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Kabbalistic feminism in Agnon's 'Betrothed.' (S.Y. Agnon)


THE STRUGGLE TO PROVIDE AND MAINTAIN a Jewish identifty as the core of Israeli culture, in the face of the chasm in Jewish life opened up by modernity between the self and reason at war with community and faith, is an underlying theme in much of Agnon's work. He simultaneously developed this theme and reflected it in his writing technique, by using modern literary approaches to character analysis and plot development, together with traditional Jewish symbols, allusions and subtexts. Nowhere is his concern about the importance of maintaining the Jewish core in Israeli life -- indeed, in the lives of Jews everywhere, but even, perhaps, especially, in Israel -- than in his two novellas, Edo and Enam (1950), and Betrothed (1943).(1)

Betrothed, written in the midst of the Holocaust, sought to provide some reassurance that, somehow, the bones of Jewish tradition would yet live -- or, more precisely, magically come alive again in the Yishuv, in the newborn Jewish homeland of Erez Yisrael. The reassurance is conveyed in Betrothed through the mystical doctrines of kabbalah, that portray history as the pre-destined process of the liberation of the sparks of Divine holiness temporarily captured in a world of evil, and their ultimate reunification with the Godhead through a spiritually redeemed Israel (Jacob in the story) united with the Shekhinah (Shoshanah in the story). But Agnon adds a strong dramatic touch to his novelistic treatment, pitting the spiritual, feminine Shekhinah of kabbalah against six secular, lovely, but lethal, spiritually debilitating young women of the Yishuv, in a cosmic battle for the soul of Jacob. The latter, in context, is made into an anti-hero; while ambitious and dedicated to his own professional advancement, he remains passive, uninterested and even oblivious of the spiritual battle around him.

Summary of the Story

As children, living in the European Galut, Jacob and Shoshanah (before Betrothed starts) had sworn eternal faithfulness to each other while playing together at the home of her parents, who had reached out to Jacob when his mother died in his youth. Their betrothal is consummated in a ceremony in which she cuts off a lock of her hair and his, and burns the hair, and they both consume the ashes.(2) As the novella opens, Jacob is a young man living in the Land of Israel. His aliyah was funded by Shoshanah's wealthy father, Ehrlich, but started as an educational and career opportunity rather than as an expression of any Zionist idealism by either of them. Jacob has remained in the Yishuv as a teacher at a university, where he does research in the dead plant life of the Mediterranean, an activity "remote from the interests of the Jewish settlements;" not surprisingly, his cultural interests run to Hellenism rather than Hebraism.(3)

He lives in a secular city, Jaffa, where each person is busy "pursuing his own ends."(4) and associates with a circle of six similar secular young women; together, they become known as the "Seven Planets."(5) Oddly, there is not even the hint of any sex or romance between Jacob and any of them, despite their variety of origins, physique and personality. They spend time together in the homes, streets, and beaches of Jaffa, on the Mediterranean, under what seems like a remote, unseeing, starfilled sky -- bonded to nature, happy together in an innocent, almost childlike way, in a cyclical, unchanging existence, with no evident goals, cares or concerns. Jacob is passive to them, and to the land and its culture.

Suddenly, Jacob learns that Shoshanah and her father are coming to Palestine for a brief visit, at the end of a long, worldwide trip that has taken them to many countries, before returning home to Vienna. Meeting Shoshanah for the first time as an adult, after many years, he immediately senses a permanent attachment to her -- based more on their mutual childhood covenant than on any special feelings that she now engenders. But he feels undeserving of her, and unhappy, without knowing why.(6) Shoshanah seems jealous of his six girl friends(7) -- particularly of Tamar, to whom Jacob has been most physically attracted (although Shoshanah had no evident way of knowing this) -- and insists that Jacob repeat his childhood vow of faithfulness and marriage. But their future as a couple is clouded. First, there are her continued bouts of somnolence, interrupted only by a rewarding tour of the Yishuv -- in which she is impressed by the rebuilding of the land and language of the Jewish people,(8) while her father continues to view it as a place for the old, for retirement and death.(9) Second, Shoshanah's and Jacob's outlooks are fundamentally different. He values his freedom and his career, and looks at the world optimistically, as a place of opportunity. She sees herself as separated from the world, a world which humans have nothing "to be proud about."(10) Third, Jacob is offered an attractive new position in America, and he quickly decides that it's time to move on, even if this means leaving Palestine and Shoshanah.

At this point, Shoshanah falls into a virtual coma; her doctor's scientifically based prognosis is that she will die unless she returns promptly to Vienna for some unspecified treatment.(11) Jacob finds out about her illness and, this one time revealing a religious sensibility, prays: "Oh God, me in Your great mercy"(12) (emphasis added). Yet, he is determined to go do America. To deter him, Tamar attempts to seduce Jacob, but they are interrupted by the rest of the women, who succeed in moving the action, one last time, to the seashore, under the stars. They determine that one of them shall marry Jacob and go to America with him -- the victor in a race that reverses the Greek practice: the girls will race for the man. The night and the rite capture the passive Jacob into seeming acquiescence at his coming captivity. Just when it appears that Tamar is about to win the race, Shoshanah appears and overtakes the pack, captures her human prize, and crowns herself with the garland of seaweed which the girls prepared for the victor.

