Sheila Heti’s Talmudic Texts

The Talmud tells of a rabbinic dispute over the ritual purity of a particular type of oven, the oven of akhnai. All of the rabbis hold that the oven is impure — with the sole exception of Rabbi Eliezer, who does his best to convince his colleagues otherwise. Though the Talmud says he gives “all possible answers in the world to support his opinion,” the other rabbis remain unconvinced.

Rabbi Eliezer turns to the divine. At first, he does so obliquely. He declares, “If the halakha” — ritual law — “is in accordance with my opinion, this carob tree will prove it.” The carob tree is uprooted, but the rabbis object. “One does not cite halakhic proof from the carob tree,” they tell him. Fine. “If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion,” Rabbi Eliezer says, “this stream will prove it.” The stream begins to flow in reverse. But this does not convince the rabbis either. “One does not cite halakhic proof from a stream,” they say. All right. “If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion,” Rabbi Eliezer says, “the walls of the study hall will prove it.” The study hall walls begin to cave in, but Rabbi Yehoshua reprimands them: “If Torah scholars are contending with each other in matters of halakha, what is the nature of your involvement in this dispute?” Stuck between the two rabbis, the walls compromise; they neither collapse nor stand back up, but remain where they are, leaning. Rabbi Eliezer, surely frustrated, calls upon God more directly. “If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion,” he says, “heaven will prove it.” A divine voice descends from heaven. “Why,” it asks, “are you differing with Rabbi Eliezer, as the halakha is in accordance with his opinion in every place that he expresses an opinion?” The matter seems settled.

But no. Rabbi Yehoshua boldly cites God against God, quoting Deuteronomy 30:12: “It is not in heaven” — that is, it is not in heaven to decide what does or doesn’t accord with halakha. Rabbi Yirmeya adds, “Since the Torah was already given at Mount Sinai, we do not regard a Divine Voice, as You already wrote at Mount Sinai, in the Torah: ‘After a majority to incline’ (Exodus 23:2).” The human majority, Rabbi Yirmeya contends, rules over the word of God. Years later, Rabbi Natan encounters the prophet Elijah and asks — as one does when one happens upon a prophet — what God thought of all this. Elijah reports, “The Holy One, Blessed be He, smiled and said: My children have triumphed over Me; My children have triumphed over Me.”

Something similar occurs in Sheila Heti’s novel Motherhood (2018). The novel’s narrator (unnamed, except for her middle name, mentioned once: Magdalen), though she does not contend directly with God, does spend significant time interrogating a non-human authority. In a practice adapted from the I Ching, she asks a question and flips three coins. Two or three heads means yes, and two or more tails means no. Motherhood’s central subject is the question of whether or not the narrator should have a child with her boyfriend, Miles. Near the book’s middle, she poses this question to the coins directly:

Should I have a child with Miles?
no
Should I have a child at all?
yes
So then should I leave Miles?
no
Should I have an affair with another man while I’m with Miles, and raise the child as Miles’s own, deceiving him about the provenance of that child?
yes
I don’t think that’s a good idea.

As she hints here, the narrator will ultimately defy the coins’ authority: by the book’s end, she has chosen not to have a child at all. In a way similar to the Talmudic sages, she has already wrested the authority to disobey the coins from the coins themselves, in her first exchange with them:

This will be my stated purpose, my design or agenda, in writing this — to understand what it means, the soul of time, or to explain it to myself. Is that a good premise for this book?
no
Is it too narrow?
yes
Can the soul of time be involved?
no
Am I allowed to betray you?
yes

As in the Talmudic encounter between the rabbis and God, the narrator disputes the coins’ authority on the basis of that very authority.

Like the Talmud, Motherhood is a Jewish text about struggling with questions. The novel’s Jewishness — and the Jewishness of its similarly inquisitive predecessor, How Should a Person Be? (2010) — have been widely ignored by critics (with the notable exception of Helen Batya Rubinstein, whose piece in Jewish Currents considers Motherhood’s relationship to Holocaust literature). By and large, critics have opted to read the novels primarily through the organizing concept of “autofiction,” the blend of fiction and autobiography that each employs. But if we were to leave the question of the novels’ relations to the author’s life to the side and attend, instead, to their overlooked Jewish themes, we might come to a different understanding of the novels’ formal peculiarities.

