How Solomon Ibn Gabirol Transformed One of the Darkest Passages in the Bible into a Poem of Hope

July 15, 2021 | Yosef Lindell
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On Tisha b’Av, which begins this Saturday night, Jews commemorate the anniversary of the destruction of the two temples, alongside other historical calamities. The traditional service for the day involves the recitation of numerous elegies, known by their traditional Hebrew name as kinot. In some Ashkenazi communities, the final kinah is one authored by the great 11th-century philosopher-poet Solomon Ibn Gabirol. The poem is a dialogue based on Ezekiel 23, where the northern kingdom of Israel (Samaria) and the southern kingdom of Judah are addressed, respectively, as Oholah and Oholibah—two adulterous sisters whose promiscuity serves as a metaphor for the Jews’ betrayal of God. Yosef Lindell analyzes it:

[In the biblical chapter], Oholah and Oholibah similarly represent a nation that had always been mired in sin. Thoroughly wicked, they deserve the destruction that overtakes them. Moreover, the sisters are silent, objects of prophetic [condemnation]. They have no voice. Tried as adulterers and stoned, their chapter closes without consolation. [By contrast, Ibn Gabirol] provides the sisters’ perspective, allowing them to speak. In fact, most of the kinah is their words and complaints.

Nor, in this telling, are they entirely evil. Each sister acknowledges her sins and seems to regret the consequences. “I, Oholah, acted with spite and treachery; my betrayal opposed me, and my rebellion accused me.” Oholibah admits, “I, too, was perverse and betrayed the Companion of my Youth just as you did.” In Ezekiel, the sisters expressed no regret. But in [the poem], Oholah and Oholibah are here at last to lament their misdeeds.

After 1,000 years of exile, Oholah and Oholibah are chastened, and seem more wretched than wicked. Their sins were but foolish. They are desolate. They are lost. “Have mercy, God!” the [poem’s narrator] demands. Has not their punishment already been meted out in full measure? What’s more, the petition is in the plural, so it seems like we are praying for Oholah too, asking God to bring back the ten lost tribes. This gives voice to one of the most persistent legends in Jewish history: that the ten tribes [of the northern kingdom] did not assimilate and are somewhere awaiting the redemption.

[Thus] Ibn Gabirol’s kinah provides a hopeful coda to one of the grimmest parables in Tanakh. If even Oholah and Oholibah deserve redemption, don’t we?

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