Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Rahab the Harlot: The Rabbis' Convert

Over Shavuot, I gave a shiur on Rahab (which, actually, is pronounced Rachav, or more appropriately, here's the Hebrew: רחב), and I'd been planning on posting some form of the shiur here, so here I am. This paper originated in the Fall semester 2009 for a Midrashic Literature course. How did I happen upon Rahab? You know, I honestly can't remember. I wanted to do something with conversion, and I had originally intended to write about the Rabbi's views on conversion. The literature on this, actually, is pretty broad, so I narrowed things down to one, single, well-loved convert: Rahab ha'zonah. After some interesting mentions of "red cords" and "red threads" in various parashot, I've decided to continue my exploration of Rahab and some inconsistencies and curiosities about the red cord (related to the Passover, perhaps, but in sacrifices of repentance, the red thread becomes as such through the dying of the thread with a substance derived from a lowly snail, showing a rise from a lowly state [repentance] to a higher place [Rashi]).

Anyhow. Let's start with my intro.
In the Book of Joshua, the reader encounters Rahab the Canaanite harlot (zonah, זונה), who is charged with saving Joshua’s spies from imminent danger and as a result is herself saved from certain death at the hands of the Israelites. Subsequently, the Rabbis understand Rahab as mending her unfortunate ways, accepting the Israelite G-d as the only god, and becoming the ultimate example among the Rabbis of the truly righteous convert. They sing her praises throughout the midrash, particularly her wisdom in concealing the spies and negotiating her own rescue. Because the Rabbis paint an extremely positive picture of the woman who, according to the midrash, would marry Joshua and produce eight prophets, it is clear that they view Rahab as symbolizing “the positive influence that Israel exerts on the surrounding Gentile nations, as well as successful conversion.” Any negativity surrounding her occupation, her national affiliation, or the incident of her being spared – despite the commands of Deuteronomy 20:10-20, specifically 10-16 to “not let a soul remain alive” – is washed away and ultimately romanticized throughout the midrash, save for one instance citing Israel’s failure to commit complete destruction by sparing Rahab, which will be discussed in brief. The Rabbis clearly view Rahab as the ultimate, ideal convert, applying to Jeremiah, who is said to have descended from Rahab, the proverb: “The son of the corrupted one who mended her ways will come and reproach the son of the fit one who had gone astray.”
The most intriguing question, however, is why the Rabbis chose Rahab as an example to gentiles as the ideal, righteous proselyte – what attracted the Rabbis to Rahab and her story, prompting their message that if a harlot can convert, so, too, can anyone? This paper will address this question through a discussion of the midrash, as well as its treatment in sources such as those of Josephus. This discussion ultimately will show that what Rahab offered the Rabbis was the model of the repentant fallen woman who finds the true G-d and emerges as a matriarch of Israel, in a “Jewish setting apparently anxious for female figures of conversion and repentance.” Rahab thus becomes the paramount model of the righteous proselyte, indeed one that surpasses even the most well-known of the Rabbis converts, such as Jethro, in her recognition of HaShem's true powers.
It's a little wordy, and it was hacked down by quite a bit for my Graduate Presentation in March and even more so for my shiur. The thing is, for the shiur I opted to axe the academics/scholars from the mix. Dangerous? Maybe. But it fit the shiur better.

The paper goes on to detail the narrative, then examining how Rahab becomes known as a harlot, followed by an exploration of the Midrashic literature on Rahab as a convert in the eyes of the Rabbis, and concluding with a discussion of why the Rabbis chose Rahab over all others as witness to the righteous convert.

I've got a boatload of sources, including a variety that attempt to launder Rahab's post as a harlot (she's named as a perfumer, innkeeper, and more!). But smashing 18 pages into one blog post is, well, ridiculous. So I decided to just post the sources up HERE and the actual paper up HERE. Enjoy. Read. And let me know what you think. I apologize for any mistakes, errors, or assumptions that might seem absolutely obscene to you. After all -- this is an academic exploration of Rahab, but it caters itself well to a religious inquiry as well, I think. Here are my concluding thoughts (in case you're too lazy to read the paper, that is).
The ultimate conclusion the Rabbis drew from Rahab’s conversion is the superiority of repentance over prayer, for even though Moses prayed exceedingly, G-d did not accept his entreaty to enter the land. The repentance of Rahab the harlot was accepted, and the midrash concludes that seven kings and eight prophets were issued forth from her (Seder Eliyahu Zuta). That the biblical Rahab becomes transformed into a repentant convert and wife and ancestress of worthy priests and prophets in Israel reflects the Rabbis’ need to adopt biblical models of the welcome Judaism extends to all sincere proselytes – regardless of their past. Rahab is thus evidence for the Rabbis of the “efficacy of Judaism and its traditions in taming the disordering powers of female sexuality.” These stories are evident in the midrash, including a popular tale in BT Menahot 44a (and Sifre Numbers 115) in a discussion of the importance of observing the precept of ritual fringes, or tzitzit, by recounting the tale of a student who, while careful in observing this precept, himself gets caught up with a harlot. The harlot, after a series of events, ends up converting and marrying the student. This narrative, like the Rahab story, is appealing and romantic, juxtaposing some of the “risqué imaged details of its subject’s profession with a religious miracle and the spiritually elevating account of her acceptance into the Jewish community.” That this prized convert is a woman attests to something even more unique, and that is that there were more men than women proselytes mentioned in rabbinic literature. Thus, it is understandable that the Rabbis would focus on key individuals such as Rahab in their discussion of the female proselyte as a penitent courtesan.
As Phyllis Bird suggests, the story depends on a certain “reversal of expectations.” It is unlikely to expect a “shrewd and calculating operator” like a prostitute to save the spies and declare allegiance to G-d, but she does. The Rabbis, then, understood something profound about their choice as the ultimate righteous convert: “The harlot understands what the king of the city does not – that Israelite victory is imminent and inevitable.”
(Note: In the paper, I use the fully spelled out name of HaShem (I know, I know, not in Hebrew it doesn't matter, but it feels weird to me), because in academia, this is how we roll. I apologize if I offend you!)