Lux: a book review by Aviva Kipen

August 22, 2019 by Aviva Kipen
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For millennia unembroidered biblical and post-biblical stories were elaborated and embellished in the oral tradition that was finally committed to writing following the destruction of the Second Temple.

That canon has been continually enlarged in text-based Midrashim and novels[i]. Modern female writers have begun scripting the vantage points of women, to begin to redress the balance of the ‘Half Empty Bookcase’ filled initially only by the original male storytellers[ii]. Elizabeth Cook, British and Christian, adds her name to the list of re-tellers of the Hebrew bible stories[iii] with “Lux”.

Samuel, Chapter 12 finds King David in his mature years with multiple wives, his prowess as a soldier and tactician lauded, not least for his lustfulness and lack of restraints in some things. The wives are identified against the stories of their families of origin, the realpolitik of military survival, succession and the need to secure a still-vulnerable Israel in its hostile locale. But as the birth of David’s illegitimate son on Bathsheba is anticipated by the prophet Nathan (v14) so is its death.  As the babe’s short life ticks down, David retreats to a cave to reflect on his life. Cook recounts the complexity of David’s relationships with father-in-law King Saul, through Michal and Jonathan, and provides a reflection on the sin he has committed against Uriah[iv] by taking his wife and then his life.

Cook then applies the themes of competition between related royal houses, Divine Right of Kings– which implicitly begs the notion of queens regnant – and the questions of territorial security and generational succession, in a much later theatre. Carefully, she revisits the staging posts of the David narrative, connecting to the novel’s true protagonists, Henry Tudor and those around him. Jewish readers now experience a fascinating invitation to wonder about the freedom within which we enjoy our Australian citizenship, as do all beneficiaries of the consequences of Henry VIII’s determined decision to impose separation from Roman Catholicism, and consequently the royal houses that espoused it in 1533. Henry’s emergent Anglo-Catholicism, successfully and ruthlessly imposed once Elizabeth attained the throne and defended it against Rome-aligned Scotland, France and Spain now appear to many as Protestantism.

King David’s life, a daily input to Christian worship through selected passages of Tehilim was re-encountered by Tudor poet Sir Thomas Wyatt, whilst he translated David’s Psalms into 16thcentury English from the liturgical Latin. Imprisoned with so many others whose views were critical of Henry, Wyatt’s imagery of freedom is embodied in his falcon Lukkes (say Lux). The soaring, predatory bird’s pragmatic loyalty to the owner who feeds it tussles against the absolute power of royal prerogative. The biblical imagery applies to political currency in Henry’s court, so repressive of dissent. Devoid of prophets divinely ordained for the role of reproving the monarch of the day, those who risked censuring Henry took their lives in their hands. Even poetry was a weapon and placed Wyatt in jeopardy.

Perhaps not an immediate choice for Jewish readers, the visible allegorical message is clear in our time, as world leaders’ personal behaviour choices are instantly known. Australian history began long after Tudor courtiers and artists, musicians and churchmen. We see ourselves increasingly distant from governance by the British crown, and in the absence of any established church, few would imagine that we would be subject to royal excesses by the English Royal Family.

Nevertheless, Lux – light, by invoking the Davidic royal dynasty of our own roots and restatement of the brutality of its era, deftly makes the applicability of the earlier model clear in its Tudor context. More importantly, the enduring prompt of the bible stories is their applicability to each successive era, for Henry Tudor as much as for us. For some Christians, ‘or chadash al tziyon ta’irmay a new light shine upon Zion’[v], may refer to Jesus, a supposed descendant of David. Jewish readers living in the complex freedom provided by Australia may choose to review the stories of David’s appropriations and excesses as captured in the Christian-identified “Penitential Psalms” through Aussie lenses.

Cook’s Wyatt comments on the behaviour of his king by means of “Englishing” that set of Psalms[vi]. The Hebrew originals mirror the complexity of David, to whom the 150 psalms are traditionally attributed. The much later departures of those who joined Christianity did not break Judaism, which had already established its rabbinic meritocracy. Its reinvented, non-hereditary leadership provided a non-violent transition that even survived Rome becoming officially Christian under Constantine in 4thcentury. Yet some still await their reinstatement. Cohens and Levites remain revered. They wait, and many still pray ‘speedily in our own days’[vii]. Henry’s dynastic ambition could not wait, risking an England overrun by Spain. Yet despite the urgency that imposed many wives, Henry never achieved the progeny of David. His line ended with Elizabeth.

Lux is a remarkable interweaving of one ancient king’s story and his place as redeemer within and beyond Judaism, with a pivotal moment in the life of another. Dying without a son, Henry’s arguably illegitimate daughter would begin the work of turning the map of the world pink. She had no descendants, but her father’s legacy endures beyond her. Judaism’s view of the line of David is still open to conjecture. May a new light shine upon Zion ……..

Lux

Written by Elizabeth Cook

Scribe Australia 2019

 

Rabbi Dr Aviva Kipen serves Progressive Judaism Victoria and Bet Olam Jewish Funerals. Her interest in research involving human participants has led to appointments to HRECS and she currently serve the Australian Health Ethics Committee.  

 

[i]Milton Steinberg’s As a Driven LeafBobbs, Merrill 1940

[ii]Leslie Cannold’s The Book of Rachel, Anita Diamant’sThe Red Tent, Maggie Anton’sRashi’s Daughters.

[iii]Christian Bible expositions by women include Michèle Roberts’s The Wild Girl,

[iv]urimy light YahGod’s name = God is my light, an illuminating name for the Hittite soldier

[v] From the morning prayers, concludes: v’nizkeh chulanu m’heira l’oro– and may all of us soon be worthy of its light

[vi]The Complete Poems (Penguin English poets) Sir Thomas Wyatt  Apr 4, 1989

Greg Walker Writing Under Tyranny: English Literature and the Henrician Reformation, Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2007

[vii]familiar in Birkat ha’Mazon and as Shabbat song bimherah beyameinu from tefilah

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