Kosman, Miriam. “Circle, Arrow, Spiral: Exploring Gender in Judaism”, Menucha Publishers, 2014.
Men, Women and Judaism
Regarding gender, there are many questions in Judaism and as many questions as there are, there are also that many answers. Are men and women equal in Judaism? Is equality even a Jewish goal? If it isn’t, how do we reconcile a just God with inequality?. In a society in which it is no longer clear who brings home the money and who fixes the meals, who changes the baby and who changes the tires or what it really means to be male or female. Should gender make any difference in our lives, or should we all just do what we are good at and forget labels? Is gender indeed a label or is it a biological fact?
These are questions that arise time and again in a society where norms are changing rapidly . Going past the great divide between the “men-and-women-are-equal-but-different” camp, and the “Judaism-is-patriarchal-and-must-change” camp, “Circle, Arrow, Spiral: Exploring Gender in Judaism” presents us with a shift in paradigm. Miriam Kosman goes into Midrashic underpinnings of the struggle for equality and its philosophical ramifications and explores how female angst plays a cosmic and important role in awakening humanity to a crucial process. Later, in the second half of the book, author Kosman addresses some of the more delicate issues relating to men and women in Jewish law (the marriage and divorce structure and public versus private roles) and she explores them by way of the paradigm she has set up in the earlier chapters. This new, for some,
paradigm looks at the entire male/female dynamic and offers insight into navigating this crucial relationship in real life more successfully. In doing so, we push to the side early diatribes and look at the power of the female force in history, in society, and in relationships. We see how the entire universe is divided along the fault line between male and female and all of life is an everlasting and seemingly non-ending dance between these two forces. This is a book about who we are as human beings, as men and women – and as Jews.
Kosman draws on Jewish sources, particularly Kabbalistic ones, as well as second-wave feminist theory, postmodern thought, contemporary psychology and sociology, and then offers a sweeping theory of gender as it manifests itself in Judaism. For Kosman, the traditional Jewish conception of male and female roles is not a challenge to be overcome, but rather it represents a sophisticated and delicate framework for enabling the “female force” to manifest itself within individual relationships and within history more broadly. If we obscure the difference between men and women in the service of egalitarianism or other contemporary trends, we may actually find a counterproductive effect. It could silence the female voice.
There will be issues here that not everyone will agree with but this is an important way of looking at gender and gender roles. Everyone who has interest in Jewish intellectualism and its tradition and who is uncomfortable with easy dismissals of its wisdom when it comes to gender in the modern world will find something of importance here and not always immediately. I found myself, for example, spending a lot of time thinking about what I read and then trying it make it applicable to the way we live now. This can be very difficult for those of us who have been raised on the idea of patriarchy and Judaism.
The book centers on a midrash from the Talmudic tractate of Chullin. Translated it says the following:
“Rabbi Shimon ben Pazi asked: It is written, “And God made the two big luminaries” (Genesis 1:16) And yet first it says, “The big luminary and the small luminary.” [If they are both big, why is one later called small?] [Rabbi Shimon answers his question by explaining how the two equal-sized luminaries became unequal in size:] The moon said to the Holy One, Blessed Be He, “Master of the World, two kings cannot share the same crown.”
He said to her. “Go and make yourself small.”
She said to Him, “Because I said something proper before You, I should make myself small?”
He said to her, “Go rule by day and by night.”
She said to Him, “What is the advantage in this? What is the value of a candle at noontime?”
He said to her, “Go, so that Israel may count the days and the years through you.”
She said to Him, “The sun is also necessary for counting the times and the seasons, as it says, ‘And they [both the sun and the moon] will be for signs at the appointed time; (ibid.,14)
[He said,] “Go, so that righteous ones will be called by your name. Jacob the Small One, Samuel the Small One, David the Small One.”
He saw that she was still upset. The Holy One, Blessed Be He, said, “Bring an atonement for Me that I diminished the moon.”
