Animal Politics (Fox Fables) (Berechiah ha-Nakdan)

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Sovereignty means that the strong eat the weak, who survive only by their wits, all and each out for their own against the other. This is what we learn about animal life, the unvarnished truth in Fox Fables, the English translation of Mishlei Shualim by Rabbi Berechiah ben Natronai ha-Nakdan, whose cultural milliue was Burgundy and Provence, around the late 12th or early 13th century.

Building off the Latin Aesopic traditon of fable telling, the didactic moral telling is conventional and rather dull, and do not always do justice to the terrible tales they are supposed to illuminate. It’s a secular world without pity, without succor, with no salvation promised or expected from either God or “man.” Don’t bother with the prefunctory nod to the former at the very end of the text. There is no justice, redemption, or revelation in these stories. The peace promised at the end to Israel would seem to have left not a trace in the fables themselves.

I’m thinking that the moral of the fables is to watch out for yourself because there is no one to help you. The author’s words, at the end of the text, are compared to gold and silver, to pure sayings gathered like herbs, bestowed in pots, and readied for cooking. But the palpable anxiety expressed in the introduction is never overcome, an anxiety about fate, the fate of the author’s own words, and the concern that they be written down, inscribed. The “fortune of my pen…is upon the world’s revolving wheel, which is obscure to my understanding –a vagabond upon the sea am I” (p.1). That wheel, the chariot wheel, slays and lets live, “confounds the righteous,” “charges upon the good and humbles them,” and “smites [Truth] in the fifth rib” (p.2). As for the wicked, “the vile,” and the “nameless,” they do pretty good for themselves.

And then, to complete this utterly devastating picture of animal life, at the end of the introduction, we learn that even sovereignty, the sovereignty that kills or let lives throughout the fables, that this sovereignty is itself not secure. The author declares, “Lo, I draw parables of beasts and birds to strengthen hands that are weak, and of creeping things that crawl upon the ground; these are for a similitude for them that walk on earth. I shall begin with the lion who rules over them all, great and small,  for they changed his honor for shame. So when a rich man grows poor, his comrades make themselves strangers to them” (p.5).

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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