A MEDITATION ON A MIDRASH: “ABRAHAM’S DAUGHTER” BY ARCADE FIRE by Sara Frykenberg
The wages of the sin of sacrificing our children is their death, whether the sacrifice is to some supposed higher order, to absolute obedience or to appear to be the “good Christians” we are “supposed to be”…
Maybe its because I enjoyed the books more, or because of my sister’s all too expectation-garnering reviews or even, because I’d seen this theme before, in an amazing yet gruesome Japanese movie, Battle Royal, I left the theater unsatisfied after watching The Hunger Games. I did however, LOVE the song that played at the end of the movie, which I downloaded before we left the theater. I listened to it in the car on the way home. I listened to it the next day, the day after that and for days after that… I listened and listened, and I found surprise, power, anger, sorrow and a channel for grieving that I had needed in the Midrash “Abraham’s Daughter” by Arcade Fire.
Abraham took Isaac’s hand and led him to the lonesome hill
While his daughter hid and watched, she dare not breathe
She was so still.
I discovered the practice and potential power of Midrash from my teachers in graduate school. The idea of an “extra-biblical” story that might help to expound upon Biblical passages that are all too often unexplained or unsatisfactory to (my) feminist consciousness was very appealing to me—and it is still appealing to me. But I have to admit that the feminist Midrash I read in my classes seemed too positive and did not resonate with me. The pieces were too much like a tender hug or a mother hen covering my wounds with her wings. I wanted to hear a story of Bible that could help me make sense of the violence I’d discovered in my childhood religion. I needed a story of Bible that honored my violent struggle to counter the abuse within it and within me.
Like Isaac, I was too intimate with my abuser: unable to avoid walking hand and hand with him when pushed to do so. Asked to create a prayer or Midrash for a class once, I wrote about the way I would turn the radio in my car up when I started to hear ‘God’ speak to me. I didn’t know how to listen and tune out the abusive maxims that played over and over again in my head (maxims that surfaced every time I even thought about the divine). My story didn’t celebrate the divine or reclaim God/dess, but it did reflect my reality at the time. Listening wasn’t safe—at least not the kind of listening I knew. I didn’t want God’s embrace. I wanted the distance to learn how to embrace again, because I had also been like Abraham’s daughter; hiding while I waited to see if abuse was going to happen, silent to survive, but present, unable to breathe and usually praying that God would stop what was going on.
Just as an angel cried for the slaughter, Abraham’s daughter raised her voice.
Abraham’s daughter raised her voice: she wasn’t silent anymore. The wages of the sin of sacrificing our children is their death, whether the sacrifice is to some supposed higher order, to absolute obedience or to appear to be the “good Christians” we are “supposed to be.” At some point, this daughter got tired of “dying to herself” to be closer to God. Her protest reminds me of how I have raised my own voice in song to heal myself, to express anger, to create power through mantra and just to go about my daily life.
A roommate asked me once if I knew that I was always singing little songs. Well, no, I hadn’t realized; but I am a lot more conscious of it now. I often sing along to music; but I also make up songs, particularly when cooking dinner—not particularly deep or artful songs, though joyful all the same. I usually sing about the food I’m making or even to the food I am making. I sing messages to my sister’s voicemail. I sing to my husband, who sings to me.
Katniss Everdeen raises her voice too, singing to mourn for her friend Rue and her loss. Singing “Abraham’s Daughter” for days, I realized that I was also mourning. I was mourning a loss of connectedness and a paradigm of violence. Specifically, I was mourning the fact that to mutually connect is sometimes excruciating for me. It hurts to connect: it’s raw and vulnerable, like new skin too easily torn. But singing and recognizing this mourning, I heard my own voice. Singing, we can prevent the advent of lifelessness that so often follows abusive violence.
Then the angel asked her what her name was, she said, “I have none.”
Then he asked, “How can this be?”
“My father never gave me one.”
Feminist scholars point to the way women’s voices, experiences and names are missing in the Biblical texts; and they also re-member what they can of these names and histories. Listening to this song, however, was the first time I ever heard this understanding voiced in popular culture. It thrilled me to hear it expressed; but I also wondered how many of the people who purchased this album would understand the artist’s allusions? How many would be angry that the daughter was nameless, regardless of the allusions? How many would indict the Father?
I wonder too, how “namelessness” might also be a kind of power from which to create one’s own name. Namelessness hurts, it makes me angry and it can be used to silence. But as many feminists have seen, there is also creative potential in the supposedly “nameless.” There is a different kind of power to be found in naming or finding the names of the unnamed.
Barbara Ardinger spoke beautifully about the power of new and magical names in her Sunday post. I too have felt the power of a new name when given my yogic name, Sat Amrit Kaur. Sat Amrit means the nectar of truth—the sweetness of authenticity. And Kaur traditionally means “princess” or “lioness.” I choose lioness. I choose to be more of myself by understanding the complexity of my connections. I choose to continue to make peace with my given name, Sara, and to love her by name.
And when he saw her, raised for the slaughter, Abraham’s daughter raised her bow.
“How darest you child defy your father?”
“You better let young Isaac go.”
I remember the first time I actually acted to prevent abuse without negotiating, dissembling or conforming in order to avoid punishment. It was not nice. It was not non-violent. I physically struggled with a man to prevent him from throwing a woman down a flight of stairs; and it took the two of us to free her from his grasp. But the woman stayed alive.
Abraham’s Daughter is not a gentle Midrash, nor is it an “ideal” expression of the way in which we can reclaim and re-imagine the divine. It does, however, speak to many of our experiences and to our culture’s “closeness” to abusive power. And I believe, like this daughter, we can use our closeness to powerfully counter and hopefully, creatively transform the kind of power that maintains abuse in our lives.
Sara Frykenberg, Ph.D.: Graduate of the women studies in religion program at Claremont Graduate University, Sara’s research considers the way in which process feminist theo/alogies reveal a kind transitory violence present in the liminal space between abusive paradigms and new non-abusive creations: a counter-necessary violence. In addition to her feminist, theo/alogical and pedagogical pursuits, Sara is also an avid fan of science fiction and fantasy literature, and a level one Kundalini yoga teacher.