Story Analysis

The battle of the contending forces of tradition and modernity in Jewish history is portrayed in Betrothed through the Jewish community in the Land of Israel, as it struggles to create a new homeland for the Jewish people. Agnon priases those who love the land and its people, who come to the land, work the land, and stay in the land -- for whatever reason or motive. The Yemenite Jews have difficulty in reconciling Biblical texts with the world of reality, but -- unlike Jacob -- they continue to live and work in Israel, and to study Torah and obey its commandments.(13) The Russian Jews are enthusiastic and passionate to the point of incivility, and the Sephardim are unsociable and superior -- but both are loyal to their People and their Land. Yet, while the return to the Promised Land has required the destruction of the passivity, the defeatism -- indeed, even the traditional faith -- of most of Diaspora Jewry, Agnon recongnizes that there can be no justification for the return unless the new Israel, represented by Jacob, inherits the tradition of Jacob's ancestors -- represented, as we shall see, by Shoshanah. Even her secular father, Ehrlich, is able to discern that she and Jacob are eternally tied together, as he says to Jacob after the latter has decided to leave Shoshanah and the Land of Israel:

"Let me put it to you this way. Suppose I am holding on to some

valuable object, which I am about to return to its rightful owner. Suddenly,

the object slips from my hands before it has reached the owner and there

we are, both left empty-handed; I who had it in my grasp and he who

reached out to take it" (emphasis added).(14)

But that eternal bond, that alone can give a reborn Jewish people an identity, is threatened by secularism, on two fronts. First, is the battle for Jacob's loyalty to the Land, represented by the invitation from New York that he go there to become a full professor and occupy an academic chair that has been established in his honor. Second, is the looming battle for Jacob's spiritual and cultural loyalty between Shoshanah and the six maidens -- indeed between Shoshanah and the entire secular ambiance of the story, from Vienna to Jaffa, from her father to the "Seven Planets," from ancient sea to modern university. Both battles are ultimately a battle between Judaism and Hellenism, for Jacob's soul. Given his secular training and career, and a life that is not rooted in Jewish tradition, it seems inevitable to Agnon that secular Judaism means the death of Judaism and ultimately of the Jewish people.

Thus, Jacob's response to the call of New York to his career is single-minded and unreserved acceptance. His decision to leave, and Shoshanah's resultant sickness, produce another challenge, one last attempt by the six maidens to capture Jacob as a husband for one of them, if not for the land and its people. For them, the issue is who will go with Jacob to America. Looking out from the shore to a passing ship, too far to permit a perception of its direction, "to Jacob and his companions it made no difference where the ship was headed."(15) For them, as for Ehrlich, travel is the goal, to see the world; all places and cultures are equal. Leaving the Land of Israel is no different than coming to it, if there is no special meaning to Erez Yisrael.

We are now ready to understand Shoshanah, and her role in the battle for Jacob's soul -- a battle between Past and Future, Religion and Nature, Spirituality and Science, Hebraism and Paganism, Jewish tradition and Greek and Roman culture, God and Nature, the three-century old Death of Religion and its rebirth. For Agnon, however, there is more to the tale than just that clash; at stake is the inevitability of its resolution -- an inevitability that Agnon represents for us in the symbols that permeate Betrothed.

Jacob is seemingly a permanent part of a secular circle which Agnon describes, in the words of the Jaffa community, as the "Seven Planets."(16) These, in turn, represent the kabbalistic concept of the seven lower sefirot, or emanations of God, which represent the Divine in the material, observable universe, and guide its destiny. The three uppermost sefirot are Keter (the "ein sof" or eternal Godhead), and Hakhma and Binah (wisdom and intelligence), the two forms of knowledge in their male and female aspects. Together they make up the three upper sefirot that man cannot even approach. But through Torah, and the kabbalistic understanding of its symbols and commandments, man may comprehend and achieve the essence of the seven lower sefirot: Tiferet (beauty or compassion) (Jacob and the People of Israel); Hesed (love) (Abraham); Gevurah (power) (Isaac); Nezah (endurance) (Moses); Hod (majesty) (Aaron); Yesod (foundation) (Joseph); and -- the tenth and most mystical of the sefirot -- Malkhut (kingdom) (David). The last sefirah is not limited, however, to David. Indeed, in Lurianic kabbalah it stands for the Shekhinah, the feminine, merciful aspect of God that must combine with Tiferet (Jacob) and ultimately with the Godhead itself, with Keter, in order for the world to operate in harmony and thereby be redeemed and returned to its original perfection, the perfect unity of God. Shoshanah, in Jewish tradition, is the Shekhinah. Thus, the history of the universe becomes, in kabbalah, a spiritual process of world redemption, in which the Shekhinah is the catalyst. Somehow, Shoshanah must become part of Jacob's circle of seven -- and transform it by her presence and union with Jacob from seven secular "planets" to seven holy sefirot. Because of this Divine Plan, comprising the subtex of Betrothed, harmony will come, and redemption is inevitable.(17)

The Israeli critic, and my revered teacher, Gershon Shaked, has recognized the importance, for Agnon, of the miraculous in explainnig Jewish history and its eternality. He argues that Agnon usually provides non-realistic, even miraculous escapes from the historical abysses and dead-ends faced by Jewish ideals and traditions, when his characters are confronted or mocked by the stubborn realities of modernity. Agnon generally provides

...a miraculous and non-rational counter-plot, deriving from irra-

tional realms.... These works do not end happily, with reconciliation,

but rather with acknowledgement of the dead-end, the gap between the

powers at odds with each other....

