By Louise Rinser
Since then I despised the Essenes and all the Jews who waited there without fighting until something happened. I didnít believe in victory without a fight. Not I.
I was furious when my brother joined these desert monks. My little gentle brother. Into whose coarse hands had he fallen? Who talked him into it?
And Yeshua? Hadnít his mother pointed in the direction of the desert when I asked her where he was? Was he also with those idle waiters, whom I despised?
Days, nights, weeks, months: I thought about the same thing: I would go to the desert monks and demand my brother back, who betrayed his duty to manage fatherís house, business and inheritance. Duty is duty, thatís what Iíd say. And I would also say: you have also stolen Yeshua of Nazareth from his family. His mother lives without his help. Is that right? Does the Law allow that?
One day I was ready: I had coins sewn into my clothing, took the strongest of my servants with me, chose the strongest two donkeys, and was on my way.
An adventure. A crazy plan. Sure. But thatís how I was: once decided and begun, I carried it through.
We rode for many days along the Jordan. Where to now, my servant asked, and she didnít want to continue.
To Bethany, I said. Itís not much farther. When I said that we were near Jericho.
Yerushalayim is there, the servant said, in the west, Bethany is over there, why are we riding farther south?
Why? I didnít know.
You go to Bethany, I said, go to my relatives, to Martha, Miryam and Lazarus, Iíll come afterwards.
Where are you going?
I didnít answer. I didnít know. I rode on. Sand and thorns, snake tracks, fox dung: the desert. Then the dull smell of dead water: the salt-sea. And then I saw the desert lodgings in the hills: lionsí caves rather than human dwellings. Fortresses, unconquerable, unapproachable. Like a city of the dead. And my little brother was there. I was sure of it. And Yeshua too? I wasnít sure of that.
What to do? I stood there, close to the goal and far from the goal. A useless trip?
Then I saw, yellow in the desert sand, between the salt-sea and the hills, some nomad tents. I would get information here. I got none.††††††††††††††††
As soon as I got close, two figures with their faces hidden came out of a mountain gap. With outstretched arms they motioned me away. But I went closer until they could hear me, and I cried: you up there, you stole my brother. Give him back to me! Give him back his life!
No answer. Only the echo. The men stood like stone figures, they were terrible, custodians of death, guardians of the black threshold. I cried: robbers of men, you living dead! You hold my brother and my lover prisoners!
From where did the word lover come to me? The echo brought it back to me.†††
As though it were a password, the men went back into the rock cave. I tried to follow them over stone and rubble, tripped and cut my hands and knees. Punishment.
Anger seized me and anger grew and overwhelmed me and became madness, but this was my madness, which I could not control. From which dark depths did the knowledge emerge in me about how to conjure up an evil spell? Dry camel dung, dead grass, hard roots, in six-pointed star piles, wood and stone rubbed together until the spark springs, the pile is lit, pleasant smelling wild herbs into the fire, who taught me that? And where did the curses come from?
Bent over the fire, I spoke:
Curse you, desert monks! Curse those who sacrifice their manliness in order to convince the Eternal One to send the Messiah. May the cold of your hearts consume your limbs as rust eats iron. May the blood in your veins freeze to ice. May the paralysis of death come over you in life.
The fire went out, the smoke made me drunk. I felt that something foreign had taken possession of me and supported and strengthened me. When I came to my senses it was morning and very cold, but I was hot with evil joy. Now war was declared between me and everything masculine, between me and all the pious, between me and Yeshua. I felt strong and free.
When I returned to my donkey, which I had tied on the bank of the salt-sea, he sprang back and refused to let me mount. I had to lead him on a rope. Otherwise such a docile animal, what was wrong with him?
My maid also rejected me. She hadnít gone to Bethany, she waited for me the whole night. When she saw me her hair seemed to stand on end.
Whatís the matter? Does the smoke smell bother you?
She was silent - stiff and frightened.
And now, I said, we ride back to Magdala.
Not to Bethany?
