THE PEOPLE & THE BOOK: Challenging Chaucer

Censoring culture, or cutting budgets that encourage it, seems to be increasingly popular in the Jewish nation state.

Chaucer as a pilgrim in a page from the the early 15th century Ellesmere Manuscript, owned by the Huntington Library in San Marino, California (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Chaucer as a pilgrim in a page from the the early 15th century Ellesmere Manuscript, owned by the Huntington Library in San Marino, California
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
"FOOYA!" IS what Gila Almagor, doyenne of Israeli Theater, thinks of Culture Minister Miri Regev's proposed, Soviet-sounding '"Loyalty in Culture" law. The bill, which is advancing in the Knesset, means that the Culture Ministry, (in other words Regev herself), could cut the funding to cultural institutions or revoke it completely for one of the following reasons: Denying the existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state; incitement to racism, violence and terrorism; support for armed struggle or terrorism; marking Independence Day as a day of mourning; and vandalizing or dishonoring the Israeli flag or other state symbols. Miri Regev, Israel's esteemed Minister of Culture, enjoys admitting that her own cultural education is not 100% complete. In a Yisrael Hayom interview she stated that she'd never read Chekhov, almost never went to plays as a child, and hasn't read the works of Hayim Nachman Bialik. In a recent furor over Israeli movie "Foxtrot," Regev, who furiously denigrated the film, acknowledged that she hadn't actually watched it.
Censoring culture, or cutting budgets that encourage it, seems to be increasingly popular in the Jewish nation state. The Jews, and the Jewish nation, have proudly been the cradle of culture and art and literature – think the Bible, think Hollywood, think Nobel Prizes for Literature – and that seemed to many of us to be good. But now, in our own country where one would have thought our creativity could fly, religious sensibilities that seem to be growing stricter by each cycle of the moon, and an ever- more powerful, yet endlessly threatened Right, seem to want to clamp down on everything that doesn't endorse their, and only their, agenda.
But this starts to get sticky. Is Regev really going to decide for the whole country what is seditious, and what should shape our thoughts? What about James Joyce? Is he kosher culture? Would our minister include him in our classrooms? Recently, while giving a workshop to heads of English Departments who set the tone for our future teachers, I spoke about "Eveline," a story from Joyce's “Dubliners,” currently on the Bagrut (Israeli matriculation) syllabus, where repressive Catholicism informs the characters’ lives. "This is a good opportunity to teach our students about Christianity," I suggested, "and Catholic practices." "Why do our students need to know about Christianity?" was the response, from more than one person. Knowledge of the world's biggest religion, with over two billion followers, is not, apparently, relevant to people who live in Israel.
Regev, had she been England's minister of culture in the 14th century, would certainly not have funded Geoffrey Chaucer. It's becoming a little crazy, no? I thought of Chaucer, whose "Canterbury Tales" is such an indictment of religious coercion and corruption, at a recent screening of "Mr. Gaga" – a gripping documentary about Ohad Naharin, one of Israel's greatest dancers and choreographers. In 1998, for the 50th anniversary of the state, Naharin's Batsheva Dance Company was invited to perform "Ehad Mi Yodeya" for the grand opening ceremony on Jerusalem's Mount Herzl. Naharin rehearsed 150 dancers for the piece, the energy was electric; the words pronounced the greatness of God. It seemed hugely appropriate for the occasion.
At the general rehearsal, 48 hours before the show, everything flowed flawlessly.
But then, on the morning after, came the phone calls. A religious woman who saw the rehearsal had found the dance "offensive," and she involved religious politicians who called on the organizers to demand that the dancers "cover up more." Netanyahu became involved; his government (yes, he really was Israel's prime minister 20 years ago too) was in danger of falling over a dance. President Ezer Weizman suggested that the performers wear “gatkes” instead of shorts; according to Naharin refusal to comply would damage the company.
Naharin ordered a costume-change, and promptly resigned. His dancers refused to go on stage; the audience, including overseas dignitaries such as Al Gore, did not see the contentious routine.
Huge demonstrations burst out the following day against the religious stranglehold on culture; Ehud Barak, then head of the opposition, declared it was a breach in the status quo. "Culture under Threat!" the headlines screamed; the religious custodians of national values simply smiled. They had won the battle; scandalous sights of kneecaps had been successfully censored.
Chaucer would have felt right at home.
The question of the Church, or in our case the Synagogue, banning what they deem dangerous for public morals, is a very difficult call. And it's a slippery slope: in 1998 male muscles rippling in a toned calf seemed seditious; in 2018, it's photographs of women politicians' faces on Jerusalem buses. Or any female faces; let's not even talk about billboards of models in bathing suits in public places. Wash your mouth out with soap! But honestly, does this protect society, or make us all nuts … and who's to say? The question is not new. Chaucer's 50-plus years were lived at a time when the Church was perhaps the single most powerful institution in England. Medieval Christianity gave shape to the national calendar; the rituals of baptism, confirmation, marriage, holy orders and the last rites were widely observed – largely because Holy Friars put the fear of God into their congregants. Tell someone he'll burn in hell if he doesn't donate to Church coffers on Sunday, and he'll probably show up for the service with cash in hand.
