It was one of the stories from Genesis that most frightened me as a child: the story of Lot’s wife.
She was told not to look, and she looked; and her punishment came swift and horrible. Frozen in the moment of her transgression, exposed to the eyes of all in her act of rebellion, she was transformed into a spectacle of salt, reduced to an element vaguely ridiculous, as if to turn back any motion of pity in us. And for what? She was told not to look, and she looked.
“Why did she look?” I asked the second-grade Hebrew-school teacher, who was telling the story.
“It doesn’t matter why she looked,” my teacher answered. “God said not to look, and she looked. She thought she could get away with it, but of course she couldn’t. Nobody can get away with anything. God sees all.”
That God sees all was a lesson my teacher was anxious to impress upon us at any opportunity, and it was a lesson that I, as a child, accepted without question. It was clear that God’s seeing all was a consequence of God’s being God. My teacher’s response therefore seemed to me irreproachable so far as its theology went. It was on the level of human psychology that I felt it falling short.
Specifically, I didn’t believe that Lot’s wife had thought that she could get away with it. I wouldn’t have thought so, and I was a mere child, living in pallid, nonbiblical days. In vivid contrast was the picture of Lot’s wife: fleeing the accursed city, the shrieks of the damned in her ears, and in her nostrils the sickening stink as Heaven’s fire and brimstone came raining down behind her. (What was brimstone?)
God had warned that He would come, and He had come: in the version, embellished by rabbinical tradition, told to us by my teacher, His very Presence had descended, along with a host of 12,000 Angels of Destruction. It wasn’t the moment in which to think that one could get away with very much of anything.
I wasn’t about to press the issue any further with my teacher, but I was fairly certain that whatever it was that had made Lot’s wife look back in her flight was in the nature of an overwhelming compulsion (a concept with which children tend to be well acquainted): the sort of irresistible urge that makes the whole question of whether or not one is going to get away with it pretty much beside the point.
What therefore seemed to me very much to the point was the question I had put to my teacher: what forced Lot’s wife to look back, and—even more to the point—would I have felt driven to do exactly the same?
You begin to see why the story frightened me. Up to now in Genesis, the villains had been recognizably villainous—a brother who killed a brother, egomaniacs who brazenly questioned God’s authority and erected claims to their own imagined supremacy.
But looking where one is told not to look?
Had Lot’s wife, I wondered, looked back simply because she had been told not to do so, as I unfailingly sneaked a peek while standing between my mother and sisters in our pew in the synagogue during the recitation of the Priestly Blessing that was said on the holidays?
I had been warned by my mother, and again by my older sister, to avert my eyes from the bimah where the priests were chanting their spooky melody, lest I be blinded by the Presence descending upon their upraised hands. Beneath my lowered lids I could see my two sisters turned dutifully away, facing the back of the synagogue, as all the congregation was turned away, many of the men covering their heads with their prayer shawls, as the priests themselves were doing.
Did Lot’s wife and I share the same perversity of nature that compelled us to take stupid risks for no very good reason at all, for no reason that really went beyond the risk itself? And was it for this that her punishment had come swift and horrible?
Or was it rather for the whisper of a doubt, soft but irrepressible, that is perhaps always spoken in such actions as looking where one is told not to look? Were there moments in history during which God simply would not tolerate the existence of the skeptic?
The symbolic significance of the gesture of looking back wasn’t lost on me. A child’s knowledge of nostalgia is one of the mysteries of childhood. Perhaps it wasn’t so much that there were moments forbidding doubt as that there were places that merited no sense of attachment. Was it the regret and longing she had directed back to her home in Sodom that had drawn God’s wrath down on her?
And yet another sort, a meaner sort, of motive behind her action suggested itself, one that would remove her to a safer distance from myself: a kind of cold enchantment with the drama of death.
The summer we had spent at the seashore I had seen for myself how the crowd had gathered around the boy who had been pulled unconscious from the ocean, and how the voice and face of this crowd had quickened with a strange excitement, as if it were almost glad for the event.
Did Lot’s wife have such a strong taste for the theater provided by others’ tragedy that she could not keep herself from stealing a glimpse of the flaming spectacle? And was it for this that she herself had been turned, most appropriately, into the stuff of tragic spectacle?
Voyeurism or skepticism, nostalgia or bravado: who was Lot’s wife, and what had moved her to look back and risk all?
When I came home from school that evening I immediately went to my father with my questions. I asked him whether we knew the name of Lot’s wife, and I asked him why she had looked back.