A long way. Several days of travel. I had to sell my donkey for a new one. The maid did not say a word to me. Obviously therefore something had happened to me. Good. The demon whom I had called was keeping to our agreement.
Finally I arrived home.††††††
At home in Magdala I bathed and anointed myself with precious oil and put gold hoops and rings on my arms, hands and feet and walked through the town. My jewelry clinked and rang. A test. People looked at me as I passed. The men were drawn to me, but none dared to approach. In the evening the first one came, a respectable businessman, no longer young. He knocked and knocked. The door stayed closed. Through a crack I watched him stand there and finally leave, then I heard other steps. The second one brought gifts and laid them in front of the door when no one opened it to him. I threw them at him through the window. He snatched them up and fled. Another came and another, two of them beat each other out of jealousy. I laughed. Itís what I liked. The women didnít now what to make of this game. At first they accused me of sorcery, but when they saw that I didnít let any of them into the house, their anger was re-directed onto the men. These fools, these goats, these idiots, who run after a girl who despises them and throws their gifts back at them! There was already conflict in the place. The women got together and denied the men food and bed. A real war broke out. I had what I wanted: I felt my power. But soon the game bored me. How did it help the women? How did it help me? Did it bring Yeshua back to me? I lived darkly in my house as in a prison tower, apathetic and alone with my beauty.
It was a welcome change when one evening an old friend of my fatherís came by, one of his business colleagues, a Greek from Athens. Heíd known me since I was a child.
When he heard that I had given up my fatherís business, he came in order to convince me to open it again. He made interesting offers. But I had no taste for it.
What then? The Greek was clever and friendly and knew my situation. Travel, Miryam, he said, come to Athens, thatís the right place for a woman like you!
What am I like? Iím a Jew, not a Greek.
What do you know of Greek women?
What do you know of Jewish women?
Miryam, your house is too limited, your town is too limited for you, Galilee is too limited for you, Jewish life is too limited for you. I knew your mother. She died of the smallness, and you will also perish by it. Look around you! Come, look for a Greek as friend!
As husband, you mean.
I say: as friend. There are handsome men among us.
Why have you no husband, Miryam?
I didnít answer and he realized that he had asked the wrong question. He said: In Athens you could find a friend.
Yes, yes, if I wanted to play your game.
What are you talking about?††††
I know about it from Decapolis over there: you donít take marriage seriously. You are married but have another on the side.
That is very crudely said.
Then say it finely.
Well: there are two kinds of women. One adapts herself to marriage and being a housewife, one has children with her, discusses money, the home, meals. She knows no more than that and doesnít want to know more. But an educated Greek needs conversation with an educated woman, the hetaera. Thus the domains are kept nicely apart.
Thatís what you say. What do the women say? Donít they both feel dishonored?
The both agree, and more than that. It is good for them. One wants marriage and has it. The other wants freedom and has it.
And which of the two does the man love?
Both. Each in a special way.
You lie! The man loves the hetaera. He uses the wife.
Nastily said, very nastily. And how is it with you Jews?
We have strict laws.
Are they observed?
How do I know.
Miryam, you would be a wonderful hetaera. May I ask you something, daughter of my friend, now fatherless?
I know what youíre going to ask. But the question and the answer are superfluous.
Are you not free?
I laughed. Which was an answer and wasnít one. The Greek gave up the game, or rather he began from a different angle. He told about Diotima, a hetaera who won a prize at a feast over a dispute about the subject of love. Famous men were present, politicians, poets, philosophers, she was the only woman, and she got the prize.
What did she say?
Love, she said, is a daemon, or rather Eros, as she said, is a daemon, and the messenger between men and gods. The connecter. The mediator. The bridge. In reality there were two of these: one is the motherless son of Uranus, the other that son of Zeus and Diana. The motherless one is the heavenly Eros, the other the earthly one. Thatís why a heavenly and an earthly love exist.
And whatís the difference. Love is love. Or isnít it?
No, it isnít.
Does the Greek love the hetaera with a heavenly love?
The Greek laughed. They would all love you in both ways.
