Reclaiming the Priestly Code in a Modern Hebrew Novel

The following excerpts are from a paper delivered by Dr. Nitza Ben-Dov, Senior Lecturer in Hebrew and Comparative Literature, at a conference on “Writing the Jewish Future” that took place in San Francisco. The title is hers.

The importance of the Bible to the intellectual, social, and political life of Israel can hardly be overestimated. Since the Bible is studied in Israeli schools as a subject in itself, rather than as a branch of literature, religion, or Jewish culture, it can serve as a point of general reference for literary citations, allusions, and allegories capable of transmitting a tone ranging from low comedy to high seriousness.

Clearly, many Israeli authors use the Bible as a source book, a sounding box capable of heightening the resonance of their work and anchoring its complexities in the world of Jewish culture. With the assistance of biblical passages, they can introduce into their writing a wide range of reinforcing subtleties and nuances. Of all the hallowed books of Jewish tradition, the Bible alone is sufficiently well known to perform such a function.

In this respect, the work of S. Y. Agnon, modern Hebrew literature’s greatest figure, is an exception, for only in it do we find, not just the Bible, but the entire bookshelf of sacred Jewish literature—the Mishnah, Talmud, medieval rabbinic texts, the Kabbalah, Hassidic books—utilized in this manner. In the absence of systematic inquiry, the non-biblical allusions go unnoticed by most readers. Even when alluding to the Bible, moreover, Agnon often proves elusive. Rather than make do with the relatively well-known dramatic narratives of the Patriarchs, the kings of Israel, and the prophets, he frequently has recourse to difficult, little-read biblical passages. [His] intention might appear to be to create furtively a subversive text that gnaws away at the basis of that type of empty, quotidian religious cult that is innocent of any questioning or doubt.

The Book of Leviticus, for example, with its elaborate sacrificial regulations, detailed rituals, dietary laws, and so forth, is not a text that is much read in Israeli schools, much less a source of inspiration and subtle allusions for contemporary authors. A male-oriented, priestly document that deals with such cut-and-dried matters as ritual purity, rules of sacrifice, sexual taboos, it is far from poetically or dramatically inspiring and offers a modern literature, even when religiously impassioned, little purchase.

And yet, it is to the dull, unpopular, and seemingly irrelevant book of Leviticus that Agnon is subtly alluding in his last novel, Shira. Reclaiming such a remote text in his modern writing testifies not only to the author’s extensive, detailed intimacy with the entire Hebrew canon but also to the power of his creativity—a power that succeeds in creating a change in the hierarchy of values and brings about a re-ploughing of old furrows in respect of an ancient text.

Shira was first published in Hebrew in 1971, a year after Agnon’s death, as an incomplete work. Its second Hebrew edition, however, which was issued by Agnon’s daughter in 1974, came with a “final chapter that had been found among his manuscripts—rather, not so much as a chapter as an outline for a chapter, a memorandum of intentions drawn up by Agnon as a guideline for finishing the novel.

Shira, the title character of the novel, is a nurse in Jerusalem whom the protagonist, Manfred Herbst, meets on the day that he brings his no-longer-young wife, Henrietta, to the hospital to give birth to their third daughter, Sara.

The connection between Sara and Shira is not an accidental one, for Manfred Herbst’s daughter and his adulterous love affair are born on one and the same day. At the very moment that Herbst’s wife is in bed in the hospital, Herbst finds himself in Shira’s bed and commences a life-long obsession with her. Moreover, just as no person can disown being a parent, so Herbst can never disown Shira. “Flesh such as yours will not soon be forgotten”—this line by the Hebrew poet Shin Shalom haunts Herbst from the moment of his first encounter with Shira until the novel’s last pages. It is the final twist of these pages that they end in a leper colony in Jerusalem, where Herbst, who had been searching for Shira for many months, finds her in an advanced state of illness and decides to spend the rest of his life with her, their carnal relationship now transmuted into a new, spiritual one.

Just as Manfred Herbst’s erotic link with Shira had started on the day of Sara’s birth, so in the final chapter he joins Shira in the leper colony on the day of the circumcision of his fourth child and first son, Gavriel—for even though Herbst has barely maintained a sexual relationship with his middle-aged wife, she has given birth again, two years after having Sara.

The mysterious combination in Shira of adultery, carnal passion, circumcision, and leprosy sent me to the book of Leviticus. What I found was surprising, because the enigmatic ending of Agnon’s novel directly parallels a dense passage of laws there.

The 12th chapter of Leviticus is a short one, containing only eight verses dealing with childbirth. It is sandwiched between Chapter 11, a long, tedious discourse of 47 verses pertaining to the classification of permissible and non-permissible animals for food, and Chapter 13, an even longer unit of 59 verses about leprosy, psoriasis, and other skin diseases that render the afflicted person ritually impure. All three chapters are linked by the theme of impurity, abjection, and abomination.

Thus on the day of his son’s circumcision, Manfred Herbst leaves his wife, who is “continuing in the blood of her purifying,” for a woman who according to Israelite law has been rendered unclean for the rest of her life by leprosy—a switch that is paralleled in the Bible by the transition from Chapter 12 to Chapter 13 of Leviticus. Yet, what Agnon does by rewriting these dry, ritual chapters as a deep psychological narrative in Shira is to reverse their values.

Shira’s leper colony, a biblically taboo place barred to the ritually clean, becomes for Herbst, at the end of a long process of spiritual purification, a temple of the heart, replacing the priestly Temple that a woman must not enter. A combination of love, suffering, and compassion replaces the cold ritual law of the priesthood—a law, however, that must be thoroughly absorbed and understood before it can be challenged by an alternative spiritual and moral code.

Chapter 11 of Leviticus, which deals with ritually clean and unclean animals, has its place in Shira, too. This is in a humorous passage at the beginning of the novel that alludes to the rabbinic tradition that God would have preferred that people abstain totally from meat but agreed to make certain animals permissible to eat as a concession to human beings’ incorrigible craving for flesh. The passage relates how Henrietta, who is convalescing from Sara’s birth, tells Herbst to go to a restaurant and order a good meat meal. Clearly, the passage is meant to be read as a foreshadowing of how the betrayed Henrietta gradually pushes her husband into the arms of a woman with whom he can experience both carnal and intellectual satisfaction. The sexual allusions are all framed in dietary terms, which function on both levels.

Thus has a great modern Hebrew author derived literary inspiration from three consecutive chapters of the priestly code. It is the rigid, matter-of-fact, uncompromising laws of biblical abominations (the blood of childbirth, unclean foods, leprous skin, the scarring of an infant’s body as a sign of the covenant between the male child and God) that nourish one of the most open-ended, multi-layered, and ambiguous novels in Israeli literature—a book telling of the covenant, not between a man and God, but between a man and his one great, earthly, transient love.

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