Disability and the Destruction of Jerusalem

Fusing her passion for ancient Rabbinical culture with expertise in gender, sexuality and disability critical theories, the research of Julia Watts Belser (Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies at Georgetown University) builds fascinating conceptual bridges between the early and modern.   Her session ‘Disability and the Destruction of Jerusalem: Gender, Sex and Flesh in Early Jewish Narrative’ at Glasgow University yesterday explored violence and disablement as a powerful metaphor for metropolitan devastation and colonial domination in Hebrew texts.  Whilst the event was

 The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans Under the Command of Titus, A.D. 70 (1850). Image in the public domain.

The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans Under the Command of Titus, A.D. 70 (1850). Image in the public domain.

not directly project-related, I felt certain that attending would enhance my wider appreciation of Jewish identity and cultural memory.

A small turnout – due to the summer recess and a coterminous graduation ceremonies – enabled the planned lecture to seamlessly morph into an informal seminar, facilitating discursive analysis of various Midrash (passages from Lamentations and the Bavli Gittin).  A fertile exchange of ideas revealed the multiple ways in which the body impaired by war has been retrospectively imagined in ancient Jewish texts.

Penned between the 5th and 7th centuries, these trans-temporal texts re-conceptualize the earlier destruction of the Second Temple, and the ensuing cultural and political occupation.   Firstly, we explored how passages from Lamentations configured imperial oppression as effecting physical changes in the body, so conspicuous as to render “Zion’s precious people” unrecognizable: the potent imagery of their once bright and ruddy skin now “dry as wood” and shrunken “on their bones” expresses imperial subjugation through physical degeneration and emaciation.

Consideration then turned to the story of Rabbi Tsadok – “a small, shriveled old man” exuding a quiet yet extraordinary spiritual power procured through frequent fasting enabling him “to teach one hundred sessions” although he “eats but a single fig.”  The Roman authorities duly enforce medical intervention, ensuring that “little by little” his frail body “was restored.”  The disabled body is thus represented as a site of political protest: implicit in this rehabilitation discourse is the premise that to restructure the body as functional – according to the definitions imposed by the dominant regime – is to neutralize personal and religious power by undercutting the agentic right to intentional self-denial.  The Rabbi’s chosen self-disablement is emblematic of his unwillingness to conform to Roman hegemony.

Contrastingly, extracts from the Bavli Gittin, a Babylonian Talmudic text, dwell upon the post-destruction Jewish body as still exquisitely beautiful.   The Roman captors are depicted as utterly decadent – reveling in opulence and covetousness – epitomizing the weakening of the state and pre-empting its downfall.  Despite acknowledging the sexual abuse and subjugation of Jewish subjects, however, the text is clear that they remain physically undiminished and unstigmatised in the corporeal sense.  Indeed, in an radical departure from prevailing and expected gender paradigms, the Bavli Gittin deals empathically with women as victims of sexual violence and conceptualizes the violated female body as the personification of shared corporate, communal and divine loss.

Julia’s expert analysis of these passages emphasized the ethical imperative to consider the absence of the dismembered, amputated, nameless and faceless in this genre of literature: her work is a timely reminder that the politics of memory and storytelling inexorably influence exactly whose stories are told.   Her forthcoming publication, Corporal Catastrophe: sex and flesh in the ruins of Jerusalem, promises to be a fascinating read.



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