Oh be quiet. Thatís silly talk.
Pardon me. I just thought it a pity that you didnít live as a Greek during the time of Plato or, even better, Pythagoras.
Pythagoras founded an academy in Crotona on the Italian peninsula in which girls also studied. See, that interests you! I knew it would.
That really existed? Then it could exist again. Then women arenít unfit for philosophy and politics?†
Certainly not. But you Jews are a paternalistic people and that makes it hard on women. You even have a man-god. We have women in Olympia, in the heaven of the gods. Many women: the highest god, Zeus, has a wife, Hera, but he betrays her in the way of men and the gods roar with laughter. We have Demeter, the earth-mother, and Artemis, the huntress, and Aphrodite, the insatiable lover, and Athena, the motherless, neither conceived nor born, but sprung from the father godís forehead.
Interesting, I said. But you donít really believe all that, the story of Athena.
Itís a myth. An image.
What kind of image is that, to say of a child that it wasnít lovingly conceived and born?
An image that there are people who are beyond ordinary destiny and are therefore something greater: gods, or like gods.
So itís not really possible that a woman can have a child without a man?
Is that what youíd like? That could only occur to someone like you.
It was late and the Greek had to leave, but he wanted to return the next day. I didnít say yes or no.
He shouldnít imagine that I liked him. But I waited impatiently for him, for the conversation with him was new for me.
In the evening we continued. I wanted to know more about that Plato, who had such clever talks with the hetaera Diotima, or that she at least so nicely invented.
The loveliest seemed to me to be the parable of the cave in which we humans live, looking at the back wall of the cave. Shadows from the entrance fall on this wall. Shadows of things which are outside the cave in the light. The people in the cave donít see the light and the real figures, they see only the shadows and take them for reality.
Why donít they turn around. Is it forbidden?
Oh no. It simply doesnít occur to them that they are only seeing shadows.
And no one turns around?
Yes. Plato turned around and others also. The are called wise. In Greek: philosophers.
I donít want to only see shadows, I donít want to only see objects that throw shadows: I want to see the light!
I had to wait long years before someone said to me:† I am the light. I am the reality and the truth.††††††
On the third evening the Greek and I talked about the gods. I asked him why they have or need more than one god.
Youíre right when you separate have and need. We need gods.
Donít you have any?
We have them because we invent them. They donít exist. They are imagined by men.
Also your highest god?
But our God IS. He always existed, before man was and before he thought. He doesnít need our thinking. He is reality. He was a flaming pillar who went ahead of our forefathers out of Egypt, and until now. He was a fire in the burning bush of Moses, and he was a voice from above that forbade Abraham to sacrifice his son, and he was something that came invisibly, but appeared to Jaíakob as something with whom Ja'akob fought breast to breast, and who displaced his hip.
Stories, said the Greek, images, beautiful pictures.
Reality! I shouted.
Very well: a reality. Jewish reality. Jewish truth. Every people sees what is appropriate to it. Each gets the ring that fits his finger.
There is only one truth and only one god.
The god of the Jews, you mean.
He is the god of all, for he is the God of Abraham.
Heís not our god. We have nothing to do with Abraham. You know only the history of your people and take it for world history. But every people has its own history.
Only ours goes back to the Primeval, and before that there was nothing, and one day everyone will again recognize the Primeval and go back to it and will be received by the Eternal One.
The Greek smiled. So you also give me, the gentile, hope.
All of us have nothing but our hope.
What do you hope for, Miryam?
The deliverance of Israel,
Who will deliver Israel?
The Messiah, who else?
When will he come?
Why forbidden? It is natural and burns your tongues, and when you donít express it, it springs from your eyes.††††
May it spring and burn. It is nevertheless forbidden. Only one knows: Adonai. He knows his peopleís suffering. Once he made a testament with us. We have often broken it, he never.† He always forgave us, and delivered us. He promised the Messiah to us, he will send him when the time is right.
When is the time right?
When the suffering is greatest.