Motherhood is rife with Jewish references. The narrator’s Jewishness provides one of the key frameworks through which she considers the question of whether she should become a mother. The references are sometimes personal, as when the narrator considers her “religious cousin,” who tells a story over Shabbat dinner about the way a certain method of cooking chicken has been passed down by the women in her family, despite the fact that the improved material conditions of their lives have made the method obsolete. The narrator compares this practice to childbearing and wonders whether the latter is also “a once-necessary sentimental gesture”; the anecdote’s religious source suggests, too, an identification between that empty sentimentality and religious observance. Yet in the next passage, the narrator, considering an abortion she has had, finds solace in Jewish law: “The Jewish religion says it’s not a child until it’s two-thirds out of the woman’s body — until the head has completely emerged.” The most striking and central of the novel’s personal Jewish elements is the way the memory of the Holocaust — the narrator’s grandmother, Magda, survived Auschwitz — haunts the narrator’s choices: “They wanted to wipe us from the earth, and we must never let them. Then how can I imagine not having children, and selfishly contribute to our dying out? Yet, I don’t really care if the human race dies out.”

Other key Jewish references arise not from the narrator’s own Jewish life, but from her engagement with Jewish texts. She reads a tale about the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidic Judaism, and his daughter, which brings her to the realization that “all [her] worrying about not being a mother came down to this history — this implication that a woman is not an end in herself.” She considers the Jewish painter R. B. Kitaj’s Auschwitz painting If Not, Not, and finds in its title a possible resolution of her indecision. “I don’t want ‘not a mother’ to be part of who I am — for my identity to be the negative of someone else’s positive identity,” she writes. “Then maybe instead of being ‘not a mother’ I could be not ‘not a mother.’ I could be not not.” The narrator’s interpretations of these Jewish texts aid in the development of her inquiry.

The Jewish narrative most central to Motherhood is the Biblical story of Jacob wrestling with an angel, which she invokes in one of her conversations with the coins. “Am I just cursed by a demon, sort of randomly?” she asks them. The coins reply, yes. At the coins’ behest, the narrator visualizes the demon as a knife like one in her kitchen drawer. She wonders why the coins have identified a knife as the appropriate visualization:

Is it a knife because the demon wants to cut away what is hopeful and optimistic in me?
yes
Does it want to cut away my trust in the world?
yes
Does it have a good reason for doing this?
yes
Because it’s a servant of the devil?
no
Is it an angel, rather?
yes
Is it a situation like ‘Jacob Wrestling the Angel’?
yes

The narrator relates a version of the Biblical story, in which she refers to the angel as “a creature.” (Though both Jewish and Christian traditions have come to interpret Jacob’s combatant as an angel, the Hebrew word used in Genesis means “man.”) The narrator parses the Biblical tale, searching for its significance to her situation. “The most important thing,” she muses, “is that Jacob continues to fight, even after he is injured, and instead of fear or anger towards the demon-angel, he asks to be blessed. I think that is the most moving part. That opens up something inside me.”

In a later encounter with the coins, the narrator returns to the story. “Jacob names his wrestling place Peniel,” she says. “Is he naming a personal taboo in doing this?” The coins answer, yes. She presses on:

Do we synthesize taboos by taking on a new name — as Jacob’s name became Israel?
no
Do we synthesize them by narrating them, by telling ourselves stories about our wrestling with them?
yes
Is the idea of being a mother a taboo for me, personally?
yes
Then must I synthesize this taboo with my life by telling a story about wrestling with it?
yes
But it takes a long time to tell a story, meaning that when we are done, we walk away hobbled — or older — but hopefully more spiritually invigorated. Jacob named his story ‘Peniel,’ which means, Here is where I stood face-to-face with God. What am I standing face-to-face with? The prospect of motherhood?
yes
In the story of Jacob, the angel blesses him there. Yet wait — what does it mean to be blessed? That the thing we are wrestling with wishes us well?
no
That our wrestling will take care of us forever?
yes.

The subject returns again in the narrator’s final conversation with the coins, in which the narrator asks about the book she is writing: “Is this the book of the angel, or the angel’s book?” The coins say, yes. “Because,” the narrator asks, “I have been wrestling with an angel?” The coins, again: yes. The narrator eagerly embraces this interpretation, as she shows in the novel’s final line, which transforms the final line of Jacob’s fable — “Then Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, It is because here is where I saw God face-to-face, and yet my life was spared” — thus: “Then I named this wrestling place Motherhood, for here is where I saw God face-to-face, and yet my life was spared.” The narrator invites us to understand the novel itself as an enactment of Jacob’s struggle.

