First Century Jewish Woman

May 23rd, 2020

My sister-in-law is excited about writing her first book, as well she should be. Shawn has been a writer for a number of years, and she has finally convinced somebody to publish her work, and actually pay her for her efforts. A Catholic publishing house, Our Sunday Visitor, has agreed to print an inspirational guide by Shawn. I believe the working title for the book is “Mary’s House”.

Shawn and I have discussed her book. The basic idea is that Mary, the mother of Jesus, invites people into her home, and these visitors talk with Mary about their lives. The reader is likewise invited to mentally enter Mary’s house, and engage in conversation with her. The book potentially provides a starting point for prayer and meditation.

“Inspirational” texts have the unfortunate tendency to become really cheesy. I am not worried that Shawn will fall into that trap with her writing, but it is easy to put words into somebody’s mouth. It is especially easy to do that if that person has been dead for nearly two thousand years. So, there needs to be a conscious effort to maintain some level of authenticity in story. This is difficult with regards to Mary, since everything we know about her could be written on a single sheet of paper. Mary’s life is in many ways a vacuum, just waiting to be filled by an author’s imagination.

Most of what Catholics think about Mary is not from the Bible. A lot of our beliefs come from the theology and traditions about Mary that has accumulated over the course of twenty centuries. We seem to know quite a bit about Mary the Mother of God, the Theotokos, the Kwan Yin of the West. We know next to nothing about Mary, the peasant woman in rural Palestine.

Shawn wanted to know from me what Mary would say about God. I guess she asked me about this because I have been hanging around an Orthodox synagogue for a decade. I gave her some ideas, but as I thought more about it, I realized that I really had no clue what a First Century Jewish woman would say. I know that she would not say what a modern Catholic woman might say about her faith, but that doesn’t help much.

I decided on Wednesday to join the synagogue’s schmooze session on Zoom. The meeting is hosted by Sarah, the rabbi’s wife, and it amounts to a virtual kaffeeklatsch. There were five people in attendance at this session: four Jewish ladies and myself. I mentioned Shawn’s book and I asked the other participants for their input. I told them,

“In Catholicism, Mary is kind of a big deal. I’m not going to try to explain why.”

They all nodded. There were no eye rolls.

Then I asked them, “Alright, so what would this woman be like? What would this Jewish mother say?”

Those questions provoked a rather interesting discussion.

One of the people in the group, Susan, asked me, “What time frame in her life are we talking about? Is this before or after, well, you know…”

I answered, “I believe we are talking about after her kid was tortured and executed by the Romans.”

Susan went on to ask, “So, when she got pregnant, what did she think? Did she really believe that God did it?”

I shrugged. “Well, that’s what the book says.”

Tamar and Jane suggested some reading materials about that time and place in history. I look forward to seeing those, and forwarding them to Shawn.

Sarah wrapped things up by say, “I don’t think we can put ourselves in the place of a woman from two thousand years ago. Things were just so different then.”

That’s hard to argue with. If these women can’t completely identify with a Jewish mother from the Roman period, then I certainly cannot. I agree that many things in life are radically different now. However, basic human nature has not changed in two millennia. One thing that I love about the stories in the Torah are that they remain so relevant to our times. The passions and foibles of men and women are the same now as they were in ancient times. We have the same hopes and fears, the same struggles.

Probably, Shawn will have to rely on her personal experiences as a mother to write this book. That might be the key to its authenticity.

By the way, Susan wants to read the finished book.






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