What emerges from a general examination of the plots of these novels

is that Agnon argued that only by means of irrational counter-plots (or

a rational one contrasting with an irrational act based on nostalgia, the

return to the doomed shtetl) can this generation grapple with the conflicts

it confronts. According to the nature of things and logic, recent gener-

ations of Jewish society have reached a cul-de-sac, and each generation,

everywhere, is threatened with devastation. One might possibly say that

the final lesson of Agnon's view of history and society is that the society

exists by virtue of miracles, and if we do not depend on miracles, we

have nothing to depend on.(18)

Jewish tradition is rich in the symbolic importance of the Shekhinah and its metaphor, Shoshanah (or rose). The Midrash speaks of the Shekhinah as the Divine Presence, an aspect -- and more particularly the feminine, daughter, sister and bride, aspect -- of the Godhead, to which (a male) Israel seeks to cleave. It also equates that term with Knesset Yisrael -- the Jewish people in its ideal (feminine) form, which claims (a male) God as hers alone, as Shoshanah claimed Jacob when they were children. Their mutual oath in Betrothed is like a modern double ring ceremony; each is dedicated to the other -- "Dodi li, v'ani lo," as we read in Song of Songs, the canonical love duet and love longings between God and Israel as they eternally search for each other in the streets of Jerusalem. The Midrash speaks of Israel, the shoshanah of God, as a "rose among the thorns," in that, like Agnon's Shoshanah, it withstood foreign cultures while in Galut, preserving the purity of Jewish belief, of Jewish monotheism and spirituality.(19)

Agnon does not leave Shoshanah's status, as a player in a cosmic process, to our imagination or speculation. He does more than simply provide her with a name with traditional connotations. He endows her dramatically with redemptive qualities. She is a Galut girl who -- unlike Jacob -- has not lost her Jewish pride and identity despite the past secular ambience of her family and country. Though a latecomer to the Holy Land, she knows where she belongs when she gets there.

The Shekhinah (Shoshanah) has been in Galut, where our tradition tells us it went to accompany and preserve Israel in its wanderings among the nations (B. Meg. 29 a).(20) It has always sought to remain close to Israel, just as Shoshanah and Jacob, although having different parents, lived together in Vienna as part of one family. Shoshanah and the People of Israel were, from the beginning of exile, betrothed, as God took Israel for His bride on Mount Sinai. It was an oath taken to last until redemption, and the final unity of the People of Israel with the Shekhinah, in the Land of Israel.

But, as the Zohar represents, they have become separated, and, wandering from land to land, she is now tired, sleepy, although still able to withstand long voyages. Agnon's imagery reminds us of Song of Songs, where Shoshanah (there representing the Jewish People [2:1]), describes herself as "asleep, but my heart is awake" (5:2). She can endure separation and endless travel among the nations away from Jacob as long as she is not permanently rejected by him. She is prescient (recall her meeting with Tamar), suggesting powers that are more than mortal, the powers of spiritual insight. Indeed, when Jacob and Shoshanah first meet, as adults, in Erez Yisrael, Shoshanah speaks optimistically of "the resurrection of the dead," a concept which the secular Jacob emphatically rejects.(21) For Shoshanah, there is more to history than man's perception of reality; for Jacob, there is only reality, the lessons of science. Her response, as if sensing that there will soon come a time when resurrection of the dead will have to be a reality for both of them, is described in the following way by Agnon:(22)

At that moment Shoshanah seemed to hover (merahefet) over those blue distances she had spoken of. Then, suddenly, she answered Jacob's gaze. She took out her handkerchief, wiped her eyes, opened them and looked at him with absolute love. After a while she said, "I am going to close my eyes and you, Jacob, are to kiss me on the eyelids."

Jacob's own eyes filled with tears. With the tears still there, he placed his lips on her wet lashes.

Later, when Jacob is about to be enveloped in a pagan marriage rite orchestrated by the six maidens, this kiss and its remembrance will save him,(23) protecting him from an enveloping, consuming alien embrace. We should note Agnon's use of the word "merahefet," hovering, to describe Shoshanah's spirit, with its connotation of the Divine Spirit, from the opening lines of Genesis.

Shoshanah is not close to her father,(24) who is secular; and Agnon suggests that his love for her is less as a daughter than as an heirloom, a treasured object of which one is proud, behind glass or in a portrait, but which is not a part of one's active life. She remains aloof from foreign cultures and uncontaminated by them. For Shoshanah, her childhood oath with Jacob is a lasting one. She loves the Land of Israel, as we see in her joy at her father's decision to settle in Erez Yisrael, and at the use of the Hebrew language as the language of prayer and daily life by her reborn People in a reborn Land. Shoshanah identifies Hebrew with the sidur, the language of prayer, that brings man in direct contact with God. Unlike Jacob, she believes in personal rebirth -- personal resurrection -- one of Maimonides' thirteen fundamental creeds of Judaism.

