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Judge Dread

A haftorah of women and war

Liel Leibovitz
January 29, 2010
Palin at the 2008 Republican Governors Association conference, in Miami.(Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Palin at the 2008 Republican Governors Association conference, in Miami.(Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Of the many sins of modern journalism, there are few I hate more than the wretched stunt of asymmetrical historical comparisons.

No doubt you’ve seen this black magic practiced before, and most likely, you’ve found it odious. But if you’ve never stopped to ponder the mechanics of this feeble act of conjuring, here’s a primer into the working of lazy journalistic minds: begin by taking a contemporary subject that’s popular and preferably controversial; find a historical subject that’s obscure; bend the rules of logic and decency until you can force both into the same intellectual framework.

You might, for example, claim an invisible affinity between the Na’vi, the heroes of James Cameron’s blockbuster Avatar, and the followers of the French socialist Comte de Saint-Simon, or you might argue passionately that Snooki, the diminutive diva of MTV’s reality show Jersey Shore, is nothing but a modern-day reincarnation of the late Qing Dynasty’s Empress Dowager Cixi. In either case, a few well-placed historical facts may be selected to obscure other, equally pertinent and utterly contradictory historical facts and thus to endow you, the writer, with the everlasting halo of incomparable intelligence.

To demonstrate just how despicable I find this practice, allow me to repeat it: as I sat down to read this week’s haftorah, I opened the Book of Judges and was shocked to read about Sarah Palin.

In the book, her name was Deborah, and she was not the onetime, short-term governor of Alaska and current Fox News bloviator but rather a warrior and a judge. Still, there was little doubt: Sarah/Deborah spent most of her time speaking, simplistically, about God, about War, about people she hated and who were in no way like her and who would do well to just disappear.

It seemed a little strange, of course, that the book, describing events that took place circa 1280 BCE, during the reign of King Seti I, would so uncanninly capture the mindset of Queen Sarah, born 1964. But there was no mistaking it. The woman sitting under her tree between Ramah and Beth-el and the woman sitting on private jets between Wasilla and Washington were one and the same. Reading about Deborah, I could almost hear her claiming that she could see Canaan from her house.

Need proof? Here goes. Below are two quotes. Try to tell Sarah and Deborah apart.

“Why do you sit between the borders, to hear the bleatings of the flocks?” chided one of the two women, disparaging those of her fellow countrymen who did not support her zeal for war. “At the divisions of Reuben, [there are] great searchings of heart. Gilead abides beyond the Jordan; and Dan, why does he gather into the ships? Asher dwelt at the shore of the seas, and by his breaches he abides.”

“We believe that the best of America is not all in Washington, D.C.,” chided the other woman, disparaging her fellow countrymen who did not support her zeal for war. “We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hard working very patriotic, um, very, um, pro-America areas of this great nation.”

Which is which? Impossible to tell.

There is no need, of course, to carry this exercise any further. Mainly because it is not, alas, an exercise at all. While the historical comparison between the politician and the prophetess is a bit flimsy, the ideological underpinning, sadly, is not.

Lodged between Joshua—heir to Moses, practical fellow, conqueror of the land—and Samuel—holy man, anointer of kings—the judges represent, to modern, progressive eyes, a particularly dark period in Jewish history. Devoid, for the most part, of any concrete interest in governance or strong commitment to leadership, these swordsmen (and one woman) are blinding beacons of totality. For the glory of God and the love of the people, they will slay their enemies by the thousands, martyr themselves like Samson, or slaughter their daughters like the hapless Jephthah. With shedding blood their sole responsibility, they go about their business merrily, righteous and fierce and unquestioning.

Even in this flock of fanatics, however, none, perhaps, is more monolithic than Deborah. When we are first acquainted with the judge, she is concerned not with justice but with vengeance, summoning Barak, a local strongman, to her side and ordering him into war. Such, she claims plainly, is God’s will.

The battle, hallelujah, goes according to plan, but Deborah is just getting started. Elated, she breaks out in a thankful song, a stunning concoction of ecstasy and venom.

“Praise! Praise! Deborah,” goes one of its more feverish lines. “Praise! Praise!”

The rest isn’t much better. After disparaging those tribes that opposed the war, Deborah blesses Yael, the daughter of the Kenite king Heber. Approached by the defeated Canaanite general Sisera—bruised and bloody after losing to Barak and his men—Yael takes the weary soldier into her tent, feeds him warm milk, waits for him to fall asleep, and then takes one of her tent’s pegs and lodges it forcefully in Sisera’s temple, killing him instantly. For this act of treachery and murder, Deborah tells us, Yael should be blessed “above women in the tent.” Women, that is, like Sisera’s mother: not content merely with describing the general’s murder in gruesome detail, Deborah goes on to gloat with a ghoulish bit about the slain soldier’s mother, waiting in vain at the window for her son to return home from the battlefield. There’s no mercy here, no compassion, no justice. The haftorah’s end is stark. Deborah’s exhortation leaves little room for the imagination: “So may perish all Your enemies, O Lord.”

In case any reader becomes enamored with such murderous Manichaeism, the Book of Judges makes sure to conclude on a sour note: all war and no pray make Israel bad boys, and the nation is soon swayed by idol worshipping, punished for its sins, and is not redeemed until Samuel, the man of God, takes its helm.

This is one historical lesson we’d be well-rewarded to take to heart. From Deborah to Sarah, each generation is bound to have its own charismatic figure that speaks in tongues and blesses the ammunition and prefers the thundering marches of certainty to the subtle fugues of doubt. Before we follow these feverish few and go rogue, however, let us remember this: we’ve read this story before, and it never ends well.

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.