We get a hint of Heti’s interest in this story in How Should a Person Be?. Jen, a friend of the protagonist (named Sheila), tells her about her favorite painting, Jacob Wrestling with the Angel. (Which of the handful of famous paintings that bear this name she means, Jen does not say.) “From my point of view,” Jen tells Sheila, “when I am struggling, I always imagine I am struggling with a devil. But when I saw that painting I realized — no, it’s an angel. Now I always try to remember, when I am struggling, that I am struggling with an angel.” How Should a Person Be?, like Motherhood, is about a struggle to answer a single question — in this case, the titular one. As the novel opens, we find the narrator, Sheila, obsessing over it: “For years and years I asked it of everyone I met. I was always watching to see what they were going to do in my situation, so I could do it too. I was always listening to their answers, so if I liked them, I could make them my answers too.” Before the prologue ends, Sheila draws her first oblique comparison between her own unsettlement and the mythic rootlessness of her Biblical ancestors, who “left their routines as slaves in Egypt to follow Moses into the desert in search of the promised land.” In a lightly parodic turn, she imagines the ancient Israelites as manifesting their choice of how to be through their preferred methods of fashioning flour into food: some make matzo, while others prefer bagels.

Soon, Sheila begins toying with the idea of identifying with Moses. Reflecting on the play she has been commissioned to write by a feminist theater company, she muses that she “could just as easily lead the people out of bondage with words that came from a commissioned play” as she could by writing anything else. As she begins to despair of doing anything of value with the play, she voices that despair by exuberantly imagining herself as a feminized Moses:

Who among us will be asked to lead the people out of bondage, only to say, God, I have never been a good talker. Ask someone else. Ask my brother instead of me. There is no way to accomplish what I feel I must accomplish with this play. There is no way in heaven or on earth! I am the wrong person to do it. Look at the shitty red hoodie I am sitting here in. Look at my dirty running shoes. I have such small breasts. God, shouldn’t you call upon a woman with great big knockers, who the people will listen to? Why do you call on me, who doesn’t have the cleavage to capture the world’s attention? Ask my sister instead of me, whose big breasts are much more suited to doing your work.

As the novel goes on, Sheila becomes more and more comfortable identifying with Moses — not because she sees herself as rising to the level of his greatness, but because she increasingly understands his imperfections as linked to her own. Once she realizes that Moses killed an Egyptian man before he was called by God to liberate the Israelites, she asks herself, “If that is what my king is like, what can I expect for myself?” Relieved and reassured, she concludes, “I can be a bumbling murderous coward like the king of the Jews.” Sheila’s developing identification with Moses, who led the Israelites through 40 years of grueling wandering only to die before the exile came to its conclusion, suggests her growing comfort with the unresolvable wandering — and wondering — embodied in the novel’s animating question.

How Should a Person Be? and Motherhood each transport defining Jewish narratives — Moses leading the wandering Israelites and Jacob wrestling with the angel — into frameworks for their protagonists’ personal struggles. (Notably, in both instances, the novels’ narrators feminize the struggles of patriarchs.) But the Jewishness of both novels does not consist simply in Heti’s use of these Biblical narratives as thematic frameworks. Embedded in these narratives are distinctly Jewish understandings of inquiry that Heti’s texts enact. How Should a Person Be? sends Sheila wandering from place to place and interlocutor to interlocutor in search of answers to her question of how to be. (Many of the chapter titles winkingly acknowledge this structure: “They Wander in Miami,” “They Wander the City on Drugs,” “Sheila Wanders in New York,” “Sheila Wanders in the Copy Shop.”) Motherhood finds its narrator in a tormented struggle with herself — aided by the coins, which act both as an externalization of her own desires and as a form of external authority. Both novels take the form of the conceptions of Jewish inquiry they consider. Together, the novels model an understanding of textual inquiry — in the sense of both inquiry through texts and inquiry in text — as an ethical project; the textual wandering and wrestling become ways of raising questions about how one should live.

How Should a Person Be? and Motherhood are united not only in this project, but also in their method of marshaling various forms (narrative as well as philosophical, from fable to dialogue to Biblical exegesis to essay) and modes (comic, confessional, contemplative) to develop questions within the context of a life. The novels emerge from a Jewish textual tradition, dating back to the Talmud, of blending genres and modes in the service of unceasing inquiry in which the metaphysical and the mundane are inseparably interwoven. When we look at these novels as engaging with this tradition, we can begin to understand their blending of fiction and autobiography not as an end in itself, but rather as one way that they, following the Talmud, put texts and life into conversation in the service of questioning. These novels are not, as some critics have contended, merely lightly altered memoirs, but something stranger. Something subtler. Something far more ancient.

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