Even with the gendered language and it is important to remember that Hebrew is a gender specific language, we see that this is not about gender on the surface. The moon is pained because she is diminished and she wants equality. This midrash has been interpreted to refer to the Jewish people and their desire and longing for the messianic age. Each month when the Kiddush Levana prayer is recited on the new moon, the Jewish liturgy looks at this mystical yearning for the restoration of the moon to her former glory.
In both the Kabbalistic and in a variety of ancient cultures, the moon is associated with women, and this midrash is also often understood to refer to male-female relations as they manifest themselves in the world. We see that the sun bestows light while the moon receives it. Kabbalistic literature uses biological reality in describing the male archetype as the giver and the female archetype as the receiver. Kosman continually clarifies that she is dealing with conceptual symbolic categories, and that every woman or man has both these feminine and masculine forces within her or him. Therefore we must appreciate these traits separately in order for them to interrelate meaningfully. The “circle” of the book’s title relates to the moon, and to the female archetype, while the “arrow” of the title refers to masculinity and to the sun. The “spiral” then describes the ideal interaction that takes place between the forces, relating to one another in a dialectical manner but ultimately pushing forward to create a synthesis that is more than the sum of its parts.
Aside from using the sun as power, conquest and hierarchy, Kosman looks at it in terms of Western Civilization. We surely see this in the phrase that “The sun never sets on the British Empire”. We use a form of the word “light” to classify the European movement of philosophical and scientific revolution, while the moon, on the other hand, represents dependence and interconnection. What we need is to know how to listen and then validate whoever is doing the giving.
Author Kosman connects this with the spirit of the “East”. This ability to receive, or “empty oneself out” is not a passive stance, and it’s no secret how much energy and rigor is demanded by a life seriously devoted to one of the Eastern mystical traditions. Yet when placed directly beside the sun, it is easy to see how the contributions of the moon might get overshadowed. Kosman reads the midrash in Chullin as presenting two stages where the first stage is a cosmic ideal of equality, represented by the notion that God originally created the sun and the moon as the same size, as it says toward the beginning of Genesis 1, “and God made the two big luminaries”. Even the moon herself fears that no one is going to take her contributions as seriously as that of the sun. The second stage is a revision of that original plan in which, God responds to the moon’s frustration by, diminishing her. She is baffled by this response, but He assures her that it is not punishment, rather it may offer an even more dynamic solution to her problem. With her diminishment comes her ability to wax and wane, to at times reflect the sun’s light and other times be separate from it. There is a kind of active reciprocity that results between the sun and the moon, a dynamic relationship that gives the moon a degree of autonomy in when she will reflect the sun and when she will not.
We see that the moon, being small, can therefore be present in both day and night while the sun by its nature obliterates the darkness around it, the moon is conditioned to exist in both darkness and light and it also has a particular awareness that results from the smaller size, and this is in regard to her relationship to God. We know that in Judaism, righteousness is not solely a product of great abilities or accomplishments. In this midrash, God reminds the moon that in the Bible, great Jewish heroes like Jacob, Samuel and David, are called “small.” These men are distinguished by not just their external achievements but that they were able to achieve them when they were small. They were aware that they were small and vulnerable and were able to have God in their lives.
There are still questions after looking at this midrash. Why does God ask the moon to bring an atonement for Him? Despite everything that has happened, does God ultimately still regret diminishing the moon? This is a powerful dynamic that is described here and while many are quick to characterize traditional religious notions of gender and gender difference to be outmoded and even immoral, Kosman uses this Talmudic story to present a more complex picture. Equality is clearly a value here, but equality sits alongside of vulnerability and interdependence. When the moon is diminished she obtains a heightened sensitivity of how underappreciated her message of “receiving” really is, and this causes her into making it more manifest in the world. Gender imbalance creates a structure in which both forces exist separately and can then interact meaningfully with one another. It is Kosman telling us that in this midrash God tells us to understand our smallness and underneath the surface there is the history of quiet presence from which we derive humanity and that humanity comes from God.
