Meeting Phrike: Feminist Theology and the Experience of Horror by Jill Hammer


Myself, I saw the numb pools amidst the shadows; myself, the wan gods and night in very truth.  My frozen blood stood still and clogged my veins.  Forth leaped a savage cohort… Then grim Erinys (Vengeance) shrieked, and blind Furor (Fury), and Horror (Phrike), and all the forms which spawn and lurk amidst the eternal shades.

Seneca, Oedipus (trans. Frank Justus Miller)

Horror is not a cognitive but a physiological or affective extra-discursive state of being. Not unlike the state of, say, feeling nausea, horror is a state of being, whose manifestation, based on the etymologies of the Greek φρiκη [phrike] and the Latin horror, may be described, as Adriana Cavarero writes, as “a state of paralysis, reinforced by the feeling of growing stiff on the part of someone who is freezing,” and further, through her mythological reference to the prototypical figure of horror, Medusa, as a state of “petrification” …

205. Kiarina Kordela, “Monsters of Biopower: Terror(ism) and Horror in the Era of Affect”, Philosophy Today 60(1), 2016, p. 193-205.

Surging anti-Semitism in the United States, as witnessed by many news reports and also anecdotes related by friends and acquaintances, holds a particular horror for Jews of my generation.  Some of us thought that we were relatively safe from that age-old bigotry.  It’s disorienting to be reminded that we are not.  My wife, whose father (alone of all his relatives) survived Auschwitz, has the skin-crawling sense as she reads the news that somehow we have gone back to that time.  Twenty-eight Jewish community centers have been evacuated in the last two weeks because of bomb threats, and a rabbi in the Midwest has received death threats for protesting neo-Nazi activities. A midwife/rabbi friend in Toronto had her house vandalized with swastikas.  A judge of my acquaintance in the New York area saw a statue of Martin Luther King vandalized with Nazi symbols.  Walking down the street in New York City, I myself heard someone exclaim gleefully: “Trump is going to get rid of the Jews!”  

While I hope that is not anywhere near true, the horror evoked by hearing such words is a real entity: a physiological state of being.  The Greeks personified the feeling of horror as a daimona (spirit) or goddess called Phrike.  The word phrike implies shivers, goosebumps: a physicalized emotion. The Romans called her Horror.  There are no stories about her, but the ancient Greeks used the word phrike when speaking about theater, believing that the pity and terror evoked by a play effected a catharsis for the viewers.  Via their beliefs about theater, the Greeks gifted Phrike to the world.  Lately I feel that Phrike is living in my house.  

This isn’t only because the situation of Jews in this country feels far more precarious than it did six months ago, or because when I explain the Holocaust to my small daughter, I am going to have to connect that historical horror to things happening in her world in the present.  Like all beings alive at this time, I am facing the specter of a human civilization that is doing far too little to curb the climate change disaster that may overtake us all, and is likely to face mass human suffering (which has, in many places, already begun) and the extinction of many species.  Add that to the daily reports of atrocities in Aleppo and many other places, ongoing rejection of women’s personhood in incidents and societies around the world, the new threats to health care for the vulnerable (including women who need reproductive care), continuing incidents of African-Americans killed while unarmed (or arrested for driving their own cars), the turning away of desperate refugees, acts of violence against queer and transgender people, and continuing terrorist attacks around the world.  

Through the press, social media, and personal contacts, we are, more than ever, aware of one another’s fear.  As more and more reasons for fear arise for many of my family, friends, loved ones, and fellow citizens of the world, I have begun wondering how a feminist should theologically respond to horror, which is the emotion we are likely to feel when we see, or anticipate, the terror and suffering of others.  

In our household, a plan for hope and activism in the current time is going to have to deal with Phrike.  Horror by its nature is paralyzing.  We watch horrifying things “as if frozen.”  Those who lead us in the work of preserving compassion and human rights in our society warn us not to become paralyzed, not to give up, and this is of course necessary, correct, and urgent.  As we cope with our society and our world, what do we do with our horror?

