“Christianity, Judaism, and Women”

ivanhoe-1952-01-g“Christianity, Judaism, and Women”

I don’t know how you feel about this, but I take for granted that a religion represents (among other things) an erotic style.  If I were to convert to another religion, I would be changing the way I handle desire.

Nowadays, we are urged to think of sex as “just” about sex.  This is deeply mistaken.  Léo Bronstein used to say, “For young people never sex without an idea, never an idea without sex!”  This is true for the young and for the rest of the population as well, despite the blinders that are now so fashionable.  What “ideas” map the field of courtship, for the Christian woman and the Jewish woman?

As the Jewish woman I am, it’s second nature for me to include myself in the lech lecha, the “get thee up and get thee out … to a land that I will show thee,” which is God’s start-up message to Abraham.  It means moving at God’s prompt, but keeping one’s feet on the map of the empirical world — real time, real space and real cultures.  Another reality is oneself — as key agent and rememberer — the nuclear center of an unbroken connection between past and future.  Add to this the romantic realism of doing the assignment with a mate, a partner, an intimate other with whom the narrative, its basis in time, space and culture and its meaning, is shared.  Until Jacob meets the beguiling Rachel at the well, his life is not yet grounded.

I enter the story several thousand years after this beginning however, and the partnership with God in history, which was advertised as a means of blessing to all humankind, has become painful enough to make the rabbis declare, in a midrash of humorous ambivalence, that if God had given Jews a preview of the covenant through the centuries, they would have turned it down.

I’ve tried to turn it down many times, but it seems to follow me anyway.  When I lived in Australia, at a time when jibes & jokes about Jews were considered more or less socially acceptable, our department was treated to a luncheon at the Staff Club by a visiting British former M. P. (member of parliament).  During the repast, he made hurried (it’s always hurried), passing, jocular reference to Jews as “nouveaux riches.”

When the story of me is thus affronted, my part in it is chiefly played out  via l’esprit de escalier” (the witty comeback thought of only when one is going down the stair and out the door).  So I shall always regret missing my one chance to reply, “If it weren’t for Norman extortion and Saxon looting, Jewish money would be very old in Britain.”  I would have kept my (and Rachel’s bronzed, sandaled) feet firmly planted on the original sands and my connections to the narrative visible.

The Christian woman has a chance to get above it, to “overcome the world.”  There is a golden drop-line, direct and vertical, between her and God’s grace, and it promises that she can get at least partway out of the world, with its past, its layers and its sins.  The “be ye perfect” of Jesus is an invitation to the ideal and those religious idealizations shed their luminous glow on her too, to a certain extent.  There is no Jewish equivalent to Dante’s Beatrice that I know of, nor to Goethe’s “eternal feminine” that “leads us above.”

The Jewish male is in a predicament.  He is highly visible as the possible counter-example to Christianity’s old claim to be the “true Israel” (today’s anti-Israelism being supercessionism’s latest, deceptively secular guise).  He is also badly outnumbered.  This means he is hard put to defend his woman and his family.  In his manly frustration, he is likely to take this out on her, by de-idealizations, sarcastic words or shrugging her off.

She can’t be the eternal feminine who leads us above because he might have to watch her being raped by Cossacks, he being unable to fight them off.  If this unequal situation is further stylized, so that his inability to be a warrior becomes consecration to the realm of study — intellectual combat — she may get relegated to running the shop downstairs unaided.

So the Jewish man who wants a woman to idealize, one who will not be raped by Cossacks on his watch, will tend to intermarry for those reasons.

The same goes for the Jewish woman who wants to be idealized, by a man who takes for granted his ability to defend her if need be.

The Christian man or woman who wants a partner to keep him or her grounded in real space, real time and real history may look for a Jewish partner for corresponding reasons.

If only the Jews put chivalry into their mix!  If only the Christians did not divide their world into a present part and a remote, absent part, it would all work out well.  All the erotic styles would harmonize and suffice.

History is not a blank page, however, and it appears that the God of history has not given Christians and Jews the same assignment.   Like dance partners, women compensate for our partners’ steps, and inevitable missteps, in the dance we desire.  So the moral is live with it, dance with it.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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