Roman conquest leaves its mark on Jewish flesh. Whether through the physicality of war itself, the privations of famine, or the brutalities of sexual violence and enslavement, imperial dominance has powerful effect on the bodies of the conquered. In my new book, Rabbinic Tales of Destruction: Gender, Sex, and Disability in the Ruins of Jerusalem, forthcoming in November 2017 from Oxford University Press, I argue that disability is central to the Jewish experience of conquest in late antiquity. I read rabbinic texts through the prism of disability studies theory, in order to probe the cultural and political significance of physical and mental difference in early Jewish culture. Rather than taking disability as a straightforward medical category, disability studies hones critical tools to analyze how societies construct and contest notions of normativity and deviance, illuminating the way disability becomes a site for negotiating stigma and social power. In rabbinic accounts of the destruction of Jerusalem, the disabled Jewish body serves both as a visceral occasion for lament and a potent site of protest against empire.
In antiquity as in modernity, imperial ideology makes frequent use of disability and physical impairment to imagine and refashion the colonized subject. In the cultural grammar of conquest, defeat disables the nation. War itself is indelibly intertwined with disability. Warfare operates through the deliberate production of disability, as the bodies of combatants come to be killed, to bear wounds, to be maimed. Even beyond the ordinary facts of battle, the symbolic discourse of conquest is bound up with disablement. Victors often subjugate the bodies of the conquered through calculated acts of mutilation, through the intentional production of impairment. Wounded, marked, and disabled bodies make tangible the brutal incursions of imperial power. Imperial conquest produces disability, both as a material reality and as a discursive effect. But the victors do not have the final word. In rabbinic narrative, the subjugated body becomes a potent site of resistance, a site for grappling with trauma and violation—a site through which rabbinic storytellers flip the script about disability to challenge Roman dominance over the Jewish body.
Consider the figure of Rabbi Tsadok, a celebrated priest who was said to have fasted for forty years in a failed attempt to stave off the destruction of Jerusalem. Lamentations Rabbah tells two strikingly different stories about Rabbi Tsadok, one in which the sage is cured by the physicians of the Roman general Vespasian, and a second in which his body never heals. Both tales reveal the stark corporeal costs of Rabbi Tsadok’s activist intervention: his emaciated flesh, his blackened skin, his weakened body, altered by repeated fasts. I read the Rabbi Tsadok stories as narratives of acquired disability, narratives in which disability carries a potent, political charge. In these tales, I argue, physical disability performs two distinct, if intertwined pieces of cultural work: it laments the tangible loss wrought by Roman conquest and it protests Roman dominance. Even as the rabbis use disability to give visceral expression to the brutality of Roman conquest, they also use the disabled Rabbi Tsadok to resist and resignify the cultural logic of imperial victory, written in and through the flesh.
The Body Politics of Fasting: Rabbi Tsadok in Lamentations Rabbah
Lamentations Rabbah first introduces Rabbi Tsadok in a lengthy account that details how Rabbi Yoḥanan ben Zakkai negotiates with the Roman general Vespasian, winning the right to bring his loved ones and relatives out of Jerusalem before it falls. Lamentations Rabbah 1:31 draws attention to the physical form of Rabbi Tsadok, which illuminates a striking difference in rabbinic and Roman perception. In the midrash, the Roman general is taken in by surface appearances. When Rabbi Tsadok emerges from the city, Rabbi Yoḥanan stands to honor him. Vespasian asks, “You rise up before this small, shriveled old man?” In response, Rabbi Yoḥanan asserts that Tsadok’s visible weakness conceals an unexpected strength. Had there been another man of his stature in Jerusalem, the Romans would never have conquered the city.
While we might be tempted to read this tale as a contrast between physical and spiritual power, the midrash emphasizes that Rabbi Tsadok’s capacity arises from his emaciated body. When Vespasian asks about the source of “his strength,” Rabbi Yoḥanan boasts that Rabbi Tsadok can teach a hundred sessions in the rabbinic academy with no more sustenance than a single fig. When Vespasian asks about the state of Rabbi Tsadok’s body, Yoḥanan praises the intensity of Rabbi Tsadok’s regimen of fasts and self-afflictions. The term ḥashik, which our midrash uses to characterize Rabbi Tsadok’s body, portrays his body as meager and skinny.
