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- Where the act of hospitality is concerned, the difficulty of speaking of religion as "between" philosophy and culture is that hospitality is essential to all three domains, in ways that are often impossible to separate. The problem of hospitality is coextensive with the development of Western civilization, occupying an essential place in virtually all cultural traditions and defining the most elementary of social relations: reciprocity, exogamy, potlatch, nationhood. In almost every Western religion, hospitality is the attribute or special domain of the principal divinity (YHWH, Zeus, Jupiter Capitolinus, the Holy Trinity), and is one of the holiest of sacred rites. But the capacity of hospitality to effect relation or linkage makes it a fundamental concern not only of religion, but of philosophy, which sees in hospitality the possibility of a universal ethics that would transcend cultural particularism. Plato makes hospitality one of the fundamental duties of the republic, and Immanuel Kant seees in it the necessary precondition of cosmopolitan law, as the only means to guarantee perpetual peace among a global society of strangers.
- But what makes hospitality essential to each of these domains is that it both embodies, and promises to resolve, a very particular tension. On the one hand hospitality is an act that constitutes identity: not only the identity of the host, but also that of the group, culture, or nation in whose name he acts. Hospitality is the act through which the home--and, through it, the homeland--constitutes itself in the gesture of turning to address its outside. But as an accidental encounter with what can be neither foreseen nor named, hospitality also insists upon the primacy of immanent relations over identity. Hence it both allows for the constitution of identity and challenges it, suggesting that the home can also become unhomely, unheimlich, estranged by the introduction of something foreign that threatens to contaminate or dissolve its identity: whence the linguistic and historic continuum between hospitality and hostility. Hospitality sketches the contours of a "no man's land" that marks the limit or frontier of culture and of philosophy both. In his reading of Plato's The Sophist, Jacques Derrida observes that the stranger is the one who contests the logos of the master, who undermines the philosopher's authority by posing the "parricidal" question of being and non-being (De l'hospitalité 13-17). Hospitality is thus the bearer of negativity, undermining positive signs or articulations: not only the sign of civic identity, but the positive doctrine or thesis.
- In this respect, religion is not simply one domain among others where hospitality is concerned. One might even say that hospitality is religion, in the strong sense of religare: that which creates the possibility of a link, a relation either among men or between man and God (Derrida, "Foi et savoir" 26). But religious hospitality also marks the limits of culture, the place where this linkage breaks down. At the limits of mankind, and at the limits of the knowable, religious hospitality stages the encounter with pure alterity: what can neither be identified with a sign nor inscribed within a common measure. Hence it is significant that hospitality, at least in the Western tradition, is born in a religious narrative. Moreover, it is born not in the polis, but the desert, at the limits of the known world. This paper will explore the role of hospitality in selected passages from the Hebrew Bible, examining how it allows the separate but interdependent domains of religion, culture, and philosophy to encounter one another, as well as their negations.
- In his comprehensive study of the Indo-European roots of hospitality, Émile Benveniste demonstrates that the concept of hospitality is linguistically grounded in the notion of "personal identity." The basic term from which the modern institution is derived, the Latin hospes, is an ancient compound made up of the elements hosti-pet-s, drawn from the primary roots hostis--meaning "guest" or "host"--and pet- or pot-, meaning "master" or "potentate" (88). The Latin potis names the master of the home, the one who makes the law in the house. Hence many of the words in this linguistic family apply both to the "master" and to the "husband." The Greek pósis is both a poetic term for the husband and the root of despótes, the master or despot (88). Despótes, and its Latin equivalent dominus, represent the extension of domestic authority into the field of social and symbolic power; both terms designate the "head of the clan," as well as the "lord" or "possessor"--the one who has power over and is able to dispose of his subjects (91-92).
- But before he had any subjects, the master was his own subject, a subject properly speaking; the roots -pet-, -pot-, and -pt-, (Latin -pte, i-pse) originally signify "personal identity." Throughout the Indo-European linguistic group, these roots form the basis of a series of adjectives, signifying variously "himself," "his own," and "of himself." Hence potis identifies not only the master, but the master who is "eminently himself" (87), the personification of personal identity. As despótes, the master "eminently personifies" not only of himself, but the family or clan in whose name he acts (91). In colloquial Latin, ipsissimus (from i-pse, "personal identity") indicates "the master, the one in charge;" but more precisely, the man himself, the only person who matters (90).
- The one who offers hospitality must be the master at home, chez lui. But as this etymology makes clear, this "place" or chez soi is not just a dwelling place--the house in which the master makes the law--but the fact of residing within an identity, the chez soi in which the master gathers together and disposes of what is proper to him there where he is "at home," "eminently himself." The mastery or power of the potis is thus nothing other than ipseity itself, or identity as self-identity.
- Hence one tradition maintains that the ultimate aim of hospitality must be the upholding and protection of this identity, the perpetuation of the host's "eminent personification" of both his own identity and that of the family, clan, or state over which he presides. This ideal is perhaps best embodied by Odysseus, whose legend is one of the touchstones of the Western tradition of hospitality. Odysseus is often read as a figure for the dialectical recovery of identity; he is a master who leaves his home only to return to it, victoriously reclaiming the chez soi. His involuntary "hospitality"--the opening of his house to the usurping suitors--represents a sinister (but merely temporary) dispossession of his mastery, which is regained when he expels the strangers and retakes possession of what is rightfully his. Odysseus represents the pureness of an ipseity uncontaminated with false pretendants to mastery: the ipseity of the ipsissimus, as "the master himself, the only one who matters."
- Precisely because the home or chez soi is a figure for identity or ipseity, the failure to repossess this home or clear it of strangers can also result in a loss of identity. However, this loss is not always understood as something menacing. In the sacred tradition of hospitality, the opening of the home to the stranger or the foreign is precisely what the hospitality act seeks to effect, the very basis of its ethics. Being a host implies more than just mastery over the home; it means not only residing within the familiarity of the chez soi, but opening the chez soi of identity to what is unfamiliar to it. As an ethics, the aim of hospitality is not to maintain the ipseity of the host, but rather to open it to the unforeseen stranger: a stranger who is not simply the counterpart, inversion, or negation of the host, but an alterity whose admission into the intimacy of the master's home alters it irreparably. Hence although the host as master is "eminently himself," the host's identity is paradoxically established through the dispossession and surrendering of his substance, evident in the traditional wisdom that the best host is the one who has given the most, even to the point of giving away that which defines him as master and host. The act of hospitality marks an aporetic limit at which subjectivity is realized as the dispossession of identity, through contact with the non-identical, the other.
- This aporia has implications that extend beyond the social practice of hospitality, informing more general problems of ethics. One might even argue that every ethics is fundamentally an ethics of hospitality, since the original meaning of ethos is "abode" or "dwelling place." But ethics names not only the homeliness of the home, but its capacity to receive what is not native to it. Martin Heidegger argues that the kernel of the Greek concept of ethos is expressed by Heraclitus' fragment ethos anthropoi daimon, which Heidegger interprets to mean that "the (familiar) abode is for man the open region for the presencing of god (the unfamiliar one)" (234). Or, if I might further paraphrase, ethics is the place in which what is familiar to man opens to the unfamiliar.
- The ethics of hospitality is thus in conflict with the "laws of hospitality" that for so long dominated the mores of Western civilization, and that define not only the cultural practice of hospitality, but a philosophical tradition extending from Plato to Kant. For whereas these laws presuppose a positive representation of identity (personal, political, or cultural) and a formalizable law regulating interpersonal relations (laws of exchange, laws of citizenship, or even the divine logos as guarantor of a transcendent equality), the ethics of hospitality embodies the challenge of sustaining relation as "impossible," without any sign or principle to regulate its immanence. It presents a double bind, since the host must both take in the stranger and respect its foreignness, name the stranger and acknowledge its illegibility, welcome the stranger there where he is at home and at the same time risk homelessness or dispossession at his hands.
- Because it concerns the unstable and indeterminate limit between the proper and the improper, the hospitality relation presents a special challenge to philosophy, and in particular to the way in which metaphysics has tended to privilege the notion of identity in its understanding of the subject. Emmanuel Lévinas acknowledges this challenge when he calls for an understanding of the subject as "a welcoming of the other, as hospitality" (Totality and Infinity, 27). In so doing, he critiques the privileging of ontology over ethics in the metaphysical tradition, which has tended to reduce the relation to the Other to being no more than the limit or horizon of the "I's" possibilities, bringing its alterity under the dominion of the identical, the same. For Lévinas, the "I" necessarily lives in a world where it is chez soi, but ethics is an unforeseen encounter with a "stranger" who calls this chez soi into question. The hospitality relation concerns the crisis of what is properly "mine," the limits of the "at home-ness" of identity. To call for an understanding of the subject as hospitality is thus to oppose to the notion of identity--with all that it implies of the self-identical, the total, and the integral--an understanding of subjectivity as foreign to itself, as non-identical.
- To the trajectory of Odysseus, Lévinas opposes the trajectory of the host Abraham. For if Odysseus represents the return of the self to its point of origin, Abraham models an ethics of subjectivity in which the self leaves home never to return:
The heteronomous experience we are seeking is an attitude that cannot be converted into a category, whose movement toward the Other is not recuperated through identification, and does not return to its point of departure. . . .
