Wednesday, June 20, 2012

In Honor of the Month of Tammuz (and the Jewish anniversary of my wedding)

(**Today being the beginning of the month of the Jewish/Babylonian month Tammuz, I am posting the speech I gave before my wedding last year, which also took place on the first of Tammuz. Sorry it's such a long post-- if you get more than two screen-lengths down, you'll have done better than I did at the wedding, as many people were rudely interrupting me with singing, l'chaims, and other interjections. ;) 

            Besides being the day I get married, today is also the first day of the Jewish month of Tammuz, also known as Rosh Chodesh Tammuz. While we chose this day because it was the Sunday of a three-day weekend, I have a few reasons to be pleased that it is also Rosh Chodesh Tammuz. First of all, while it is traditional for the bride and groom to fast on their wedding day, it is forbidden to fast on Rosh Chodesh. So I’ll drink to that. Secondly, Tammuz is traditionally considered a month of mourning, as it contains the 17th of Tammuz, a day commemorating the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem before the destruction of the second Temple, which is three weeks before Tisha B’av, the day commemorating the destruction of both Jerusalem Temples. During the three weeks between the 17th of Tammuz and Tisha B’av, Jews are not allowed to hold weddings. So, by having my wedding on the first of Tammuz, I get to eat, and I get to have a summer wedding that doesn’t violate the three-week mourning period.
            But the most important reason I am glad to get married on Rosh Chodesh Tammuz is that it gives me a chance to give a d’var Torah about Tammuz. And by that I mean not the month, but the god. What’s that you say, you didn’t know that Tammuz is a name for God? Well it’s not a name for God—it’s a name for a god. A Sumerian-Babylonian god, to be precise.
            Now, believe me, I was as confused as you are. Why is there a Hebrew month named after a Babylonian god? But the fact is, all of the names of the months in the Jewish calendar were borrowed from the Babylonian calendar. The names we use were brought back to Judea by exiles returning from Babylon. You might wonder, were there original Hebrew names for these months? For example, what did the Hebrews call the first month? Well, what is the first number? That’s right—in the Tanakh, we find that months are simply given ordinal names. You might find it strange that the Jews used Babylonian names—but hey, cultural mixing happens. Even ‘Jesus’ used to be a Jewish name.
            Anyhow, each Babylonian month had a presiding deity, but only the month of Tammuz is named after its presiding deity. So, while all of the Hebrew month names are borrowed from the Babylonian, Tammuz is the only Hebrew month named after a Babylonian deity. And let’s face it, that is weird. So who was Tammuz, and can we make any Torah out of the fact that we Hebrews are entering the month bearing his name?
            Tammuz has two sets of literary traditions, one very happy and one very sad. In the earlier, happier tradition, Tammuz was invoked by Babylonian kings who were getting married, in a ritual known as “hieros gammos” or literally “holy sex.” I’m a little iffy on the details, but it sounds like these kings would get married, or at least have sex with a cult priestess, and they would do a bit of role-playing, that is, the king would declare himself to be Tammuz, and his partner to be Inanna, Tammuz’s wife. The idea was that, by taking the place of Tammuz and Inanna, the king was drawing down divine power which would bless their partnership, specifically making the queen more fertile, and most likely ensuring agricultural success too. Since Tammuz was a god of fertility, this ritual made a lot of sense. In fact, the majority of the early literature on Tammuz is explicit love poetry, similar to the biblical Song of Songs. In this poetry, Inanna offers herself and her various body parts, and invites herself to be plowed. We see here how this euphemism for sex as plowing really has some important pagan roots, as the fertility of women was linked with the fertility of the earth. This also follows the long-standing patriarchal tradition of identifying women with inert matter. Tammuz himself makes a connection between human and agricultural fertility by being a shepherd-king—his power to breed sheep is one more piece of his power over all fertility. Clearly there are some very patriarchal views of gender being promulgated by the myths of Tammuz. But I don’t think we should expect much else from the ancient near east.
            So can we make any Torah out of this sexually explicit material? None that I can see. The use of the god Tammuz for fertility, especially the part in which his role is re-enacted by a human king, is incredibly pagan. Furthermore, the story of his love with Inanna is explicitly connected with fertility, so, it’s not really love, it’s just breeding. If anything, their story reinforces the stereotype of straight people as “breeders,” one which I find offensive. While some societies may attach meaning to marriage only in its ability to produce children, I must insist that I’m only in it for love. If there are to be kids, that’s fine, but it seems rude to spoil a wedding by bringing them up.