Jacob, like her father, shares neither her spirituality nor her faith. Indeed, she is the only protagonist in the story with a belief in, and an attachment to, Jewish land, liturgy, ritual, history and theology. Neither her father, nor Jacob, nor the "six maidens," show a loyalty to these values. It is her full acceptance of Jewish tradition that differentiates her from the others, that separates the Shekhinah from the other, opposite, forces contending for Jacob's soul. These forces include the locus of the story -- multi-national, secular Jaffa, which Agnon points out was established by Japheth, father of Indo-European nations and cultures, and the Greek and Roman traditions and values of Western civilization. Jacob still clnigs to them; Shoshanah easily sheds them.(25)

To realistically portray Jacob as both Shoshanah's beloved and the object of her spiritual battle for him, Agnon insightfully makes Jacob merely a passive, easily diverted, symbol of Hellenism. His life represents not Eros and instinct, as in the case of the six maidens who surround him, but knowledge and science -- not Dionysus but Apollo.(26) As we have seen, the key to the meaning of Shoshanah's relationship with Jacob is provided by the kabbalah and its imaging of the cosmic process of redemption. Significantly, for Agnon, it is Shoshanah who must pursue and capture the passive Jacob, who is incapable of overcoming his desire to pursue, alone, a secular scientific life -- despite his instinctive understanding that without Shoshanah he is nothing.

At the beginning of the story, the Shekhinah and Israel have become separated; we recall her words in Song of Songs, "ani yeshena, v'libi er," "I am asleep but my heart is awake," and we read about Shoshanah's initial intermittent dazedness, sleepiness, and her glazed, uninterested look as she waits unsuccessfully for Jacob to choose her over her spiritual adversaries, and bring redemption to the world.(27) She has been this way since he left her years ago to find his individual fulfillment.(28) Meanwhile, Jacob has been bound up in a life from which every element of Jewish tradition has been lost. But, soon after Shoshanah's arrival in Palestine, she has Jacob reaffirm his oath of loyalty to her, to the Shekhinah, which he does without hesitation or reservation, although -- as his actions show -- still without real love and total commitment.(29)

From that moment on, Shoshanah is alert, active -- even enjoying material pleasures.(30) Yet, Shoshanah is still unhappy as she contemplates the future, knowing from her past European, Viennese experience that life even together with Jacob will be difficult in a hostile, warring world, in which evil is so powerful. Shoshanah's sadness is not a private death wish, but the real concern of someone who is aware of Jewish suffering,(31) foreseeing that so much hardship is in store for them in the real world.

In contrast, Jacob is optimistic about the future, which he can see only as a vibrant young man, and not as a Jew threatened by the cultures that surround him. "Both of us are young enough, with all of our life before us." It is Jacob, the modern man of science and reason, who is unrealistically optimistic, who -- caring only about himself -- cannot accurately see where a world without spirituality is heading.(32) But Shoshanah, sensitive to Israel's tradition and history, despairs, because she is concerned that the future may not be "any better than the life that lies behind."(33) The depth of Agnon's own despair in the middle of the Holocaust is represented by the despair of the Shekhinah itself, even as it contemplates renewed spiritual union with Israel, in the Land of Israel.

Jacob, because of his estrangement from Judaism, now is twice tempted to betray Shoshanah. First, he accepts the offer to become a professor in a New York university, without thought or regret. Shoshanah presumably learns about Jacob's decision when the rest of Jaffa learns about it, as they do very quickly.(34) Only then does she succumb to a new kind of sleep, seemingly permanent and just short of death, an illness both real and metaphysical, as she is about to be abandoned again by Jacob.

But the lure of a new, voluntary Galut in New York is not the only temptation facing Jacob. A far more serious test immediately awaits him, a test to which Shoshanah herself must respond, lest the Divine Plan for redemption go awry. For the six maidens now make one last effort to capture Jacob permanently, which is to say, to exclude the Shekhinah permanently from their community, and from ever marrying Jacob. It begins as Tamar comes to see him in his room for the first time(35) -- Tamar, whom Shoshanah perceived as the true obstacle to her spiritually and physically uniting with Jacob and entering the "circle of seven," as Jewish tradition envisions, and thereby changing its essence from natural "planets" to spiritual sefirot. It is Tamar to whom Jacob has been most attracted physically and with whom he has most nearly formed a physical attachment. It is this Tamar -- whose name connotes a dark moral aspect in Jewish tradition(36) -- who now appears, asking Jacob for advice on two strangely contrasting career paths, which now become understandable in their symbolism. The first alternative is for Tamar to go to Europe and become a doctor (a traditional and honorable career for a Jew) and thereby leave room for Shoshanah to join the circle of seven. The second, is for Tamar to remain in Israel and take up sculpturing (symbolic of graven images) and the beauty of form, a cultural symbol of Paganism and Hellenism, with their emphasis on strength and beauty. As we shall see, Tamar's appearance in Jacob's room, ostensibly for career advice, is a ruse for arousal. Tamar is out to become, and is about to become, the wife of Jacob -- which will permanently exclude Shoshanah from the "planets," destroy the reunification of the Divine sefirot, and bind Jacob forever to all that Tamar represents.