But this would require us to think of the Work [penser l'Oeuvre] not as the apparent agitation of a content or ground [fond] that afterward remains identical to itself, in the manner of an energy that remains equal to itself through all of its transformations. Neither could we think of it as the technique whose famous negativity reduces a foreign world [un monde étranger] to a world whose alterity has been converted to my idea. Both of these conceptions continue to affirm being as identical to itself, and reduce its fundamental event to the thought that is--and here we see the ineffaceable lesson of idealism--thought of itself, thought of thought. The Work radically thought is in essence a movement of the Same toward the Other that never returns to the Same. To the myth of Ulysses returning to Ithaca, I would oppose the history of Abraham leaving his country forever for an unknown land, and forbidding his servant to lead even his son back to this point of departure. ("La trace de l'autre," 190-191; my translation)
In Abraham's wake, the Biblical injunction to "make the stranger native among you" (Leviticus 19:35) inaugurates a relation to subjectivity defined by nomadism and dispossession, figuring strangeness as something "native" or uncannily intimate to subjectivity.
- But Lévinas' choice of a seminal religious figure to represent this possibility is not incidental. For as Heidegger's analysis of ethos suggests, the opening up of identity that the act of hospitality implies is inseparable from questions of religion. Indeed, the privileged exemplar of the guest, in Abraham's case as in virtually all religions, is God himself. In the ancient Greek, Jewish, and Christian traditions, the divine incarnates hospitality, and evaluates the character of human hosts by appealing for hospitality disguised as a supplicant. Accordingly, the host necessarily both does and does not know the identity of his divine guest: hospitality is motivated by the potentially sacred nature of the guest, whose true identity must nonetheless remain unknown for authentic hospitality to take place. As the absolute, unknowable Other, God represents the possibility of a negativity that is affirmatively construed, as well as the prospect of a dispossession of the subject that can be not only successfully endured, but even valorized. Were the guest not potentially divine, or at least an occasion to gain recognition by the divine, the dispossession of the host by the stranger would simply imply the annihilation--and not the realization--of his identity.
- In this sense hospitality is also a uniquely religious relation--perhaps, in fact, the religious relation par excellence. The ethics of hospitality marks the transition from the "political" to the "religious," in the particular sense in which Lévinas understands these terms. He defines politics as "the realization of the struggle for recognition," which tends toward equality and reciprocity and culminates in the assignation of an identity. Religion, on the other hand, is "the possible surplus in a society of equals" (Totality and Infinity 64). Thus understood, religion represents the excess of identity, whether personal or cultural. It presents a challenge not only to metaphysics, but also to cultural particularism. It supposes a non-positive understanding not only of the guest, but of the identity of the host, which is revalued as a heterogeneous subjectivity. In its affirmation of negativity, religion points to the way in which the sign of identity fails to preside over the relation between host and guest, affirming the irreducibility of this relationship either to cultural integration or to the reified opposition between the native and the foreigner.
- Nonetheless, it is important to qualify this distinction with the observation that any particular religion necessarily oscillates between the "political" and the "religious" as such, in the particular sense in which Levinas defines these terms here. For insofar as each religion names not only an ethics, but also a doctrine and a cultural practice, it is necessarily inseparable from the ontological concerns of philosophy and culture. The Jewish religion is perhaps the exemplary case of this tension in the Western tradition, since its tradition repeatedly confronts the problem of how to positivize an ethics of negativity as a formalizable cultural practice. On the one hand it proposes a highly creative response to this aporetic tension that does not simply "resolve" its impossibility, while on the other the mandate of Jewish "chosenness" and its Zionist manifestations tend to consolidate and defend Jewish identity in a highly politicized way.
- Just as religious hospitality allows us to critique the ontological priority of the metaphysical tradition, philosophy provides us with the means to analyze what religion alone is able to guarantee as an "ethics of the impossible," and at the same time to mark the place where this ethics becomes impossible to religion itself, by virtue of its dual determination as a cultural practice. Here I will make use of two key philosophical concepts--aporia and antinomy--to account for the way in which the competing demands of ethics and identity converge in the act of hospitality. The first part of this paper will examine how the hospitality of the Hebrew patriarchs challenges the notion of identity, introducing a vision of subjectivity as dependent upon an other: a dependence that characterizes the subjectivity of the host, but also of the Israelites who are constituted as a culture through their "reception" of the divine. The second part will examine how, in its problematic passage from the desert to the city, the tent to the tabernacle, and the unspecified faith to the formalized religion, the sacred nation of Israel comes to embrace an ontological notion of identity, and in the process reject the importance of a divided ethical subjectivity.
- The Hebrew patriarchs are exemplary among hosts, since they are perhaps the ultimate embodiment of the contradictory relation to personal identity that the act of hospitality implies. Their personification of group identity extends not only to the family unit, but to the twelve Hebrew tribes who constitute the chosen people of Israel. In the Book of Genesis, hospitality emerges as the act through which the patriarch will paradoxically come to "eminently personify," and bind together in a cultural identity, a multitude of strangers. But the Biblical paradigm of hospitality introduces a further complication: even when the exemplar of the host is human, it is clear that the description of the host as the "eminent personification" of personal identity applies best--and even exclusively--to God himself. Only God can say of himself Ehieh asher ehieh, "I am what I am." If the divine Host represents the imaginary promise of Identity, it is precisely because this possibility is structurally inaccessible to humans. Relative to the absolute Other, the Guest, the host's own identity can never attain complete mastery.
- As the "eminent personification" of the group, then, the patriarch presumably must embody not only the sacredness of God's chosen people, but that part of the people of Israel that is estranged from or discontinuous with the divine nature--whatever of Israel is unequal to God. As host, the patriarch must both personify this "leftover" and at the same time embody the chosenness of God's people. Hence the patriarch's "identity" must involve something other than self-adequation. The task of the host as patriarch is all the more complex in that the group he is called upon to represent is none other than the sacred nation of Israel. He is asked to personify the chosen people of God, but presumably to personify them differently than God himself does. As patriarch his task must be to uphold the equation "Abraham's people = God's people," but without ever pretending to the syllogistic corollary "Abraham = God." Hence it is significant that the emergence of human hospitality in the Bible coincides exactly with the establishment of God's covenant with the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob: and, through them, Israel (Genesis chapters 16-32). Hospitality is the inaugural act of the covenant, of man's naming in--and submission to--divine law.
- If the Abraham narrative comes to function as the ur-text and symbolic origin of hospitality in the Judeo-Christian tradition, it is in part because it is itself inscribed within a canonical narrative of symbolization: the founding of Abram's covenant with God, grounded in the ultimate symbolic act: "And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you" (Genesis 17:11). The cutting of the flesh is the precondition of entry into the covenant, which not only renames and establishes Abraham as the patriarch of the Israelites (Abraham meaning "father of nations"), but also allows for the possibility of patriarchy as group identity: "And the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant" (17:14). Circumcision marks the body with God's covenant, symbolically submitting the flesh to the law, and figuratively accomplishes the "cutting off" from his people of any soul who does not submit to the law.
- God further assures Abraham that if he keeps the covenant (performs circumcision upon himself and his male dependents), he will have a son named Isaac. But the manner in which Abraham greets the tidings of this miraculous event hardly seems in keeping with his new status as a subject of the covenant: "Abraham fell upon his face, and laughed, and said in his heart, shall a child be born unto him, that is an hundred years old?" (17:17). Although he accepts and submits to the covenant, the patriarch is nonetheless fundamentally heterogeneous with it, ignorant of the divine nature underwriting the promise: he is divided by the very law he upholds.
- As the first gesture he makes as a subject of God's covenant, Abraham's act of hospitality will confirm his status as patriarch by upholding two apparently contradictory positions: that of the host/master eminently personifying identity, and that of the remainder unequal to this designation, that part that laughs. As the act that both seals and puts to the test the patriarch's status as a subject of the covenant, hospitality will attest to the fact that it is "not all" of the subject that is engaged in this new symbolic identity. The law is "visited" upon Abraham first as a cutting of the flesh, and second through his hospitable reception of the divine. What, then, happens to the excess of his covenantal identity--the part "cut off"--and how does it manifest itself within the hospitality relationship?
- Abraham initiates the first act of hospitality recorded in the Bible when he welcomes as guests three disguised angels of God under the oak trees of Mamre (Genesis 18). But while hospitality is here extended by a host who is also a master, a recognized patriarch, the hospitality act still must happen in the absence of symbolic identification:
And the Lord appeared unto him in the plains of Mamre: and he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day;
And he lifted up his eyes and looked, and lo, three men stood by him: and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself toward the ground, and said, My lord, if now I have found favor in thy sight, pass not away, I pray thee, from thy servant.
Let a little water, I pray you, be fetched, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree:
And I will fetch a morsel of bread, and comfort ye your heart; after that ye shall pass on; for therefore are ye are come to your servant. And they said, So do, as thou hast said.