            Now, I told you that there was a second half to the story of Tammuz, and I’m gonna spoil it by letting you know now that it is not a good piece of Torah either. Here it is: So Inanna, Tammuz’s wife, is apparently the lord of some world or another, but she is not the lord of the underworld. So she decides to take a trip to the underworld in order to seize power. As she descends, she can only cross through certain gates by removing bits of jewelry. By the time she reaches the underworld, she is naked and therefore, powerless. The present lord of the underworld promptly kills her and hangs her on a nail. Weak. However, it appears that Inanna expected something like this to happen, and cuts a deal that she can go free—if she finds someone to replace her on that nail. So she leaves the underworld with two demons at her side, and travels, searching for someone to replace her. Finally she finds her husband, Tammuz. He is wearing fine robes and sitting on her throne. Clearly, he is pretty pleased that his wife is dead. Inanna, in a fit of rage, chooses him to replace her in the underworld. On this account, most of the later texts about Tammuz are ones of mourning. Some of the stories have an epilogue, in which Tammuz cuts a deal in which he only spends half of the year in the underworld, being replaced by his sister for the other half. The story sounds a lot like the one of Persephone in Greek mythology.
            Pretty gruesome stuff, right? Certainly nothing to look up to in these stories. Tammuz and Inanna’s love is entirely focused on power and fertility, and Tammuz later dies after his wife gets mad that he has been celebrating her death. Clearly there are no good feminist role models in this story.
At least at this point, I can bring up the only biblical reference to Tammuz. The 8th chapter of Ezekiel opens with God lifting Ezekiel up by his hair, and bringing him to the temple in Jerusalem. God proceeds to show Ezekiel all of the various abominations that the Israelites are involved with. At verse 14, God tells Ezekiel to take a look at “the women, weeping for Tammuz.” We know now, of course, that they are weeping for Tammuz because he has been taken to the underworld. Why is this worth crying about? Well, if Tammuz, the god of fertility, is dead, good luck with any breeding or farming you need to do!
            At this point, I can take a step back and point out there is some overlap between Babylonian and Jewish traditions about Tammuz the month. Before the month of Tammuz was a month of mourning for the Jews, it was already a month of mourning for the Babylonians. Tammuz is a good month for farmers to mourn, as it always follows the summer solstice—it’s a time of the year in which the days get shorter, as well as hotter and dryer. If you are hoping for things to grow, the month of Tammuz will be a very sad month for you.
            The translation of mourning for Tammuz the god to mourning the destruction of the Temple is a pretty simple one. On an agricultural level, Tammuz served the same function as the Temple—both were necessary connections to the divine power to make things grow. The Yahwist cult in the Temple spent much of its lifespan insisting on itself as the sole connection to divine growing power. As we can see from this passage in Ezekiel, they did not always win this competition. That is the sad irony of the image of women crying in the temple over Tammuz—they are crying because they have lost their connection to the god of fertility, even while they stand in the Temple of Yahweh. No wonder, then, that God ends the chapter by promising pitiless fury—what is the point of having a Temple to share His presence and blessing, if people are using it to mourn the passing of strange gods?
            There is also an interesting disconnect between the Babylonian and Jewish traditions of mourning in Tammuz. If we are to take Tammuz’s epilogue seriously, then the women who mourn for Tammuz know that he will be resurrected. Pagan mythology follows nature, meaning, it’s cyclical. If a god of fertility dies because the summer becomes too intense, no doubt this same god will be reborn… probably around the winter solstice, if you had to place a bet on it. While Tammuz’s resurrection is good news, let’s not forget that his death will always come again, right around the summer solstice. The women mourning are just performing an exercise in agricultural magic. Contrast this, then, with the meaning of the destruction of the Temple. While a second Temple was built again after the first Temple, by no means could we say that the Temple is destroyed and rebuilt in cycles. Unlike Tammuz, who is just a story, the Temple is a historical reality. The traditional Jewish hope for a third Temple is not something that comes and goes with the seasons. Any Jew today who waits for the Third temple is also waiting for Moshiach, the messiah, and a subsequent end to history. Unlike the pagan, Jewish mythology is linear and historical. In mourning the Temple, Jews mourn their exile from the promised land, and the exile of God from the focal point of His presence on earth.