We might begin by realizing that horror itself can be a recognition of the truth of the Other.  Melissa Raphael, a Jewish feminist theologian of the Holocaust, examines the experiences of Jewish women in concentration camps. Her conclusion is that God exists in the midst of the horror, and is not dead or absent in any way.  Rather, God (Shekhinah/divine presence) manifests in the acts of kindness the women do for one another in the camps.  In spite of the dehumanizing and murderous environment in which they function, they have “experience [of] God’s presence in the ethical appeal of the facing image of the suffering other.”  (Melissa Raphael, The Female Face of God in Auschwitz: A Jewish Feminist Theology of the Holocaust (Routledge, 2003), p. 47.  

In letting themselves experience empathy for one another, the women of the camps meet the divine presence.  Raphael writes: “There is no actuality that is not always transfigured by an aesthetic sense of the presence of God and its moral demand.  The face of the other as a perceptible image of God is always before us.”  (Raphael, p. 158-159)  Raphael believed that acts of kindness were a “practical restoration of images of the divine.”  We might say that when horror distances us from the suffering of others, when it numbs us, then it is a paralyzing obstacle to our full humanity.  When horror invites us into empathic relationship, into a true appreciation for the other and their experience, it is a vehicle for meeting the divine.  This empathic response is possible no matter what the circumstances.  

Christian feminist theologian Kathleen Sands also offers us a resource for dealing with horror, in her definition of the “tragic” heuristic.  Sands rejects theologies/thealogies that set good opposite evil in totalizing ways, and she also rejects belief systems that assume that all events and experiences can be assimilated to a universal goodness. Sands believes that tragedy is an inherent part of being human.  Sands writes: “A tragic heuristic discerns in the moment and for particular historical agents what is within our control and what is not, forming responsible judgments on the one side while holding compassion and desire open to what remains beyond.”  (Kathleen Sands, Escape from Paradise (Fortress Press, 1994), p. 14.)  

In other words, a tragic heuristic asserts that while we must act to end the suffering we can end, we do not in any given moment have the power to end all suffering.  Yet we must have compassion for all suffering, and hold “desire” and intention to end it.  This truth honors our horror, insists on our responsibility, and invites our humility.  As the Jewish feminist poet Adrienne Rich wrote: “My heart is moved by all I cannot save:/so much has been destroyed./I have to cast my lot with those/who age after age, perversely,/ with no extraordinary power,/reconstitute the world.” (from Adrienne Rich, “Natural Resources”)

We experience horror precisely because we have no extraordinary power to save what has been lost.  Our intimate knowledge of the preciousness of life, love, joy, and hope is what causes us to feel horror when that preciousness is harmed or destroyed.  Yet, as Rich invites us, we must cast our lot with those who surmount this truth to “reconstitute the world.”  We are called, we must be called, to engage in the acts of compassion that, according to Raphael, manifest the presence of God.  

I want to return to Phrike, the Greek goddess who I discovered while trying to understand the meaning and purpose of horror. The ancient Greeks believed that by watching a tragedy, by experiencing pity and phrike, horror, our emotions would be cleansed or purified, and we would be renewed.  Pity and horror are potentially enlivening emotions—they can wake us up and connect us to others.  Yet we are not watching the play so much as characters in it.  When we meet Phrike out in the world, we can and should acknowledge her presence in our lives—indeed, if we remain at all sensitive to one another, we cannot avoid her—and then reach past her to touch what we fear.  

Jill HammerRabbi Jill Hammer, PhD, is the co-founder of the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute (www.kohenet.org) and the Director of Spiritual Education at the Academy for Jewish Religion (www.ajrsem.org).  She is the author of essays, poems, rituals and stories, and of seven books including Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women, The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons, The Omer Calendar of Biblical Women, The Hebrew Priestess (with Taya Shere, 2015), and the new volume of poetry, The Book of Earth and Other Mysteries (2016).

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Categories: Feminist Theology, Jewish Feminism, Judaism

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19 replies

  1. Recently I have felt paralyzed as you describe. A few days ago I realized that this is exactly how I felt when I sat glued to the television day after day during the Nixon impeachment. I was waiting for it (the Nixon administration, the war in Vietnam) to end. Is this what I am doing now?

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  2. Thank you for such a precise, insightful, and compassionate naming of the horror so many of us are feeling and facing. Thank you for reminding us of both our power and our helplessness, that they do not cancel each other out. That horror can wake us up, that we can choose to connect no matter where we are or what has happened and that this connection is inherently human and divine is something to remember, re-member.

