Antigone’s Legacy

Rachel Isaacs was the first openly lesbian rabbi ordained by the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary in May 2011. When Rabbi Isaacs graduated from Wellesley college in 2005 she gave the student address. She called her speech Antigone’s Legacy and encouraged her fellow graduates to have Antigone’s courage in the face of injustice. She hoped her generation would create new ways of protecting the rights of every individual just the way Antigone had.

I learned Antigone’s story well since it was required reading in a high school literature class I taught.  Antigone is the young female heroine of an ancient Greek tragedy written by Sophocles. A state leader tries to stop Antigone from providing an honorable burial for a war hero. The leader, who had political differences with the dead man, orders his body be left lying in the open as carrion for the birds.

antigone-1Antigone insists such an immoral burial will displease the gods. She buries the body herself and as a result  is punished by death.

Antigone is an inspiring character. Her story has been re-told by great artists like Mark Rothko, famous musicians including Mendelssohn, and countless playwrights who have rewritten Sophocles’ original drama and set it in more modern times. There are operas about Antigone and poems telling her story.

The United States Navy even named one of its World War I battleships after her.

Perhaps the most legendary performance of Antigone took place in the Robben Island Prison in South Africa in the 1960s when some of the inmates there chose to present the play at their annual Christmas concert. Nelson Mandela, imprisoned at Robben Island because of his political efforts to end apartheid in South Africa, played one of the major roles.

Antigone is an unlikely hero. She is young. She is a woman. She is also the daughter of Oedipus, and comes from a highly dysfunctional family. Yet these factors don’t hold her back from following her conscience.

Antigone might serve as an inspiring role model to the young men and women graduating from universities and high schools this month. 

Other posts about female role models…….

The Famous Five

Three Remarkable Jamaican Women

The Aviator’s Wife

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Filed under Culture, History, israel, People, Religion

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