            Just to be clear, I am not waiting for the Third temple. As a former vegetarian, I find ritual sacrifice to be a ghastly way to connect to God, and as a secular Jew, I can only imagine what political effect the coming of the Messiah would have on my liberal and secular Jewish brethren in Israel. Personally, my entire existence as a person and as a Jew would not be what it is without the exile and the diaspora, so I find it hard to mourn the events which set them in motion. Similarly, I am not mourning for Tammuz. If your wife descends to seize power in the underworld and doesn’t return, it is neither smart nor sensitive to celebrate her death, especially by sitting on her throne. Also, Tammuz is a fictional character.
            So is there any meaning in this? I’m beginning to understand why no one has ever given a d’var on Tammuz before, especially on their wedding day.  I’ll try one more time to make some sense.
            At the end of the ceremony today, my bride and I will break a glass underneath our feet. No one really knows why Jews do this—some say we are scaring away demons who might come to get us during this transitional state between wedding and consummation. Others say that it’s a symbol—just as the glass cannot be put back together, we should not be undone as a couple. Does anyone realize that the symbol is the opposite of the reality here? The glass is broken up, so we shouldn’t be? It makes no sense. Anyhow, there is one reason for breaking the glass that is relevant to my talk—some say that we break the glass to temper our joy, in memory of the destruction of the Temple. While today we celebrate a wholeness that my bride and I are achieving, there is still brokenness in the world.
            Do you see what I did just there? I started out talking about the destruction of the Temple, but by the next sentence I had generalized it to “brokenness in the world.” This is a common liberal Jewish move—to take Jewish particularism, especially whatever is associated with intense religiosity, and extract from it a universalistic sentiment, one that even non-Jews can appreciate. The question is, when we break the glass today, what will it represent? Will it represent our mourning of the Temple? Our mourning the broken state of the world? Will we be mourning for Tammuz?
            Ok, definitely not the last one. At the very least, I take solace in the paradox that I am celebrating my wedding in a month traditionally associated with mourning. Because it is good and healthy to remember that life is mixed up with death, and death mixed up with life. The women mourning for Tammuz have a confident hope that he will return. Jews mourning the destruction of the Temple have a confident hope that it will be rebuilt. We all know that joy and mourning go hand in hand, if not immediately, then eventually. Our decision then, is to make sure that we celebrate and mourn appropriate things. There is a tradition that Tisha B’av, the day both Temples were destroyed, also marks the day that the Israelites were condemned to wander the desert for 40 years. This happened after they were convinced that they could never conquer Canaan, and they all cried. The version I’ve been told is that God saw them crying and found it inappropriate, giving them this punishment saying “I’ll give you something to cry about!” We see a parallel with the story in Ezekiel 8—after God sees the women weeping for Tammuz, he assures destruction, so that they will have something real to weep about. The lesson, if there is one, is to choose what we celebrate and mourn wisely.
            Well, now it’s time for me to go get married. If you’re looking for me, I’ll be near the front. To summarize, what have we learned today? We learned that Babylonian gods make great names for Jewish months, but poor Torah for Jewish weddings, especially feminist ones. We learned that “breeder” is an insulting term for straight people, and that neither marriage nor women should be thought of as synonymous with fertility. We learned that it’s silly to cry for a god who will return in six months only to die again six months later, but similarly silly to mourn for a temple that you are not in a rush to see return. And we learned that, if you don’t connect to a Jewish ritual, just universalize the theme and blur the back-story. Oh and if your wife descends to the underworld, don’t sit on her throne, because she very might well come back. L’chaim l’chaim.


  1. My comments:
    Is the earth inert? Obviously women are compared to inert things all the time, and the meaning the author intended could mean something powerless and dead, but lets take back that comparison and say that the earth is very alive and busy. Just like women!

    What was the reaction at your wedding from your guests. Was everyone like, "That is so Matt" or were they like "Why is this guy talking about Babylon so much?"

    You posted this at 5:14am! Were you staying up super late or did you wake up super early?

  2. Hi J-- yes, great point! The conflation of women with earth, and both as inert, is an old patriarchal, scientific trope... and I see the whole eco-feminist movement negating this point. The Gaia hypothesis comes to mind.

    As for my guests reactions, I gave this speech at my "tisch," a Jewish pre-wedding tradition in which the guests constantly interrupt the groom's speech with songs and toasts. So, no one really heard the speech. Which is fine by me-- that's the point of this particular tradition.

    Lastly... I posted this at 8:14 am, so my guess is that the server for blogger is in California. Thanks for reading!