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Who Miriam is for the Jews

These brief notes will certainly disappoint those who are seeking in Judaism special attention to Mary but the root of the problem is that the distances and incompatibilities between the two worlds emerge in Mary herself.

George De Canino, “Menorah” (a work given to Pope Francis during his visit to the Great Synagogue in Rome on 17 January 2016)

Messianism and the divinity of Jesus are rejected by Judaism and this constitutes one of the fundamental points of difference between the Jewish faith and the Christian faith. Detachment from the figure of Jesus, expressed in many ways, has stemmed from this in both history and the Jewish culture. In Judaism on the whole Jesus is ignored; at other times there is a powerful avoidance of him; when Judaism has to face the problem of Jesus this can occur in the context of learned polemics or in crude forms of opposition. It is only in recent centuries that a few efforts have been made by some scholars to recover his teaching, understood as Jewish doctrine although without the acceptance of the points of faith that constitute the essence of Christianity.

These attitudes to Jesus also extend in some way to the circle of his disciples and apostles, as well as to his relatives, and in the first place to his Mother Mary. It should not therefore be surprising that in the Jewish collective imagination Mary herself is essentially and widely ignored. Not only is there a lack of interest but the doctrinal difference emerges even more clearly: everything that characterizes the cult of Mary as the Mother of God and the suffering Mother, especially in the Catholic context, seems alien to Jews and impossible for them to share in. Sometimes the alternative to detachment is not interest and sharing, as might happen for the doctrinal aspects of Jesus’ teaching, but rather opposition and an attack on the figure itself. This occurs in definable popular forms and is in any case a marginal niche interest. The way in which this subject – some of whose aspects are contradictory – has developed is an interesting field of study, of a historical kind of course since it would be hard to carry out any study based on dialogue.

The starting point is the polemical context. As is well known, the Christian faith in the virginal birth of Jesus was contested from the outset by opponents, both pagans and Jews. The scriptural demonstration of the Gospels (Mt 1:23), based on the verse in Isaiah (7:14 “Behold, a young woman shall conceive”) in which the almà, “young” becomes “virgin” is unacceptable in the Jewish context where at most one can consider it as an elegant exegetic exercise but certainly not a proof. For this reason in the early centuries polemical versions circulated, which not only denied the virgin birth but spoke of an adulterous relationship and of a biological father different from Joseph; this father was sometimes identified with a Roman (thus not a Jew) called Pantera. There are fragmentary traces of this information in the rabbinic writings of the first centuries. If there was anyquestion of an adulterous relationship, it follows that Mary would be an adulterous woman, hence as such blameworthy. However, it should be said that the few and confused sources of antiquity do not insist on this point, preferring to underline the nature of Jesus rather than the maternal qualities of Mary. In this context, however, one particular narrative vein is an exception, that of the so-called “Toledot Yeshu” (“Stories of Jesus”), which are legends about Jesus and the beginnings of Christianity disseminated in Jewish circles.In one part of these legends great attention is paid to the circumstances which led to Jesus’ birth, with tales which over the centuries were enriched with details until they became a sort of novel. The essence of the story is that Jesus is the product of adultery, but that his Mother is not a sinner, indeed she is the innocent victim of a deception in which someone took the likeness of her husband. And in the rest of the story we see Mary (Miriam in the text) dedicating herself affectionately to her Son, to his education and to all the things which characterize a virtuous mother. The philological examination of this story reveals surprising aspects. In fact, this really is a very ancient narrative, that of the adulterer who assumes the likeness of the husband of the woman, who is thus the innocent victim of a trick. It is a theme that has developed along two lines, one of which is sacred and mythological, describing the birth of demi-gods (such as Heracles, begotten by Zeus who disguises himself as Amphitryon) or of special figures (Merlin in the saga of King Arthur); the other is polemic and literary, ranging from the legends on the birth of Alexander the Great to the story about Theodolinda in the Decameron. This theme entered into the Jewish legends about Mary too and it is hard to say whether such legends are only a polemical narrative or the emergence of an ancient heterodox narrative in which Jesus is considered a sort of demi-god. What counts, on the practical level, given that the audience of these tales did not consist of philologists but of ordinary people, is that, unlike in other purely polemical sources concerning her, Mary comes out of these stories as a virtuous woman and a victim. We are therefore witnessing a paradox, in which, even in a polemical context, the figure of Mary preserves aspects of innocence and her personal suffering is understood and shared.

Marc Chagall, “Dance of Miriam, Sister of Moses” (1966)

The picture of the Jewish relationship with Mary must be completed by two other series of considerations. The first is that the image of Mary, as it is configured in the Christian tradition, is closely linked to Jewish origins. These are biblical in the first place: the model of female biblical figures, from Rachel, Jacob’s wife, who gives birth on a journey, to Miriam, Moses’ sister, from whom she takes her name, to the wife of Manoah and mother of Samson, whose vicissitudes before and after the birth of her son inspire certain moments in Mary’s life and whose prayer of gratitude becomes the model for the Magnificat, to the praise of the virtuous woman in the last chapter of Proverbs, some of whose characteristics are found in Mary. The Mary of the Gospels respects the norms in Leviticus for purification after childbirth; her nuptial bond corresponds with that of the rabbinic regulations. And furthermore the Mary of the Apocrypha, which describe her as a little girl in the service of the Temple of Jerusalem, derives from the mingling of different elements among which her Jewish roots are clearly recognizable, although deformed. There were no girls in the service of the Temple but the story of her birth in a protected area follows Jewish ritual norms for purity, and the end of her service at a tender age is also linked to ritual norms for Jewish purity. In short, despite all that is non-Jewish in the characterization of her historical development, she would not be what she is without very firmly established Jewish roots.

The second consideration touches on a very sensitive subject: Mary, especially in Catholicism, plays a completely feminine role of salvific mediation between the divine plan and the human plan, and the hopes and prayers of the faithful are addressed to her. All this, as has been said, is unthinkable in the Jewish context but one should ask oneself whether the emptiness and absence in Judaism of this figure and these roles might not have given rise to the development of alternative forms and of compensation. It should be noted that the mystical and salvific female aspect is not experienced in Judaism at an individual level, through a single figure: the matriarchs or other biblical women may be idealized but none sums up in herself all that Christianity pours out on Mary; instead it is Israel’s collectivity which becomes a symbol of wife, of mother and of divine daughter, now loved, now suffering. In order to find some symbol of mediation it is perhaps necessary to turn to the mystical field, in which the last of the Sefirot (called Kingdom or Immanence) becomes the connection between the superior reality and the earthly one. The Kingdom goes into exile and follows the people in their suffering. Yet in Judaism no one will ever pray addressing themselves to the Kingdom; rather, if they are of a mystical faith they will ask that the Kingdom be reunited with the On High. In short, even in this, which could remotely propose some lines of similarity, an unbridgeable essential gap emerges.

Riccardo Di Segni




St. Peter’s Square

Oct. 22, 2019