To Speak or Not to Speak-Muteness/silence in Biblical, Hasidic, Yiddish, Holocaust, and Hebrew Literature

By Parmet, Harriet L. | Midstream, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

To Speak or Not to Speak-Muteness/silence in Biblical, Hasidic, Yiddish, Holocaust, and Hebrew Literature


Parmet, Harriet L., Midstream


Muteness/silence appears in Jewish literature to express a variety of ideologies; theological, political, philosophical, spiritual, and religious from antiquity to modern times. Being mute obviously is to refrain from speech or utterance. The condition may result from being incapable of speech or a momentary absence of any sound or membership in a culture in which no response is the norm. Overwhelming silence can also be present in a geographic location. This essay will cite examples from the Hebrew Bible, Hasidic legends, contemporary literature set in Eastern Europe, and modern Israeli writers.

One observes that the power of ancient Biblical narrative is marred by the peculiar voicelessness of women in the Bible, corroborating Ben Sira's statement that "a silent woman is a gift from the Lord." Even though matriarchs are powerful enough to deflect the course of covenantal succession, they are almost never the enactors of narrative. Add to this exclusion the anonymous daughters, the passive wives, the handmaids given to husbands, the breeding contests among women, the females thrust through doors to save the lives of men, the falsifying of the reality of their positions. (1)

The Biblical figure Dinah, only daughter of the patriarch Jacob, sister to the twelve brothers who became the twelve tribes of Israel, is a good example. Dinah's only appearance in the Bible is brief and brutal. As recounted in Genesis 34:131, the young woman is sexually assaulted by the prince of Shechem, a Canaanite. Two of her brothers determine she has been raped and hatch a devious plot to avenge this insult to their sister. They tell the Shechemites that the prince can have Dinah, but they say that to make things fight between the two peoples all of the men of Shechem must allow themselves to be circumcised. After the men are weakened from their circumcisions, Jacob's sons Simeon and Levi go through the town and slay them.

The Bible does not tell us about how Dinah feels about these events. We do know that on his death bed, Jacob curses his sons for their treachery (Genesis 49:5-7). Dinah however is never mentioned again. She is a victim, according to the texts, without a consciousness or a life story to tell. Male authorship is very evident to the modern reader's sensitivity. Her silence speaks volumes. And the author causes the reader to ask many questions.

Dinah's silent sufferance can be juxtaposed to Hannah whose story takes a different turn. For Hannah's story (1 Samuel 2: 18-21) has become both prayer theologically and taunt for many infertile women: she agonizes over her infertility as did the matriarch Rachel, yet her invocations are finally answered. Hannah is the first ordinary person--male or female--to pray at a sanctuary. Ironically, her plea is misinterpreted because, in her fervor, "As she kept on praying before the Lord, Eli (the priest) watched her mouth. Now Hannah was praying in her heart; only her lips moved, but her voice could not be heard." She is perceived to be drunk.

At long last she is blessed with a son, Samuel, (the name meaning God heard) whom she dedicates to Temple service. Hannah's silent woman's prayer, unintentional and accidental as it was, transformed the heart of Judaism: midrashic tradition holds that her fervent utterances became the "Amidah" prayer recited as its name implies standing silently. Hannah has laid the groundwork and has gifted us spiritually with the religious paradigm for silent prayer.

While Dinah's thoughts are essentially unknown to us and Hannah's unspoken words evolve into a lasting legacy; Moses, who demurs to speak out of embarrassment, is bidden by God to be the champion of his people.

"But Moses said to the Lord 'Please O Lord, I have never been a man of words ... I am slow of speech and tongue'" Exodus 4:10

Moses is the role model for all time of overcoming disabilities, his speech impediment counting for naught, not compromising in any way his ability to lead. …

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