For Kosman, the diminishment of women is not unique to Judaism. She speaks of women in the broader sense. She considers the mistreatment of women and the devaluing of female contributions that has taken place throughout human history. Here, Judaism has generally been among the least egregious offenders, although it’s inevitable that Jewish texts will to some extent reflect surrounding cultural conceptions. She also believes that Jewish practice contains within it the tools to address, and ultimately remedy this unfortunate state of imbalance. In the separation and distinctions of gender within halakha or Jewish law, Kosman sees a sophisticated system that distinguishes male and female archetypes from one another in order that a sort of dialectical relationship develops between them. The goal is a powerful, proactive collision “between opposites, who, by maintaining their disparity even as they meet the other, create something entirely new.”
Kosman cites here the historical Jewish practice of differentiating between the types of Torah study done by men and women. Talmud study is traditionally the domain of men, though Kosman does point out that there are many prominent examples of women in Jewish history who were highly versed in Jewish texts. Kosman connects the legalistic aspects of Talmud study to the male archetype, “the halakhic aspect of Talmud requires the verbal give-and-take process of accessing the truth through argument in order to be understood.” She also dismisses any notion that women are intellectually incapable of such study. Yet she contends that women will often be inclined toward a different mode of Torah study, one that emphasizes insight over argument, and experiential knowledge over abstract hypothetical scenarios. The Talmud itself contains both of these and they are both within particular legalistic give-and-takes, and in the broader weaving together of halakha with aggadah, stories that enrich, deepen and even sometimes undermine the Jewish legal discussions at hand. The appreciation of aggadah is challenging and requires careful study, but it is ultimately not a conquest of reason but rather an experience of delighting in its subtle insight. We feel this in the midrash in Chullin about the lost light of the moon – Kosman offers a compelling interpretation of the story, but there still remains an air of mystery to the midrash that rational analysis cannot fully explicate. On of the things I learned from studying and listening to Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg discuss midrash is that it can move and delight us without necessarily offering a tight logical progression of ideas.
For Kosman, however, the interplay between female and male forces is built into the Talmud and is part of what gives it its resonance and its power. The fact that more Jewish women study Talmud in the contemporary world is a positive development that can certainly highlight and bring these feminine elements of the Jewish tradition into greater relief. There is a danger in emphasizing male Torah study paradigms for both men and women— it risks sublimating the female voice. Kosman suggests, somewhat radically, that “discovering a paradigm for women’s Torah study, which validates and strengthens those gifts that women bring to the world, may require an entire restructuring of thought.”
We do not get a direct opinion about female rabbis from Kosman but we can imagine how she feels by looking at the schema she has developed showing that the male voice emphasizes hierarchy and power while the female voice is quiet; to dress it up in male clothing is to risk denigrating the female voice’s unique contributions. Of course there is the argument that the American Orthodox Rabbinate is not only about religious authority; it also involves pastoral counseling, or caring for and supporting congregants in their times of need, and these are roles that one could conceivably imagine a women fulfilling as or even more successfully than a man. Kosman would not see this as a viable argument in favor of women’s ordination, rather it is proof that the system is working as it stands. For a male communal Rabbi to be successful, he must incorporate male and female elements into his work. This give and take between male and female forces is built into the structure of Judaism and should be present in all of its major expressions. Men are who gather monthly to bless the new moon and this is not an omission of women but the opposite, In Judaism, the sun sensitizes itself to the loss and yearning represented by the moon. The real challenge in Judaism is how to take care of those differing forces while keeping the goal of interaction that propels us ahead. Kosman certainly gives us a lot to think about and she reminds us that in moving forward we can possibly lose some of what she has to say. She shows us that serious thought can make us stronger Jews and we can only hope that her words do not fall flat.
Jewish gender distinctions in more generous terms, and also in appreciating the complicated nature of their task at hand. While many have touted recent innovations in women’s formal leadership within the Orthodox community as an exciting wave of the future, Circle, Arrow Spiral quite poignantly reminds us of what might potentially be lost in this move “forward.” Kosman demonstrates the potential for what serious and broad thinking about Judaism can look like within a context of deep faith and commitment. It would be wonderful if major debates in the Modern Orthodox community would take place within, or at least respond to, such a well thought-out conceptual framework.