An Introduction to the Series:
Judaism has always been somewhat of a romantic religion to me. Perhaps it is because it never ceases to evoke within me an authentic array of emotions, ranging from awe to love to apprehension. Through my knowledge of biblical and Talmudic tales of the nation of Israel, I would advocate that the purest love (that of the highest order) is between the Jewish nation and G-d. However, my lack of knowledge about the women in these texts is disheartening. How many female-driven biblical stories, not merely names, do I actually know? Aside from Eve and the four matriarchs — Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah — I find that I know very little about the women from whom our Jewish nation has originated. Ask me to name the male characters whose stories I can regurgitate, and my list triples, at least.
As a result, I have decided to undertake a series of articles with the aim of exposing extraordinary women from holy Jewish texts. I have chosen to title the series “Prodigious Babes of Jewish History” because many times, biblical women are primarily characterized by their relationship to men, i.e. “Wife of [male].” Therefore, there is a sense of male ownership over these women. The contemporary term “babe” connotes a sort of endearing ownership and sentimentalism over whomever is branded as such by whoever is branding. Thus, I aim to reappropriate the reductive term “babe” to portray these women as possessing themselves, rather than being possessed by others. I am here to relay to you their stories as relevant to the modern feminist cause, independent of their identities as wives, daughters or sisters of men but rather as wives, daughters or sisters in and of themselves.
Prodigious Babe #2: Nitzevet
King David is undoubtedly one of the most well-known historical Jewish figures. The fact that the name “David” has been included in the top 20 list of popular boy names in the U.S. since 1928 illustrates the breadth of his influence, even in modern society. However, the name Nitzevet has not once been on that list — nor do I expect it to.
The Talmud introduces this prodigious babe as the mother of David and the daughter of Adael (Bava Batra 91a). Like most women of the holy texts, Nitzevet’s primary identity exists in relation with the men of her life, and their consequent possession of her. Most notably, David is not characterized as her son, but rather she is characterized as his mother. Seemingly, her account serves as supplemental material for readers to better understand David’s narrative. If the book of Samuel became a movie, the Academy would nominate Nitzevet for “Best Supporting Actress.”
So what is her role in David’s story, aside from giving him life? In short, David’s treatment as an outcast in his youth by his brothers is a direct result of allegations of adultery against his mother.
King David’s mother, an adulteress? Let me explain.
David’s paternal lineage stems from Boaz and Ruth. Ruth was a Moabite convert; oral law explicitly forbids intermarriage between an Israelite and a Moabite convert, for the Moabite nation cruelly rejected the Israelites from purchasing food or drink and passing through their land during the Egyptian Exodus (Deuteronomy 23:3). David’s father, Jesse (aka Yishai), upon discovering his genealogy, began to harvest doubts about the legitimacy of his Jewish identity. By this time, he and his wife, Nitzevet, already had conceived seven children together. The ambiguity compelled Jesse, as a righteous man, to separate from his wife, so as to not taint her veritableness as an Israelite.
Years later, Jesse took a Canaanite maidservant for himself to conceive another child of unquestionable lineage. (As a freed manservant or maidservant automatically gained Jewish status, the maidservant was freed on a conditional basis: if Jesse’s lineage was legitimate, she would become a free Jew without the “taint” of marriage with a man of illegitimate lineage; if his lineage was problematic, then she would remain a Canaanite maidservant and still be permitted to marry a Moabite man.) The maidservant was aware of Nitzevet’s deep anguish from the separation, so she clandestinely suggested the two women switch places in the night, just as the nation’s foremothers, Rachel and Leah, did. (Rachel gave up her rightful place under the chuppah beside Jacob to her sister Leah.)
Three months later, Nitzevet’s protruding abdomen branded a scarlet A on her reputation, making her the original Hester Prynne, for no one — including her husband — knew of the switch. (This begs me to inquire about the quality of their lovemaking — for how can a man mistake the mother of his seven children for a maidservant? — and yearn to bestow a copy of the Kama Sutra upon Mr. Jesse. But, I digress.)
Despite the humiliation she endured, Nitzevet remained quiet about the truth so as to not to humiliate her husband. Her silence, however, cost their son David his carefree youth: he was treated as a pariah, outcasted to the far-off fields to herd sheep, bearing the consequences of his mother’s actions (Psalm 69). It was only twenty-eight years later, with the prophet Samuel’s anointing of David as King of Israel, that the mother and son were able to restore their dignity (1 Samuel 16:12-13).
Upon first impression, Nitzevet appears to be a less-than-honorable woman, for she deceived her husband and inflicted a childhood of hardship upon her son. However, it is undeniable that her deception bears some degree of merit, for a child conceived as a product of illicit relations could have not been chosen as king, nor as the forbearer of the Mashiach (messiah). Most Jewish interpretations overlook this deception, and instead praise Nitzevet for her great respect of individual dignity and care so as to not to embarrass others; essentially, they admire her for protecting her husband’s gentle ego and supporting her dejected son.
However, I would like to offer a new perspective.
First off, Nitzevet is a prodigious babe because she elucidates an important lesson regarding the power of silence. Contemporary life is asphyxiated by the abundance of social media and technological advances that make it nearly impossible not to express ourselves. This is particularly true within feminist and social justice circles, for it is remarkably easy and relieving to shed light on every instance in which a particular person or a group of people has been wronged. Of course, it is to everyone’s benefit to ensure equal and fair treatment to all of society’s members; however, there are certain criticisms which serve constructive purposes and others that aim to merely cause controversy and social upheaval without any inherent benefits.
Nitzevet’s narrative demonstrates that even when wronged, we must be careful not to lash out with a quick temper. Even amidst her own passion, she fully bears the consequences of her verboten amour with dignity and deference to law. I am not endorsing the notion that social injustice should be left unpunished; what I am suggesting is that we rediscover the merit of silence only to strengthen our cause(s), for even passion needs to be checked with rationality.
Secondly, Nitzevet is a prodigious babe because she manifests passion — a quality stigmatized for its role in the cult of sensibility as feminine and weak — into a scepter of valor. She yearns for her husband, and refuses to adhere to gender norms by idly waiting for Jesse to resolve the mystery of his lineage. When the opportunity presents itself, Nitzevet pursues her husband, allowing passion to eclipse reason. If she had not transcended her damsel-in-distress role, she wouldn’t have produced the mightiest King of Israel, the forefather of the Mashiach.
Her passion, not rationality or compliance, ultimately uplifts the Jewish nation with the birth of David. Early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft wrote, “Passions are spurs to action, and open the mind.” As Nitzevet illustrates, reason and obedience are incomplete without the supplement of passions to drive them.
Nitzevet is a prodigious babe for inspiring all of us — not just women, but men, too — to pursue our purpose(s) in life with earnest zest and gusto. If we cannot secure “Nitzevet” on the top 20 list of most common baby girl names, perhaps we can secure her merits within each of ourselves.