Isnít it great enough? Isnít the presence of the Roman heathens disgrace enough? Isnít the oppression by your masters hard enough? Must it get worse? When I came here I saw the misery of those who were driven from their homes, and I saw the hill with the hanged rebels. And you accept that?
You say yourself that you saw the hanged rebels. Whoever dares to rebel is executed.
Arenít rebellion and death more honorable than waiting for a savior?
I donít decide that.
Who does then?
Adonai, the Eternal One, who keeps his promises. We are his people. The only people who knows his true name and does not speak it. The only people on the earth who can look on the Eternal Oneís sightless face with closed eyes. How could he allow his people to be destroyed? That will never, never happen.
How will you recognize the Messiah if he comes?
From the signs, the foreseen: he will make the blind see, the lame walk, the sick healedÖ
You will recognize him by the miracles, nothing else?
He will go to Yerushalayim and sit on Davidís throne and rule as a father and prince of peace. There will be no more hate and no envy, and no more poverty and hunger. The swords will be re-forged into plowshares, the daggers into vineyard knives. There will be no more war, never again. The eternal kingdom of peace will emerge, and all tears will be dried.
I had jumped up and so loudly did I speak that my maid ran in to listen.
Strange girl, said the Greek, do you believe what you say?
Why not? This belief is Yisraelís belief, its hope, its life.
Yes, but you, what do you think? Letís say that someone goes up to you and says: I am the Messiah.
Whoever says he is the Messiah, is not. Many are running around nowadays who believe and want others to believe that they are the Messiah, and each finds his clutch of fools.
How does one recognize the true Messiah then?† Will Yisrael recognize him when he comes?††
I already told you: he will enter Yerushalayim and sit on the throne of David and bring about the kingdom of peace.
Yes, sure. But how does he obtain the throne? How does he bring about peace? What happens before? Are you forgetting that you are a defeated and occupied people, a very small people, a weak people? Will the Romans allow a Jew to claim to be the Jewish king? Do you think they would be impressed when someone says: I am the Messiah, the Lordís anointed one? They will laugh. They will say: Be the king of the Jews, reign, but home in your village; the country belongs to us and you have no king but the emperor in Rome.
If Adonai is with us, we will conquer.
Conquer? You admit then, that before the victory there must be a fight. Where are the fighters? The Zealots, the rapacious rebels? That is no military power. That is nothing. What you need is a leader, someone who can unite all these groups, do you understand?
I heard myself obstinately say: Who knows, maybe he is already here.
Yes, who knows. Perhaps you have already met him and not recognized him, like our hero Odysseus didnít recognize the Goddess Athena when she jumped to his side when he was in danger, but in a different form: as a boy, as a shepherd, as a beautiful girl. She also appeared to Odysseusís son, but Telemachos saw and didnít see a goddess, for the blessed gods arenít visible to everyone.
You say that nicely, are you a poet?
Those arenít my words, they are the words of our great poet, Homer. You could also meet the Messiah in that way.
It could be. But he wonít show himself to me, he will go to the rabbis in the Temple.
Who knows, Miryam. You have eyes that can attract a divine glance.
What are you talking about?
I donít know myself. It occurred to me that you will have a great destiny.
That was our last talk. I thought about it for a while afterwards, then shook it from my mind. What moved me more was the thought of an uprising. If I were a man I would go to the rebels. But how could I find them, who would I join? They will not admit a woman. Or perhaps yes: those crucified women I once saw, they had been punished because of their participation in some kind of uprising. But I sat at home, rich, doing nothing. A great destiny? Nothing of the sort. Useless, reprehensible, destiny-less, that what I was.
Again I closed my house and prepared for wandering, money sewn in my clothes and some baggage on my donkey. Did I have a destination? I had none. My path was my destination. Restlessness drove me from place to place. I was looking for my destiny†††††††
Once a leper approached me. I heard his wooden clapper from afar. He called out to me: How far is it to Nazareth?
Far for one who canít walk well. What do you want there?
Iím looking for the rabbi who heals the sick in a miraculous way. His name is Yeshua.