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  3. Every day since the election, I wake up before dark asking, “How could this happen?” A healthcare organization here in SoCal advertises “Hello. Human Kindness.” How do we spread that human kindness across the U.S. and across the world? At least we had marches on Saturday. People are paying attention.

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  4. Two things, Jill, that I will reflect on more today – Horror is the sign of awareness of evil that is happening. I think that is positive since it alerts us to the need for action.
    And “In letting themselves experience empathy for one another, the women of the camps meet the divine presence.” is such a powerful sentence for me. I have no power to change Trump, or the people who assault others in one way or another, or those who allow fear to lead them to violence. What I can do and try to do, is live with empathy, with care. I think that happened a lot at Saturday’s march.

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  5. As regards “a plan for hope and activism in the current time.” How about the massive Women’s March on Washington, and all across the US, and around the world. What I loved most, because so unexpected, and yet so powerful, was the speech given by Madonna— And especially here is a very important remark by her — and where Madonna says:

    “It seems as though we had all slipped into a false sense of comfort — that justice would prevail, and good would win in the end,” she began. “Well, good did not win this election. But good will win in the end.”

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  6. I am reading “Homegoing: A Novel” by Yaa Gyasi. I will use this as part of our book discussion on the horror of the slave trade and the more subtle horror of the aftermath that we continue to live with today. Thanks!

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  7. Thanks, Jill, for this post about an emotion many of us are feeling these days. I agree with Barbara Cooper that horror is a form of fear, and as a result, indicates that something has to change. Since horror paralyzes us, we also need to find a way beyond it, an important reminder to all of us to get out of our “stuckness.” Compassion (empathy) and acting to end the suffering are definitely two ways. And speaking up, demonstrating, writing congresspeople, boycotting, and organizing in other ways are a number of other activist pathways past horror. Just being with a half million women (and men) in DC last Saturday lit a fire within me. My parting words were “good luck organizing.”

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  8. Reblogged this on writingontherim and commented:
    Today, I planned to write my own blog post this evening after work. Just before I read this post, I mulled over topics, whether I wanted to share a recipe or write about so many disturbing as well as inspiring events I experienced or watched in the past week. Then today a student in one of my classes loudly questioned whether the Holocaust even occurred. This was followed by another student announcing that Jews are not people. As I read through my emails, this blog post appeared. It seemed especially telling given that experience. I refuse to tolerate comments that denigrate the religion, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual preference of anyone.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Juliana– I am so sad to hear of these incidents, which are on the rise around our country as part of the larger groundswell of hate we are experiencing. Thank you for standing up for vulnerable people. If you need support in providing information on the Holocaust to your students, please let me know if I can help.

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  9. Looks like most of us focused on the Greek references without acknowledging the rise in anti-Judaism that is happening in the US in the era of Trump. This is very disturbing. Thanks for telling us about it, Jill.

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  10. Thank you, Jill. This is very helpful to me and a piece I plan to share in a couple of contexts.

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  11. I am so glad to know this piece has been helpful to some of you and that you plan to share it. Thank you for your solidarity, Like many of you, I am working to believe in my own power to create change even while horrifying things are happening. I have so many teachers for this in my own Jewish tradition and in the liberation movements of women, people of color, queer people, and many others. May we all find inspiration to hold together and hold strong.

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  12. I wanted to add one URL to the conversation, although it doesn’t really deal with the horror we are experiencing per se. It has more to do with resistance to what is happening with a new president in Washington. It suggests comedy as both a release valve for our negative feelings — so that we don’t turn away in disgust — as well as a way to remind ourselves and others that what we are experiencing is not normal. Take a look: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/katie-kein/lets-all-laugh-at-donald-_b_14226788.html.

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  13. Reblogged this on Pen and Paper and commented:
    Bigotry has no limits. The worse of human atrocities starts with Bigotry, Racism, and Misogyny.

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  14. Reblogged this on KITTY NOLAN and commented:
    ‘Pity and horror are potentially enlivening emotions—they can wake us up and connect us to others. Yet we are not watching the play so much as characters in it. When we meet Phrike out in the world, we can and should acknowledge her presence in our lives—indeed, if we remain at all sensitive to one another, we cannot avoid her—and then reach past her to touch what we fear.’

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  1. Biblical Studies Carnival 131 – January 2017 - Westar Institute

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