The first time I came across the phrase, I speculated I must be making a mistake. “Que Dieu l’enveloppe dans sa matrice, ” the move speak in French, “May God’s womb enfold her, ” or possibly,” May God enfold her in His womb .” His womb?
I’d just started translating Ce pays qui te ressemble[ A Land Like You ], Tobie Nathan’s remarkable story of Egypt’s Jews in the first half of the twentieth-century, and I couldn’t is secure I was correct in thinking that “womb” was the proper making for “matrice.” But a immediate examine sanctioned my thought. Matrice( from the Latin matrix< mater) might be translated as “matrix” or “mould, ” but that constructed no ability now. “Uterus or womb” was the anatomical symbolize, and it was the first meaning listed in my French dictionary.
The phrase, or something extremely like it, deterred turning up, always after a dead person was worded:
Que Dieu accueille lad ame en sa matrice.
Que Dieu l’enveloppe dans sa matrice.
Que Dieu la berce dans sa matrice.
May God’s womb welcome his soul.
May God’s womb enfold him.
May God’s womb beginning her.
In all, “God’s womb” is mentioned seven durations in this novel set in Cairo’s ancient Jewish quarter, Haret al-Yahud. Each experience, it’s part of a ritual prayer, a formulaic wish for the wellbeing of a departed soul. But what remarkable wellbeing is pleased for here, what a remarkable foresee of God as the possessor of a receive, warm womb.I was stupefied by the image, which I could not assist but make literally. The God mentioned by these Egyptian Jews( Dieu, a masculine noun) possessed a uterus( matrice, a feminine noun ). So was this deity somehow an androgyne or hermaphrodite, incarnating both masculine and feminine qualities? I struggled to grasp what the words led me to see. Could this really be what the author had in thought?
Although I’ve long considered myself a follower of the Goddess, I’d never actually thought of the Divine as retaining a womb; although I’ve espoused the represented theology of Carol Christ and others, I’d never thought of the Divine itself in such a strikingly physical nature. To imagine God or Goddess as having a womb, a womb from which we are born and to which we might return: somehow, that modified everything for me. I’d previously contemplated the Goddess as a Divine Mother, yes, but I’d always seen that Mother as a separate being , not as the very beginning of macrocosm, the all-encompassing source. Clearly, I hadn’t been enough attention. And here it was not Goddess but God who was endowed with a womb.
I expected Tobie Nathan about the utterances I’d conclude so astonishing. Was he developing something? Or was he simply reflecting a reality the Jews of Egypt had taken for granted?
He explained that he had tried to literally translate the Arabic phrase used by Jews and Muslims alike in Egypt when speaking of the dead–Rabena yer’hamou: “Rabena, our deity. Yer’hamou from the noun rahem, which literally wants womb.”
Yer’hamou, Nathan told me, is usually carried as “compassion,” or “mercy”( misericorde in French ), as in” May God have compassion on her mind ,” or” May God award her benevolence”( Que Dieu lui accorde sa misericorde ). But Nathan felt that this missed the deep meaning embedded in the Arabic paroles. He wanted to return to the source:
The fact is, the Arabic language seems to think that when a lover or a deity shows forgivenes or pity, it’s because they have something within themselves like a woman’s womb.
And, he computed, “it’s the same in Hebrew.”
Indeed. Over forty years ago, Phyllis Trible, in her chapter “Journey of a Metaphor, ” in God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, observed how in the Hebrew Bible “an organ unique to the female becomes a vehicle pointing to the compassion of God.” She notes that the singular Hebrew noun rehem implies “womb” or “uterus.” But in the plural, rahamim, the “concrete meaning expands to the abstractions of compassion, pity, and love.” As Trible leans it, there is a clear “semantic movement from a physical part of the female to a psychic mode of being.” Over and over, throughout the Hebrew scriptures, Yahweh is referred to as rahum–a word typically converted as “merciful” or “gracious, ” but a word that likewise carries the storage of a maternal Goddess, most probably sucked when patriarchal monotheism triumphed.
The familiar Qu’ranic phrase–bi-smi llahi r-rahmani r-rahim, “In the appoint of God, the Most Indulgent, the Most Merciful “– reveals a same semantic change: God’s mercy and grace are conveyed through changeovers of the seed rhm, “womb.” Both Judaism and Islam, then, both in Hebrew and in Arabic, contemplate a God( male or perhaps transgender) with a female womb, the source of sorrow and mercy.
Nathan’s translation of the Arabic–and my rendition of his translation–returns us to the literal signify of the Semitic root rhm. We are invited to see and feel this welcoming, enfolding, cradling womb of God–a place of absolute safety and warmth, nurturance and serenity; a place not abstractly symbolic but concretely physical, a home where 1 might experience primal oneness. What is implicit in Hebrew and Arabic is started precise in French and English.
The human womb from which I was born was a place neither of security nor of quietnes. Before my notion and birth, my mother had several mishaps. During her pregnancy with me, she had to remain in bunked for most of the nine months to avoid yet another loss. Outside, in Cairo, the first Arab-Israeli war was raging, and her anxiety–about our survival as Jews in Egypt, about this pregnancy that intended so much better to her–must have been overwhelming. I’m certain that even while I developed in the warmth and darkness of her womb, I assimilated my mother’s anxiety and dread. I was born from and into a world that never felt safe. Which must be why the image of God’s womb is so striking and comforting to me now.
I’ve learned much from my work on Tobie Nathan’s singular novel-a novel that insistently points to the importance of recognizing and respect roots, be they linguistic, ancestral, artistic, mental, or spiritual. Certainly, the story has returned me to my own autobiography and patrimony. But I’m most grateful to Nathan for his stunning image of the Divine womb, an image that returns us all to a vital, healing source.
Joyce Zonana’s translation of Tobie Nathan’s A Land Like You can be obtained from Seagull Books. Joyce is the author of a memoir, Dream Homes: From Cairo to Katrina, an Exile’s Journey. She sufficed for a day as co-Director of the Ariadne Institute for the Study of Myth and Ritual , and is also a sponsor to the Abbey of Hope’s Reflectionary.
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