The Ethics of Representing Disaster
Rabbinic and Contemporary Depictions of Women in Narratives of Catastrophe.
By Julia Watts Belser
Faced with the brutality of natural disaster or the suffering of war, witnesses agonize over questions of how to tell an unspeakable story. What narrative of catastrophe will capture the realities of lives in extremis? When famine unfolds, what image might stir the hearts of an audience who may never have gone to bed hungry? Representations of disaster often center attention on women and women’s bodies, leading us to understand catastrophe through the lens of the tragic feminine. These disaster tales are not ethically neutral. The stories we tell about disaster have a powerful effect on the way we respond to crisis. They shape the political and theological meanings we ascribe to catastrophe, as well as the way we think about the people caught up in difficult circumstances. Tragic tales of suffering often intensify the vulnerability of people who are already on the margins, showcasing their pain in a way that generates pity, stripping their agency and playing into negative stereotypes of difference. Stories of disaster can do collateral damage.
Cognizant of the complex political and social implications of the stories we tell about suffering, journalists and aid agencies are increasingly considering the ethics of representing disaster—striving to raise funds for people affected by disaster while still preserving their dignity, hoping to balance a desire for drama or the appeal of a pithy sound bite with the need to tell a complex story that underscores the broader social and political causes of catastrophe. As an ethicist, my work aims to help untangle the implications of disaster representation through the lens of ancient disaster tales. By stepping back from the immediacy of present crises and considering narratives that recount distant dramas and historical catastrophes, I hope to illuminate the complex interplay of theological, political, and ethical dynamics expressed in stories of human tragedy.
My research draws upon the Babylonian Talmud, a vast and sprawling compilation of Jewish lore that was canonized in the sixth or seventh century CE. The text combines exacting argumentation over Jewish law and the details of Jewish practice with wide-ranging biblical exegesis, folktales, and historical legends. As a central source of Jewish intellectual engagement and legal reasoning, the Babylonian Talmud remains a cornerstone of Jewish thought to this day. Alongside extensive legal materials, the Talmud includes some of the most famous postbiblical stories in Jewish tradition—including an elaborate historical legend about the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, which was overrun by the Romans in the year 70 CE. The destruction of the Temple is perhaps the paradigmatic Jewish disaster. It exiled many Jews from their ancestral homeland, provoked a radical reconfiguration of Jewish life and practice, intensified Roman occupation and military conquest, and led to tremendous suffering in Jerusalem. But while the Talmudic stories of the destruction purport to describe historical events, the Talmud is not interested in narrating history for history’s sake. Instead, these legends allow the ancient rabbis to grapple with cultural and theological questions about the nature of God, to derive meaning from the destruction, and to articulate religious ideals and ethical principles. In many cases, these stories also serve as critical reminders that possibility can emerge out of crisis, that destruction can bring about resilience and religious transformation, not apocalypse.
One of the Talmud’s stories about the destruction of the Temple offers particularly potent insight into the gender and class politics of disaster representation: the tragic death of Marta bat Boethus, who is described as the wealthiest woman in Jerusalem. The Talmud shapes the story of Marta’s final days into a powerful “tragic story,” a narrative that crystallizes the misery and suffering of ruined Jerusalem and the Jewish people:
Marta, the daughter of Boethus, was the wealthiest woman in Jerusalem. She sent forth her agent and said to him, “Go and bring me bread of the finest flour from the market.” While he was gone, it sold. He came and told her there was no fine bread, but white-flour bread remained. “Go and bring it to me.” While he was gone, it sold. He came and told her there was no white-flour bread, but bran-flour bread remained. “Go and bring it to me.” While he was gone, it sold. He came and told her that there was no bran-flour bread, but barley flour remained. “Go and bring it to me.” While he was going, the barley sold.