And Abraham hastened into the tent unto Sarah, and said, Make ready quickly three measures of fine meal, knead it, and make cakes upon the hearth.
And Abraham ran unto the herd, and fetched a calf tender and good, and gave it unto a young man; and he hastened to dress it.
And he took curd, and milk, and the calf which he had dressed, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree, and they did eat.
And they said unto him: 'Where is Sarah thy wife?' And he said: Behold, in the tent. And he said, I will certainly return unto thee according to the time of life; and lo, Sarah thy wife shall have a son. And Sarah heard it in the tent door, which was behind him. (18:1-10)
Abraham's guests are unnamed, unknown. His ignorance of their divine nature assures the authenticity of his act of hospitality. In the Judeo-Christian interpretation of this originary act, the guest as unknown is celebrated as an occasion for godliness. Any guest is potentially a messenger of God, and any host his potential willing servant: "Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares" (Hebrews 13:2). Nonetheless, if the host knows who the guest is, then the value of his act is diminished. If his act of hospitality is to be authentic, he must impute to all chance guests a certain divinity, confirming his own righteousness by receiving each of them as a sacred stranger.
- But the uncertainty that qualifies the host's relation to the stranger is important for another reason, as well. For the act of hospitality happens in such a way as to insist upon the host's ignorance or misrecognition of the divine nature, rather than his identification of or with it. What is important is not just that he welcomes God, but that he welcomes God as a stranger, as someone or something strange, as an unknown. The host has to "receive" the law, but to receive it in a way that nonetheless acknowledges his inadequation to it. In spite of his unquestioning faith, Abraham is necessarily estranged from God, a stranger to his true nature.
- In relation to the fable of Eden, the Abraham story is situated at both the historical and the symbolic origins of hospitality. Its fantasmatic antecedent--paradise--is postulated from its historic vantage point, and importantly postulated as its reversal. For in the Abraham narrative, it is man who plays host to a divinity already figured as a guest. Abraham represents the beginning of a human history that is portrayed from the outset as indebted to a primal gift, the gift of God. In turn, he inaugurates the human repayment for original sin, for knowledge imperfectly obtained. His narrative tells us that human hospitality will redeem the loss of divine hospitality--or paradise--by relinquishing the prideful fantasy of knowing, and coming to accept this discontinuity. It is a separation of man from God in which man becomes worthy of divine favor by assuming his lack (of knowledge), inaugurating a relation to subjectivity not based on the presumption of wholeness.
- In the Abraham narrative, the realization of the hospitality act takes place in such a way as to challenge the symbolic integrity of the subject of hospitality: for the host finds himself inadequate to the task of executing the hospitality act precisely insofar as he is a subject of the covenant. How, then, is the act of hospitality successfully realized? Here, as in Eden, the critical limit of the hospitality relation is approached not by one character, but by two: a hospitality couple (Abraham and Sarah) that at once recalls and revises the coupling in "one flesh" of Adam and Eve.
- Abraham's fulfillment of the covenant establishes him as a patriarch, making him the knowing inheritor of God's promise. But while the move from ignorance to knowing engenders filiation and firmly roots Abraham within the symbolic trajectory of the covenant, his former unknowing is not lost, but merely transferred. While the couple are preparing a meal for their divine guests, Sarah, overhearing the declaration that she will have a child, "laughed within herself, saying, After I am waxed old shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?" (18:12). Importantly, Sarah doubts not only her own ability to bear a child late in life, but also her husband's. Her mirth echoes and revives Abraham's own burst of laughter upon hearing the same promise in the preceding chapter, sustaining the incredulity that has been displaced--but not eliminated--by his knowing participation in the covenant. Unknowing (in the form of Sarah's disbelief) passes from one half of the hospitality couple into the other, and it is this portion of unknowing which makes hospitality as such possible.
- In my view Sarah and Abraham must be understood not as two distinct subjects who voluntarily join together to complete the act of hospitality, but as representatives in displaced form of the conflicting tendencies of a single--albeit divided--subject of hospitality. Sarah is not only a character in her own right, but a figurative representation of a part of her husband. Through a process of displacement not unlike that identified by Freud in the dream work, the narrative makes use of a second figure to represent a characteristic that it is for some reason unable or unwilling to attribute to the hospitable subject of the covenant. This displacement is facilitated by the fact that Sarah is not herself a subject of the covenant, but is instead bound to it through her husband's allegiance. Legally, the ancient Hebrews considered a wife to be the chattel of her husband, just as an unmarried daughter was the property of her father (Otwell, 67-87; Carmichael, 54-56).
- But this legal dependence assumes a special importance within the hospitality act, where the notion of personal property the host embodies is intimately tied to a certain interpretation of the domestic economy and the sexual relation. As the master of the house, the host is also master of all of the subordinates (servants, slaves, and dependent women) who make up the household, as well as of the livestock or chattel that form his personal property (Benveniste, 88); whence the etymological equation cited earlier between the host/master and the "husband." The host is thus the "eminent personification" not only of his own identity, but of all of the household subordinates who are equated with him precisely because they do not have distinct legal identities. Interestingly, the first other of the hospitality relation is not the guest, but rather the multiplicity of the host "himself," to the extent that his "identity" is already the expression of a collection of heterogeneous elements. In the case of Abraham, both symbolic and extra-symbolic attributes, faith and disbelief, are visible within the "host" (itself already a plurality, composed of the unit of husband and wife) not as two distinct and disparate qualities, but as a fluid transfer and transformation.
- By assuming Abraham's laughter, Sarah bolsters her husband's status as a subject of the covenant by externalizing--and thus appearing to remove--that part of his character that remains inconsistent with its demands. In the humorous conclusion to this episode, God chides Sarah for her laughter, saying to Abraham,
Why did Sarah laugh, and say, "Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old? Is anything too wonderful for the LORD? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son." But Sarah denied, saying, "I did not laugh"; for she was afraid. But he said, "Oh yes, you did laugh."
But his rebuke is more comical than truly stern, since in her own doubt Sarah deflects attention from and assumes Abraham's, who is now expected to share in God's confidence in his own miraculous abilities. .
- As long as some part of the composite host is ignorant of the truth of the visitor's declaration--ignorant of the divine essence underlying his words--authentic hospitality is still possible. This unknowing is further in evidence in the child produced in recognition of the hospitality event. For although Isaac's miraculous birth attests to the divine identity of Abraham's guests, his name--meaning "he laughs"--is the echo of Abraham's and Sarah's laughter and disbelief at the divine promise. Abraham's name "father of nations"--and with it his identity as a patriarch--are fulfilled when Isaac is produced: but produced as both the reminder and the remainder of this covenantal identity, the part that "laughs," that deforms the signifier, that disbelieves or feels unequal to the divine promise upholding the covenant.
- As Jean-François Lyotard suggests, Sarah's incredulous laughter serves as a reminder that the subject's link with the divine signifier can never be guaranteed--as Paul would have it--"once and for all." YHWH's unknowability is manifest in the possibility for misrecognition that always presides over the transmission of the divine signifier: "the pure signifier that is the tetragrammaton . . . can always turn out to be lacking, to signify something other than what the chosen one believed it to say. It is this failure, this breakdown, that provokes laughter" (17, my translation).
- But when I say that in the Abraham narrative conflicting attributes are "displaced" onto the figure of the wife, I do not mean that one integral host is simply "disguised" in another representative, but rather that this seemingly integral subject is himself split, imperfectly related to the signifier that represents him as a partaker of the covenant. As Jacques Lacan argues, any subject who agrees to incarnate the master signifier necessarily has some excess, some residue, which does not allow itself to be resumed under the symbolic function ("Kant avec Sade"). What is at stake in the wifes' function is the possibility of being unequal to the name, of being more or less than the signifier that represents the host as a subject of the covenant. The hospitable coupling of husband and wife is not an imaginarily integrated unity (as for example in the fantasy of marriage set forth in pre-lapsarian Eden), but a disintegration of the identities of husband and wife under the signifier of the "one" host, divided by that signifier into two positions: the subject named by the covenant and the extra-covenantal object or "thing" that allows for the execution of the hospitality act.
- To use Lacan's term, the wife's relation to her husband's hospitality is one of "extimacy": she participates in the host's subjectivity precisely as excluded from or foreign to it (Ethics, chapters 4-5). This "extimacy" grows out of the historic determination of the husband-wife relationship, but also has implications that extend beyond it. As her husband's rightful possession, the wife is one of the series of "things" or chattel constituting the host's property, and through it his identity as the host proper. But in another sense she is also the "Thing" that insists within his "own" agency as improper to it, irreducible to the signifier of identity the host incarnates. She is that part of the host that is not named by the covenant, the excess of the signifier which thereby animates the function of what Lacan calls the objet a or Thing (Ethics, chapter 8), that spot of pseudo-consistency that appears to fill in or make up for the splitting of the subject at the same time that it serves as a persistent reminder of that split. Within the logic of personal property, the wife's function marks the point of convergence of two contradictory but interdependent dimensions of the fantasy of identity: imaginary and real. As an object or possession, the wife as "property" asserts the identity of the host, the proof of what Benveniste calls the "eminent personification" of group identity (and of the "property" of the I as a self-possessed master and subject). But as a "Thing" possessed of a singular agency within the host who both possesses and is possessed by her, the wife animates the extra-covenantal excess of the host, that part of the "host proper" that had to be "cut off" to allow for inscription in the covenant.
