Sunday, February 10, 2013

But Is it Really Jewish Magic?--Reading Rav Hisda's Daughter

I read the second book in the Rashi's Daughters trilogy by Maggie Anton and liked it very much. Her latest book, Rav Hisda's Daughter, sounded like it would interest me even more. It's the first in a series taking place in a period of Jewish history that I've never seen before in historical fiction.

This novel deals with the daughter of a Talmudic figure who lived in Persia. The main character, Hisdadukh, is mentioned in the Talmud.  It actually means Hisda's daughter in Persian. Since relatively few names of women have come down to us from ancient Jewish sources, I would have assumed that the redactors of the Talmud  had left her name out.  Maggie Anton decided that Hisdadukh actually was her given name.  I had a problem with this idea.  She portrays Rav Hisda as a man who taught his daughter to read, consulted her about who she wished to marry, and had no problem with her sitting in on his Talmud classes.  He must have had a great deal of respect for his daughter and her autonomy.  So why would he have given her a generic name?  That didn't make sense to me, but I got over it.

I got over it because I found this book brilliant and original.  I am probably one of its ideal readers.  An ideal reader of this book is someone who is educated in Judaism, interested in its history, and in women's historical practices.  This ideal reader should also have an interest in Talmud.

 I admit that when I was first exposed to Talmud as a child, I wasn't impressed.  I studied an incident in which a camel knocked over a candelabra in the market place causing a fire.  The Talmudic era rabbis argued about who should be considered responsible for the damage.  Was it the owner of the camel, the owner of the candelabra or the camel itself?  I and my fellow students wondered how this could possibly be relevant to our lives.  After all, there were no camels wandering through the shopping malls of American suburbia, and in our age of electricity a candelabra causing a fire wasn't too likely in a shopping mall either.  It's only while reading Rav Hisda's Daughter that I realized that the value of the Talmud is in the legal principles established and the form of legal argument.  Since I am currently taking a legal reference course in library school, I  am conscious of legal issues.  I understand now why Jews have considered Talmud to be such good preparation for a legal career. So I found the Talmudic arguments in this novel almost as fascinating as Hisdadukh's more esoteric studies.

Hisdadukh's studies in amulet making, and other Jewish magical practices set this book apart. They reveal a Judaism that is fundamentally different from the Jewish religion as it is currently practiced.  I was taught that amulets were always regarded as superstitious among Jews, and that only the ignorant really believed in their power.  Am Ha'aretz means someone who is ignorant in a contemporary Jewish context.  In the context of this novel, it means someone who doesn't accept the authority of rabbis.  Anton portrays these refuseniks as the majority of the Jewish community in Persia.  In the time when Hisdadukh lived, the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem had been relatively recent.  Rabbinic Judaism was an innovation that allowed Judaism to survive without a temple.  I knew that, but I hadn't imagined that there could have been such tremendous resistance to this re-conceptualization of the religion. I should have. Historically, changes in religious outlook involve a slow process of evolution. They don't happen overnight.  Occult folk traditions were also never completely eliminated from Judaism. My great grandfather considered astrology when he decided the date of my father's wedding. My grandmother did divination by reading the patterns of spilled chickpeas.  When I was a child, I remembered my mother's concern about the possible effect of the Evil Eye on her family.  The Evil Eye was a major preoccupation for Jews of Hisdadukh's era.

Anton shows that the Evil Eye came from Persian Zoroastrianism.  I knew that Lilith also wasn't originally native to Judaism.  She wasn't mentioned in the Five Books of Moses.  There was nothing about Adam having had a rebellious first wife.  According to Lilith on Wikipedia  there was a category of demons called "lilitu" in ancient Mesopotamian lore.  In Rav Hisda's Daughter, what was originally a Pagan belief in demons is very much alive among Jews and Zoroastrians in Persia.

Another example of Pagan influence is Jewish women mourning for the Babylonian divine figure, Tammuz.  The prophet Ezekiel denounced Jews who participated in this practice.  In this novel, Jewish women are portrayed as mourning for Tammuz in Jewish cemeteries. They even did so near the grave of the prophet Ezekiel.  It's depicted as not really being about Tammuz. The women were mourning all their real losses.  Tammuz represented the deaths of parents, husbands and children for these women.  I wondered if they were looking beyond their religion for a way to express grief because the custom of Yahrzeit didn't exist yet. Yahrzeit involves lighting a 24 hour candle on the anniversary of a death.  An article in The Encyclopedia Britannica on Yahrzeit states that this custom began in the 14th century which is many centuries after the events of  Rav Hisda's Daughter.

 I have studied syncretism, the combining of spiritual traditions, in other religions. Yet I hadn't explored it very much in the religion of my own ancestors. I had grown up thinking that the people whose Jewish practice included Pagan customs  weren't really Jews, and that Jews had always been monotheists. I am now aware that  Israeli archaeology has shown that Jews weren't always monotheists, but I definitely still thought that the Talmudic period was when Judaism as I know it today was formed.  I hadn't expected to see all this Zoroastrian influence from the Persians surrounding Hisdadukh.   As someone who has studied anthropology I know that this is what living cultures do.  They adapt and change. Jews living in Persia would incorporate Persian customs.   It's really quite similar to contemporary American Jewish families who have a Christmas tree in their living rooms along with the menorah displayed in their windows.

I think that readers who know little or nothing about Judaism may not understand or appreciate this book as much as I did.  It seems to me that Maggie Anton assumes a certain amount of knowledge in her readers.  For example, we are told that the Jews in Palestine during this period celebrated Tu B'Av as a holiday in which unmarried Jews can find mates.  I ran a search on Tu B'Av  and learned from Tu B'Av on Wikipedia  that in modern Israel it's the equivalent of Valentine's Day. Hisdadukh considered it an antidote to Tisha B'Av, the anniversary of the destruction of the Jewish Temple, which is still commemorated in modern times with a fast.  Someone who is unfamiliar with the Jewish calendar would see the similarity between Tu B'Av and Tisha B'Av without realizing why they are similar.  These names are actually dates.  Tisha B'Av occurs on the 9th of the month of Av. Tu B'Av occurs less than a week later on the 15th of Av.   There are numerous similar details of Jewish life that aren't fully explicated for the general reader. That is the only weakness in Rav Hisda's Daughter that I can identify.

I consider this novel the best book that I've read so far in 2013. I will definitely want to obtain the sequels. In the mean time, I  have a subject that I want to pursue in further research.  I have just located The Women of the Talmud by Judith Z. Abrams and intend to read it by the end of March.


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