She took off her shoes and said, “I will go out and I will see. Perhaps I will find something to eat.” She put her foot in excrement and died. Rabbi Yoḥanan ben Zakk’ai applied to her the verse, “And she who is most tender and dainty among you [so tender and dainty that she would never venture to set a foot on the ground, shall begrudge the husband of her bosom and her son and her daughter the afterbirth that issues from between her legs and the babies she bears; she shall eat them secretly, because of utter want. …”] (Deuteronomy 28:56–57)
And there are those who say, she ate from the shriveled figs of Rabbi Tsadoq and was overcome [by hunger]. For Rabbi Tsadoq sat and fasted for forty years, so that Jerusalem would not be destroyed. When he ate anything, it could be seen from the outside [because he was so thin.] When he was regaining strength, they brought him dried figs and he sucked them and threw them away. While she was dying, she brought out all the gold and silver that she had and threw it in the market. She said, “Aie—what has it brought me?” Thus it is written, “They shall throw their silver into the streets and their gold shall be treated as something unclean. [Their silver and gold shall not avail to save them in the day of the Lord’s wrath—to satisfy their hunger or to fill their stomachs. Because (their beautiful adornments) made them stumble into guilt. …] (Ezekiel 7:19)1
This Talmudic story begins in the midst of a three-year assault on Jerusalem, when the Roman general Vespasian laid siege to the city. Amid these dire circumstances, the wealthy Marta sends her servant to fetch bread from the market, instructing him to bring bread made from the finest flour. When Marta’s agent reports that no such bread remains in the market, she sends him back, repeatedly, to buy the finest bread that is still available.
When Marta’s agent returns empty-handed for the fourth and final time, she resolves to go out herself. The rabbinic narrative again emphasizes her elite “delicate” sensibilities, portraying her as physically unable to endure the harsh reality of besieged Jerusalem. The scene begins with a curious and seemingly incongruous detail: Marta removes her shoes before setting foot out of her house. A modern reader might well find this choice baffling. Who would take off their shoes before going out, especially in such difficult circumstances? But Marta’s actions are driven by the rabbis’ interest in biblical exegesis, not by the dictates of logical behavior. They aim to reveal the prophetic nature of the biblical text—confirming that events came to pass precisely as scripture predicted. In the rabbinic story, Marta takes off her shoes in order to fulfill the curse in Deuteronomy 28:56, which describes the downfall of a woman so tender and dainty that she would never let her bare feet touch the ground.2 The verse highlights the ultimate curse of famine: an act of cannibalism, in which a mother eats her own child. So great is her hunger, according to the biblical verse, that she eats her babies in secret, refusing to share the grisly meal with her starving husband or son. The rabbinic story uses this verse to highlight Marta’s tender sensibilities and thereby dramatize her downfall. By taking off her shoes, Marta enters into a direct encounter with the misery of Jerusalem.
Narratives and images of women in famine often stress the pathos of the female as victim, giving rise to a discourse of blame that underscores women’s responsibility and culpability for suffering.
The rabbinic story provides two different versions of Marta’s death, both of which underscore her helplessness. According to one version of the story, Marta dies from the shock of stepping into excrement. Her delicate constitution proved unable to adapt to the gritty realities of Jerusalem under siege. According to the second tradition, Marta dies after trying to scavenge food in the starving city. In this version, Marta comes across the dried-up figs that had been discarded by Rabbi Tsadoq, famous for having engaged in a forty-year fast to prevent the destruction of Jerusalem. In order to sustain himself during this extended fast, Rabbi Tsadoq sucked the juice from a handful of figs. Marta finds these husks, but their nourishment is already spent and she is overcome by hunger. As Marta dies, the Talmud recounts how she throws her riches into the street, acknowledging that all her gold and silver could not save her.
Within the Babylonian Talmud, Marta’s story reads as a cautionary tale about the limits of wealth and privilege, dramatizing the moral message that riches will not save a person from disaster. In historical and sociological terms, access to wealth actually provides considerable protection from the ravages of famine, insulating ancients and moderns alike from death in crisis situations. Those living in poverty suffer famine far more acutely and are much more likely to die of starvation. Yet the rhetorical function of the tale highlights the fact that even the wealthiest woman in Jerusalem could be laid low by the vicissitudes of disaster.5 The rabbinic story emphasizes Marta’s elite status in order to accentuate the drama of her ultimate decline and fall. Marta’s initial request for “finest flour” marks her as an aristocrat, signaling her prominent place in late ancient Mediterranean class hierarchy. In both Roman and rabbinic sources, certain luxury dishes were associated with elite cuisine, while foods like barley bread were culturally marked as signs of poverty. Barley was an important foodstuff in early Mediterranean society—a hardy crop that was more likely than wheat to survive drought or adverse conditions—but it did not produce light or well-risen loaves of bread.6 Rabbinic texts regard barley as fodder fit only for animals.7 By the time Marta sends her servant out for barley bread, we recognize her desperation. But we are no longer expected to empathize with her distress. Because Marta refused to relinquish her class privilege and held out for rich food in the midst of crisis, she forfeited her chance to purchase anything at all.