- In the Abraham narrative, as well as in the subsequent story of Lot's hospitality,  the "passive," objectified wife ultimately functions as the motivating force behind the successful completion of the hospitality act. The wives represent the discontinuity inherent in the relationship between the human host and the divine guest (Sarah with her disbelief, Lot's wife with her reluctance and disobedience), the unintegrated residue of the signifier that paradoxically works to fulfill the hospitality imperative. Sarah's incredulous laughter at the guests' promise refutes the capacity of the enunciation to approximate God's substance, challenging the word's equation with the unknowable essence of the divine, and so manages not to compromise the unknowing upon which hospitality depends. In relation to the myth of Eden, Sarah also redeems what Lyotard calls Eve's "bad emancipation" (18). For whereas Eve incites Adam to strive for complete knowledge, to succumb to the serpent's invitation to "be as gods, knowing good and evil" (3:5), Sarah undercuts Abraham's faith in the miracle, rather than bolstering his sense of knowing.
- At the most basic level, Sarah's role serves as a reminder of the impossibility of sustaining a reversible hospitality relation with God. The host's relation to his divine guest is characterized by a fundamental dissymmetry, introduced by the fact that the patriarch is called upon to uphold a law to which God alone is equal. The subject of hospitality is thus divided by the very law it enunciates: in other words, by the signifier, which always indicates a fundamental lack of reciprocity or symmetrical reversibility.
- What is put into question in the hospitable relation between husband, wife, and guest is the position of enunciation, whose importance is inherent in the relation between the human and the divine. The hospitality couple's "extimate" execution of the hospitality deed insists upon a fundamental disproportion between the one who gives the law (YHWH), its subject (Abraham), and its executor (Sarah), bearing witness to the division incurred by the apparently autonomous, self-possessed subject of hospitality by virtue of his naming in the covenant. But it is also manifest in the uncertainty concerning God's position of enunciation, which is itself uncannily "extimate" to the human host. For although God speaks to Abraham directly, delivering imperatives and commands, it is always on the condition of not revealing from where he speaks. As Erich Auerbach has noted, Abraham's God is a disembodied voice; "it is always only 'something' of him that appears" (12). Put another way, some thing always mediates the hospitable relation between God and man. Whether that Thing is God's disembodied voice, the angels who appear in his place, or the wife who serves as the reservoir of the host's extra-covenantal properties, it works to fulfill the act of hospitality relating the human to the divine at the same time that it serves as a traumatic reminder of the discontinuity of that relation, of the impossibility of encircling host and guest in an inclusive totality or full symbolic from which nothing would be lacking.
- In Abraham's hospitality, religion names the intersection of two somewhat contradictory notions: the construction and continuation of a cultural articulation or linkage, and what Lévinas calls the "possible surplus in a society of equals, the excess or residue of that relation that always attests to its impossibility." As the one who exceeds the link as a symbolic continuity even while perpetuating it, woman allows for the coexistence of these seemingly divergent determinations. In this sense it is the wives, more than their patriarch husbands, who will offer the most compelling model for Israel's relation to God. They prepare the way for one of the dominant metaphors of the prophetic and historical books of the Hebrew Bible, the characterization of Israel's relation to God as that of a wife to a husband. If Israel is God's wife, is she also a hostess? As a wife and hostess, what relation would she have to the letter of the covenant? Sarah's example suggests that Israel's task will be in part to embody the excess of the divine, and not to pretend to approximate or know the divine will. But at the same time, Israel's name--meaning "the one who strives with God" or "God strives"--points to another interpretation of this heritage, suggesting that Israel will receive the word of God with a disbelief, incredulity, and skepticism that is not always viewed as ethical, but that can even be determined as adversarial.
- Abraham's and Sarah's estrangement is actually essential to their relation with God, a sign of respect. Abraham's nomadism indexes his ability to pick up and follow God at a moment's notice, to present himself as ready and willing for an as yet unspecified ethical commitment. This episode shapes the articulation of the Israelites' duties in relation to the stranger in Leviticus: "When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" (19:35). The Israelites are enjoined not only to welcome the stranger among them, but even more importantly to welcome strangeness, to let strangeness be "native" to them. Abraham is a stranger who receives strangers, that is, a divided subject who receives the divine presence or law as a stranger to it. But although this estrangement and the aporetic relation to identity it implies is essential to this originary act of hospitality, after Genesis it becomes problematic, and even treacherous. Although the Israelites are enjoined to love the stranger, the price for doing so is potentially invoking God's jealous rage and so becoming further estranged from him.
- In subsequent books, the Bible attempts for the first time to define the stranger, and to establish its place in Israel's faith. The demands of the Israelites' concrete political and historical situation call for a limitation of the infinite obligation to the stranger implied by the mythical narratives of Genesis. Israel is now a nation, defending itself against those who would want to destroy it. Honoring God now involves not only respecting his alterity and unknowability, but also maintaining the purity and inviolability of his chosen people. As a result, the boundaries between host and stranger, which in Genesis are fluid or even non-existent, also become increasingly reified. In the books of the prophets, the host/stranger relationship of the Torah, whose terms were dictated not by nationality or faith but by a structural relation (between the sedentary and the transient, the housed and the homeless), is increasingly displaced by the oppositional pairing Israelite/non-Israelite, which recasts the stranger specifically as a "stranger" to the Jewish faith.
- Hospitality now identifies a kind of limit case for religion as a cultural practice, being at once essential to it and potentially menacing to its integrity or self-identity. The cultural imperative of self-preservation, and the increasingly ontological conception of Israel's identity that it mandates, gradually introduces an antinomial relationship between hospitality and monotheism. In the process, it also supplants the ethical value of a divided subject who openly "welcomes" the other, by supposing a subject who would be equal to the law, with no a-symbolic residue. The formalization of the Israelite faith inaugurates an increasingly "political" conception of the Hebrews' religion, which runs counter to the articulation of religion in its "real" dimension, as the celebration of an irreducible excess or surplus.
- What has changed between Genesis and later imperatives concerning the stranger is the advent of the formal law, in the form of the ten commandments of the covenant. The attempt to formalize the relation to the stranger coincides with the declaration of a new obligation, the demand for monotheistic allegiance. In the Jewish count, the first commandment of the decalogue reads: "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other Gods before me" (Exodus 20). That the declaration of monotheism includes a reference to the Egyptian exodus suggests that it is already complexly--if obscurely--related to hospitality. The liberation from Egypt is, among other things, a liberation from bad hospitality: the avenging of strangers held not as guests, but as slaves. In this sense God's rescue of the Israelites seems to displace or relocate the question of hospitality within the problematic of monotheism, his supremacy over the rival gods who reign in the homes of the Egyptian slave lords.
- The Israelites' fealty is now due to a new master, who takes the strangers under his protection. But what then is their relation to "hospitality?" Are they now "guests" of God? Voluntary or involuntary "servants" in God's house? Strangers alien to his house, but residing in it? And to what extent are they themselves able to receive strangers? The second commandment further complicates the Israelites' relationship to the possibility of hospitality, by demanding that their relation to "strangers" respect the boundaries established by monotheistic adherence:
You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of the parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. (20:4-6)
- The qualification of God's steadfast love for his people as a "jealous" love lays the groundwork for one of the key metaphors of the Hebrew Bible, the extended conceit of Israel as the "wife" of God, bound in a monogamous marriage. But the trope of "jealous" love implies not only the sanctity of the marriage, but the threat of its violation: the possibility of alternate objects of desire with which God's bride might practice infidelity. When she makes idols or worships other gods, Israel not only violates the commandment against idolatry, she also contaminates the sanctity of their marriage with "adultery." As a result, a new avatar of the stranger emerges: the extra-marital lover, a potential rival for God's love.
- The two principle words for the stranger in Hebrew--ger and zar--access a rich semantic field that attests to the complexity and ambivalence of the stranger's position within the Israelite community. In the Torah, the word used almost exclusively to designate the stranger is ger, which denotes the alien, sojourner, or one passing through; in a more restricted sense it can name the resident alien living among the Israelites, or the convert to their faith ("Stranger"; Reinhard, 171). But in the historical and prophetic books, the word zar replaces ger almost entirely as the dominant word for the stranger. Zar is a primary root meaning "to turn aside," especially for lodging; hence by implication the "stranger," "foreigner," or "alien." Zar is the stranger stranger, the more foreign or alien of the two. It also designates the more general category of foreignness, signifying "strange," "profane," or even "strange god." As an active participle it can mean "to commit adultery," "to go astray," or "to estrange," or may designate an "estranged thing or woman" ("Stranger").