You should rather go to Kefarnachum where thereís a good doctor. You donít need a miracle-rabbi, but healing ointments. Miracles donít exist.
The clapper went away. Yeshua, the miracle-rabbi from Nazareth. Well. That also exists: believers in miracles and healers. Why shouldnít I also go to Nazareth and look for this rabbi? From curiosity. From boredom.
But I decided for something else. I had long wanted to go to Bethany to visit my relatives. I got as far as Qumran on the first trip, not farther.
This time I didnít reach it either. Again something intervened.
At an inn I met some people who were going to Enon. There was a man there, Jochanan by name, a great repentance preacher. The people told me that he prophesized the end of time. Great catastrophes will come, he said, fire will fall from heaven, the sea will rush up and devour the land, the greatest part of humanity will be killed. However, the possibility of salvation exists: whoever turns away from sin and completely changes his life will survive the catastrophe. But one must repent, and baptism is part of that, the great purifying bath. Only the pure can enter the kingdom of heaven that the Messiah will found, here and soon.
This was the talk of the Essenes. The madness of the desert monks. This Jochanan was surely one of them from the lion caves, one who hated life and love, one of the people-robbers, one of my enemies, whom I had cursed so bitterly.
Against my will I let myself be dragged along by those people.
I did so much against my will during those years. As though someone commanded me and led me here and there, as though here or there were the most important, the reality. And it always came to nothing. Thatís what I thought. What was I supposed to find at the Jordan?
A lot of people. And the Baptist, full bearded, with matted hair and dressed in nothing but a loincloth. And his cry: Repent, the end of time approaches, the new kingdom is coming, cleanse yourselves of your sins!
The people thronged to him: publicans, housewives, shopkeepers, fishermen, workers. No great lord, no courtesan, no priest, no scribe. None of the great sinners. Only the little ones, who were forced by the big ones to sin: stealing food, a bit of bribery, a bit of trickery, adultery now and then, so life would become more bearable. How they thronged to the Baptist, as if they were in a hurry, as if the catastrophe could strike before their baptism!
I didnít understand it. You went into the water, the Baptist sprinkled Jordan water from his shell over your bowed head, and you were already pure. As if such a conversion could be realized by the wave of a hand. As though the outer purification was also the inner one. As if all those people were righteous from then on and no longer sinned. As if the sinful past were washed away by such a baptismal bath. How these Essenes understood how to frighten them with the catastrophe threat, then an instant later to comfort them and give them the guarantee of salvation! With what authority did he do that? Surely with that of his superior Superior from Qumran or wherever. What arrogance! How the people were treated. How they were made into fearful children who begged for forgiveness. The game was repulsive. I turned to leave.††††††
Then my gaze fell on someone standing with those waiting to be baptized. He didnít fit in with the others. He wasnít one of the fearful little sinners. What was it that made him stand out from the rest? The Baptist also noticed him. He stopped yelling and baptizing and stared at him, that one among so many, and his face registered first shock, then doubtful recognition, joy and enthusiasm, and suddenly he cried: Itís he! Itís he! He, the awaited one, the longed for, the promised one!
A deep silence reigned as the Baptist approached the one he had so described. I didnít hear what they said, I only saw how their gazes met. It was an agreement from long ago. As though they had long known each other. As though this encounter was not accidental. What was happening? The Baptist didnít want to baptize, he handed his shell to the other and bowed his head in order to be baptized. The other insisted, however, that the Baptist baptize him. A strange game. Finally the Baptist gave in and sprinkled water over the other. At that moment something pulled his gaze upwards. He saw something, but what? There was something there that pulled all our gazes upwards, and it was nothing, and yet it was something. Something was present that had not been there before. Something touched us.
It was very fleeting, but it left a trace like a rift in the air. Today I know what it was. Then I shook my head about myself and that Baptist, and I was angry for letting myself be impressed by that scene, and finally my anger was directed towards that man of whom the Baptist said: It is he.