The striking transformation of Rabbi Tsadok’s physical form is a testament to the intense corporeality of fasting as a religious practice. Fasting calls forth divine attention through the language of the flesh. In contrast to the residents of Jerusalem who starve once disaster has come, Rabbi Tsadok’s hunger predates the siege of Jerusalem. His fasts anticipate and aim to prevent the bitter famine that strikes the city once the Roman conquest is at hand. Given the intentionality of his fasting practice, I read his refashioned body as a deliberate change of the flesh, a willful practice of corporeal transformation. Through his fast, Rabbi Tsadok shapes the arc of his own body’s destiny. But though his practice works by transforming the landscape of his own flesh, Rabbi Tsadok aspires to broader social transformation. His shriveled body is a site of corporeal resistance whose strength is affirmed by rabbi and Roman alike.
Curing Tsadok: Roman Rehabilitation and the Taming of the Dissident Body
While the central section of Lamentations Rabbah 1:31 celebrates the efficacy of Rabbi Tsadok’s fast, the midrash goes on to recount Rabbi Tsadok’s bodily restoration. Our midrash relates how Vespasian himself summons doctors to tend to the frail rabbi, who painstakingly feed him to gradually expand his stomach and return his body to health. Vespasian’s physicians rehabilitate Rabbi Tsadok’s body, erasing the corporeal signs that fasting inscribed in his flesh. Lamentations Rabbah 1:31 continues:
Vespasian sent for doctors
and they fed him little by little
and gave him drink little by little
until his body was restored.
Eleazar, his son, said to him:
“Father, give them their reward in this world,
so they will not have merit with you in the world to come.”
He gave them [the skill of] calculation with fingers
and the Roman balance scale.
As it concludes the Rabbi Tsadok tale, Lamentations Rabbah 1:31 narrates the restoration of the fasting body through expert intervention of imperial physicians. Though the midrash ties Rabbi Tsadok’s strength to his deliberately weakened body and celebrates the potent religious capacity of the fasting sage, it ultimately undoes the physical transformation his fasting has wrought.
How shall we understand Vespasian’s intervention? I find it quite curious that the Roman general makes such efforts to cure Rabbi Tsadok. Our midrash is set during the time of the Roman siege. At this very moment, the Roman army has surrounded the city. Vespasian is actively starving the people of Jerusalem, even as he feeds and restores the body of Rabbi Tsadok. That he should “send for doctors” to painstakingly hydrate and nourish a frail fasting rabbi is striking and strange. We could, of course, read Vespasian’s medical intervention as a benevolent act, an expression of the general’s commitment to keep his promise to Rabbi Yoḥanan. In an insightful reading of this narrative, Sonia Pilz suggests that this tale’s emphasis on cure turns this story “into a vehicle for healing national trauma,” that the figure of Rabbi Tsadok allows the rabbis to craft the destruction of Jerusalem into “a holistic saga of survival.” She reads the Roman medical intervention as a maternal act, reminiscent of the way one might nurture and feed a small child. “Roman food nourishes Jewish survival,” she argues, “and Roman strength protects the bearers of Jewish knowledge and tradition.” In Pilz’s view, the rabbinic tales impart a visceral lesson about the urgency of accommodation to Roman authority. Jewish survival hinges on the good will of the powers. Like Tsadok, Pilz asserts, “Judaism also survives due to Roman mercy.”