- After Genesis, the act of receiving strangers is increasingly bound up in the problem of idolatry. Any act of welcoming the stranger runs the risk that the "divine" visitor may turn out to be one of God's rivals, that the zar might be not only a "stranger," but a "strange god." The Deuteronomist draws upon this expanded sense of zar in his indictment of the Israelites, who betrayed YHWH's jealous love by consorting with idols: "They stirred him to jealousy with strange gods [zarim]; with abominable practices they provoked him to anger. They sacrificed to demons which were no gods, to gods [elohim] they had never known" (32:16-17).
- But the characterization of the Israelites' attitude toward the zarim as a prostration before "gods they had never known" could apply equally well to Abraham's hospitality, in spite of the different symbolic values of each act. The word elohim refers to the category of "gods" or "divinities" in general, but is especially used in reference to YHWH or his agents; in the plural, it often designates the angels God sends in his stead. What is celebrated in Abraham's case--he welcomes elohim he had never known, and never would know--is repudiated in the case of the wayward Israelites as a transgression of the commandment of monotheistic allegiance. Hence although the sinful tenor of Israel's adultery would seem to oppose it to the exalted holiness of Abraham's hospitality, they are structurally very similar. Indeed, the perversion of the welcoming of strangers into idolatrous adultery is already in a sense implicit in the law of hospitality embodied by the Abraham narrative, precisely in the divinity or sacredness that is imputed to the chance guest, whose identity must nonetheless remain unknown and unrecognized.
- The many contradictory connnotations of the word zar testify to the transgressive potential inherent in the act of welcoming, the "turning aside" from God that is introduced as a possibility whenever one turns the stranger away from his route to offer hospitality. The paradox is that the host must "know" that the guest he worships is (of) YHWH if he is to be absolutely free of this risk, and yet according to the aporetic logic of hospitality his act is compromised if he does. Idolatrous stranger-worship is thus not merely a blasphemous departure from the holy act of hospitality, but the logical limit with which it necessarily flirts.
- Accordingly, Israel's "adultery" marks the problematic intersection of two competing discourses: "jealous" monotheism on the one hand, and on the other the pluralist exigencies of the hospitality act itself, presupposing the unknowability of the guest and a celebration of his alterity. But the figuration of Israel as an adulterous wife also suggests that her wayward relation to God's jealousy is uniquely "feminine." In this respect it is modeled upon the femininity of the hostess, as the embodiment of an "unknowing" relation to guest and God alike. As the feminized "wife" of God, Israel is--like Sarah and Eve--"not all" made in the image of God, structurally inadequate or unequal to the exigencies of his law. But whereas the wife's misrecognition or disbelief of the law was an asset to Abraham's hospitality, it is revalued within the marriage metaphor as a crime against the husband. 
- In each case, femininity is both internal to and in excess of the marriage bond. In the Genesis narratives, the host and hostess together constitute "one" (divided) subject of hospitality, who both embodies and is fundamentally heterogeneous with the covenant. The marriage bond allows this inadequation to the host's symbolic role to be acknowledged as a dimension of the subject that is not only accepted by the exigencies of the covenant, but even required by them. In contrast, the prophets' indictment of Israel's adulterous idolatry insists upon the incompatibility of Israel's femininity with her role as God's wife. Her femininity serves as a reminder of the fact that she is never fully adequate to the signifier that represents her as a subject of the covenant, and is therefore always in excess of or unequal to the integral identity summoned by the decalogue's command for exclusive allegiance to God's jealous love. Within the relation of "jealous marriage," Israel is herself a "stranger," a foreign presence who is uncannily internal or "extimate" to the holy union. The destructive potential of this revalued strangeness is implicit in the word zar, which designates not only the stranger or strange god, but the "adulteress" or "estranged woman"--in other words, the one who contaminates the jealous marriage with strangeness by welcoming strangers into it.
- YHWH's oft-repeated reminder that "you were strangers in Egypt" establishes Israel's fundamental estrangement as the source of her commitment to hospitality. But she also retains a problematic relationship to it, since this estrangement is something that is supposed to be--at least partially--put to rest. As the pre-history of the Israelite people, hospitality represents the "nomadism" at the core of covenantal subjectivity, an estranged wandering that is never fully eliminated by subordination to and inscription in the laws of the covenant. Abraham's hospitality comes before the articulation of the decalogue, at a time when the nomadic mores that shape his act aren't yet colored with the possibility of idolatry, precisely because they precede the imperative of monotheism. In this sense hospitality also represents an "earlier" stage of the subject, which comes both historically and logically before the law: the part of the subject that is unequal to the law, that cannot be made consistent with its designation. As a relic of the pre-history of the Israelites' formalized faith, hospitality is at once its cause and its repressed remainder, the residue of an extra-legal--or even illegal--subjectivity that insists uncannily within the legal articulation of Israel's identity. The hospitality of the patriarchs, like all archaic hospitality, involves an openness to and worshipping of the foreign that is only partially negated by the advent of the decalogue. In the logic of Genesis, this divided attitude confirms not only the authenticity of hospitality, but the faith in the name of which the host acts. But it also conflicts with the version of subjective identity proposed by the decalogue, modeled on God's "jealous" integrity.
- It is significant that the imperative to offer hospitality is not included in the decalogue--either in the duties to God or in the duties to the neighbor--in spite of being the supreme embodiment of human holiness in Genesis. One way to explain this exclusion is that the purpose of the decalogue is to demarcate, to draw boundaries between people, possessions, and lives. In the fullest sense of the term, it aims at a definition of the property of the subject, an articulation of personal identity as distinct from and limited by the property of the other. The delimitation of the personal property of God's subjects could even be seen as deriving directly from the commandment of monotheistic allegiance, insofar as the "jealous" integrity of God conditions the property and proper-ness of the human subjects made in his image. For God's "jealousy" is also the index of his oneness, as expressed by the Deuteronomical articulation of the key tenet of the Jewish faith: "Hear, Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one" (6:4). The decalogue's articulation of God's jealous love demands an integral oneness of his subjects, as well: on the one hand their undivided allegiance to him, and on the other the differentiation and untransferability of their personal property. The thrust of the decalogue is to prevent the intermingling of distinct properties, the contamination of oneness with heterogeneity: on the one hand the violation of God's jealous love through idolatry, and on the other the contamination of distinct identities through the appropriation or intermingling of properties: goods, houses, and wives.
- In this sense, hospitality is directly opposed to the tenor of the decalogue: where the decalogue forbids having other gods before YHWH, hospitality calls for the host's prostration before unknown divine guests; where the decalogue forbids the appropriation of the neighbor's house and goods, the ethics of hospitality require the host to surrender his home, his household stores, and even his virgin daughters (Genesis 19:8) on his guest's behalf; where the decalogue forbids adultery, the laws of hospitality dictate that the host offer up his wife for sexual violation sooner than allow the same fate to befall his guest (Judges 19:21).
- Adherence to the laws of hospitality thus risks inciting transgression of the covenant. In fact, the defining quality of the ethics of hospitality is its ability to suspend all other laws, to take precedence over every other ethical obligation. This priority is all the more menacing to the tenor of the decalogue in that it takes the form not so much of a direct blasphemy, but of a passive blurring of boundaries, a subtle dissolution of jurisdictions and properties.
- Jacques Derrida identifies in the act of receiving a stranger a necessary tension between the absolute and unconditional "Law" of hospitality--an infinite hospitality that by definition cannot be limited or subject to selection--and the conditional "laws" of hospitality, the particular imperatives, rules, or guidelines that act to regulate, codify, or prescribe the manner of receiving the stranger within any given culture (De l'hospitalité 29). The "laws" of hospitality consist in marking limits; but in so doing, they also have the effect of "transgressing" the Law of hospitality. There is an antinomy inherent in their relation, because the two antagonistic terms are not symmetrical; the absolute Law is above the laws. But it is therefore also illegal, in the strictest sense of the term.
- Hospitality marks the contested and uncertain boundary between nomadism and monotheist identity, the tension between the hospitable tent and the exclusive temple: an opposition that is complicated--as we will see--by the fact that the tent persists and insists within the temple. The following pages will be devoted to the examination of selected passages from the book of the 6th century prophet Ezekiel, who is writing in the period between the establishment of the Jerusalem temple and its destruction in the sixth century. In the temple period, which follows immediately upon the Egyptian exodus, the wilderness exile is now "behind" Israel, as well as immediately ahead of her as a troubled future. I will argue that the prophets need to suppress certain aspects of the Hebrew patriarchs' unconditional hospitality--to eliminate the "worshipping" of foreignness and the fundamental unknowing that characterize it--in order to reconcile hospitality with the duties of the decalogue, and through it the demands of Israel's cultural identity as a monotheist nation.