Who then? A prearranged game. Two Essenes played it. The awaited one whom the Baptist announced is come, see, the prophecy is fulfilled, and then the other one, the one about the catastrophe.
What did I care? It had nothing to do with me.
I saw how the baptized one wrapped his cloak tight around him and left. For a moment I was tempted to run after him, speak to him and find out his secret. But of course I didnít do it. One doesnít do such things. It wasnít my way. I left in the opposite direction to be sure not to meet that person again.
I found no lodging that night. Everything was occupied by the Jordan pilgrims who were waiting to be baptized. I had to be happy to have found a cave. No sooner had I fallen asleep when something woke me: many people came rushing into the cave and pressed into the rear. After a while I heard the clatter of horses and orders being shouted, the language was not ours, it was the Romansí Latin. Obviously they didnít find what they were looking for and rode off. It was clear that they were pursuing people and the pursued were with me in the cave. I pushed closer to them and said: Donít be afraid, whoever you are, Iím on your side, Iím a Galilean, who are you?
Are you alone?
On the run?
No, only without lodgings tonight. And you?
Why? you ask. Do you, a Jew and a Galilean, like living under the Romans?
Of course not.
And what are you doing to free Yisrael?
What can I do, I, a woman?
A pair of women emerged from the shadows. Come with us! We are gathering friends, comrades in the struggle.
What does your struggle look like?
What does it look like? Like every struggle for freedom. What are you asking? Donít you know anything about whatís going on? Did you see the crosses over there? Are you a Jew how clasps her hands in her lap and waits for a rescuer to relieve you of the struggle? Come, girl, come with us. Here: take this, hide it under your cloak.
Cold steel: a dagger.
A low, sharp order, and the shadows crept away. I saw no face. The dagger lay in my hand.
I considered: over there the Baptist screaming for penance. Repent, for the end of time is near, change your life; and here the dagger and the struggle for freedom. Over there waiting for the Messiah, and here your own deeds. The purifying water, the purifying blood.
Morning came. I saw the hill with the crosses. The bodies still hung on the wood. There were women among them, their bellies turned towards the stake. What a feeling of shame. I laughed out loud, then I cried.† My people, my people, what they do to you, how they shame you! How they hound you! And no one to save you from misery. No one. Where is the Eternal One who made the testament with us, the great, eternally valid testament? He is breaking it! He, not us this time. But maybe itís all a deception and this Eternal One doesnít exist. Maybe the Greek was right when he said: we make gods, we make our own god. In order to bear our misery, we invent the Father-God and the Messiah. Infantile beliefs, foolishness. Enough of that. Final repudiation. Earless, eyeless, powerless! I screamed it into the cold morning. Youíre supposed to be the Father? You are not. You are supposed to be with us? Where then? You promised us your kingdom. Where is it? Where is your help? You make the rich richer, the powerful more powerful, you forget the poor and even take away their daily bread. Thatís what youíre like, IF you even exist. It would be better for you and for us if you didnít exist. Listen, in Yisraelís name you are never forgiven. Amen.††††
That was of course a nonsense prayer: how could I rage against what doesnít exist? But it helped me. A shackle fell from me. I felt grown-up. I sensed my own strength and a hard joy. The joy of the godless. The arrogance of the godless. The cold pride of the free person. Call it a demonic joy, an evil joy. You are right. None could overcome this demon except the son of infinite love.
So you see, there is something to the story about demons. A Jewess whose love for her people turns into hate against him who she accuses of having broken the contract. A Jewess who becomes ill from hate and love. Love and hate: these were the two sides of the same coin. My eyes saw only one. I decided to side with the opposition groups. I would find them most easily in Galilee. There the fronts were clearest. Farther to the south, in Judea, in the capital of everything, they were mixed. There were too many there who made deals with the Romans: priests, feudal masters, businessmen. All kinds of profiteers who liked things as they were: let things stay as they are, we are the silent winners.
In Galilee they were poor and rebellious as ever. So I went there.
Translated, from the German, by Frank Thomas Smith
Continued in the next issue of SCR
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