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It may have been necessary

· The barrenness of Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel serves to tell us of the importance of its opposite ·

Living in the world, giving life to it: whether or not they are mothers, lay women or believers, women have always done this. It is not a destiny imposed by genetics nor is it an innate vocation; rather, it is a precious skill with which women in the world relate to one another. Current events of course, conjure up quite different scenarios. What faith, what life, what world does a mother who weeps, happy to face her son on his way to martyrdom, have in her heart?

Ava Gardner interprets Sarah in the film “The Bible: in the Beginning...” (1966) directed by John Huston

The role of life and death within faith and culture, as well as the fatal misunderstandings that have arisen over the course of centuries around this crucial nexus, is what I’d like to talk about. I do so as a woman, and a Jewish woman, drawing from my teachers, both men and women.

“When the prayer of Abraham for Abimelech was heard, and the king of the Philistines recovered, the angels raised a loud cry, and spoke to God thus: ‘O Lord of the world! All these years has Sarah been barren, as the wife of Abimelech was. Now Abraham prayed to you, and the wife of Abimelech has been granted a child. It is just and fair that Sarah should be remembered and granted a child’. These words of the angels, spoken on the Day of the New Year, when the fortunes of men are determined in heaven for the whole year, bore a result. Isaac was born barely seven months later, on the first day of the Passover. The birth of Isaac was a happy event, and not in the house of Abraham alone. The whole world rejoiced, for God remembered all barren women at the same time as Sarah. They all bore children. And all the blind were made to see, all the lame were made whole, the dumb were made to speak, and the mad were restored to reason”.

This is how Louis Ginzberg tells of Isaac’s birth in his work Legends of the Jews, a birth through which the Lord makes the whole world happy. But how can a single – moreover an intimate, private, domestic – event make the whole world happy?

The Midrash Tanhuma explains that the whole of creation – the earth, the heavens, the sun, the moon – was delighted by the birth of Isaac, for without this event the world would have ceased to exist. And in Bereishit Rabbah we read: “‘whoever hears talk of birth rejoices in it’, Sarah exclaimed, ‘for thanks to me Hashem (the Name) has blessed the whole world’”.

A birth, not a martyrdom. And not merely any birth but the birth. The birth that not only opens Sarah’s womb but supports the world and enables it to exist. In the Torah, as we know, nothing is said or happens by chance. Therefore it cannot be by chance that barrenness afflicts our matriarchs and brings them together, with the sole exception of Leah.

The term 'aqarà (barren) derives from a Hebrew root that also expresses the sense of uprooting (laaqor, to uproot; leìaaqer, to be uprooted). It is on this basis that rabbinical exegesis interprets the long period of the matriarchs’ barrenness – they were all uprooted from an “impure” land – as a period necessary to bring about a real detachment from the pantheistic world.

This interpretation, however is not much help in untangling the knots that barrenness creates even within an interpretation of the biblical text: how should we place it, for example, with the mitzvah (precept) of the Peru U’revu (be fruitful and multiply) [or the mitzvah of procreation]? And what meaning do we give to the blessing given to Abraham, “I will make you into a great nation […] and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you”? Indeed, what meaning do we give to all the blessings which, in the Torah, are always a gift of fertility and of life?

Hashem (the Name) blesses, but the matriarchs remain barren. Of course, the time will come when their wombs will be opened but for the time being Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel suffer, locked into their “incompleteness” Incomplete, not yet “built up”, is how they feel.

Sarah says to Abraham: “Behold now, the Lord has restrained me from bearing; please come to my handmaid; perhaps I will be built up from her” (Bereishit 16:2). And Rachel says: “Here is my maid Bilhah; go in to her, that she may bear upon my knees, and even I may have children through her” (Bereishit 30:3). Surrogate motherhoods, we would call them today, which however do not serve to soothe pain and suffering. Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel remain barren.

Why? Perhaps because it was necessary. Their barrenness serves to express the importance of its opposite. Let it be quite clear: we are not speaking of biological clocks that go haywire striking the hour: nor of the so widely eulogized female vocation to motherhood.

Birth, here, is a necessary category for conceptualizing the world. The level on which it moves is, rather, theological and existential: precepts and blessings risk falling into the void unless through the revelation of a woman’s womb. Creation itself fears for its life and laughs a liberating laugh only at the moment when Isaac comes into the world; the danger is forestalled. Sarah’s womb has restored the world to the world.

In a fundamental passage – birth as the pivot of the world and of its expression – the Torah rejects every other tradition, nullifies the value of martyrdom and returns to the earthly world; a world not always in contrast with the world of the hereafter, as some might be led to believe. “On earth as... in heaven”, the Our Father says, and it is Jesus himself who presents himself as “The Way, the Truth, and the Life”. He does not speak of death. Hence not only Isaac is born of Sarah.

If reality is not the whole assembly of naked and crude facts but rather the symbolic order which thought (language, culture, social codes) attributes to the world, then – with her childbirth – Sarah gives life to an unforeseen female symbolic order within which a form of female authority stands out serene. Far from opposing the male form of power, this female authority circumvents it, evading its rules.

Birth is the place in which this authority originates, because without birth there is no world. It is this that Hashem (the Name) tells us, opening the incredulous womb of Sarah and putting birth at the centre of the world.

We are at the heart of a real gnosological revolution. Hannah Arendt writes in The Life of the Mind: “Throughout the history of Western philosophy we find the persistent, singular idea of an affinity between philosophy and death”. A really fine paradox! Two worlds would exist, a real one and one that is only mere appearance. Anyone endowed with common sense would be led to think that the real world is the one in which one is born and dies, falls in love, makes friends, is involved in politics and creates a family.

On the contrary, this is not the case. The real world is the one which philosophers have defined “the world of ideas” and which others have preferred to call hell or paradise. For some it is the world of thought, for others, that of the soul. In both cases it is the world that has separated the soul from the body, condemning the latter to insignificance. The body is illusory and short-lived. So what do you want martyrdom to be? The soul and thought are real.

The Jewish tradition goes in a quite different direction for Isaac’s birth redeemed that world from unreality and replaced by praxis thought which unfruitfully and for centuries, has thought only of itself.

The change in perspective is total. Birth permits us to be rooted in reality, it calls to life singular people who ceaselessly stitch together again those bodies and thoughts which the West wanted to be separate and irreconcilable. And it is for this reason that the world laughs.

This world, and with it the creatures that dwell in it, can at last be thought and expressed – in short, made real – within a new symbolic order that is born from a woman’s body.

Moreover it is no accident that precisely thanks to the reflection of a woman – a Jewish woman – the category of birth assumed an absolutely central position in 20th-century philosophy. Indeed it is to Hanna Arendt that we owe the merit of having introduced a critical category – precisely that of birth – which can explode the entire metaphysical apparatus built on death and on the mortification that belongs to it.

Thus the world is born when the Lord opens its womb. The world is reborn under the welcoming but ever authoritative gaze of women. It is born and it starts out on its way.

Iaia Vantaggiato




St. Peter’s Square

Feb. 26, 2020