- As if to neutralize the "lawless" quality of absolute hospitality, the prophets argue increasingly for the need to categorically exclude all reception of strangers. Ezekiel is one of a number of prophetic authors who accuse Israel of adulterously receiving strangers instead of her husband. But in this case, the charge of stranger-worship extends not only to idolatry, but to the act of hospitality as a reception of human strangers:
You played the whore with the Egyptians, your lustful neighbors, multiplying your whoring, to provoke me to anger. Therefore I stretched out my hand against you, reduced your rations, and gave you up to the will of your enemies, the daughters of the Philistines, who were ashamed of your lewd behavior. You played the whore with the Assyrians, because you were insatiable; you played the whore with them, and still you were not satisfied. You multiplied your whoring with Chaldea, the land of merchants; and even with this you were not satisfied. . . . Adulterous wife, who receives strangers [zarim] instead of her husband! (Ezekiel 16:26-32)
"Receiving strangers" is now an act of adulterous sin in and of itself, and not just a subset or implied ancestry of the worship of foreign idols. The accusation of hospitality implicit in Hosea's text has now come out in the open, recasting the reception of strangers as a recognizable sin, rather than as an ambivalently coded but fundamentally sacred act. The inclusion of "neighbors" and "foreigners" in the catalogue of adulterous lovers translates the specific condemnation of the worship of foreign gods into a more general denunciation of all instances of consorting with or paying tribute to strangers. Any receptivity to the foreign, as such, now risks being determined as an infidelity to Israel's divine husband. Ezekiel's text identifies three possible connotations of "stranger love," all of which are closely related: the welcoming of strangers (hospitality as such), the idolatrous worship of foreign gods, and engaging in acts of prostitution (allowing strangers to "enter").
- In her adulterous errancy, Israel surpasses even the crimes of those sinners of legend, the Sodomites and the Samarians, whose wickedness has already incurred God's wrath and led to their destruction. Ezekiel characterizes Israel and her traditional enemies as feminized "sister cities," whose different sins are encapsulated in their manner of receiving strangers. Samaria's crime is the idolatrous worship of foreign idols, in the form of the golden calf; Sodom's is the mistreatment of guests. But Jerusalem's adulterous reception of strangers makes the iniquity of her sinning "sisters" pale in comparison:
Your elder sister is Samaria, who lived with her daughters to the north of you; and your younger sister, who lived to the south of you, is Sodom with her daughters. You not only followed their ways, and acted according to their abominations; within a very little time you were more corrupt than they in all your ways. As I live, says the Lord GOD, your sister Sodom and her daughters have not done as you and your daughters have done. This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty, and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it. Samaria has not committed half your sins; you have committed more abominations than they, and have made your sisters appear righteous by all the abominations that you have committed. Bear your disgrace, you also, for you have brought about for your sisters a more favorable judgment; because of your sins in which you acted more abominably than they, they are more in the right than you. (16:46-52)
In singling out Jerusalem's sin, Ezekiel's analogy forces a reconsideration of the gesture of hospitality. For whereas Sodom's fault is withholding hospitality from needy strangers, Jerusalem's far more heinous crime is surrendering herself entirely to strangers in forgetfulness of God. The revaluation of their respective sins overturns the premium placed on hospitality in Genesis, submitting that it is worse to over-zealously receive the stranger than to refuse to receive him at all. Implicitly, the "turning aside" of the stranger from his route, and the gesture of turning aside from one's usual obligations to welcome him, leads to the perversion (literally, the "turning away") of Israel's faith, her straying from God.
- The ambivalent relation of the Israelite faith to its nomadic origins appears most powerfully in Ezekiel 23, where the prophet develops an extended conceit of the sister cities Samaria and Jerusalem as two adulterous "wives" of God. YHWH's relationship with Jerusalem proceeds in two stages, beginning when he discovers her as a young girl wandering the countryside, naked and abandoned. When she grows to puberty, he clothes her in finery, causes her beauty to be known and admired, and then joins with her in marriage. Jerusalem's adultery then violates this marriage to such a degree that God has no choice but to destroy her, surrendering her to the violence of her "lovers." Chapter 23 stages the ultimate affront to God's marriage by Jerusalem and her "sister," who violate the sanctity of God's house by wantonly receiving strangers there in an outrageous act of "hospitality."
- YHWH gives the two sisters symbolic names: Oholah ("she has a tent") for Samaria, and Oholibah ("my tent is in her") for Jerusalem. Oholibah's name refers first of all to the fact that Jerusalem is supposed to be YHWH's sanctuary; the Hebrew word ohel--meaning "tent"--also names the tabernacle, the sanctuary within the temple building. Ezekiel's identification of the woman Jerusalem with the tabernacle is confirmed by his description of her garments, which are depicted throughout the book with words normally reserved exclusively for the furnishings of the tabernacle (Galambush 95).
- But the tent as "tabernacle" names not only God's sanctuary, but also its idolatrous alternatives; the sisters have dedicated "tents" to idols, worshipping and sacrificing at foreign altars (Oholah's name, "she has a tent," is interpreted as a reference to the idolatrous sanctuary). The sisters' errant inclination to "pitch their tents" elsewhere than with God also attests to the nomadic heritage of the tent, its transience and openness to passersby. The word ohel is pitched at the contested border between monotheistic nationhood and nomadic dispersion, between the inviolate temple and the permeable tent. The tension between the two manifests itself as a crisis of hospitality: for whereas the tabernacle is off limits to strangers, the nomadic tent stands open in hospitable welcome of them. But when the temple tent inclines to hospitality, Ezekiel suggests, the results are disastrous:
The Lord said to me: Mortal, will you judge Oholah and Oholibah? Then declare to them their abominable deeds. For they have committed adultery, and blood is on their hands; with their idols they have committed adultery; and they have even offered up to them for food the children whom they had borne to me. Moreover this they have done to me: they have defiled my sanctuary on the same day and profaned my sabbaths. For when they had slaughtered their children for their idols, on the same day they came into my sanctuary to profane it. This is what they did in my house.
They even sent for men to come from far away, to whom a messenger was sent, and they came. For them you bathed yourself, painted your eyes, and decked yourself with ornaments; you sat on a stately couch, with a table spread before it on which you had placed my incense and my oil. The sound of a raucous multitude was around her, with many of the rabble brought in drunken from the wilderness; and they put bracelets on the arms of the women, and beautiful crowns upon their heads.
Then I said, Ah, she is worn out with adulteries, but they carry on their sexual acts with her. For they have gone in to her, as one goes in to a whore. Thus they went in to Oholah and to Oholibah, wanton women. (Ezekiel 23:36-44)
- The sisters' perversity manifests itself first of all as a monstrous act of hospitality, a grotesque caricature of the host's prostration before the stranger: the food they offer to their "guests" is their own sacrificed children. But the wayward women also embody the hospitable tent within the monotheist temple, whose openness invites penetration and violation by strangers. Ezekiel's conceit establishes an analogy between the women's "tents" and their sexual organs: he notes that the wanton sisters have been "entered" by strangers, in the way that one "goes in to a whore." Jerusalem is both the "tent" of God--his most intimate sanctuary--and at the same time an uncannily "extimate" site within it, the foreignness camped at the very heart--or, more accurately, the womb--of the temple.
- The ohel as "tabernacle" is supposed to maintain the strict separation between native and foreign, pure and impure, and so prevent the defiling and profanation of YHWH's sanctuary. But the fugitive, unfixed, nomadic quality of the ohel as "tent" dissolves this rigidly demarcated topology, contaminating the sacred interior of the temple with its polluted outside. As permeable "tents," God's wanton brides invert the distinction between the proximate and the distant, the proper and the improper: men who "come from afar" are allowed to penetrate their "tents" and so enter the innermost sanctum of the temple, at the same time that what is most near and dear to God--his inviolable sanctuary--is rendered improper, estranged, uncannily foreign. Jerusalem's "hospitable tent"--her stranger-loving womb--is a repository of adulterous idolatry within the intimacy of the exclusive marriage.
- But the conceit of Oholibah's contaminated womb as a hospitable tent is also a kind of inverted reference to Sarah, who stands "there, in the tent [ohel]," barren, and who God miraculously provides with a child. On the one hand Sarah is the antithesis of Oholibah, the inviolate woman bound in wedlock whose fertility is dependent upon God's grace. But on the other her blessing is due precisely to having received strangers, a fact that links her to Oholibah as a possible role model or predecessor. Because Sarah's tent serves to welcome strangers, her "tent"--her inviolate but barren womb--is blessed. And out of it springs "God's house," the nation of Israel.
- The parallels between Sarah's and Oholibah's hospitable tents once again reveal hospitality to be ambivalently related to the demands of marital fidelity, since it is both the condition of possibility of the divine marriage--the source of the nation of Israel--and its repudiated pre-history. Sarah's and Abraham's tent is the originary ohel of the Israelite faith, the model for the temple and the purity at its origins. But at the same time, the nomadic tent at the center of the established faith has to be repressed--or at least contained, anchored in place, walled in, and made inviolate to strangeness. --in order to preserve the sanctity it both makes possible and risks contaminating.
- We have seen how Abraham's absolute hospitality could acquire an "illegal" or transgressive quality in relation to the terms of divine marriage, since as an ethics of limitless receptivity to strangers it would seem to justify the sinful "hospitalities" of the wayward Israelites. In the same way, the impregnation of Sarah's barren "tent" could be interpreted as a symbol both of the sanctity of the marriage and of its ultimate violation. The hospitality of Sarah and Abraham is the proof text for the chuppah or marriage canopy of the Jewish wedding, which is supposed to recall the nomadic tent that stood open on all sides in welcome of passersby (Diamant, 91). But at the same time, the tent's very status as an emblem of marriage implies that it can be a prooftext for adultery as well, when the "tent" is entered by someone else. The "hospitable" disposition of the tent/woman represents the hinge between one signification and the other, the turning point between marriage and adultery, monotheism and its idolatrous subversion. In this sense, Sarah's miraculous impregnation through hospitality could be seen as paving the way for the adulterous debauchery depicted by Ezekiel, the sacred scene "giving birth" to its transgressive opposite.
