Tuesday, June 30, 2009

theodora and beruriah's sister


The words for Handel’s “Theodora”
are not written in the Torah,
or even in the book they call
the gospels, or epistles Paul
wrote to the Romans and Galatians
and other gentiles whose persuasions
conflicted with his own. Their source
is neither classical nor Norse,
but comes from legends Christians told
about the martyrs in their fold.

Most of these martyrs met their death
with Jesus’ name upon their breath,
impressing Romans by their dying
joyfully, as if relying
on Jesus to provide them better
lodging with the First Begetter,
His Father who ruled heaven and
the still unholy Roman land.
They threatened Theodora with
a far worse fate, so goes the myth.
This fate all legends have reported
by martyrdom became aborted,
for only by her death could she
make such a fate be incompli,
since it involved the cruel loss
not of her life, as on a cross,
but her virginity within
a brothel––what a heinous sin
this seemed to her, and so she gave
her life her purity to save.

Her fate recalls that of a maid,
a famous sister Romans made
a prostitute like Theodora.
Horny men would come from fora
to visit her, sister-in-law
of Rabbi Meir, whose wise squaw
was Beruriah, who though he wedded
was, like all women, too light-headed:
this false charge led to suicide
because it caused her to backslide.

Her sister while in Rome would make
excuses like those wives who fake
a headache, thus remaining pure
till rescued by a saboteur,
the rabbi married to her sister.
In the brothel a resister
of all advances made by Romans,
she proved to him that she’d been no man’s
possession as unwilling harlot,
though widely advertized as starlet
whose famous father Romans knew
had burned because he was a Jew,
Teradyon’s son, a martyr burnt
because most of the Romans weren’t
as sympathetic as the man
who cooled him, burning, like a fan.

Like Beruriah’s sister, Theodora
avoided brothels. Was she more a
saint than Beruriah’s sister, since she died
while Beruriah’s sister lived? Decide
this question for yourself! Would Handel
for her have ever lit a candle
as he for Theodora did?Perhaps not. He was not a Yid,
and wore a wig instead of peyos,
but did score Judas Maccabeus,
and Hannah, Jewish memsahib,
in one of his great oratorios
where Jewish heroes were victorious.
If he had known of Beruriah’s sister
as he did of the other story,
his “Theodora” might well have
been “Beruriah’s sister.” Please don’t laugh.
George Frederic was a man who could
have written both oratorio––and should
have done, but since he didn’t, I
tell both curricula vitae.

Inspired by a performance of George Frederic Handel’s penultimate oratorio, “Theodora,” by the Bach Collegium San Diego, conducted by Richard Eggar, at the First Presbyterian Church in Santa Monica on June 28, 2009. The excellent cast included Mireille Asselin (Theodore), Darryl Taylor (Didymus) and John Polhamus (Valens). The story of Beruriah that I discuss in the poem is mentioned in the Talmud (bAbodah Zarah 19b).

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 6/29/09

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