While our story may well imagine the healing of Rabbi Tsadok as an expression of Roman benevolence, let me suggest a different possibility: that cure is not a kindness. Cure functions in this tale as a barbed articulation of Roman dominance, a medical intervention that presses imperial power onto Jewish flesh. In our story, Vespasian has come to recognize the subversive power of the disabled body, deployed against the state. He deploys his physicians in an attempt to neutralize that power, to defang its capacity. Rabbi Yoḥanan claims that Rabbi Tsadok’s shriveled body, weakened through fasting and prayer, is the Jews’ most powerful weapon against Roman assault. When Vespasian feeds Rabbi Tsadok, he is attempting to neutralize the power of the rabbi’s chosen fast. Like authorities who force-feed protesters who have committed to a hunger strike, the Roman general countermands the rabbi’s capacity to fast. Vespasian denies Rabbi Tsadok sovereignty over his own body, claiming for Rome the power to rehabilitate Jewish flesh. The portrait of healing as a power play surfaces again in the final lines of our tale, once the cure is complete. Even though Rabbi Tsadok’s body is restored to health, his son offers no gratitude to Vespasian or his lackeys. Instead, he urges his father to give them their reward immediately—to discharge his debt to them as expeditiously as possible, lest they have a claim upon him in the world to come. Eleazar treats the imperial physicians as interlopers, not saviors. He wants his father free of them.
The Body that Will Not Heal: Rabbi Tsadok and the Persistence of Changed Flesh
Lamentations Rabbah later recounts a second story of Rabbi Tsadok—a tale that counters these motifs of Roman healing and bodily restoration. In Lamentations Rabbah 4:11, the midrash claims that Rabbi Tsadok’s body has been permanently changed. In this tale, the effects of destruction have a profound, lasting effect on the Jewish body. Lamentations Rabbah 4:11 reads:
They are unrecognizable in the streets. . . (Lamentations 4:8)
Rabbi Eliezer, son of Rabbi Tsadok said:
May I see the consolation—
for though my father lived on all those years after the destruction,
his body never returned to the way that it was,
to fulfill that which was written:
. . . their skin has shriveled on their bones;
it has become as dry as wood. (Lamentations 4:8)
This midrash uses Rabbi Tsadok to exemplify the physical transformation described in Lamentations 4:8, a biblical verse that declares that the people of Jerusalem will no longer be recognized in the streets. In this tale, Rabbi Eliezer recalls the bodily transformation brought on by his father’s extensive ascetic efforts to prevent the destruction. His physical body is permanently shrunken by his own fasting, diminished through the intensity of his abstentions. Though his father lives on for years, his body is never restored to its original state.
What shall we make of the midrashic assertion that Rabbi Tsadok’s flesh will not heal, that the sage retains a disabled body through the remaining years of his existence? As the midrash draws our attention on the incurable body of Rabbi Tsadok, it uses the marked body to convey the permanence of destruction. Within the symbolic grammar of the midrash, Rabbi Tsadok’s unhealed body remains a sign of the enduring physical effect of exile and conquest. Rabbi Eliezer is forced to grapple with the changed body of his father, to admit the enduring transformation of familiar flesh. His father occupies the liminal space between the known and the unknown, pressed between the memory of what was and the impossibility of return. We hear his son’s lament, the grief that cannot be assuaged. In this tale, the disabled body gives tangible expression to the unconsoled state of the nation, to the unresolved wound of exile.
But Rabbi Tsadok’s body is not, I suggest, solely a symbol of enduring distress. Reading the Tsadok tales through the prism of disability studies theory, we can recognize the utility of the disabled body as a site of cultural protest. Recall my argument that Vespasian’s healing of Rabbi Tsadok should not be understood as a straightforward act of benevolence, that the healing Rabbi Tsadok functions as an expression of Roman power and dominance. Against the backdrop of Vespasian’s medical imperialism, Tsadok’s unhealed body becomes a potent marker of corporeal resistance. The uncured body stands as a defiant register of destruction, a scar that will not be erased. The body that does not heal becomes a visceral expression of rabbinic memory. Like Augustine’s Christian martyrs who bear the scars of their holy wounds even in the afterlife, Rabbi Tsadok carries a story of destruction and resistance pressed into his skin. The story of his flesh articulates the potent witness of the body that does not heal, the body whose physical change demands we reckon with the impossibility of repair. It also gestures toward the possibility that the disabled body is itself an expression of resistance, a provocation in its own right. The practice of “rehabilitating” a body involves rendering that body capable again, according to the normative dictates of dominant culture. Rabbi Tsadok’s unhealed body attests to the cultural potency of unrehabilitated flesh. Rabbi Tsadok refuses to perform for the powers. His is a body that will not work for empire, that will not be an “able” body beneath imperial regimes.