In short order, Tamar is joined by the other five girls, and there soon commences an unmistakably pagan, Greek rite under the stars, at the water's edge of Jaffa. They encircle and dance around Jacob, reminiscent of the psalmist's remark, "sabuni gam sevavuni" ("they compassed me about"), in describing the encirclement of Israel by its enemies. Soon, the girls decide to emulate the Greeks and have a race, with the winner -- the "mighty runner" -- to be crowned by Jacob and given to him in marriage.(37) Jacob is described as in a state of being "carried beyond himself," as he had been all those other nights that he and the six maidens had walked by the sea under the stars feeling at one with the mighty beauty of nature around them -- heaven and earth, land and sea -- "which had become a single whole."(38)

But, adds Agnon, so that the reader keeps the invisible Divine role in mind, "this [unity of nature] was contained in yet another greater whole that no eye could see."(39) Indeed, while Jacob now "put[s] Shoshanah entirely out of his mind" and is completely in the power of the maidens and the outcome of their rites, Agnon has not forgotten her: "Her memory formed a circle around his heart, like the golden lashes around her eyes as she slept,"(40) the lashes that she had earlier insisted that Jacob kiss, with evident prescience.(41)

The race commences, with the one who proves to be the most "mighty," not the one whom Jacob truly loves, to be his bride.(42) Here, Agnon presents a powerful irony. Jacob, who prides himself on his independence and freedom, has now become the object of capture and enslavement by those who symbolically represent precisely those values and virtues he has most sought in life. His enslavement will be symbolized by his being crowned by the victor with the very seaweed, the subject of his professional excellence, that symbolized that freedom and independence.(43) To compound the irony, his enslavement is about to be achieved by Tamar, who is about to win the race, and with it Jacob, and thereby change a destiny that, of course, cannot be changed, because for Agnon there is a "greater whole that no eye could see."(44) We know that Tamar wants to win the race and Jacob, because Agnon is careful to point out that she overtakes first Rachel and Leah, then Mira, Asnat and Raya, who had alternately taken the lead.(45) Indeed, it is now evident from this effort that winning Jacob was her objective when she came to his room, ostensibly to discuss career choices.

Shoshanah suddenly appears, in her white nightgown, "like a maiden suddenly alarmed in her sleep,"(46) alarmed because history is about to be irrevocably changed, because a destiny foretold in Jewish tradition is about to be permanently altered, nullified. She almost literally rises from the dead and wins Jacob's hand, crowned by the garland of seaweed prepared by her adversaries,(47) which recalls her garland when, as children, she and Jacob first vowed their eternal union. She triumphs not because such an outcome is rational, but because for Agnon she is an instrument -- the crucial instrument -- of God's Divine plan for Israel. Harmony has been restored to history through the Divine Plan as understood by kabbalah.

Agnon's imagery of a near-death Shoshanah saving Jacob, the assimilated Jew, from extinction, re-enacting a pre-ordained cosmic process, points to an important message. Shoshanah can never be re-united with Jacob unless she pursues him, because the modern pull of acculturation makes him incapable of permanently identifying with and choosing either Shoshanah or her opposites. For him, as Gershon Shaked suggests,(48) they are all sisters, each other's and his, and so he cannot independently unite with any of them without help. But, Agnon inverts the kabbalistic tradition of the Shekhinah waiting for an impatient lover, the ze'ir anpin, to symbolize how difficult the process of redemption will be. In the modern world, man cannot rely on a kabbalistically foretold destiny; only a miracle, wrought by those who believe in miracles and embrace those who do not, will suffice.(49)

How Does It End?

Agnon never lets us be certain of what the verdict of history will be, which is to say, whether history and not God will really write the final text of his story. For, at the end of Betrothed, we are told that this is the end of the story "for the time being." On what does the outcome depend? That we are not told. In the end, perhaps, it is for each of us to answer that question, by our faith, or our actions, perhaps both. Is Israel safe, even within the Land of Israel, if its culture, indigenous or imported, is a secular culture without religious content?(50) For the hideous possibility of Israel permanently exiled in its own land, Betrothed provides the healing balm of the possibility of a faith that such a permanent separation is impossible between Jacob and his eternal, historic, covenanted companion, Shoshanah. Such an exile, resulting from the permanent incompatability between the Shekhinah and Israel, would be contrary to God's plan in Jewish tradition, which provides the underlying text for this story.

There remains the question of whether there is a possibility, as some critics suggest, that the ending of Betrothed is a parody of Jewish tradition, a sick joke played at Jacob's expense. Is Betrothed a story of Thanatos,(51) symbolized by Shoshanah capturing Jacob in a final deathly embrace, or -- as I have suggested -- a symbolic tale of hope for a Judaism and a Jewish people saved at the last minute from the deathly embrace of Hellenism and assimilation?

