Like a Gazelle Crying for Water
This week’s commentary was written by Rabbi Aubrey L. Glazer, Rabbi of the Jewish Community Center of Harrison, New York.
The gazelle is always in motion skipping through the mountains if she is not getting pierced by Thorn bushes. Surely she doesn’t feel it. Let’s say it another way. Already. She cannot delay.
—Ayelet Solomon, Aphorisms on the Persistence of the Gazelle (2004)
To give birth or to be given birth — that is the question! At the heart of this week’s Levitical regulations concerning the new mother is a highly legal section of Torah that seems less concerned with the new mother’s experience of birth than with how to conceptualize, order, and contain it through law. Such a predilection for ordering the chaotic and the dangerous, like God who orders the primordial chaos in Genesis, remains a hallmark of the Priestly authorship. Recall that Leviticus comprises two priestly sources, according to Jacob Milgrom, P (or Priestly source, Leviticus 1–16) and H (or Holiness source, Leviticus 17–27). Different spiritual currents influence different literary works within ancient Israel, each source with its own voice, which according to Israel Knohl, comes to compose the divine symphony of the Hebrew Bible’s multiple voices. There is the impersonal, indirect address of God in P contrasted with the first–person address in H.
How strange that in the midst of the most direct experience of the divine in human life — during childbirth — that the impersonal prevails this week in Leviticus chapter 12. If Leviticus is all about theology, as Milgrom claims, and that theology comes “to sever impurity from the demonic and to reinterpret it as a symbolic system reminding Israel of the divine imperative to reject death and choose life,” then how might expecting parents today reconcile the shift towards the indirect at a time when they feel God so present in their lives? Moreover, why is the birthing mother rendered tameh (ritually out of order) for double the time when birthing a female child (sixty–six days) than is the case with a male child (thirty–three days)? The silence of Torah over this disparity between the sexes cannot remain unknown to the midrashic imagination. What if the birthing mother’s experience is not seen as life–threatening but as life–giving and not as dangerous but as a direct connection to the divine? While there is the priestly theology of danger upon encroaching the divine (as Nadav and Avihu learned last week in Leviticus 10:1–4), the psalmist’s theology of the divine as beloved is often forgotten. Another way of reading and hearing the voices of H in Leviticus chapter 12 is that the birthing mother is beloved, encouraging us to embrace her and her procreative powers. Then birthing is no longer relegated to concerns of hierarchical breeding, whereby one gender is preferred over another, but it becomes a process of divine embodiment, whereby the child being born, whatever the gender, is celebrated.
Midrash comes to disrupt any myopic way of seeing the world and opens up another way of thinking, as Ayelet Solomon’s aphorism notes. The midrash of Leviticus Rabbah suggests, in Rabbi Simlai’s words, that as the human was created after animals (Genesis 1:24–27), so one learns about the taxonomy of holiness relating to human embodiment in this week’s parashah (Leviticus 12–15) from that of animal embodiment in last week’s Parashah of Sh’mini (Leviticus 11, Leviticus Rabbah 14:1). Ensuing midrashim offer another way of approaching the holy — through an embrace of the beloved, symbolized by the gazelle. I will argue through the reading of two remarkable midrashim alongside a contemporary aphorism by Israeli poet, Ayelet Solomon, that the birthing mother’s experience, when imagined otherwise, may open anew our embrace and theology of the holy that is life–giving rather than life–threatening. This embrace in the experience of the birthing mother through the gazelle is a move away from the pagan’s view of animals as merely exemplars of power, ambition, sexuality, or endurance. Rather the gazelle is what neo–Jungian analyst, James Hillman, calls a “carrier of soul …of our own free soul or death soul, there to help us see in the dark.”
The laws of human “impurity” (tameh/tahor) could be derived from those of animals, as posited in Leviticus Rabbah; but what happens when we turn to animals as more than indices of impurity? The gazelle archetype is read strongest within Psalm 42, and its influence echoes throughout much of the exegetical and mystical literature of Judaism. What does this other way of seeing the birthing process teach us about the journey of our souls in prayer, in dialogue, and in life? My wife, Elyssa Wortzman and I have become especially concerned about this question as we are expecting our first child. How else can we respond, from labor to birth, aside from the tradition of reciting Psalm 100, to ease the birth pangs?
Our questioning led us on a journey full of names. There is already an awareness that the birthing mother bears three different names through procreation in Leviticus Rabbah 27:7, where she is at once the: recovering one (hayata); pledging one (mehablatah), and breaching one (mitbarah). Each name bares a trace of her soul’s journey. Most intriguing is the correlation of hayata to mitbarah. Earlier in the midrash, Rabbi Levi explains that “of the one hundred cries a woman lets loose in the hour she sits in travail on the birth stool— ninety–nine lead to death, while one leads to life.” The journey of the soul, for both the birthing mother and the newborn, crosses a threshold that anthropologist, Victor Turner, calls a “liminal moment.” For the word hayata in Aramaic means both one recovering and living her life. As well, it could be translated as animal. The mother emerges not only alive (hayata), but also imbued with the power of an animal (hayata), as her soul carrier. The sages imagined a certain freedom in animals, not always realized in humans. Like the gazelle skipping over mountains in search of her beloved throughout the Psalms and Song of Songs, so the soul makes its journey through the mother’s direct connection to the divine.