My father went to his bookshelf and took down one of his huge tomes, leafed through it for a while, returned it to the shelf, took down another book, and read. After a while he said to me:
“According to this midrash her name was Irit (some say Idit). She and Lot had four daughters. There were the two daughters who fled together with their parents out of Sodom, but there were also two other daughters, who were already married to Sodomite men. When Lot warned these two sons-in-law that Sodom was about to be destroyed, they laughed and said, ‘There is music and festivity in the city, and you speak about destruction!’
“According to this midrash, Irit had pity on her two older daughters who were left behind with their husbands. She turned around to see if they were following her and she saw the Presence and was turned to salt.”
My father and I stared at each other for a few moments.
“This is only one midrash,” my father finally said. “I’ll see if I can find some other interpretations that will make things clearer to us.”
My father was telling me that he, too, was confused by the story of Lot’s wife. And from his confusion I knew many things. I knew, first of all, that, in looking back at Irit, he, too, looked back with pity. But far more importantly, I knew from his confusion that my father, just like Irit, would also have looked back to see if all his daughters were following.
Therefore, I concluded, my father was not a righteous man, at least not in the biblical sense of the word. And for this I was extremely grateful. For what did righteous fathers do? They obeyed the word of God unconditionally, down to the last letter.
The righteous father Abraham arose early in the morning, while it was still dark, to prepare firewood for the sacrifice. He chopped the wood and saddled the donkey himself, not allowing any of his servants to perform these tasks that would ordinarily have been theirs. Evidently, out of his great love for God’s word, he wished to perform for himself every part of God’s request of him. And what request had that been? The sacrifice of Isaac, the son Abraham loved the best, the son who had been miraculously born when Abraham was one hundred years old and Sarah, his wife, ninety.
And when that son, on the way to the land of Moriah, turned to the father and said: “My father. Here are both fire and wood, but where is the lamb for the sacrifice?” the righteous father answered: “God Himself will choose the lamb for the sacrifice, my son”—adding (again in the version embellished by rabbinical tradition), “and if not, you will be the lamb.” At which, in this version, the son put his face between his hands and wept.
It was a tale of righteousness that could not but awe. But who would want to be a righteous parent’s child?
Of course there were other fathers in Genesis.1 There was, for example, Isaac, the child of the akedah now become a parent himself. (I ignored then, and forever have ignored, that Isaac is said by rabbinical tradition to have been thirty-seven at the time of the aborted sacrifice. To me he is a child, lying there beneath his father’s raised knife.) Isaac married Rebecca, my namesake, who became the mother of the twin boys, Esau and Jacob, the fraternal pair who (as I saw and still see them) are the Genesis version of the mind-body problem: Esau, the lusty embodiment of throbbing desire and reckless appetite, living always in the vivid here-and-now, grabbing life with his two great hairy arms; and Jacob, for all his guile, a pure soul, emanating all the otherworldly aspirations of the born saint.
Rebecca, who seemed to me a righteous parent on the model of her father-in-law Abraham, manages to preserve the purity of her vision of the divine priority; and in the light of this vision, she subdues—or perhaps even withdraws—both love and loyalty from Esau, betraying the trust he places in her.
But Isaac, who is also a righteous father, loves Esau. He loves Esau for the things that are good in him—for it is good to be in love with life, and how wildly Isaac’s own longing for life must have beat in him as he lay bound on his father’s sacrificial altar2—and he’s blind to the bad that’s mixed in with Esau’s good, as we all hope that those who love us will be similarly blind. In fact, Isaac loves this prodigal, life-grabbing son so completely that he must be tricked by the clearsighted and undivided Rebecca into giving the deserving son the blessing that will ensure the preordained dynasty.
Because she was my namesake I wanted to love and admire Rebecca. And I did, and do, admire her. But it’s Isaac whom I love. I love this blind and confused father, who can’t see clearly because of love, who’s so utterly and pitifully confused, because of love.
At my very Orthodox, all-girls high school, those of us who were making plans to continue on to college were warned of the dangers of a secular education. If we felt we had to go to college, said our teachers, then we should at least be aware that there were certain subjects that were much safer than others. Above all, we were admonished, stay away from philosophy, a most dangerous discipline that systematically subjects every article of faith and belief to corrosive analysis and doubt; and the story of the apostate Baruch Spinoza was told to us in details that were meant to horrify.
Don’t even look, the teachers said.
