A Womb With a View

With a little imagination, any problem can be seen according to its relevance to the Jewish issue.

This week's Torah portion is Miketz (Genesis 41-44:17) - the story of Joseph solving Pharaoh's dream about the seven fat and seven lean cows, his appointment as the treasurer and his meteoric success, and the beginning of the showdown with his brothers. The regular haftarah for this portion is taken from the passage beginning with 1 Kings 3:15, but it is seldom read as the Sabbath in question usually falls on Hanukkah and thus has a different haftarah. The last time it was heard in shul was in 2001; the next time will be only in 2021.

This is a pity as the haftarah recounts the story of the trial conducted by King Solomon in the case of two women who each claimed to be the mother of a particular newborn infant. This is Solomon's first appearance in court as king and presiding judge. He had previously been busy settling a bloody score with his father's enemies (Adonia Ben Hagit, Yoav Ben Zeruya and Shimi Ben Gera are killed off, and Eviatar the priest is banished to Anatot). Apart from that, he married Pharaoh's daughter and usually followed in his father's footsteps in matters concerning faith and the law, "only he sacrificed and burnt incense in high places."

Then God comes to Solomon in a dream and, like a good fairy, says, "Ask what I shall give thee." Solomon, the wisest of the wise, says about himself: "I am but a little child: I know not how to go out or come in." Then he asks for "an understanding heart to judge thy people, that I may discern between good and bad: for who is able to judge this thy so great a people?" God praises him for not asking for riches or honor (which he will bestow on him anyway) and answers: "I have given thee a wise and an understanding heart; so that there was none like thee before thee, neither after thee shall any arise like unto thee."

"Wise heart," an oxymoron coupling wisdom with what is considered to be the symbol and source of feeling, is mentioned again in Ecclesiastes and Proverbs, the two books authored by Solomon. Solomon's judgment in the case of the two would-be mothers is the first instance of this "wisdom of the heart."

A child divided

Neither the reader nor Solomon knows at the beginning of the trial who is the real mother. Both plaintiffs are unnamed, they are "this woman" and "the other woman"; both are of dubious reputation, harlots; both were alone in the house when they gave birth. And each claims that the other woman's baby died in his sleep and that she exchanged his body for the living son of the other. Solomon orders a sword to be brought to divide the child in two. One of the women is willing to concede the case and let the child live, and the other says, "let it be neither mine nor thine, but divide it."

Solomon ruled according to the doctrine that considers first and foremost the welfare of the child, which is still the way custody disputes are judged. He inferred the identity of the real mother according to what can be termed "wisdom of the womb," as the woman who wanted to spare the child's life spoke out "for her bowels yearned upon her son." According to the writ, she was deemed the real mother, but for all we know, the scribe was writing on the orders of the king so he would not question the judgment. But the women's behavior does not prove a thing with respect to the question of "who really delivered the child."

Chinese playwright Li Xingdao (13th century C.E.) retells this story in his play "The Chalk Circle," in which the judge draws a circle on the ground and asks the two women claiming to be the mother to pull the child out of the circle, each to her own side. But unlike with Solomon, the audience here knows which is the real (poor and virtuous) mother, and which is the evil impostor who wants the child for pecuniary benefit. Li Xingdao agrees with Solomon: The woman who cares for the child is the mother.

The German playwright Klabund (his real name was Alfred Henschke, 1890-1928) brought Xingdao's play to European stages in 1925, and Bertolt Brecht lifted from it the plot for his "Caucasian Chalk Circle" without giving Klabund or Xingdao due credit, as was his habit. But Brecht made one crucial change: The audience (not the judge) knows which is the real mother. But it is the corrupt woman - who agrees that the child will come to bodily harm in the contest and prefers to lose the child, but wants him to stay unharmed - who is the one who did not give birth to him. She is endowed with "the wisdom of the womb." What matters is what is best for the child (or territories in dispute - that is the subject of the prologue, and the play's plot is an example of arriving at the right solution), not "historic" rights.

Solomon's judgment was based on the presumption that motherhood (the identity of the woman who actually gave birth) is not to be doubted. That is why the immaculate conception, whose 2004th anniversary was celebrated this week all over the Christian world, is widely accepted as a fact. The Roman law stated "mater semper certa est" - "the [identity of the] mother is never in doubt" - but, like many other accepted truths, this one is rather shaky: The child's testimony cannot be trusted; he or she was there physically, but you cannot take his or her word for it. Without impartial eyewitnesses we cannot ever be sure that the mother is telling the truth about her child's identity.

A man or woman is considered to be Jewish according to the mother's Jewish lineage. But to base gynecological inferences on the "wisdom of the womb" is like speaking about "the elephant and the Jewish problem." The origin of this expression is the tendency - apparently predominantly Jewish - to see any problem according to its relevance to the Jewish issue, whether it is pertinent or not.

In the first Book of Maccabees (Chapter 6) - of particular relevance now at the end of Hanukkah - which tells the story of the wars between the Jews and the Greeks, there actually is relevance to elephants: "Eleazar also, surnamed Savaran [the brother of Judah Maccabee] perceiving that one of the beasts, armed with royal harness, was higher than all the rest, and supposing that the king was upon him," and being the hero, "crept under the elephant, and thrust him under, and slew him: whereupon the elephant fell down upon him, and there he died."

Whether Eleazar in his dying moments pondered "the elephant and the Jewish question" was, alas, never recorded.