There does seem to be a sharp contrast, as Shaked suggests, between the Shoshanat Ya'akov, the Shoshanah of Jacob in the Jewish tradition (in the Purim poem established by the Great Assembly in the 5th Century, B.C.E.) who is zahala ve'sameha, happy and joyous, and the almost always sad, sleepy, and death-obsessed Shoshanah of Agnon's novella. Yet, it is difficult to support the view that Agnon is parodying the tradition -- giving us a story ending in death and not life (or ignoring Jewish tradition altogether, as a minority suggest) -- rather than employing it, as I argue, as a serious subtext for Betrothed. To adopt the parody view, one would have to believe that Agnon adopted in Betrothed, while the Holocaust was raging, the critique of traditional Judaism by the anti-Semite Nietzsche as the life-denying way of life, par excellence. One would have to believe that Agnon embraced in Betrothed, while Jewry's religious sages were being murdered, the anti-religious, secularist-nationalist views of such as A.D. Gordon, M.J. Berdiczewski and Ahad Ha'am. This is too radical a view for Agnon; it is not his way.(52) I believe, therefore, that Shoshanah is seriously and not ironically symbolized, and her sadness and death obsession are not meant to ridicule the Shekhinah of Jewish tradition but to reflect on its historic crisis and describe its ultimate redemption. But there are additional historical and textual reasons that may be adduced.

Betrothed was written in 1942-43, when Hitler still occupied most of European Russia and most of North Africa, and was close to seizing Palestine and the rest of the Middle East, when the Holocaust had become known as an actuality if not in its full dimensions of 6 million Jewish dead. Shoshanah has a right, as it were -- without symbolizing Thanatos -- in a work written to be read by readers living in the awesome eye of Hitler's racial devastation, to envy the dead and to foresee tragedy lying ahead for her and for Jacob. Yet, she seeks and obtains Jacob's commitment to marriage and a future life together, and looks forward to it; she praises the rebirth of Hebrew and the Jewish people in the Yishuv; and she literally jumps for joy when learning that she and her father will live in Erez Yisrael. These are not the indications of a person that craves death, but of a sensitive, aware, realistic person who spiritually and ideologically wants to live and achieve her destiny, even while -- on a realistic and rational level -- she recognizes how difficult Jewish life can be.

And there is the concluding personal observation by Agnon at the end of Betrothed, where he tells us that, because Shoshanah and Jacob were betrothed to one another through a solemn vow, he has titled the work Sh'vuat Emunim, the vow of those who are faithful (to God? to each other? to both?) and not, as "at first we had thought to call it, 'The Seven Maidens'." The concept of covenant between Jacob and Shoshanah overcame the secular, ambivalent, ironic concept of seven maidens (i.e., the inappropriate combination of the Shekhinah with her spiritual antagonists). For, without Jacob, there is no special content to "seven maidens;" they would merely symbolize seven women fighting for the loyalty and love of a man. But, because of the childhood oath sworn by Jacob and Shoshanah, symbolizing the covenant at Sinai between Israel in its historic youth and God, the title -- and the story's significance -- had to be restated as the "Vow of the Faithful."

The tale will, indeed, continue, as Agnon has noted, but the chasm between Jewish dreams and Jewish realities -- and the modern chasm between what our minds believe and our souls perceive -- will ultimately be bridged, as Betrothed reassures those with faith in Jewish destiny and redemption.


(1.)As to Edo and Enam see Cynthia Ozick, "Agnon's Antagonisms," Commentary, Dec., 1988: 43-8. Recent treatments of Agnon as a modern traditionalist are Anne Golomb Hoffman, Between Exile and Return: S.Y. Agnon and the Drama of Writing (Albany: SUNY Press, 1991); Idem, "Agnon for All Seasons: Recent Trends in Criticism," Prooftexts 11 (January 1991): 80-95; Gershon Shaked, Jeffrey M. Green, tr,. Shmuel Yosef Agnon: A Revolutionary Traditionalist (N.Y.: New York University Press, 1989). As Robert Alter writes in Defenses of the Imagination (Phila.: Jewish Publication Society, 1977), p. 170:

"Yet Agnon could not, I think, have written at all without in some way using his work to sound the abysses of modern history, for modern history constituted a ruthlessly uncompromising challenge to the validity of the [Jewish] language, values and traditions from which he shaped his fiction."

(2.)Chapter 3, page 12 (format hereafter 3:12), and 24:104. References are to the chapter and page number of the English translation of Betrothed in Two Tales by Agnon: Betrothed and Edo and Enam (N.Y.: Schocken Books, 1966). This ceremony recalls many similar kabbalistic rituals to ward off future misfortune. See Stephen Sharot, Messianism, Mysticism, and Magic -- A Sociological Analysis of Jewish Religious Movements (University of North Carolina Press, 1982), pp. 42-43. After they meet again, Jacob remembers how, just before the vow, she had plunged into her father's pond and emerged, covered with seaweed, and he realizes how this event may have determined his choice of career -- and, Agnon intimates, the future events in his life. Interestingly, the garland of laurel wreath is both a Greek and Jewish tradition. In Judaism it represents not only victory and royalty but beauty, the bride, and the priesthood. See Eliezer ben Yehudah, A Complete Dictionary of Current and Modern Hebrew (N.Y.: Thomas Yoseloff, 1960), Vol. III, p. 2395; see also Kinot for Tishah B'Av (klilat yofi) and the hoshanot for Succot (even shtiyah).

(3.)1:9; 5:21. Jacob is wont to thank the "gods" when things are going well, but rarely God as One. Compare 22:89, 28:120, and 29:121 with 23:97.

(4.)1:3-3; 26:114


(6.)7:30; "Without her, the whole world would be lost to him" (22:93). At one point, imagining that Shoshanah's father disapproves of him as a future son-in-law, Jacob uncharacteristically resolves to marry her by force, if necessary, as a symbol of his freedom (20:80-81).

(7.)19:69-70, 76; 21:83-4; 22:90-1, 94; 29:123.

(8.)22:87-8; For Shoshanah, the rebirth of the Hebrew language, "the language of the prayer book," is "wonderful."

(9.)Chs. 12-14, 21. For her father, steeped in secular universalism and cynicism, all people, places and cultures are the same, and none are worthy of special commitment. The land of Israel is a place for death and the object of charity, not for life and financial commitment looking toward historical rebirth and rejuvenation.

(10.)22:88, 92.

(11.)25:105, 106, 109.





(16.)Agnon here alludes to a mixed symbol, connoting Hellenism and Jacob's potential liberation to Hebraism. In astronomy, the "Seven Sisters" is the term used to describe the Pleiades, a star field in the large constellation of Taurus; see Gilbert E. Satterthwaite, Encyclopedia of Astronomy (N.Y.: St. Martin's Press, 1971). Note how Jacob, in his passive relationship to the six maidens, becmoes -- symbolically -- one of seven "sisters." In Jewish tradition, the Pleiades, known as Kimah, symbolize the seven pillars of Jewish wisdom, hokhmah. See Proverbs 9:1; Amos 5:8; Job 9:9 and 38:31 in the Mikraot Gedolot edition of Tanakh (N.Y.: MP Press, 1981). At the same time, the aspect of Paganism and Hellenism is also conveyed, because of the esteem paid by ancient cultures to the Pleiades. See the commentary in Tanakh, (Tel Aviv: S. L. Gordon, 1956), at Job 9:9 and 38:31. Moreover, in his commentary on Proverbs 9:1, Abraham ibn Ezra suggests, in his often-used elliptical way in sensitive interpretive areas, that wisdom's seven pillars may refer to secular or other forbidden knowledge.

(17.)Symbolically, Agnon refers to Shoshanah as a "sleeping daughter of a Queen" (15:56), referencing the kabbalistic idea of the symbolic significance of four sefirot, two from the upper sefirot and two from the lower sefirot, representing two sexually related pairs: [Beginning after the uppermost sefirah, the ein sof! Wisdom (Hakhmah), the Supernal Father, and Intelligence (Binah), the Supernal Mother; Compassion (or Beauty, Tiferet), representing Jacob, their son and the People of Israel; and the last of the lower sefirot, which is the tenth, Kingdom (Malkhut), their daughter. See Raphael Patai, The Hebrew Goddess (N.Y.: KTAV, 1967), pp. 162-78, 267; Sharot, Op.cit., p. 32. In the sexual mythology of kabbalah, the estrangement between Jacob and Shoshanah in the real (lower) world both reflects and causes a similar estrangement between God's male and female aspects in the spiritual (upper) world. The metaphor for both is the destruction of God's bedchamber (as it were), the Temple. The observance of the Commandments, the union of Jacob or Israel with the Shekhinah, restores harmony among the family, the four aspects of the Godhead, and among the sefirot generally. See Sharot, Ibid., pp. 32-33. On the sefirot in kaballah generally, see Philip S. Berg, Kabbalah for the Layman (Jerusalem: Press of The Research Centre of Kabbalah, 1982); Gershom G. Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (Schocken Books, 1961), pp. 205-233; Barbara T. Stephens, "A Cry in the Wilderness: Shekinah as Psychological Healer," Journal of Psychology and Judaism, Vol. 15, No. 1 (Spring 1991): 29:42.

(18.)"By Some Miracle: S. Y. Agnon -- the Literary Representation of Social Dramas," appearing in Modern Hebrew Literature (Spring/Summer 1986): 11-16, reprinted in his book, The Shadows Within: Essays on Modern Hebrew Literature (Jewish Publication Society, 1987), pp. 134-44.

(19.)The Jewish mystical tradition ascribes to God and Israel both masculine and feminine aspects (Scholem, Op.cit., pp. 229-30; Raphael Patai, Op.cit., passim; both are used and intermixed in Betrothed. For example, while Agnon

primarily uses the kabbalistic image of a male Jacob and female Shekhinah, he does not hesitate to describe her as jumping, dancing and running (3:13-14) in her youth, reminiscent of the similar qualities ascribed to God, represented as Israel's male lover in Song of Songs (ch.2). Similarly, Shoshanah, representing God in Betrothed, faces a sickness of love (when she is betrayed by Jacob's decision to go to New York) that is reminiscent of the pangs of love, holat ahavah, experienced by the feminine Israel (Shoshanah) in her love of God (her male lover) in Song of Songs.