So even before I was graduated from high school, I used one of my summer vacations to take a course in philosophy.
Later, during the years I spent as a student of this dangerous discipline, I found a restatement, although in somewhat different terms, of the old dilemma that had first been crystallized for me in the story of Lot’s wife, the conflict between the demands of transcendence and the backward pull of love and accidental attachment. Actually the conflict wasn’t so much in what I studied—where the claims of transcendence were pretty much one-sidedly championed—as it was in me.
Western philosophy, starting with Plato, introduced me to a notion of transcendence that transcended anything I had encountered in Genesis. Compared to the mother, Irit, Abraham was a figure of terrifying purity. But compared to Socrates on his deathbed, Abraham was a man still mired in the muck of accidental affections.
The life of the righteous men and women of Genesis was, deeply and intensely, a life of familial passions, of family loves and also hates, of family loyalties and betrayals. Qualities of action and of character, including, most importantly, righteousness, saintliness, emerged in the context of family, caught in the given contingencies of those fierce attachments determined through blood. One might be asked to temper this fierceness, and even to overcome a particular attachment if it stood in opposition to the all-transcendent bond to God. But the context as a whole was never challenged as an inextricable aspect of the life represented.
The life of the mind in Western philosophy has nothing at all like this dense emotional context surrounding it. In fact, it’s a vision of life as pellucid with rationality as the other is thick with the ties of blood and with the heavy decisions one is asked to make between the orders of one’s love.
The first requirement of any system of philosophy is to be free from conceptual contradiction and confusion; and the philosopher asks for something similar in the life he would choose. Toward this end his allegiance is all for transcendence—in the more impersonal form, known as truth, that transcendence takes in this tradition.3
It’s not, of course, that all Western philosophers have touted a life of loftiest solitude, although many have. But even among those who give to close personal ties the stamp of rational approval, the mere fact of family relationship has rarely been thought to amount to very much, philosophically speaking.
In the last hours before his death, recorded in Plato’s Phaedo, Socrates gathers around him his friends and disciples, so that they may engage in one last philosophical discussion, this one focused on the pertinent theme of the soul’s immortality. But before the conversation can begin, Socrates (one of the very few “family men” among the notables in the history of Western philosophy, who, almost to a man, were bachelors) orders someone to remove his weeping wife, Xanthippe, and “the little boy.” Plato also has Socrates declaring that flesh-and-blood children are of little or no account, compared to the ideas, embodied in books, and the disciples that a man leaves behind as his true progeny.4 The good life, from the philosophical viewpoint, certainly doesn’t require family and children to complete itself.
But it certainly does, from the Jewish viewpoint, where childlessness itself is seen as both a curse and a divine punishment. Ariri is the technical term for this punishment, and there is a dispute in the Talmud as to whether ariri is implicit or not in the wider punishment of koret, which literally means being cut off, and is interpreted as an early death. The Canaanite king, Abimelech, who took Abraham’s wife, Sarah, believing her to be Abraham’s sister, was temporarily punished with childlessness. And Michal, the daughter of King Saul and the wife of King David, also suffered this punishment:
And it was so, as the ark of the Lord came into the city of David, that Michal the daughter of Saul looked out at the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord; and she despised him in her heart.
I’ve always found the dramatic implications of the scene contained in this sentence to be among the richest of any in the Bible. But such considerations aside, David’s wife, we are told, was divinely punished for the scorn she harbored for her God-silly husband: “And Michal the daughter of Saul had no child unto the day of her death.”
And yet, important as the idea of family is in the context of the righteous life, it remains, when all is said and done, only context.
I met a mystical rabbi when I was in Safed, high in the hills in the north of Israel, and he told me a strange story.
We were standing, he and I, in front of the doors of the 16th-century synagogue of the great kabbalistic Master, Rabbi Isaac ben Solomon Luria, known as ha-Ari, the Lion. It was exactly here, the rabbi told me, each Friday eve, right before sunset, that ha-Ari and his followers would gather, greeting one another and the Sabbath, as they expected at every moment to be greeting the Messiah.
One Friday evening ha-Ari appeared before the doors, dressed in the special white garb he wore for the Sabbath. But instead of proceeding into the synagogue, he turned wordlessly away from the door and started to walk. And all the white-robed disciples silently followed the Master out of the city of Safed, and across the fields.
Finally, after they had walked for miles, one of the disciples spoke up.
“Rabbi,” he said, “where are you leading us? It’s been hours since the Sabbath started. Our wives and our children are waiting for us and surely beginning to worry.”