This return to the symbol of the gazelle is explored further in another exegesis in the midrash on Psalm 42, depicting the journey of the soul as a birthing moment:
Like a hind panting for water, [my soul thirsts for You, O Elohim] (Psalm 42: 2). What is meant by this phrase, Like a hind panting? It does not say Like a gazelle after water brooks rather it saysLike a hind after water brooks, thus it combines a masculine [noun] with a feminine [verb]. What is this gazelle likened to when she is sitting in travail? Just as she is suffering and crying out to the Holy Blessed One, and He answers her, …So scripture reads Like a hind panting [after water brooks, my soul thirsts for You, O Elohim] (Psalm 42: 2). What is meant by this phrase: Like a hind panting after water brooks? The gazelle is the most righteous of animals, for when the animals are thirsty they gather themselves near to this gazelle, etc.
While what spawns this midrash is a discrepancy between subject and verb in Psalm 42, the result is a fascinating reflection on how birthing is engendered vis–à–vis the divine. By beginning the reading with the way it should be read, Like a gazelle (‘ayelet) crying for water and then admitting how it is actually being read, Like a hind (‘ayal) crying for water, this midrash exposes a remarkable transvaluation of gender. By combining a masculine subject, i.e. hind, with a feminine verb of yearning, the sanctified borders of gender expectation dissolve. What distinguishes masculine from feminine, especially regarding the newborn, is no longer based on gender disparity — rather the psalmist delights in the poetics of gender in motion. The midrash invites the reader to confront the misreading already existent within the Psalm. Only by entering into this engendered liminality is the hind’s crying heard and answered by the Holy Blessed One.
Juxtaposing the hind’s panting with the gazelle’s birth cries, Psalm 42 makes an important connection between birthing and water, which underscores the redemptive nature of the birthing process. Not only are her cries for water on the outside answered, but so too are her cries heard from the inner waters. In the human birthing process, when the fetal head descends towards the cervix, it separates the small bag of amniotic fluid in front. This divides the fore waters from the remainder, known as the hind waters. These fore waters aid in the effacement of the cervix and early dilatation of os uteri. The hind waters equalize pressure in the uterus during uterine contractions, thereby protecting the fetus and placenta. The midrash sees this in the “walls of water” to the right and left, to the splitting of the waters at the Red Sea (Exodus 14:22), narrating a parable for the rebirthing of nature and nationhood that always returns to the womb. Passage through a narrow womb is an experience that is at once somatic, national, and cosmic. Just as redemption could not have come a moment too soon for the Israelites from Egypt (mitz’rayim), so too for the gazelle whose narrow womb is her own constricted place (mai’tza’rim). For the midrash, it is the gazelle’s direct connection to the divine (through her prayerful cries) that regulates the waters, whether for nourishment or birthing.
When the anxiety of the midrash’s influence is truly experienced, then there is no time that separates the contemporary poet from the exegetes centuries ago. So Ayelet Solomon’s Aphorisms on the Persistence of the Gazelle continue to misread later mystical misreadings (i.e. Zohar II: 52b, Vital’s Sha’ar haKavvanot: Derushai Pesah 12) of the Red Sea’s splitting, even if it really begins with the Talmud (B. Tal. Baba Batra 16b). Solomon writes: “The gazelle places her head between her thighs, conjoining upper and lower constellations while screaming into her sealed self — she knows there is a hollowing there.” This technology of prayer (shared by Jewish and Muslim mystics) known as “incubation” is traced by Paul Fenton back to Elijah on Mount Carmel (I Kings 19) and then through much of Jewish mystical literature. Just as the aspirant’s deepest and most animal desire is to return to the sustaining source of all existence, so too is a desire aroused to return to the source that births all that is fluid in the spirit of language for the prayerful poet. Our ability to be inter–subjective — whether in prayer, in dialogue or in life — depends on the degree to which we can return to this birthing moment.
As much as we know of the gazelle, the (re)birthing process is one of continuous discovery of what is beyond knowing, what the mystics continually yearn for. As Solomon writes in another aphorism: ”No one knows the gazelle. Not even the gazelle.” Why? Despite her mystery, the poet reveals the concealment of this gazelle as a key to returning to the birthing mother’s direct experience of discourse with the divine. Whether the gazelle symbolizes the nation of Israel or the individual Israelite, through her birthing story a new thinking is being born. The gazelle is the carrier of soul, helping us to see through moments where even gender is ambiguous, and for those few expecting parents today who prefer it that way — even unknown. Aside from the tradition of reciting Psalm 100 to ease the birth pangs, my wife and I will return to this poetic image of the gazelle skipping through Psalm 42 as our “soul carrier”, and to the cries of the gazelle in Solomon’s aphorism as our “womb opener.”
Every reader of the parashah is charged with the perennial task of encountering weekly this grand poem of Torah with an eye to revealing the poetic “carriers of our soul” concealed within it. Seen through the lens of midrash, that continues to this day in contemporary Hebrew poetry, this week’s parashah opens our eyes, our hearts, and only then our minds to embracing a neglected symbolic trope of the birthing mother and her offspring as beloved. Just as the animals gathering round the visionary gazelle directly addressing the divine hope that they might also quench their thirst, so too we as a community may quench our soul’s thirst by gathering round the birthing mother in celebration of her procreative powers. For expecting parents, it is through their experience of birthing that any embodiment of the divine imperative to reject death and choose life is possible. For the mother herself, rereading Leviticus chapter 12 through Psalm 42 births a new model of motherhood, not as dangerous but as nearly divine.
The publication and distribution of the JTS commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.