Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Saturday, 19 January 2008

Radical Revisionism

Today in The National Post, an opinion piece by a Jewish writer focused on Jezebel (Izevel in Hebrew), the wife of Achav, king of the Ten Tribes (see the second half of Kings I and the first part of Kings II for the details of her career).

To put it simply, Jezebel was not a nice lady. A Phoenecian by birth, she married Achav in an arranged marriage to shore up relations between the two countries. While Achav needed no encouragement to worship idols and do all manners of dastardly deeds (again, see Kings I & II as well as the final chapter of Tractate Sanhedrin), Jezebel did what she could to worsen the religious decay of the Ten Tribes. Amongst other things, she encouraged murder to increase Achav's lands and slaughtered as many prophets of God as she could get her hands on. Her only successful opponent was Eliyahu HaNavi and even he had to flee on occasion to prevent heads from rollings, specifically his.

Therefore it was a disappointment to see this article in which all we know about the woman is turned on its head. Disappointed, but not surprised as there seems to be a constant need in the Jewish secular world to "reexamine" asasumed characters throughout the Bible and recast them as good or wicked based on modern secular standards. This article does that and in spades.

To start, we have the old line about how men fear politically amibitious women:

We accept ruthless, ambitious men with barely a murmur of protest. We think of them as charming rogues, perhaps. Or as captains of industry. Or charismatic politicians. They are admired, even if grudgingly. Ruthlessness and ambition are somehow seen as "manly" and thus suited to the rough and tumble of politics. But a ruthless, ambitious woman? God save us from such an unnatural phenomenon, unless of course she's presented as a soap-opera epitome of evil, in which case we can boo and hiss to our hearts' content.

This is repeated ad nauseam, usually by supportors of megalomanical women who want to divert the conversation from their shortcomings. In truth, no one looked at Saddam Hussein, for example, and said "Yes, he's a murderous dictator but look how he wears that uniform of his. Ah, there's a charming rogue!" If people don't like Hillary Clinton, it's because she's an egotistical lying opportunist, not because she's a woman. Those qualities which repel people would be equally abhorrent in a male candidate.

Then there's the obvious problem applying the principle to the story. While Jezebel is portrayed as evil, Achav doesn't get much of an easier ride. In fact, he gets treated just as poorly, both in the Bible and in the rabbinic literature. He isn't a pawn of Jezebel. He's an evil ruler in his own right. So much for that contention.

The article then goes on to lament that the way Jezebel was villianized wa through sexualizing her. The only real problem with this thesis is that it's incorrect. The Bible does not portray her in that light and neither does rabbinic literature. Maybe Christianity did over time but they also think Adam and Chavah had an apple in the Garden of Eden. So much for that.

Of course, the real bone of contention is the opposition to Jezebel's polytheistic ideals:

The instigators of this decline were the militant Yahwist prophets led by Elijah and his successor Elisha, for whom pragmatism and compromise threatened the supremacy of the one god. In a stunning act of self-fulfilling prophecy, they helped bring about what they most feared. Elijah's transformation into the caring protector of the Jewish people came later, a post-mortem redemption in which he would become, as one Israeli scholar puts it, "a kind of Jewish Santa Claus." And as his image rose, Jezebel's fell.

Get it? If you believed in God and that his Torah was the unconditional law of the Jewish people, you were a religious fanatic who ultimately undid the kingdom and helped in its destruction. The errors in this paragraph are legion. First of all, while Eliyahu may have been described by some as militant, he led no army but always stood along againt Achava and the idolators. Elisha clearly led a quieter, more retiring life. What's more, this "transformation into the caring protector of the Jewish people" is Eliyahu's function from the start. He recognizes that God would reward our ancestors if they were faithful to Him and punish them if they disobeyed His laws. Instead of throwing up his hands and moving to Boca, Eliyahu dedicated his life to fighting idolatry and defeating the evil forces in the Northern Kingdom in order to help save the Jewish people there from destruction. To label him as the seed of the eventual downfall of the state is absurd in the extreme. For someone who claims to have read the Bible carefully, I doubt if the author of the article was paying close attention to the actual words.

But strip away the seven veils, as it were, and Jezebel's story becomes disconcertingly contemporary. Her clash with Elijah and his followers shows what happens when humans believe they have a direct line to the divine; how that belief can be politically manipulated; and how it finally destroys not only its perceived enemies but also itself. In the face-off between Jezebel's policies of alliance and detente and Elijah's insistence on absolutism and confrontation, of her pragmatic statesmanship versus his divine dictates, the kingdom itself was what finally got thrown to the dogs.

This is the final position of the article. Jezebel, to the author, is interested in alliances and detente while Eliyahu is the fanatic determined to wrest control of the state from her and her husband. How could someone reading the Bible honestly conclude such a thing?

The answer is to understand the secular frame of reference the author is using:

a) There is no God (chas v'shalom). Despite protestations to the contrary, the article portrays God as irrelevant to the story. Never mind that Eliyahu haNavi did have a direct line to God. That's just what the writers of that part of the Bible stuck in to defend his foolish fundamentalism. In the absence of an influential diety, Jezebel's religious position is as legitimate as Eliyahu's and since she's the queen, he's the rebel undermining the state.

b) There is no true good and evil. Did Jezebel worship idols? Sure, but so what? She was entitled to her own religious beliefs as much as Eliyahu was entitled to his. By attacking her, Eliyahu was attacking freedom of religion which is a major sin (unless you're a Muslim fundamentalist but that's the subject of another post). This clearly makes him the bad guy.

c) Jezebel is a woman. Therefore, we cannot really believe any of the bad things that the writers of the Bible said about her. They only put all that in there to defend their fundamentalist beliefs and because they were all closed-minded misogynists. Therefore she really wasn't a villian but since the story needs one, let's nominate Eliyahu.

In the end, the true Jewish moral of the story is that there is one God in Heaven who rules over the entire world and has chosen the Jewish people as His own. He has given us His Torah which is our Law and way of life. Acceptance of these facts are what is good, denial is bad. People like Jezebel would always spout the foolish porinciples of moral relativism. It was a hero like Eliyahu who stood against this amoral grayness, saw it for the evil it was and called it by name. Would that we would have more leaders who would cut through the diplomatic morass and announce our true convictions to the world.

If this is the state of secular Jewish thought, may they all see the truth of Torah speedily and in our days.

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