(20.)B. Meg. 29a.





(25.)Because God only dwells in the tents of Shem (Gen. 9:29), Jaffa -- representing Japheth and not Shem (B. Yoma 96) -- is depicted as inhospitable to the Jewish religious and spiritual essence of the Shekhinah (Patai, Op.cit., p. 144).

(26.)5:21. See Alan J. Mittleman, "Christianity in the Mirror of Jewish Thought," First Things (August-September 1992): 18, for an interesting analysis of these two approaches to religion as developed by Leo Baeck.





(31.)22:92. As noted in n. 49, some critics interpret Shoshanah as death.





(36.)19:76; One recalls Tamar and Judah and Tamar and Amnon, although the Midrash sought to justify Tamar's actions with Judah within the halakhic rules of Levirate marriage. It has been observed that Tamar, in Hebrew, means "substitute," which suggests, in Betrothed, the idea that she is the intended substitute for Shoshanah as Jacob's mate, until the miraculous, last-minute victory of Shoshanah. See, generally, Devora Steinmitz, From Father to Son: Kinship, Conflict, and Continuity in Genesis (Louisville, Ky.: John Knox Press 1991), p. 163. See also, Mordecai A. Friedman, "Tamar, A Symbol of Life: The 'Killer Wife' Supersition in the Bible and Jewish Tradition," AJS Review, Vol. XV, No. 1 (Spring 1990): 23-61.


(38.)31:128-9; even here, however, Agnon conjures up a mixed image, in which there is also an ancient Hebrew element, the festival of prayer and thanksgiving in the pre-synagogue Biblical period at Pharos, which were offered -- it appears from Philo -- on the beach, true to the historic origin of such gatherings as non-sacrificial assemblies around deserted altars, near city gates. Salo W. Baron, The Jewish Community (Phila.: JPS, 1949), p. 86.





(43.)30:127; 31:135. Agnon here employs another ambivalent, mixed Greek and Hebrew symbol: the laurel wreath (see n. 2).





(48.)"Portrait of the Immigrant as a Young Neurotic," Prooftexts (January 1987): 41-52; Shmuel Yosef Agnon: A Revolutionary Traditionalist, Op.cit., pp. 171-86.

(49.)The literary critics of Betrothed with whom I am familiar either (1) do not offer a rigorous analysis of Agnon's kabbalistic symbolism; (2) see Shoshanah as representing death rather than redemption; or (3) treat Betrothed as a psychological tale rather than a cultural allegory. See Dov Sadan, On S. Y. Agnon (Hebrew) (Tel Aviv, 1959), pp. 74-88; Robert Alter, Defenses of the Imagination, Op. cit., pp. 187-98; Hayyim Nagid, "The Vow, the Moon, and the Crown: On Kabbalistic Symbolism in Betrothed," La Merkhav (Masa Section) (Hebrew), October 13, 1967; Dina Stern, "The Betrayal and Its Consequences: A Study of Betrothed," (Hebrew) (Tel Aviv, 1964); Arnold Band, Nostalgia and Nightmare: A Study in the Fiction of S.Y. Agnon (University of California Press, 1968), pp. 367-82; Naomi Tamir, "Betrothed -- Four that Are One" (Hebrew), Hasifrut 3 (1972): 479-506, cf. 507-16; Baruch Hochman, The Fiction of S.Y. Agnon (Cornell University Press, 1979), pp. 4-5; Harold Fisch, S.Y. Agnon (N.Y.: Ungar, 1975), pp. 32-41; Gershon Shaked, Shmuel Yosef Agnon ..., Op. cit., pp. 178-85.

(50.)The continuing relevance of Agnon's concern in these two novellas is attested to by Eliezer Berkovits (who lived in Israel from 1975 until his recent death), in Crisis and Faith (N.Y.: Hebrew Publishing Co., 19750; see also his remarks quoted in The Jerusalem Post, International Edition, Week Ending July 11, 1992, p. 8B.

The problem of a secular, Jewishly empty culture in Israel does not necessarily imply that so-called "secular studies," both science and social science, from math to novels, should be disregarded or discarded. Apart from the necessity of such education for a Jewish (or any other) nation to function -- internally and in its international relationships -- the concept of Torah U'Madah or Torah Im Derekh Erez is a posited value for many traditional, committed Jews. See, e.g., The Torah U'Madah Journal, Vols. I (1989) and II (1990), published by Yeshiva University, and Mordechai Eliav, "Various Approaches to Torah Im Derekh Eretz: Ideal and Reality," Tradition (Winter, 1992): 99, 104-7.

(51.)See, e.g., Gershon Shaked, "Portrait of the Immigrant as a Neurotic," Prooftexts (January, 1987): 47.

(52.)As Dan Miron has noted:

Agnon could not in any way have...[debased] the religious order of the universe to the level of cultic order in the world of pagan myth.... Agnon did not dare to leave his readers mired in ethical stupefaction and religious doubt without any promise of a future solution.

See, "Domesticating a Foreign Genre: Agnon's Transactions with the Novel," Prooftexts (January 1987): 10; cf. p. 11.
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Author:Bodoff, Lippman
Publication:Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought
Date:Sep 22, 1993
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