This November, I attended the first annual conference of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom. Afterwards, I posted on my Facebook page a picture of 100 Jewish and Muslim women--old and young; bareheaded, hijabi, and a few in yarmulkes. One of my Jewish friends commented on the posting, "Did you discuss how Islamic women can win basic rights and freedom from abuse and oppression in their native countries?" In fact, we had not discussed that topic. There were so many things to talk about; as women, as religious minorities, as Americans, we spoke about our lives, our faith, the Gaza War, our hopes for our communities.
Is there oppression in Muslim societies of women? Of course. But my friend who felt sure she knew what our topic would (or should) be was the victim of what Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls the "danger of a single story." We know something about a group of people, but we think we know more than we actually do. (I used to think I knew about Israeli settlers in the West Bank, until I met some who confused me--in a good way.)
This week's Torah portion, Vayechi, also provides us with an opportunity to challenge a single story, to look with the lens of complexity at what we think we know.
As Jacob prepares to die, he offers blessings to his 12 sons. The poetic Hebrew of the blessings makes them tricky to translate and ripe for interpretation. Jacob calls Joseph a "ben porat" (Genesis 49:22). Traditional translations understand the phrase to mean "fruitful man" -from the root p-r-h (to be fruitful), an appellation that is consistent with the generally positive blessing Jacob offers his beloved son. But the Jewish Publication Society, in its most recent translation (1985), renders ben porat as "wild ass". As Nahum Sarna explains, "The present translation... takes porat as a feminine poetic form of pere--wild ass. The parallel clause banot tsa`adah is understood as wild colts. This rendering maintains the pattern of the figurative use of animal names for the tribes."
Another biblical character is called a "wild ass," in a prophecy from God himself: When Hagar is first exiled, she learns that she is pregnant with a son whom she will call Ishmael, and that he will be "pereh adam". Ishmael --in Jewish understanding, the ancestral father of Arabs. and the ancestor through whom Muslims trace their connection to Abraham--is prophesized to be "a wild ass of a man" (Genesis 16:12).
As Carol Bakhos points out in Ishmael on the Border: Rabbinic Portrayals of the First Arab, the story of Ishmael in Genesis is an ambivalent one, as is the very image of a "wild ass," a sturdy, fearless animal who lives in the wilderness, a symbol of a free roaming existence.(Jeremiah 2:24 and Hosea 8:9 have similar imagery.)
Jewish interpretations of Ishmael over the ages have largely depended upon the social context of the authors. In early centuries, the rabbis' portrayal of Ishmael could be negative, positive, or neutral. After the rise of Islam, Ishmael became more consistently the "outsider," with derogatory, even vituperative interpretations abounding. As Bakhos writes, "Marginalized figures [like Ishmael] reflect rabbinic anxieties and aspirations, history and fantasy, real and imagined Others." The trope of terrorists as descended from this "wild ass" is a common one in contemporary Jewish and Christian anti-Arab and anti-Muslim writing.
But reading Genesis 16 in light of Genesis 39, one wonders if perhaps the words God speaks about Ishmael might be read, as those about Joseph have been for centuries, as indicating his fertility--that is, that he will be the fruitful father of many.
Fruitful or wild ass? When we unpack the same word that is used for both Ishmael and Joseph, we are invited to give up the single narrative we may have of each: Joseph as fruitful/good and Ishmael as wild/bad. When we start to see ourselves in the other, we can acknowledge that we are all descended from both wild animals and fruitful forebears, and understand with nuance both ourselves and our "Others."
That is one of the blessings of multiple narratives--and of listening to others tell their own stories. As another Nigerian author, Chinua Achebe, said in an interview in The Atlantic , we need "a balance of stories where every people will be able to contribute to a definition of themselves."
Which brings us back to the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, whose simple goal is just that--listening to each others' stories, hearing ones we've hardly imagined. (Indeed, our lunchtime speaker was a Jewish woman who had been saved during the Nazi Holocaust by Muslims in Albania.) The Sisterhood is equipping us to transcend the danger of old narratives, too narrow for the truths of our time--too narrow, indeed, for the Torah itself.
Seventy Faces of Torah is a pluralistic Jewish scriptural commentary, produced by The Center for Global Judaism at Hebrew College, in which thought leaders from around the world offer insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.