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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: they go down to the river to draw water and are blessed by God with a bounty of fish—some of which they sell for wine and some which they cook—which they take to their husbands at labour. God’s intervention here sanctions the seduction to follow, the women serving his providential plan of salvation. After giving their husbands the wine and fish, they take out their mirrors and initiate a game of flirtatious banter, husband and wife in turn saying, “I am more beautiful than you.” Thus, exciting desire, they “were fruitful and multiplied,” God “blessing them with issue.” And so, the women are the agents of liberation and redemption, each accomplished through sexual seduction, for “[t]hrough the merit of those same mirrors,” “the children of Israel . . . raised up hosts, . . . [and] went out of the land of Egypt,’”

                Act Two is set in Sinai where, as Fine put it, “fund-raising is well underway for the building of the Tabernacle,” with everyone bringing contributions for the temple. The women, also wanting to contribute, offer their mirrors to Moses, who becomes “furious with them” and responds with a violent command to break their legs. God intervenes and admonishes Moses for his failure to see salvation was made possible by these very mirrors. Gila explained Moses’ problem with the mirrors is that for him they represent impurity, vanity, and selfishness as they “inhibit the outward gaze and confine it to the self”; therefore, “they are the last thing that belongs in the Temple, the place of seeing the Face of God.” But in the Midrash, the rabbi subverts this traditional understanding, using the same symbol for seeing only the self as the very thing that allows for seeing the other in pure love, and so making possible the liberation and redemption of the Israelites. Here, the mirror reflects both beloved and lover, not one at the expense of the other, for the husband and wife see each other together in the mirror. Therefore, God commands Moses to not only take the women’s mirrors but to make the priests’ purifying “basin” out of “those same mirrors which raised up all the hosts.”

                Just as there is a mirror in both Midrash and myth (the pond a kind of mirror reflecting Narcissus’ image), so is there an echo in each: the echo occurs in the Midrash when the husband and wife reiterate—“I am more beautiful than you”—and in the myth, when Echo reiterates only the last part of Narcissus’ vow, “May I die before I give you power o’er me,” saying, “I give you power o’er me.” Each image in the Midrash is an inversion of the same image in the myth. The mirror of the myth that enslaves Narcissus in self-love becomes the vehicle by which the women initiate and achieve redemption in the Midrash. And, opposed to the echo of the myth, which signifies loss of self, in theMidrash, the echo affirms self—rather than self-annihilation, there is self-assertion. The Midrash“overturns the twin symbols of love’s annihilation of the self”: it is a love story that is neither self-absorbed (Narcissus) nor self-destructive (Echo) but rather allows for both self and other, and so ends with birth not death. Interestingly, Fine pointed out that the word love is never used in this Midrash, suggesting the reason is probably because it has so many tragic senses in the Bible. And the next story Fine discussed is certainly fraught with tragic overtones.





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