And ha-Ari sank down where he stood in the field and began to cry.
At last he was able to speak. “The moment for the Messiah had come,” he said, “and I was walking to Jerusalem. But now one of you has questioned, and the moment is gone.”
The rabbi who told me this story was obviously very moved by it, and I was, too, though there’s little doubt that we were responding to quite different aspects. It’s clear that his thoughts were all on the Master, and the tragedy of that lost moment; while I could only think of the disciple, who had looked back to the hills of Safed, where his family was waiting.
My father did come up with several more midrashim regarding Lot’s wife. One of the midrashim tried to explain why it was salt, of all things, that she became.
Irit, said this midrash, always used to skimp on the salt in the food she served. When the two messengers, who of course were angels, came to Lot’s house to warn him of the imminent destruction, he ordered his wife to serve them a meal, and this time to salt the food properly. So she went around borrowing salt from all the neighbors, in this way spreading the word that the household had visitors, which was a species of persons dangerously unwelcome in the sinful town of Sodom. Because of her action a crowd of evil intent soon gathered around Lot’s house, demanding that they be allowed to have a go at the strangers. The inhabitants of the house were only saved because of the angels, who blinded the men, young and old, who stood at the entrance. The blindness began with the young because it was they who had instigated the mob.
My father simply offered me this midrash, without suggesting that he thought it supplied the final resolution to the conflict we both felt on looking back at Lot’s wife.
On the one hand, I still remember my father’s admission of confusion about Irit’s fate, and the knowledge and comfort I gathered from his confusion. On the other hand, my father never could work up any enthusiasm for the luminous vision of the life of pure reason I tried to paint for him. I argued that it was the life that was the most consistent and thus right. He agreed with me that it was consistent, but he wouldn’t agree that it was right. In fact, he thought it was all wrong. He thought it was right for human life to be subject to contradictions, for a person to love in more than one direction, and sometimes to be torn into pieces because of his many loves. I suspect he even felt a little sorry for any great man of ideas who had cut himself off, so consistently, from what my father saw as the fullness of human life.
But now, only recently, I’ve discovered a commentary on the story of Lot’s wife that I wish I might have been able to talk over with my father.
Rabbi David Kimchi (a 13th-century exegete known by the acronym Radak) points out that in Genesis it is sulfur and fire that are said to have rained down on Sodom. But in Deuteronomy, when Moses, before dying, warns the children of Israel not to repeat the sins of the past, he speaks of sulfur and salt as having been poured onto the doomed city. In the course of explaining the discrepancy, Radak says that in fact all the people of Sodom became pillars of salt. The outcome of the physical devastation wrought upon Sodom was that the place itself became sulfur, while the people became salt.
Hence, at least if one follows Radak, it seems that Lot’s wife was not the spectacular aberration I had always thought her. Her fate was continuous with those who had been left behind. Suddenly I felt the whole story of Lot’s wife shifting.
She was told not to look and she looked, says the Bible. And her punishment came swift and horrible, added my teacher, following the traditional interpretation I too had thought inevitable. But I read the story differently now:
Irit looked back to see if her two first-born daughters were following, and she saw that they weren’t and what had become of them.
In such a moment of grief one knows only one desire: to follow after one’s child, to experience what she’s experienced, to be one with her in every aspect of suffering. Only to be one with her.
And it was for this desire that Irit was turned into a pillar of salt. She was turned into salt either because God couldn’t forgive her this desire . . . or because He could.
1 And it's only right to remember that even Abraham might, on occasion, try to get God to change His word, as he did when he was informed that Sodom was imminently to be destroyed. Abraham had argued that there must surely be at least 50 righteous inhabitants who should not be killed because of the sins of the others. God agreed, but there were no such 50—nor 45, nor 40, nor 30, nor even 10. When Abraham learned that there were not even 10 righteous Sodomite men he accepted the city's doom and was silent. But it was Abraham's pleading that subsequently won Lot and Lot's family their lives.
2 For this last insight I am indebted to Esti Fass, who, in private conversation, connected Isaac's love of Esau with his own close brush with death.
3 Impersonal, that is, as compared to the more personal conception of transcendence represented in the notion of God. It's left open, of course, that the truth might very well include the existence of God.
4 In the Republic Plato attempts to construct a society in which the force of the ties of blood will be effectively neutralized, with children being held collectively and the facts of who is the biological relation of whom concealed.