How Has the Harlot Become the Beloved / Dvar Torah, Parshat Devarim

Haim Watzman

This dvar Torah, translated from this week’s issue of Shabbat Shalom , the weekly Shabbat pamphlet of the religious peace group Oz Veshalom is dedicated to the memory of my father and teacher Sanford “Whitey” Watzman, who left us six years ago on 2 Av.

אפשר לקרוא בעברית כאן: “איכה הייתה הזונה לאהובה”

“Alas, she become a harlot, the faithful city” laments the prophet Isaiah (1:21) in the haftarah for Shabbat Hazon, the Shabbat preceding Tisha B’Av. Isaiah is not the only prophet to portray the city of Jerusalem, and the people of Israel, as a harlot—it is a motif that other prophets also use. The most notable of these is Hosea, in whose book it constitutes the underlying metaphor. On the face of it, the comparison seems simple. There are women who are unfaithful to their husbands and who lie with other men, either to satisfy their sexual passions or to earn money. When the people of Israel worship other gods and act in violation of the values of the Torah, they are like harlots.

But the word “harlot” (zonah in Hebrew) in its various forms is not just a metaphor in the Tanach.

There are actual characters who are labeled as harlots. When these figures are examined, the picture becomes more complicated. They are not simply unfaithful women. I count seven such women: Tamar, Judah’s daughter-in-law (Gen. 38); Rahav of Jericho (Joshua 1–6); the mother of Yiftah of Gilead (Judges 11–12); the Levite’s concubine (the concubine in Giv’ah—Judges 19–21), the two prostitutes who brought their case before King Solomon (I Kings 3), and Gomer, the daughter of Diblaim, the wife of harlotry whom the prophet Hosea, at God’s command, takes as a wife.

What do these women have in common? It is clear from their stories that these women do not accord with the image that Isaiah and other prophets use. We don’t know much about them, as the Tanach only rarely allows their voices to be heard. Only Tamar, Rahav, and the two prostitutes who bring their suit to Solomon speak. The description of Rahav implies that she makes her living as a prostitute, but that is not stated explicitly. Tamar clearly does not, although we learn from her story that there were women who did, as she disguises herself as one. It is not clear from the story of Solomon’s judgment why the two women are called prostitutes. In any case, practically the only thing we know about them is that they sleep close to one another. It may be that Gomer is a professional prostitute, but it is also possible that she is simply an adulteress (or suspected of adultery). In any case, with the exception of Gomer (perhaps), there is no basis for maintaining that that these women were seeking satisfaction for their sexual passions. Furthermore, there is not the least indication that any of them enjoyed a comfortable standard of living as a consequence of their sexual behavior.

On the contrary, it seems pretty clear that they all lived on the margins of society and were of lower status than other women. The Levite’s concubine, for example, was abused, beaten, raped, and murdered. Tamar was ejected from Judah’s family for no sin of her own, disguising herself as a prostitute in order to receive the justice due her. Rahav may have been prepared to hide Joshua’s spies so as to save herself and her family, because she felt no loyalty to the people of Jericho, who did not fully accept her into their polity. We know nothing about Yiftah’s mother, but the fact that his brothers excluded and jeered him indicates that she was a woman who lacked fundamental rights. Gomer seems to be the only person in the whole Bible who gets used as a symbol, who is expected to play a role in a sort of drama in which she is not a woman with her own needs and desires.

It is hardly surprising then, that the Rabbinic sages challenge and complicate the ostensibly obvious biblical metaphor. One example is the following midrash, in which the harlot is portrayed as a queen:

Rabbi Yohanan said; What is written above, “Go get yourself a wife of whoredom [and children of whoredom; for the land will stray from following the Lord] (Hosea 1:2–3)? … What, if at the time he was angry at them, he also loved them, then all the more so at a time when he loved them. What is it like? A king who was angry at his wife. He said: “I divorce her and I have no compassion for her children, she is not my wife and I am not her husband.” He descended to the marketplace and went to a goldsmith [and] said to him: “Make gold jewelry for my wife.” The king’s adviser went and found him at the goldsmith’s having jewelry made for his wife. He [the adviser] went and said to her neighbors: “Haven’t you heard that the king had a quarrel with his wife and he told her that he is divorcing her? Now I saw him at the goldsmith’s, telling him, “Make jewelry for my wife.” So it was when the Holy One, Blessed Be He, was angry with Israel, he said to Hosea, take yourself “a wife of whoredom,” I do not seek her, for the land has strayed and so on, “I will no longer [accept the House of Israel or] pardon them (Hosea 2:6) … “for you are not my people and I will not be your [God]” (Hosea 1:8). Hosea said to them: Nations of the world what, do you think that because He said those things to them, that you are not my people, that he is angry at them? See what is written afterward, “instead of being told You are Not-My-People, they shall be called Children-of-the-Living God” (Hosea 2:1).
(Bamidbar Rabbah 2:15)

The midrash is quite a surprise. It completely inverts the prophet Hosea’s story, turning it from a narrative condemning the people of Israel to one praising them, from a story of betrayal to a love story. Note that the king’s wife is not even labeled a harlot. Nor does it say that it was some action of hers that angered the king. The king, after leaving her in fury, immediately seeks a way to reconcile with her. He goes to order her expensive gifts.

The figure of the king’s adviser (the Hebrew word, ohavo, literally means lover, but in this context generally refers to a friend or minister to the king) also plays an important role. On the face of it, he is superfluous to the story. The midrash could simply say that the king collected the jewelry when it was ready and brought it to his wife. It seems to be clear that the king deliberately saw to it that his adviser would see him go to the goldsmith. The king not only wanted to make up with his beloved wife—he wanted his love for her to be made public. In particular, he wanted his wife’s neighbors—perhaps her friends, perhaps the women of his kingdom in general—to hear of it.

Another detail needs to be noted. The king’s wife is not called the queen, quite deliberately. Referring to her as “the king’s wife” emphasizes the emotional and intimate relationship between them, rather than the official political one. On this account, and in contrast with the common understanding of the governing metaphor of the book of Hosea, the fault lies not with the king’s wife but with the king himself. This wife of a loving king is the polar opposite of the figure of Yiftah’s mother, and in fact of all the women who are referred to as prostitutes or harlots in the Tanach.

There is an important message here. It is easy to criticize another person for actions we think are incorrect, immoral, or unjust. But, we all act not as individuals in a vacuum but within relationships. When another person disappoints us, it behooves us first to examine our personal relationships, with in our families and with other people and groups in our society. Constructive criticism is criticism that is aware of these relationships. It is this sort of criticism that leads to repentance. Perhaps this is what Hosea meant in the last verse of his book: “He who is wise will consider these words, he who is prudent will take note of them. For the paths of the Lord are smooth; the righteous can walk on them, while sinners stumble on them.”