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Gila Fine

On Love, Woman, and Women in Love: Reading Midrash Tanhuma, Pekudei 9 and Kiddushin 81b with Gila Fine at Limmud Winnipeg 2019-Part 1

By Penny Jones Square, March 12, 2019


This is one of the goals of the Jewish way of living: to experience commonplace deeds as spiritual adventures, to feel the hidden love and wisdom in all things.

—Abraham Joshua Heschel


Part One

“Mirror, Mirror in the Temple: A Tale of Love and Liberation”:

On Midrash Tanhuma, Pekudei 9

                This review of Limmud Winnipeg 2019 will focus on Gila Fine’s two remarkable and brilliant presentations: “Mirror, Mirror in the Temple: A Tale of Love and Liberation,” a reading of Midrash Tanhuma, Pekudei 9, and “The Tragedy of Heruta: The Madonna Who Became a Whore,” a reading ofKiddushin 81b. Each presentation exemplified precisely how, as Heschel puts it, “commonplace deeds” can be experienced as “spiritual adventures,” opening us to the “hidden love and wisdom of all things.” The “commonplace” practice of reading rabbinic literature closely, as Fine had us do, definitely was a “spiritual adventure.”

                Gila Fine is the Editor-in-Chief of Maggid Books (Koren Publishers Jerusalem) and a teacher of Aggada at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies. Her radical and inventive explorations of rabbinic literature are based on in-depth readings of the text through the various lenses of philosophy, literary criticism, psychoanalysis, and pop culture—her studies of particularMidrash mirroring the midrashicprocess itself, as we experienced in her sessions.

                Midrash has been described as “the hammer that awakens the slumbering sparks on the anvil of the Bible.” And the process of this awakening includes the use of legends, parables, and myth in order to broaden understanding of the biblical text and expand awareness of the spiritual, moral, and ethical truths informing it. Rabbinic literature serves to answer questions raised in the Torah and to provide interpretations that are more meaningful and relevant to the lives of its readers.

                Fine’s interpretation ofMidrash Tanhuma, Pekudei 9unfolded from a close analysis of the text during which she drew on a wealth of sources from other rabbinic literature, the Hebrew Bible, George Orwell’s 1984, the philosopher Jacques Lacan, J. K. Rowling’sHarry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the Brothers Grimm’s “Little Snow White,” Erich Fromm, and most importantly to her interpretation, from Ovid’s “The Story of Echo and Narcissus,” to draw out deeper meanings from the text, while prompting us with questions and inviting our interpretations.

Fine explained how understanding the prevailing notion of love at the time of the writing of the Midrash is critical to its meaning and to its revolutionary message (which, as we were to discover, is ultimately a repudiation of it). Fine referred to James A. Diamond’s description of the biblical portrayal of “[p]assionate, unrestrained love” as “fraught with danger,” “ wreak[ing] havoc,” and leading to “the surrender of one’s identity, and the total fusion of oneself into another,” as well as to the biblical stories of Dinah, Tamar and Amnon, Samson and Delilah, Jonathan and David, Michal and David, Solomon and his foreign women, and Oholah to reveal that love was defined by its destructiveness, commonly causing the death of lover, beloved, or both.

This pessimistic view of love is consistent with the portrayal of love in classical myth. Indeed, the myth of Echo and Narcissus, with which the rabbis were familiar, according to Fine, represents love as utterly self-destructive, “its double danger expressed as either an echo or a mirror”—as being either excessively other-directed like Echo or completely self-absorbed like Narcissus, both requiring either self or other be annihilated. But in theMidrash, the rabbi provides a radical revisioning of the idea that love unchecked leads to destruction, subverting it with an affirmation of the potential for a pure love that is not destructive of lover or beloved and that has the power to redeem. Following Fine’s reading of theMidrash will reveal how this meaning is conveyed.

Act One is set in the time of enslavement in Egypt, when the Israelite men were in “harsh labor” and have been forbidden to “have relations with their wives.” The pharaoh’s decree, then, is a deliberate strategy to circumvent the demographic threat the Israelites posed and, by denying them love, to break them. Rabbi Simeon ben Halafta’s question, “What did the daughters of Israel do?,” focuses the story on the women’s actions: the

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