December 22, 2013
In the bucolic re-telling of the Bible story, the pregnancy of Mary “from the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:18) is often seen as a beautiful, miraculous thing (which it certainly should be). However, in the context of the Jewish laws surrounding marriage and adultery, Mary’s pregnancy – during the engagement period before she and Joseph were married and had sex – spelled disaster for Mary and her family:“First, her family’s honor was at stake if news got out that she had gotten herself pregnant by someone other than her husband. They would have to scrape up the portion of the bride price already doled out by the husband-to-be (which surely they’d spent within that year) and return it to the family of the husband-to-be. Second, her husband-to-be would be humiliated and dishonored, and any rash acts on his part to restore his honor would be tolerated and justified by the community. Third and finally, the very life of the bride-to-be was at stake. She deserved to be stoned to death [for adultery]” (Weems, Renita. Showing Mary. New York: Warner Books, 2002. pp. 99).
So the birth of Jesus took place in circumstances that – in the eyes of the community at that time – were scandalous (and potentially dangerous), not joyous. Matthew introduces us to Joseph in the context of Mary’s unexpected pregnancy, saying “Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly” (vv.19). The phrase “expose her to public disgrace” is polite shorthand for “having her publicly stoned to death for adultery”, which would have been his right under Mosaic law.
Nonetheless, Matthew says that Joseph’s refusal to “expose her to public disgrace” was an indication that he was “a righteous man”. This is obviously not righteousness in the usual modern sense of the word. The Bing dictionary defines righteousness as “strictly observant of morality: always behaving according to a religious or moral code”. However, if Joseph had behaved “righteously” in this sense, Mary would have been put to death under Mosaic law (along with her child), and the “first Christmas” would never have happened.
The Hebrew word for “a righteous man” is tzaddik, which “Judaism 101” translates as a man “who conquers his ‘evil inclinations,’ towards pride, power and oppression, and practices righteousness and humility, and who is, like G-d, always on ‘the side of the oppressed'”. So the Hebrew understanding of righteousness does not simply mean legalistic adherence to a moral code in the strictly punitive sense. It means doing the right things that God wants us to do, in a spirit of quiet humility, and with consideration toward those who are powerless. Joseph knew very well what his rights were under Jewish law, with regard to Mary. But as a tzaddik, he exercised mercy, took full account of Mary’s terrible situation, and resolved to “quietly” divorce her. Note, however, that even a “quiet” divorce would have required witnesses to be legally valid – so Mary’s (and Joseph’s) disgrace would not have been a complete secret. And in a close-knit community, Joseph would have likely been greeted for the rest of his days with the epic eye-rolling reserved for cuckolds – men who could not control their women – and his honor would be tarnished. Joseph knew all this, and was still willing to go through with it rather than putting Mary to death. He was, after all, a tzaddik.
By being a tzaddik, Joseph opened himself up to humiliation – but also to God’s grace. It was only after he had resolved to go forth with a quiet divorce that the angel whispered in his ear in his sleep:Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins (vv. 20-21).
In all likelihood, taking Mary as his wife would still have exposed Joseph to muted public disgrace and the whispering of the gossips. The “wise women” of the community – the women who can spot the swelling of a belly, morning sickness and the watery eyes of a young pregnant girl a mile away – would certainly have known of Mary’s untimely pregnancy. People were not stupid (poor people could not afford to be so). Joseph knew all this, but he was still willing to listen to “the angels of his better nature,” take Mary as his wife, and make room at the table for a child that was not his. He was, after all, a tzaddik.
So it is through quiet righteousness – not loud, bloviating self-righteousness – that the saving grace of God’s love was born into the world. Self-righteousness does not bring about God’s grace – it destroys it, and the lives of the people who are condemned by it. When we are tempted by self-righteousness to loudly and publicly condemn others, let us stop this holiday season and think: What are the whispers of the angels that we are ignoring? What might God be bringing into the world through the people that we are condemning – as spectacularly imperfect as they may be – that we would be destroying? Am I truly being a tzaddik (or – for a female – a tzidkanit) or am I just being a jerk who wants to be right no matter what the cost? Perhaps if we take a moment to pray in humility, we will get an answer that is in line with the true spirit of Christmas …