Marilynne Robinson is one of the very few contemporary American novelists to be held in near universal esteem. Her readers have the sense that, as with poetry, not a single word is wasted or extraneous. Additionally, Robinson’s concern with Christianity, unusual in contemporary fiction, also contributes to the rapture that her work inspires. In the tradition of American Protestant poetry, Robinson’s novels don’t simply allude to religious experiences, rather they seek to create such experience for the reader. Robinson’s fiction can open your heart to the possibility of change, of divine grace and redemption. For the Jewish reader, then, encountering Robinson can be a complicated experience.
However, Jewishly literate readers may actually be positioned to appreciate Robinson’s fourth novel Lila in a way that others would not. Its eponymous heroine is the least Christian character we have encountered thus far in Gilead, the fictional Midwestern town featured in two of Robinson’s prior novels. Lila even goes so far as to call herself a “heathen,” though this does not prevent her from finding strength and solace in the words of the Bible. Lila is particularly drawn to the Hebrew Bible, as opposed to the New Testament, especially the books of Ezekiel and Job. There is a way in which the entire novel may function as a midrash on, or extended imaginative interpretation of, Chapter 16 of Ezekiel. This chapter contains the famous prophecy which likens the Jewish people to a newborn girl abandoned at birth, covered in blood in an open field. In the prophet’s vision, God passes by this scene of desolation and repeatedly declares, “b’damayikh hayi,” or “in your blood you shall live.” There are various ways to translate this evocative phrase, and it’s striking that in her extended literary meditation upon this verse Robinson ultimately departs from the King James Version and other Christian translations in order to read it in a manner similar to the Jewish tradition. This choice, as well as a general celebration of the Hebrew Bible in this work, makes Lila of particular interest from a Jewish perspective.
Lila is a former migrant laborer who finds herself living in Gilead in an unlikely relationship with Reverend John Ames, a beloved local preacher who is 30 years her senior. Lila is drawn to Ames’ kindness and that of the good people of Gilead, but she has a difficult time reconciling their gentle brand of Christianity with certain painful truths that she internalized during her years of wandering. Although Lila finds it impossible to fully subscribe to the Christian dogmas she encounters in Gilead, she discovers that the Bible as a text can be a tool for her to make sense of her own experiences. In one memorable passage, she realizes that the best words she can find to make sense of a particularly miserable experience spent in a St. Louis bordello come from the first chapter of Ezekiel – one of the two famous “ma’aseh merkavah” sections that attract so much attention in the Kabbalistic tradition. Lila’s reading of the merkavah passage is simultaneously mystical and naturalistic, it offers a way of reading these lines that also speaks to human emotions and not only abstruse theological notions.
While Lila’s pastor husband shares her passion for reading the Bible, her preoccupation with the prophecies of Ezekiel makes him jittery, and he tries to convince her that they are all poetic allegories and parables that eventually lead to Jesus and Christian salvation. Lila will not have it. He wishes that she would look to a New Testament book like the book of Matthew to soften Ezekiel’s devastating prophecies, but it is to no avail. Ezekiel is where Lila locates the words that articulate her condition, “…here they were, right here in the Bible. Don’t matter if it’s sad. At least Ezekiel knows what certain things feel like…”
The specific passage in Ezekiel that Lila frequently returns to is b’damayikh hayi. Jewish readers of Robinson’s novel will recognize this passage from the texts recited at the Brit Milah and the Passover seder. It is part of a larger negative prophecy Ezekiel delivers about the sinfulness of Israel, and represents a peculiarly tender moment amid a larger vision of destruction:
וּמוֹלְדוֹתַיִךְ, בְּיוֹם הוּלֶּדֶת אוֹתָךְ לֹא-כָרַּת שָׁרֵּךְ, וּבְמַיִם לֹא-רֻחַצְתְּ, לְמִשְׁעִי; וְהָמְלֵחַ לֹא הֻמְלַחַתְּ, וְהָחְתֵּל לֹא חֻתָּלְתְּ. לֹא-חָסָה עָלַיִךְ עַיִן, לַעֲשׂוֹת לָךְ אַחַת מֵאֵלֶּה–לְחֻמְלָה עָלָיִךְ; וַתֻּשְׁלְכִי אֶל-פְּנֵי הַשָּׂדֶה, בְּגֹעַל נַפְשֵׁךְ, בְּיוֹם, הֻלֶּדֶת אֹתָךְ. וָאֶעֱבֹר עָלַיִךְ וָאֶרְאֵךְ, מִתְבּוֹסֶסֶת בְּדָמָיִךְ; וָאֹמַר לָךְ בְּדָמַיִךְ חֲיִי, וָאֹמַר לָךְ בְּדָמַיִךְ חֲיִי.