Chaucer, a well-to-do bourgeois London gentleman of the fourteenth century, would have been very familiar with the Summoners, Friars, Prioresses, and Pardoners that people his Tales. His well-known Pilgrims, who wended their way to Canterbury one April in early spring, included a generous smattering of clergy, although the tales they told were not always exactly spiritual.
His Prioress, for example, a very upstanding pillar of the Priory, turns out to be one very sexy nun. The romantically named "Madame Eglantine" has luscious red lips and lovely breasts, noticeable even under her modest habit. Her forehead, which for reasons of piety should be covered down to the eyebrows, is fair and broad and tantalizingly visible; she drives the other holy pilgrims crazy as she flashes her flesh.
Madame E, who should abjure all worldly treasures, wears a gold bracelet proclaiming Amor vincit omnia – but is it God's love that conquers all, or has the venerable sister been loving someone else? God, last time we looked, doesn't make a habit of gifting his worshippers with gold. So someone more human must be cherishing the body beneath the cover-all.
Is that allowed? This buxom nun, who weeps to see mice trapped but feeds her dogs roasted flesh ('though she doesn't bother to feed the poor in her parish), tells a venomous tale of vicious Jews who throw a poor, gentle Christian boy into a well after killing him and cutting out his tongue.
It's a terrible tale of antisemitism, in an era when Jews were banned from England, and the Blood Libel went unquestioned. Chaucer, it can be argued, was just another British antisemite, spreading the terrible truth: Jews were worse than the Devil himself.
Forget Regev hypothetically banning his books in Medieval England. What should she do with Chaucer today; here, in the Jewish state? Should she cut him from BAs in English Lit and castigate lecturers who teach him on the sly? Should they be branded traitors? Should Bibi step in, and get the Government involved: should parties try topple the government over "The Canterbury Tales?" It's not so simple. See, there's another way of looking at Chaucer.
The Prioress, who tells her tale of pathological Jews, is a very unreliable narrator.
The General Prologue highlights her flirtatious grey eyes and voluptuous curves, not hidden so well by her slinky cloak. Far from being chaste and pious she seems to have lately risen from the arms of a lover; she sings lustily on her horse, and eats meals with ungodly gusto.
Is this an authentic moralizer? Or is Chaucer actually saying that antisemitic rants belong to anti-social people – is he actually ridiculing accepted wisdom and begging his readers NOT to believe nuns, or others, who spout nonsense about Jews? Wouldn't we be silly to ban that? Even if it's an optimistic reading of Chaucer, isn't this the kind of discussion we'd like to encourage in and out of our classrooms? Isn't culture supposed to make us think? So it's tricky to simply censor on sight.
And sometimes downright silly.
“The Canterbury Tales” says a lot about a country that is to a large extent under the sway of religious men, and it's not a pretty sight. The lecherous Summoner with his farcical face, and the lusty Friar, who should be poor but is sumptuously rich, were bywords for religious corruption in Chaucer's time. The two holy men tell such terrible tales about each other that my students, every year, blush and stammer and can't repeat them in class. Let's just say that both of them end up in hell, with a great number of references to bodily functions and bodily parts that would certainly be sliced out of any public discourse in our country today.
Chaucer's patrons included successive kings of England: Edward III, Richard II, and Henry IV, who gave him grants of money and other privileges, despite his gentle satire against much that the country held sacred.
The bottom line is that his writing is what survives, not the corrupt power of the Medieval English Catholic Church.
Recently I heard Natan Sharansky refer to"the Loyalty Law." The loyalty of Sharansky, a former minister, MK and chairman of the Jewish Agency who spent a decade in a Soviet prison demanding his right to emigrate to Israel, cannot be questioned. He said that loyalty to a country should be encouraged by making its citizens proud: you can't legislate loyalty.
Certainly not with the threat of "Be loyal or suffer financial consequences." Anyway, does the person doling out the money really understand the nuances of what she's cutting or cultivating? In the meanwhile, this "my way or the highway" mindset is permeating more than our public performances. Take Kfar Saba, the little city in the Sharon that I've called home for nearly 40 years. Like everywhere here, you dig up garden weeds and hit a relic from the Second Temple period. Kfar Saba became Kafr Saba in the 7th century, with the Muslim conquest; in 1898 the Arabs sold 7,500 dunams of land to the Jews to establish a moshava. But apart from ancient history the town is pretty uneventful; it's clean, comfortable and 25 minutes from Tel Aviv.
The raging issues of the country seem to skirt this little bubble; populations mix in our shopping malls mainly in peace; religious cultism hasn't hit our billboards or busses.
Until now, that is. This year a secular Junior High School in the city inexplicably accepted only boys to a select list of students for a prestigious city science project. On investigation it appeared that a participating religious school had stipulated it would not tolerate girls (14 year olds!), presumably lest they tempt the boys to pull off their kippot as hormones raged over Bunsen burners.
This craziness hits all of us, literally in the eyes. A few days ago one of my daughters was walking in the Old City of Jerusalem, where she works as a tour guide. Behind her strolled two aged Haredim, with very long beards. Suddenly their henchman approached my child, and ordered her to fall behind the pair. When she protested, he explained that the venerable rabbis "guard their eyes;" seeing my pretty daughter would presumably put them off their holy tractates.
Really? I just have to ask: Is this what we signed up for when we left the fleshpots of Egypt? And is it getting worse? Chaucer would have had a lot to say.
Dr. Pamela Peled lectures at the IDC and Beit Berl.