Analyzing how the architects of tragic stories frame the central cause of disaster is a central strategy for assessing the ethics of disaster representation. Depictions of famine commonly focus the viewer’s gaze on a person as the exemplar of crisis. They script the disaster in profoundly experiential terms, focusing on the consequences of extreme hunger, rather than on structural causes of famine. By telescoping the audience’s attention toward the drama of the individual in distress, the freighted symbolism of the tragic story focuses attention on crisis as an experience—diverting attention from the social, structural, and political dimensions of disaster. In this depoliticized context, narratives and images of women in famine often stress the pathos of the female as victim. These stories often give rise to a discourse of blame that underscores women’s responsibility and culpability for suffering. In Jo Ellen Fair’s analysis, American television coverage of famines in Ethiopia and Somalia made extensive use of African women’s bodies “to demonstrate the horror of the spectacle of famine”—but in a way that silenced these women and used them to evoke pity, reinforcing inequalities of power. Examining media representations that highlight the vast numbers of suffering African children, Fair suggests that a twin discourse of sympathy and blame stigmatizes women for their inability to care for their starving children, even in extreme conditions. “The child never had a chance,” one news report recounts, “because his mother is so malnourished.”8
The narrative dynamics of Marta’s story shift the focus of our attention away from the broader context of Roman domination and portray starvation as the result of poor choices on the part of both Marta and her agent. The rabbinic story is not particularly subtle in this regard: Marta dies through a combination of selfishness, arrogance, and stupidity. While the Talmud never claims that these qualities are unique to women, it makes deliberate use of Marta’s gender to level a strong critique against wealthy, frivolous women. Through intensely patterned language that builds narrative tension, the Talmudic story leads the audience to anticipate the result of Marta’s fancy tastes and her agent’s obsessively punctilious observance of her specific requests. Propelled by the rhythm and repetition of the story, the audience expects that Marta’s desires will lead to disaster. The narrative guides us to regard Marta as culpable for her own death—and to regard her downfall as the inevitable, inexorable result of her own foolish pride.
By positioning the archetypical victim of famine as a once-wealthy woman, the rabbinic story levels a strong critique against women’s wealth. While the preceding narrative about the destruction of Jerusalem highlights the generosity and public patronage of wealthy men who dedicate their riches toward sustaining the city in times of siege, this story stigmatizes women’s wealth as profoundly self-centered.9 Marta’s yearning for luxury bread during a famine signals the frivolity of wealthy women, positioning elite women as the victims of their own foolish desires. While Marta begins the story in a position of considerable power, the Talmudic story diminishes her agency and reduces her to a symbol of pathos. At the start of the story, we see Marta as an elite woman with authority over her household. Her class privilege allows her to employ an agent, whom she directs with clarity and precision. But the tale uses Marta’s wealth and status against her, fashioning her precise instructions into the cause of her downfall. She dies because of her power, not in spite of it.
Disaster narratives often augment existing cultural tropes that emphasize women’s vulnerability, using the feminine as a metaphor for tragedy and lament. Marta’s story stands within a long history of representing crisis through womanhood, a tradition in which visual and textual images of women’s bodies become icons of disaster. Disaster stories commonly highlight the spectacle of women in crisis, detailing the way that crisis strips women of agency and augments their vulnerability. While representations of famine and other forms of catastrophe are not exclusively focused on women, stories of women in distress often serve as culturally potent symbols of disaster. Drawing upon long-standing biblical metaphors that imagine Jerusalem as a woman, the Marta story dramatizes the experience of suffering and the vulnerability of Jerusalem by scripting disaster onto a woman’s body. Through striking personification and vivid metaphor, the biblical book of Lamentations portrays devastated Jerusalem as a distraught widow and mother, lamenting the atrocities that have befallen her children.
Despite the centrality of the image of the devastated mother and child in the biblical book, the rabbinic tale portrays Marta as a woman alone. The Talmudic tale makes only oblique mention of a child, through the biblical verse that likens Marta’s desperation to that of the mother reduced to eating her own babe. But the motif of the cannibalistic mother circulated widely in late antiquity, especially in the context of famine tales. The early Jewish historian Josephus, for example, tells an elaborate and gruesome story about a cannibalistic mother during the siege of Jerusalem. Josephus’s story centers around the decline and fall of Mary, daughter of Eleazar, a wealthy woman who lost her fortune and treasures due to plunder. Succumbing to the devastation of terrible famine, Mary eventually kills her infant child and eats its roasted flesh. Mary originally hides the child, but when the rebels smell food and threaten her, she offers them her infant as meat—daring them not to be “weaker than a woman” and to eat of her sacrifice.10 Through the haunting image of the cannibalistic mother, these famine tales reveal famine’s power to pervert social and familial ties. By centering our gaze on the ravenous mother, the stories figure disaster as a powerful force that perverts fundamental human decency. Famine shatters a mother’s compassion, overcoming the love between mother and child. It threatens not simply her own survival, but the survival of future generations.