- One of the most interesting Biblical responses to the potential dangers of this feminine receptivity to strangers is to revalue completely the ethics of hospitality, sacrificing the traditional obligation toward the stranger in favor of an absolute commitment to the purity of YHWH's temple that may even call for the stranger's annihilation. Most often these offensives are initiated by women--including some of the most famous heroines in the Hebrew Bible--who use their positions as hostesses to bring about the demise of enemy guests. In the process, they act to redeem the potential evils of femininity by altering the meaning and effect of their reception of strangers, which now becomes an instrument in the service of YHWH's demand for exclusive allegiance.
- The narrative that presents the most radical contrast to Sarah's and Oholibah's openness to strangers is the story of Jael in the Book of Judges, who kills the enemy leader Sisera in her tent (4:17-5:27). On the eve of Sisera's almost certain destruction of the poorly armed Israelite troops, the prophetess Deborah assures the Israelite commander that "the LORD will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman" (4:9). When all of Sisera's men are slain in battle, he escapes to the nearby tent of Jael and her husband--which, like Abraham's tent, is camped in the shade of an oak tree (4:11)--where he is warmly greeted by Jael with the standard hospitality formula: "Turn aside, my lord, turn aside to me; have no fear" (4:18). What is most extraordinary about Jael's conduct--and most scandalous, from a Genesis perspective--is that she nurtures her guest's confidence and trust only to betray it, explicitly violating the laws and protocol of hospitality in order to advance the political cause favored by YHWH. After offering her guest milk and a covering of clothes, she goes to him while he is sleeping and drives a tent peg through his temple and into the ground. In recognition of her cold-blooded murder of her guest, Jael is celebrated by Deborah as the "most blessed of tent-dwelling women" (5:24), an homage that both recalls and displaces Sarah's status as the hitherto most blessed of tent-dwellers. For whereas Sarah is blessed for her nomadic hospitality, Jael is blessed for having anchored the nomadism and openness of stranger reception to the foundation of Yahwist fidelity. Significantly, Jael pins the warrior to the ground with exactly the same gesture used to pin a nomadic tent to its foundation: the fatal tent peg is made to anchor--and thereby transform and redeem--the potential for errancy inherent in hospitality.
- A related episode of hospitable conversion is the story of the Jewish heroine Judith, who kills the enemy captain Holofernes in his tent; this time it is the host who is killed, but at the hands of a guest whose actions are vindicated by her chaste allegiance to YHWH (Judith 10-15). In both narratives, the heroine's gender plays an important role in the motivation and justification of her act. Since Jael is a married woman, the preservation of her "tent" from strangers has a dual significance. And Judith's widowed status confirms her reputation for chastity and reinforces her zealous love for YHWH and undivided dedication to his cause. Like Sarah, Oholah, and Oholibah, Jael and Judith are not only "tent-dwelling women," but themselves sacred "tents," the sanctuaries of God. As such, the stranger-slaying heroines point to a tension within the ethics of hospitality: maintaining the inviolability of God's temple means violating the laws of hospitality in one's own tent, precisely because their tents are not properly speaking their "own," but rather YHWH's.
- In each of these cases the antinomy between exclusive allegiance to God and the absolute obligation toward the stranger manifests itself as a tension between two hospitalities, two homes--that of the mortal host and that of God. For implicit in Ezekiel's text is a questioning of the limits of God's love of strangers. Does God owe consideration or protection to the "strangers" who enter his tent, the inviolable sanctuary of the monotheist faith? For Ezekiel at least, he does not. The hospitality of Oholah and Oholibah is all the more grotesque to the prophet in that it takes place in God's house: YHWH complains that "they have defiled my sanctuary . . . my house." "Their" hospitality is thus also uncannily "his;" the property they surrender is not their own, but that of a higher host. It is an expropriation of YHWH's most intimate property. Although on the one hand the adulteress Jerusalem is the host (or rather hostess) who "receives" strangers, allowing them to enter her tent, on the other hand God is the host, whose sanctuary is violated by strangers: not only the foreign gods and "men from afar," but the one who is already a "stranger," the impure adulteress (adulteress, we will recall, being one of the possible meanings of zar).
- Ezekiel's text stages the antinomy between the conditional laws of hospitality (the particular rules or interdictions censuring Israel's manner of receiving strangers) and the unconditional Law of hospitality, the infinite ethical obligation toward the stranger that characterizes the patriarchal hospitality of Genesis. But his portrayal of Jerusalem's ultimate sacrilege as an act of limitless hospitality also goes much further than other prophetic condemnations of hospitality. Beyond merely attacking the sinful consequences of stranger-worship, Ezekiel's text works to uproot entirely the ethical justification for an unconditional Law of hospitality.
- By shifting the scene of hospitality to God's house, Ezekiel's conceit identifies for the first time an absolute limit beyond which hospitality must not go. The iniquity of the sisters' hospitality consists in having introduced strangers into the innermost sanctuary of YHWH's temple, the place that should be beyond hospitality. Ezekiel's YHWH expresses horror and outrage at what the host Abraham welcomes, the prospect of "men from afar" entering his house. Within an ethics of absolute hospitality, God is a bad host. But precisely because he is "God of Gods, Lord of lords," the supreme embodiment of a self-identity uncontaminated by estrangement, YHWH's absolute ipseity must be inhospitable to difference.
- Taken to its logical conclusion, Ezekiel's text suggests that not offering hospitality--although it is technically a violation of the Levitical injunction to love the stranger--is actually synonymous with obeying a "higher" law, that of the sanctity of God's temple and the inviolability of his person. It poses monotheism and hospitality as two ethics that are not only at odds with one another, but even mutually exclusive: the ethics of hospitality demand a transgression of monotheism, just as the ethics of monotheism demand a transgression of hospitality.
- The radicalness of Ezekiel's logic is that it effects a double exclusion of hospitality. The ban on hospitality applies not only to God and his temple, but more importantly to the human host who acts in his name. The divided host cannot offer hospitality, precisely because "his" hospitality is never his own to offer. Taken to its logical conclusion, the argument of the passage suggests that the Israelite could never justify an offer of hospitality even in his "own" home, because he is himself only a "temple" of God, a domicile into which strangers have been denied access, and not a subject capable of extending hospitality in his own name. Paradoxically, ipseity is thus both the precondition of an offer of hospitality and at the same time structurally inhospitable, intolerant of and incapable of hosting difference.
- Ezekiel pushes this double bind to the limit in his foretelling of the destruction of the proud at the hands of strangers:
Because your heart is proud and you have said, 'I am a god; I sit in the seat of the gods, in the heart of the seas,' yet you are but a mortal, and no god, though you compare your mind with the mind of a god. [. . .] I will bring strangers [zarim] against you, the most terrible of the nations; they shall draw their swords against the beauty of your wisdom and defile your splendor. They shall thrust you down to the Pit, and you shall die a violent death in the heart of the seas. Will you still say, 'I am a god,' in the presence of those who kill you, though you are but mortal, and no god, in the hands of those who wound you? You shall die the death of the uncircumcised by the hand of foreigners [zarim]; for I have spoken, says the Lord GOD. (Ezekiel 28:2-10)
A vulnerability to strangers belies the prideful mortal's godlike pretensions, since it is wholly antithetical to the impervious ipseity of the divine. The degree of the stranger's penetration is thus directly proportional to the ungodliness of the Israelite "host" it infiltrates. Either one actually is a god--and thus inviolate to strangers, in the logic of chapter 23--or one is not a god, and thus so vulnerable to strangers as to suffer complete annihilation at their hands. Hence the stranger is both a motivating cause behind the violation of monotheistic allegiance and--indirectly--the means by which the crime is avenged, insofar as strangers end up annihilating those who are open to their advances. In threatening that the Israelites who welcome foreigners will now "die the death of the uncircumcised," Ezekiel both alludes to and revalues the original meaning of circumcision, as the act that marks the subject's inscription in YHWH's covenant. Receptiveness to strangers cancells the benefits of circumcision, since it suggests that the Israelites have come to embody the "excess" of God's covenant, the part "cut off."
- These examples make the hospitality paradigm the frame for the covenant, both in the sense that it introduces it as an ethical parable (Genesis) and that it signals its ultimate dissolution, the breaking of the covenant by God. Hospitality is liminally related to the covenant, but precisely as its outer limit or moment of dismantling. The event of hospitality, as such, signals that the people are "outside" the law, outlawed. At the same time, it testifies to the existence of an "outside" of monotheism, an outside that is also a timeless exteriority of ethical obligation "before the law." Hence hospitality also puts the lie to a totalizing account of monotheism. As a self-equivalent "oneness" from which estrangement has been banished, monotheism is haunted by its uncanny remainder, the estrangement that belies its self-identity.
