A colleague and friend of mine was visiting Iceland this past week. In one of her tweets she reported the existence of the Iceland Phallological Museum. Now, it does not at all surprise me that there is, somewhere in this world, a museum dedicated to penises. That it happens to be in Iceland is a mere happenstance. That I would find myself thinking about it in reference to the haftarah for Shabbat Hol HaMo-eid Sukkot this year is somewhat surprising. Or not.
The G”d presented in this haftarah, from Ezekiel (38:18–39:7) is most assuredly a warrior G”d. Though there have been examples of female warriors throughout history (including our own Jewish tradition) the G”d being portrayed here feels particularly masculine to me, and yes, I do mean that in a pejorative sense.
This is a G”d who buys a Mustang or Corvette convertible in response to a mid-life crisis. This is a G”d with an extreme need to prove “him”self-to show that he’s bigger than everyone else. This may be a G”d who is at times boastful of his manhood yet can be timid in the locker room lest his boasting be proven inaccurate. This is a G”d who may be overcompensating just a tad.
I get it, I really do, and I hope you don’t find my frankness disturbing. At 4 foot 10 inches, I’m on the extreme short end of the male height curve (at least for the U.S.) Decades of therapy and positive relationships and experience help, but they never completely erase the tapes developed in childhood. No one ever made me feel bad in the locker room – and I am thankful for that – I did a good enough job of that myself. I wasn’t particularly athletic but no one ever excluded me from their game. Again, for that I am thankful. (I also have to wonder if the same would be true today, in what is definitely to my eyes a much more competitive time for children than it was in the 60s.) However, when you consider that I sometimes played in the same playground as a kid where a somewhat older Lew Alcindor/Kareem Abdul Jabar also played, well, you get the picture. I didn’t think much of my own athletic prowess, though, when I look back on it, I was a decent athlete, and my height only hampered me in situations where height (or reach) really mattered in a physical sense. I learned to run fast enough that the disadvantage of taking smaller steps could be overcome. (I have to admit that, as I have aged, and having had a significant number of relationships with taller people, I’ve noticed it’s a little harder to walk just that little bit faster to keep up with their normal gait.)
Sexually, I was slow to bloom. Thankfully, no partner has ever suggested any lack of prowess on my part – the doubts and insecurities always remain mine. However, that’s just it – the doubts and insecurities remain. Living in this society, bombarded as we are on a regular basis with images of what masculinity is supposed to be and look like, I can’t help but feel an innate inadequacy simply based on my physical stature. It’s also why I am puzzled by how men so much taller than I (even if they are considered below and especially if they are above average height) manifest the same sorts of doubts and insecurities I do.
While I do see some men who are short, or balding, compensating with muscle cars, or fanatic devotion to weight-training, and similar manifestations, I also see a surprising number of men of average height and above doing the same over-compensating. I accept that I am making a great many assumptions and being very judgmental in saying this. I certainly cannot know what prompts another man to do things that give the appearance of seeming to enhance their masculinity. And, as they say, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
Let us turn back to our haftarah. In it, does G”d fear impotence? G”d seems to have a history that might suggest this. The Torah mentions several successful appeals to G”d’s vanity or fear of impotence. The text suggests that G”d responds to hints that G”d’s actions might cause G”d to appear impotent and ineffectual to the goyim. G”d is implored to destroy or not destroy on this basis. G”d hardens the heart of Pharaoh so that G”d’s chastisements against the Egyptians are amplified. Elijah gives G”d the opportunity to demonstrate his manly potency against the priests of Ba’al.
Now Ezekiel comes along and brings us the ultimate war against Gog of Magog. G”d pulls out all the stops. A massive Earthquake that causes all livings things to tremble, that overturns mountains, topples cliff, and causes every wall to crumble. Pestilence. Brother slaying brother. Some torrential rains, hail, sulfurous fire. All for this end:
וְהִתְגַּדִּלְתִּי֙ וְהִתְקַדִּשְׁתִּ֔י וְנ֣וֹדַעְתִּ֔י לְעֵינֵ֖י גּוֹיִ֣ם רַבִּ֑ים וְיָדְע֖וּ כִּֽי־אֲנִ֥י יְהוָֽה׃
Thus will I manifest My greatness and My holiness, and make Myself known in the sight of many nations. And they shall know that I am the LORD.
(It’s a theme later taken up by the Kaddish prayer – yitgadal v’vitkadash – enlarged and sanctified, so may be G”d’s great name.)
The earthquake alone isn’t enough. Over-compensation? Gog’s destruction will be totally over-the-top. So many enemy forces will be killed it will take seven months to bury them. Burning and melting their weapons will provide enough fires for seven years without having to use any wood!
All this to redeem and restore to greatness a people who have been faithless, stiff-necked, arrogant, and easily led astray to follow other gods. Holy testosterone!
Why does G”d need to prove anything to anybody? An analyst could have a field day with G”d and G”d’s insecurities. While we’re at it, just how does circumcision, brit milah, fit into all of this? Have fun with that one.
Judaism, as a religion, at least in its origins, is rather earthy. Sex is not a subject that is shied away from in the Torah. Some religions are more blatant when it comes to deities and sexuality. There is the Greek fertility and vegetable god Priapus. It was customary to propitiate Priapus by stroking the perpetually erect penis on his statue as one passed by. The Hindu religion has Shiva and his lingam. The ancient Egyptians had the fertility god Min.
Judaism and it’s daughter religions don’t have much in the way of blatant sexuality on the part of G”d, though we do have the commandment to be fruitful and multiply, and we are told that we are made in the image of G”d, so therefore doesn’t it hold that G”d…well, you see where that was headed. In general Judaism holds that G”d has no gender, yet there’s some evidence of both masculine and feminine aspects of G”d in Judaism from the ancient Israelite religion right on through Kabbalah and on to today.
All of this has been, of course, a very circuitous attempt at redemption of some very troubling text. Even though G”d is being all machismo in this haftarah for Israel’s sake, it’s still not an image of a G”d that I’d like to worship and in which I can believe. If G”d has a phallus, there’s still little reason for G”d to be worried about size. If G”d doesn’t have a phallus, then what, in G”d’s name, is causing G”d to act like G”d has small penis syndrome, or that G”d is on steroids?
Sadly, in the end, I’m left with this question: “if G”d has a penis, who is it that is getting…?” I’m not sure I want to know the answer.
Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameah
©2012 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
While I’ve not written specifically about this Haftarah before, here are other musings from Sukkot: