so long as they are elite Jewish men––a God whose empathy extends only so far, and no farther. Belser does not shy away from this reading, but nevertheless refuses to allow the forces of patriarchy to lay sole claim to the God of Gittin. Instead, she magnifies the voices haunting the corners of the text––the cries not yet entirely silenced. She hears them. In hearing them, she challenges us to look at a God who can be “so moved by heartbreak that God will let the sanctuary be overrun, let the temple go up in flames, rather than turn away from tears,” and ask ourselves, what will we do for those who cry out in our midst?
M Adryael Tong is a Theology PhD student in the Christianity in Antiquity field of study at Fordham University