- In conclusion, I would argue that hospitality is the place in monotheism where the idea of subjectivity as identity, and as modelled upon the integrity of the one God, is called into question, and defined instead as a necessarily divided attitude. As we have seen, hospitality really demands a double infidelity. First, Israel's infidelity to her exclusive symbolic designation as the chosen people of YHWH, implied in her receptive worship of the unknown stranger. But second and more generally, the host's infidelity or inadequation to his symbolic status as master and patriarch, the "eminent personification" of identity. In both cases, the infidelity required by hospitality insists upon the impossibility of being adequately represented by the signifier that designates the patriarch--and the people he personifies--as the subject of YHWH's covenant. Both infidelities, moreover, are signalled by and modelled upon the hostess's infidelity, in the form of her excessive relation both to the host and to God and her incredulity concerning the divine promise. As the excess of the host's symbolic designation, the hostess insists upon the discontinuity inherent in the relation between the human and the divine, the unknowing or misrecognition that always characterizes the transmission of the divine signifier.
Martin Heidegger treats of this rich etymology, and its place in the Greek philosophical tradition, in a number of different texts, in particular the "Letter on Humanism" (1947), "Building, Dwelling, Thinking" (1951), and ". . . Poetically, Man Dwells . . ." (1951). Back
Christian doctrine "resolves" this impossibility in its reading of hospitality, in which Christ--as the supreme Host--incarnates the promise of man's transcendental identity. For Paul, the patriarchs' hospitality prefigures the "new Israel," the "Jerusalem above" in which Christians are made whole through their communion with Christ. "Eucharistic hospitality" is its transubstantive equivalent, in which the faithful are rendered equal as "values" of the one Christ through their consumption of the host. Within the logic of hospitality, Christianity represents the extension to the communal or cultural level of the dialectical recovery of identity promised by Odysseus' homecoming, since the identity of the group is constituted as a oneness or wholeness from which difference has been excised in being transcendentalized through identification with Christ, thereby allowing the Christian to "get back home" by reclaiming his lost immortality through participation in the Christian brotherhood. But this most famous take on hospitality-as-identity jumps ahead to the "New Covenant," whose purpose--at least for Paul--is precisely to signal the obsolescence, and even the erasure, of the first Hebrew covenant. But within the logic of the Book of Genesis, the hospitality of the Hebrew patriarchs advances a more modest (and at the same time more complex) relation to identity than the great transcendent Aufhebung of the Christian Host. For them the word and will of God are mysterious, impenetrable, fearsome. Back
Sharon Pace Jeansonne offers a similar reading of the episode, suggesting that Sarah's laughter is, if not the projection or externalization of her husband's doubt, then at least a narrative underscoring of its magnitude. She offers a further insight into the logic of the episode by noting the extent to which Abraham himself contributes to Sarah's state of unknowing. According to Jeansonne, "It is most striking that although God reveals to Abraham that Sarah will have a child, Abraham refuses to believe it. . . . The narrator casts doubt on Abraham's willingness to accept God's messages by describing his response from his own perspective. Abraham has a direct revelation wherein he hears of Sarah's name change and is told twice of her role as ancestress. Nonetheless, Abraham falls to the ground in order to laugh to himself and expressly question his ability and that of the aged Sarah to have a child. Although he does not repeat his doubts aloud to God, he dares to propose an alternative, asking God to allow Ishmael to be the inheritor of the covenant. God refuses and adds specific information to the revelation that a son will be born to Sarah. . . . When this revelation is completed, Abraham circumcizes the men of his household, as he is commanded, but at this point the narrator introduces an important gap. Abraham does not inform Sarah of God's promise that they will have a child. Indeed, the narrator closes the gap in the next scene when it will become clear that Sarah first learns of the promise only when she overhears another conversation between God's messengers and Abraham. Esther Fuchs argues that because the revelation of the change of Sarai's name was given to Abraham instead of to Sarah herself, Sarah is shown to be in a subordinate position. However, the narrator uses the revelation to Abraham to develop a crucial aspect of the story. The narrator underscores Abraham's questioning and doubting by revealing his questioning of God about the wisdom of God's plan. By withholding this information from Sarah, Abraham's continuing doubt is underscored, whereas Sarah cannot be expected to anticipate God's words about her upcoming role" (21-22). Back
Jeansonne offers support for this interpretation when she notes that Abraham is made to answer for Sarah's laughter, which both suggests that her action is a reflection upon him and at the same time distances it from him, since the doubting laughter is attributed to a dependent for whom Abraham is responsible rather than to his own belief or lack thereof. She writes: "God continues to address Abraham concerning Sarah and demands that he account for Sarah's laughter. Sarah dramatically interrupts, making her presence known and feebly attempting to protect Abraham. Sarah, who has not been addressed by God, claims that she did not laugh. The narrator does not judge Sarah harshly for this deception, but relates, from the omniscient viewpoint, that she acted 'because she was afraid' (18:15)" (24). By assuming responsibility for her laughter, Sarah deflects attention away from Abraham's doubts. Back
The importance of the slippage between covenantal and extra-covenantal properties at work in Abraham's and Sarah's hospitality becomes even more obvious in the second hospitality narrative in Genesis, the story of Lot. While residing in the evil city of Sodom, slated for divine destruction, Lot offers protection to two disguised angels of God, who are menaced with rape by the men of Sodom. In recognition of his hospitality he is preserved from destruction, and allowed to flee Sodom with his family. Like Abraham, though, he must "pass into" a subordinate hospitality "partner" or complement in order to successfully complete the hospitality act. This ability comes into play most powerfully when Lot, reluctant to leave Sodom, is able to "dispose" of this reluctance in the form of his doomed wife, who is turned into a pillar of salt when she turns back to look at the burning city in violation of the angels' orders. Even more than Sarah, though, Lot's wife is not a character in her own right, but a representation of a part of her husband: the part that looks back, that cannot separate itself from the iniquity of Sodom. That Lot's wife serves this function is demonstrated both by the wording of the passage--the author writes that "she looked back behind him [Lot]," not behind her (Genesis 19:26)--and by a philological fact: the verses evoking Lot's wife and her salty fate are known to be secondary additions, inserted by an early redactor of the "J" manuscript (The Interpreter's Bible 629-630; The Book of J 87). Although I do not have space here to offer a full analysis of the many significant details of this fascinating episode, I would argue that the female half of this composite "host" is first invented and then decisively disposed of so that symbolic movement can take place, so that Lot can take his place in tradition, in the genealogy of the book of the patriarchs. Back
In numerous Biblical passages, stranger worship is intimately related to adulterous prostitution, as an infidelity to the symbolic rights of the husband: "The LORD said to Moses, 'Soon you will lie down with your ancestors. Then this people will begin to prostitute themselves to the foreign gods [znh 'hry 'lhy nkr-h'rs] in their midst, the gods of the land into which they are going; they will forsake me, breaking my covenant that I have made with them'" (Deuteronomy 31:16). The verb znh and related abstract nouns describe illicit sexual activity by a woman. But when followed by the preposition 'hry, znh also designates the worship of gods other than YHWH. What the root implies is that in each case, "the offender has transferred the exclusive rights of the one in authority . . . to a second, competing party" (Galambush 27-31)--in the first case the husband or father is forsaken for a lover, in the second YHWH is abandoned for a foreign god. Back
This passage resonates with an earlier one from the 8th-century prophet Isaiah, who also compares the destructive wrought by receiving strangers to the annihilation of Sodom and Gomorrah (Isaiah 1:7-9). Back
Julie Galambush suggests that this analogy, although it is richly exploited by Ezekiel, is not unique to him: "Mishnah describes women's sexual organs in architectural terms: within the woman are 'a chamber, an ante-chamber, and an upper room: blood in the chamber is unclean; if it is found in the ante-chamber . . . it is deemed unclean, since it is presumed to be from the fountain' (The Mishnah, H. Danby, ed. Oxford University Press, 1933. Nid. 2:5). Curiously, the Mishnaic tractate on purity and impurity is named 'Oholoth,' 'tents'" (111). Back
Like Oholibah, Sarah is both a tent-dweller who offers hospitality and a hospitable tent. The three references to Sarah in the hospitality episode all occur in relation to the ohel, in a way that identifies the tent with her person: Abraham goes "into the tent unto Sarah" to announce the arrival of their guests, and before the angels unveil the miracle of Isaac's birth they ask Abraham "Where is Sarah they wife?", to which he answers, "Behold, in the tent." Sarah in turn "heard it [the blessing] in the tent door" (Genesis 18:6-10). The ohel seems to function as a symbol both of her barrenness and of her miraculous conception, the tent that is able to receive only by the grace of God. Back
Iconographically, this interpretation is often literalized in the replacement of Abraham's nomadic and permeable tent with a very solid--or even fortress-like--dwelling, replete with heavy doors and small, high windows. If Sarah is represented at all, she is often pictured looking out of a tiny window rather than standing in the doorway, a revision that both insists upon the unimpregnable sanctity of her hidden body and exempts her from participation in the hospitable offering (Réau 131-32). Back