Marta bat Boethus stands as a powerful symbol of cataclysmic loss. For the rabbis, Marta becomes a critical resource for conveying the realities of Jewish vulnerability in the aftermath of the Temple’s destruction. They use Marta to embody a powerful story about the nature of Jewish suffering, using the figure of a once-wealthy woman to give voice to their own experience of tragedy and loss. Gender discourse allows the rabbis to give voice to the inexpressible. Yet, while gender provides the rabbis with a rich and vibrant language for conceptualizing and lamenting disaster, the rabbis’ use of gender symbolism to tell the story of tragedy comes at a price for women. By using women’s bodies to carry the symbolic burden of catastrophe, the Talmudic authors associate womanhood with tragedy. Actual women become effaced by metaphor. Women’s ordinary struggles and complex realities are swallowed up by symbolism, overburdened by a discourse that makes instrumental use of women to express something else.
Marta’s story illuminates the cultural power of disaster narratives—the way these tales of women in extremis often serve as tools to motivate others to take action. In the Talmudic story, the sight of Marta bat Boethus dying on the streets of Jerusalem serves as a clarion call, motivating one of the rabbis to sneak out of the besieged city and negotiate with the Roman general Vespasian. The Talmud uses Marta’s death to illustrate the depth of crisis. She is the catalyst that forces the rabbis to confront the extent and depth of the famine. In modern contexts, images of women or children suffering famine are often framed as a critical strategy for provoking political action or humanitarian response. Yet, all too often, images of disaster force disaster’s victims to bear the collateral costs of our own awakening.
The tragic stories we tell about women in disaster typically intensify the vulnerability of their showcased subjects, generating audience response by highlighting the helplessness and degradation of a featured victim. Whether through visual or textual images, the tragic story performs its cultural work through evocative exposure. A tragic story works by capturing the imagination of a distant audience, transporting them into the realia of disaster by revealing suffering in scintillating detail. But these dynamics of exposure are at odds with a widespread impulse of people in crisis: the desire to bury their dead, to shield their loved ones from the scrutiny of an observer’s eye, to recoil from the pitying gaze, to preserve dignity even in the midst of disaster. The tragic story captivates its audience by recounting in devastating detail the humiliation of disaster’s victims, evoking political or humanitarian response by stripping away the humanity of the subject and silencing the political dimensions of her suffering. By collapsing the complex particulars of crisis into a tale of pathos and suffering, the tragic story imbues individual lives with the weight of the symbolic—forcing those in crisis to endure not only the actual realities of disaster, but to bear the burden of cultural lamentation.
- Babylonian Talmud bGittin 56a.
- Naomi G. Cohen, “The Theological Stratum of the Martha B. Boethus Tradition: An Explication of the Text in Gittin 56a,” Harvard Theological Review 69, no. 1/2 (1976): 187–195.
- Cynthia Baker, Rebuilding the House of Israel: Architectures of Gender in Jewish Antiquity (Stanford University Press, 2002), 77–112.
- See Midrash Tanḥuma 8.19.8 on Genesis 34:1 (Buber edition).
- Anthony J. Saldarini, “Good from Evil: The Rabbinic Response,” in First Jewish Revolt: Archaeology, History, and Ideology, ed. Andrea M. Berlin and J. Andrew Overman (Routledge, 2002), 213–236.
- Thomas Braun, “Barley Cakes and Emmer Bread,” in Food in Antiquity, ed. John Wilkins, David Harvey, and Mike Dobson (University of Exeter Press, 1995), 25–27.
- Gildas Hamel, Poverty and Charity in Roman Palestine: First Three Centuries C.E., Near Eastern Studies, vol. 23 (University of California Press, 1990).
- Jo Ellen Fair, “The Body Politic, the Bodies of Women, and the Politics of Famine in U.S. Television Coverage of Famine in the Horn of Africa,” Journalism and Mass Communication Monographs 158 (August 1996): 25, 17.
- For translation and discussion of this section of the Talmud, see Jeffrey Rubenstein, Talmudic Stories: Narrative Art, Composition, and Culture (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), chapter 5.
- Josephus, Jewish War, 6.3.3 §197–212.
Julia Watts Belser is an assistant professor of Judaism in the Department of Religious Studies at Missouri State University. She was a Women’s Studies in Religion Program Research Associate at Harvard Divinity School in 2011–12.