Roy Moore, the candidate for the Senate from Alabama, who has a thing for pubescent girls, came to my Shabbat morning class this past weekend.
Well, not really.
But, he was totally there — at least, in spirit.
On Shabbat mornings at Temple Solel in Hollywood, Florida, we have been studying the haftarah portions of the week — the passages from the prophetic and historical books of the Hebrew Bible.
The haftarah for this past week tells the story of the final days of King David — First Kings, chapter 1:
King David was now old, advanced in years; and though they covered him with bedclothes, he never felt warm. His courtiers said to him, “Let a young virgin be sought for my lord the king, to wait upon Your Majesty and be his attendant; and let her lie in your bosom, and my lord the king will be warm.” So they looked for a beautiful girl throughout the territory of Israel. They found Abishag the Shunammite and brought her to the king. The girl was exceedingly beautiful. She became the king’s attendanta and waited upon him; but the king was not intimate with her.
To sum up: David is now dying, and it’s not pretty. The warrior-king is so feeble that he is now lying in bed, unable to get warm. The “ladies’ man” who once had no trouble finding his own women now needs for someone else to find him a woman.
Except, it’s not a woman. It is a young girl — a hapless, innocent young girl, taken away from her family to serve an aging king.
Get it? Now, surely, Roy Moore was but a fraction of David’s age when he developed his taste for underage girls. But if the text fits, wear it.
Let’s start with the obvious, salacious question, about David and Abishag.
Why didn’t they, um, do it?
Was it because he couldn’t do it? (Bad pun alert: in David’s time, there might have been Vayikra, but there was no Viagra).
No, said the ancient sages. They didn’t do it, because Abishag took charge of the situation.
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 22a) says that Abishag did not want to be intimate with the king unless he married her.
David refused to marry her. Perhaps he didn’t want any more children who would wind up demanding the throne.
In which case, Abishag did the Nancy Reagan thing.
She just said “no.”
That is what Roy Moore’s victims said, or wanted to say, and are now saying.
Back to Abishag.
It is not only the Talmud that adds to her tale.
The Yiddish poet, Itzik Manger, imagines her missing her family and mourning her fate:
Abishag sits in her room
And writes a letter home:
Greetings to the calves and sheep–
She writes, sighing deeply…
King David is old and pious
And she herself is, “oh, well” —
She’s the king’s hot water bottle
Against the bedroom chill…
More than once a night
She softly mourned her fate.
True, wise people say
She’s being charitable.
They even promise her
A line in the Bible.
“Oh, well,” she says. She is the king’s “hot water bottle.” And, as a reward, she gets a line, or two, in the Bible.
The great American poet, Robert Frost, imagines Abishag’s later years:
The witch that came (the withered hag)
To wash the steps with pail and rag
Was once the beauty Abishag.
Ouch. Is that all she deserves?
What I love about Abishag is how the Talmud re-writes her story. It imagines that she refused to be passive, that she took charge of the situation, that she found her voice. And that is precisely what is happening now — with the women who are coming forth about Roy Moore.
That has been the pattern, in recent days. Women are screaming about powerful men who took advantage of their vulnerability.
But what makes the case of Roy Moore even worse is that some are defending him — by pointing to the New Testament “example” of Joseph and Mary — who, they surmise, might have been not much older than some of Roy Moore’s victims.
Some seminary should offer a prize for the Worst Use of a Biblical Text To Excuse Horrendous Behavior. Because those rationalizations would win — hands down.
What makes it even worse is that there are Christian pastors who are defending him — an entire list of them.
So, let us give a woman poet, Delilah Riordan, the final word about Abishag — in her poem, “Abishag”:
The last of the King’s women, forgettable as bed-pillows…
There is more to me than warming this cold King,
but that is what people remember.
It’s how my name got in the book.
Yes, there was far more to Abishag than warming this cold King.
Roy Moore and his supporters will probably read this story, and give each other high fives. See — there is a biblical precedent! Powerful man, young girl, case closed.
Wrong. Because, the Talmud offers the necessary corrective to the story.
Abishag (certainly no older than the girls in the Moore tales would have been) said “no.”
It is too much to imagine — even too much to hope for — that those Alabama girls/now women who are coming forth would have had the presence of mind of the Talmudic version of Abishag, and looked into the eyes of an Alabama judge and say: No (or, something far stronger).
Across the generations, and across the centuries of sacred text, Abishag is screaming.
Let’s just hope that the good citizens of Alabama hear her.