Yesterday I heard one of the most problematic papers I have heard for a long time: Ilana Pardes on ‘Freud, Zipporah and the Bridegroom of Blood’. The longer the presentation went on (after we had endured twenty minutes of waffle on Freud’s Moses and Monotheism), the more something seemed out of whack. And then we had this surreal moment: challenged on the question of Moses’s existence, Pardes responded as follows:
The story of Moses and the Exodus is a cultural memory that must be based on fact, for legends need something upon which to base themselves. It is like the Vikings and the cultural memory of Norway … of course, we don’t have a ship or a rod from Moses, but it is the same thing. And anyway, the Bible assumes he existed.
I refrained at the time, but this really is a crock of shit. To begin with, cultural memory has no reason to be based on fact – the US practice of Thanksgiving is a case in point. Further, there is a difference – a big one – between Moses and the Vikings: we have fucking ships and towns and other shit from the Vikings and we have nothing on Moses or the story about Egypt. But the clincher is that the Bible says so: um, this is the kind of fundamentalist line one would hardly expect from someone who is supposed to be a sophisticated scholar.
But this was only the beginning, since the Moses-is-real line plugged into a very subtle liberal Zionism that ran throughout the paper. A flesh and blood Moses and his desert band are of course the forebears of current-day Israel, an assertion that betrays its fictional status by the incessant need to repeat it. And so we heard quite a lot about national memory and nation founding. This liberal Zionism also showed up in the examples chosen: Pardes would move smoothly from the USA to Israel to (for the sake of context) Norway. For instance, on the question of the repression of trauma, the Holocaust during World War II generated a period of time afterwards during which people simply did not talk about it, as was also the case with slavery in the USA, as was was the ‘experience’ of slavery in Egypt. The constant comparison of the foundation of states, into which Israel slid as yet another example, was probelmatic enough, but the elephant in the room was of course the Nakba, the dispossession of Palestinians when the state of Israel was established in Palestine. The inability or unwillingness to see the connection with her argument, especially the way the question of trauma undermined the Zionist assumptions of the paper was perhaps the most telling moment of all.
But what about Zipporah and the ‘bridegroom of blood’ in Exodus 4? It is, apparently, based on the myth of Isis and Osiris because ‘Zipporah’ means ‘bird’ and Isis is depicted in one Egyptian painting with wings.