And as for thy nativity, in the day thou wast born thy navel was not cut, neither wast thou washed in water to cleanse thee; thou wast not salted at all, nor swaddled at all. No eye pitied thee, to do any of these things unto thee, to have compassion upon thee; but thou wast cast out in the open field, for that thy person was abhorred, in the day that thou wast born. And when I passed by thee, and saw thee weltering in thy blood, I said unto thee, Though thou art in thy blood, live; yea, I said unto thee, Though thou art in thy blood, live”
(Ezekiel 16: 4-6. King James Version Translation)
The very contours of Lila’s life resemble that of the abandoned girl described in Ezekiel. We first encounter Lila in the beginning of the novel as an abandoned child, unclothed and uncared for in a filthy boarding house for migrant workers. She is rescued, clothed, protected, though ultimately consigned to sordid circumstances, until she is eventually rescued again, this time by Reverend Ames and the community of Gilead.
In the translation used by Robinson, the phrase b’damayikh hayi is translated as “though thou art in thy blood, live,” which could be paraphrased as “live, in spite of your blood.” However, a literal translation of the Hebrew is something much closer to “in your blood, you shall live.” It is this latter understanding that seems to undergird the incorporation of this mysterious passage in Jewish ritual. In the Passover story, on the eve of the exodus from Egypt, the children of Israel are saved from the Angel of Death by spreading the blood of the Paschal offering on their doorposts. In the case of circumcision, a covenant is forged between an individual and God as a “covenant of blood” in which faith alone is not a sufficient measure of commitment. Note the contrast with the Protestant doctrine of “sola fide,” that “faith alone” is necessary in order to receive God’s pardon. In Judaism, faith is not enough, and the “dam” or “blood” of the passage in Ezekiel is itself an essential component of redemption rather than something that must be washed away. This Jewish reading echoes through the generations and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the statement “b’damayikh hayi” is also invoked in the literature of the Holocaust. For instance, the Yiddish writer Leib Rokhman titled his own harrowing account of survival as “Un in dayn blut zolstu lebn” (“And in Your Blood You Shall Live”). During the Second Intifada in Israel, Naomi Shemer composed a beautiful tune entitled “B’damayikh Hayi,” because “these ancient words gave [her] strength” during a time of terror and bloodshed.
While Robinson’s text makes use of the King James translation “Though thou art in thy blood, live,” the spirit of Lila is actually closer to the Jewish understanding of this phrase. Though Lila appreciates Reverend Ames and the life of faith he represents, she suspects that becoming Christian necessarily involves repudiating some aspects of her past. Lila has experienced things that she believes have no place in the Christian framework in which Ames resides. Her challenge is that she does not desire to live “in spite” of her past, but rather, wants to forge a path forward that remains true to the sense of rootlessness and abandonment that she has internalized. In this sense, the translation “in your blood you shall live” speaks more to what Lila is trying to achieve than the translation/interpretation of “though thou art in thy blood, live.”
A kind of resolution to some of these tensions begins to develop when Lila and Reverend Ames anticipate the birth of a child. This child brings with him the promise of undoing the original abandonment described in Ezekiel and in Lila’s own personal history. Lila promises to teach her son hymns and prayers, but she is also determined to give him a sense of the “ferociousness of things,” to teach him what it feels like to wander and to lack a home. “We’ll be nowhere,” she whispers to her unborn child, “and it will be all right.”
When her son is finally born, Lila yet again invokes Chapter 16 from Ezekiel, this time in a way that highlights the tension between her ambiguous relationship with Christianity and her unambiguous identification with the Hebrew Bible:
“She had stolen the preacher’s child, and she laughed to think of it. Making him learn his verses and prayers would be like a joke, when they were off by themselves, getting by as they could. She did steal that Bible, and she’d keep it with her, and she’d show him that part about the baby toiling in its blood, and she’d say, That was me, and somebody said “Live!” I never will know who. And then you came, red as blood, naked as Adam, and I took you to my breast and you lived when they never thought you would. So you’re mine. Gilead has no claim, or John Ames either….”
In this speech Lila revises the statement “though thou art in thy blood, live” into the direct and triumphant “live!” Naomi Shemer does something similar in the moving refrain of her song, when she repeats “hayi, hayi” over and over again. As it is understood by the Jewish tradition, “b’damayikh hayi” in both of these examples is not a call to cleanse one’s past, but rather to turn it into a legacy to pass on to a new generation. Robinson, through Lila, looks at this Biblical text in a fresh way and is not afraid to undermine classic Christian readings in the process.
For a Jewish reader who is interested in the Bible and in literature, English language texts based on the Hebrew Bible often offer a mixed bounty. For instance, John Milton’s Paradise Lost is a veritable cornucopia of insights into the book of Genesis and the Hebrew Bible as a whole, but it also presents the events in the Garden of Eden as ineluctably headed in the direction of Jesus and the New Testament. This may be acceptable for a Jewish reader in light of the brilliance of Milton’s vision and the lack of comparable literary texts in the Jewish tradition. Robinson, on the other hand, is indisputably Christian in orientation, yet her scriptural readings emerge from a direct and unmediated engagement with the Hebrew Bible that is compelling for readers of any faith, and perhaps Jewish readers in particular. She reminds us that the Tanakh is, among many other things, truly fertile ground for literary interpretation.