Adapted from Rabbinic Tales of Destruction: Gender, Sex, and Disability in the Ruins of Jerusalem by Julia Watts Belser with permission from Oxford University Press. © Oxford University Press 2018.
 Nirmala Erevelles emphasizes the urgency of considering war in the context of feminist disability studies. Noting the surprising lack of attention to disabilities produced through war in the scholarly literature of both first and third world feminist scholarship, she argues that “the violence of imperialism is instrumental not only in the creation of disability but also in the absence of public recognition of the impact of disability in the third world.” (118) Nirmala Erevelles, “The Color of Violence: Reflecting on Gender, Race, and Disability in Wartime,” in Feminist Disability Studies, ed. Kim Q. Hall (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011), 117-135.
 On the relationship between disabled bodies and Roman imperial conquest in early Christian narrative, see Warren Carter, “The blind, lame and paralyzed” (John 5:3): John’s Gospel, Disability Studies, and Postcolonial Perspectives,” in Disability Studies and Biblical Literature, ed. Candida R. Moss and Jeremy Schipper (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 129-150.
 On the body as a locus for expression in rabbinic fasting practice, see Julia Watts Belser, Power, Ethics, and Ecology in Jewish Late Antiquity: Rabbinic Responses to Drought and Disaster (New York: Cambridge, 2015), 121-124.
 The term qartstion, which Jastrow translates as “the Roman balance,” is often called the charistion, associated with Charistion, a Greek scholar of geometry from the second century BCE. Marcus Jastrow, Dictionary of the Targumim, Talmud, and Midrashic Literature, 667.
 Sonja K. Pilz, Food and Fear: Metaphors of Bodies and Spaces in the Stories of Destruction (Würzburg: Ergon Verlag, 2016), 131.
 Pilz, Food and Fear, 137-8.
 Garland-Thomson argues that disabled body is culturally provocative, a sight that “disrupts the expectations of the complacently normal.” Disability activists and performance artists, she asserts, often deliberately deploy disability to overturn entrenched assumptions about beauty and otherness, forcing viewers to confront the limits of accepted cultural narratives about disability. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, “Staring Back: Self-Representations of Disabled Performance Artists,” American Quarterly 52:2 (2000), 335. On the political dimensions of the embrace of embodied difference among disability artists, see David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder, “Re-engaging the Body: Disability Studies and the Resistance to Embodiment,” Public Culture 13:3 (2001), 367-389. For a discussion of the performative dimensions of disabled bodies in rabbinic literature, see Julia Watts Belser, “Reading Talmudic Bodies: Disability, Narrative, and the Gaze in Rabbinic Judaism,” in Disability in Judaism, Christianity and Islam: Sacred Texts, Historical Traditions and Social Analysis, ed. Darla Schumm and Michael Stolzfus (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).
 On the bodies of martyrs in Augustine’s eschatology, see Kristi Upson-Saia, “Resurrecting Deformity: Augustine on the Scarred, Marked, and Deformed Bodies of the Heavenly Realm,” in Disability in Judaism, Christianity and Islam: Sacred Texts, Historical Traditions and Social Analysis, edited by Darla Schumm and Michael Stoltzfus (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 107. For a broader consideration of the disability implications of bodily transformation in the afterlife in early Christian thought, see Candida R. Moss, “Heavenly Healing: Eschatological Cleansing and the Resurrection of the Dead in the Early Church,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 79:4 (2011): 991-1017.
 While medical approaches to disability assume the urgency of rehabilitating the disabled body, disability studies theorists stress that the cultural power afforded to cure and rehabilitation can further stigmatize disability. Medical intervention can, without a doubt, be desirable and beneficial for individual bodies. Yet rehabilitation also treats the disabled body as a site of pathology, as a deviant body in need of repair. It functions as a means of regulating bodily difference. For a critique of dominant cultural efforts to regulate disability through the production of more normalized bodies, see Lennard Davis, Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness, and the Body (New York: Verso, 1995) and Lennard Davis, Bending Over Backwards: Essays on Disability and the Body (New York: NYU Press, 2002).