At our Torah Study class this week, we took up the concluding portion of the Book of Exodus. Mostly it deals with instructions for constructing the Mishkan (Tent of Meeting). That’s the portable temple housing the famous box (the Ark of the Covenant) that holds the ten commandments graven on their two stone tablets. The specifications for the Mishkan are so detailed and literal that I wondered how on earth our rabbi could find anything to say about them that could be interesting!
Nothing daunted, Rabbi Sigal Brier plunged in, with her candid and creative question: what cherished possession do we each bring to the pathway we feel called to make our own? Thus she found a contemporary analogy for the task faced by each Israelite, who was asked to contribute a personal gift to the building and ornamenting of the Tent of Meeting.
Our group quickly caught the idea. Their examples – such as that of the musician who taught inner city kids to play the piano and even try to learn to read a score, or the mother whose daughter had Attention Deficit Disorder but overcame it in the days before ADD had been identified as a disability – were heartfelt and interesting. I held back from participating, thinking that work in my field lacked the concreteness of their analogies. After all, I thought, what you bring to philosophy wasn’t like bringing bejeweled bracelets to the Mishkan. But then I thought, maybe it is. Here’s how I described my contribution.
When I first entered the field of philosophy, the very sounds of the words philosophers used seemed to me so beautiful! I heard them the way my musician co-religionist friend hears music. I couldn’t write the equivalent of the musical score for any single note on the instrument of philosophy, but even so I loved to listen.
In time, the terms took on significance. But I could still recall how vague and uncertain my early grasp had been. So I made it a principle not to write anything for publication that I hadn’t myself experienced in one way or another.
If an engineer designs a bridge and it falls down, you know it. Nobody is fooled. But if a philosopher builds a bridge-of-words, going from nowhere to nowhere, and the verbal tour de force draws recognition and respect from other philosophers, the unsoundness will be far less obvious.
There was another aspect of my own situation when I entered the field. I wasn’t the first person to get here! In any field, you have to know what’s been done up to the present time, before you can figure out what needs your contribution now. Almost all the philosophers whose work had intellectual credibility and cultural impact had been men. My life experience overlapped theirs in many ways, but it also differed – as a woman’s life differs from a man’s.
Well, you might say, didn’t feminism – that exciting new slant on the life of the mind – make room for this very difference? Why should the his and hers contrasts continue to present any philosophic challenge? Well, for one thing, unlike many feminists, I personally had not found that being-a-woman was a mere social construct. Pregnant out of wedlock is not a social construct. Men don’t lactate.
Come on girls, get real!
Nor did my own experience confirm the claims, being made by some feminists I knew, that the presence of women in the field would necessarily add the qualities of nurture and compassion to philosophy’s ancient practices.
At that time I lived in Manhattan, where I had the chance to attend gatherings of the feminists who were then coming to be well-known. Those early events were typically held at the Park Avenue penthouse apartments provided by hegemonic, patriarchal husbands who were not at home to greet afternoon guests because they were sweating it out on Wall Street!
One husband I heard about was an exception. He was stuck at home because he was dying of cancer. His wife was home too, writing a book about her experience as a woman whose husband was dying of cancer. If the phone rang during her writing hours, he would pick up the receiver and explain to callers that his wife was busy working on her book and would get back to them later.
No, the question of what philosophic difference my experience as a woman might make did not get handled by claiming that women were innately compassionate. Nor that femininity was merely, border-to-border, a social construct. So the difference it might make to any work I did would turn out a nuanced one. No one-size-fits-all answer would deal with it adequately.
I came to reconfigure the question in the following way: would I find it possible and desirable to live inside a world corresponding to views I defend? Philosophy is an inherently costly discipline. We are honor bound not to affirm what we can’t sincerely believe. Or live out.
As I write, the streets of Paris are piling up with garbage. The French garbage workers – unwilling to accept the government’s plan to stave off budget ruin by deferring their retirement age for another year or two – have gone on strike. As a New Yorker, I feel for the municipality. You didn’t mess with our sanitation workers. They too had the City by the throat.
That said, I hope I may be permitted to wonder what the Parisian postmoderns – who take reality itself to be a “text” – will do as the rats move toward Paris, perhaps – hearing with their good rodent ears – that the pickings are good in that beautiful city where fashionable opinions are formed.
Are the rats also a text?