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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 2

by Penny Jones Square, April 12


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 Two

 “The Tragedy of Heruta: The Madonna Who Became a Whore”:

On Kiddushin 81b

Gila Fine’s reading of Kiddushin 81 was equally extraordinary and profoundly perceptive. Again, she demonstrated how an understanding of the historical context of the Midrash illuminates how truly radical the rabbis were in their interpretations. Just as the story of the women and their mirrors flipped the prevailing view of love, so too in this story, the similarly widespread, pessimistic, and destructive view of woman as either saintly or seductive—the Madonna or the Whore—is subverted by the rabbi, a revolutionary act considering that this binary paradigm “cut across the ancient world” (see, for example, the mother/temptress in the Akkadian Gilgamesh, the first mother Eve/the demon-wife Lilith in Jewish mythology, the Virgin Mary/the prostitute Mary Magdalene in Christianity, and the faithful Penelope/the seductress Circe in classical Greek mythology). What we have in this story, according to Fine, is “a systematic deconstruction of this destructive paradigm,” which represents woman as being only one or the other—either pure, modest, and holy (a Madonna) or promiscuous, vain, and sexual (a Whore)—to ultimately “dissolve it when the two become one” in the story. Fine suggested that the fact this story is centred on the wife shows the rabbis were far more interested in women than is thought. As she commented, “There are moments when they are unbelievably sensitive to women.” This story is one of those moments.

Act One of the Midrash is “the rabbi’s revelation,” which his wife overhears: he prays to God to save him from “the evil inclination,” thereby revealing he still knows desire. But as “he has separated himself” from his wife “for many years,” the wife wonders: “Why does he say this?” Act Two is “the wife’s seduction,” accomplished in disguise, as Heruta. And Act Three is “the confrontation” and another revelation—the wife as the seductress—leading to the husband’s suicide. Fine offered Freud’s concept of “psychical impotence” as one explanation for the rabbi’s praying every day against his sexual urge and for his abandoning his wife: Freud viewed the split between sacred love and profane desire as a form of impotence. Because the rabbi views his wife as a sacred Madonna, she is divested of erotic desire; he is not praying to be saved from lust for her—he feels none—but from lust for the Whore who is below her. However, the wife experiences his celibacy as abandonment, possibly due to a lack of love, to her being no longer attractive, or to her husband’s being so holy that he has transcended his sexual urge, become a “man-angel,” as another of Fine’s sources offers as an explanation. The tragedy, as Fine made clear, is that “each believes themselves alone” and is unable to talk about it. The husband confesses his yearning in prayer as he cannot speak of it to his wife who he believes is above desire, and the wife cannot tell him of her desire for fear of his contempt. The turning point is when the wife hears his confession, for she realizes he is not a “man-angel” any more than she is a Madonna and, therefore, that the only way to break this routine is for her to become the Whore.

The seduction in Act Two is the requisite radical break. The setting appropriately shifts from the home to the garden, which Fine stated at the time represented wildness and disorder (having echoes of the Garden of Eden and ominous connotations of temptation, seduction, and sin). The devoted, self-sacrificing wife becomes a seductress in painted disguise in order to get her husband to release his sexual desire and to satisfy her own “in a desperate attempt to regain lost intimacy.” His failure to recognize her is both profoundly significant and sad, and according to Fine, it “speaks to the degree of alienation between them,” clear in his question: “Who are you?” In the wife’s response, “I am Heruta,” and the husband’s reaction, “He demanded her services,” their yearnings are openly revealed, made possible, as Fine said, by the wife’s disguise and by her naming herself (“an act of mastery demonstrating agency and self-determination”), both signifying a changed identity, one “unhinged from her husband.” The wife is now Heruta (“freedom”), “an autonomous, full-fledged self,” according to Fine. However, the meaning of her name implies both liberty and licentiousness, freedom and freedom from, “the very name blurring the categories of Madonna and Whore, and therefore a microcosm of the story as a whole.” Heruta then asks for a pomegranate—a symbol with similar double meanings—fertility/lust, propriety/passion—to be used as proof of her identity in the revelation scene to follow. The husband, defying another of the explanations (that his celibacy is due to old age), “jumped up” and climbed the tree to reach “the pomegranate at the end of the branch” that Heruta demands. 

Act Three shifts back to the home as the husband returns to be greeted by an explicitly domestic scene in which his wife is “firing the oven”—the wife having reverted to the Madonna preparing food in the home, “from kindling her husband’s desire to kindling the home fire,” as Gila phrased it. Here she is a whole, complete woman, “all binaries blurred in her.” However, her husband sees her only as the Madonna, which reinforces his sense of guilt and so traumatizes him he attempts to commit suicide. The wife speaks, breaking the barrier of communication and dropping what Fine described as “the masked dialogue of Act Two,” asking, “What is this?” When he confesses what he perceives is his sin, she reveals she is Heruta, both the “debased sexual object” (Freud) in the garden and the holy wife in the home, both an object of erotic desire and of sacred love. Her newly claimed agency is clear in her avowal, “It was me.”  Again, the tragedy is his failure to believe her (arising from his failure to see her as a complete person): “He paid no attention to her until she gave him the signs.” Yet, when his wife shows him the pomegranate, he is not relieved nor released from his guilt, and, as Fine noted, his wife’s revelation “simply devastates him further.” He abandons his wife again, either in guilt directed at himself, contempt directed at his wife, or both, fasting until he dies.

Thus, Heruta’s plan “miscarries, and her tragedy is,” according to Fine, that “she must remain a despised untouched Madonna or a despised untouched Whore.” The binary paradigm of woman that underpins the tragedy is therefore shown to be “not only incorrect but also immoral”: it can only lead to death. The final recognition scene, which dissolves the boundaries between Madonna and Whore, fusing the two into one woman, does not lead to resolution or redemption. The whole woman is rejected and is soon left a widow.  And woman, Fine suggested, stands in for any “other” in human relationships; the reduction of woman to this Madonna/Whore stereotype is not unlike the instrumentalizing of any other to a means that serves the self in any human relationship. The rejection of the binary paradigm of woman, then, that is implicit in the rabbi’s telling, is itself a radical summons. Through the tragedy of Heruta, the rabbi emphasizes the importance of “seeing the other in all their beauty, in all their ‘Thou’-ness,” to use Martin Buber’s term, as Fine did, thereby underscoring the tragic implications of the traditional view of woman to undermine it.

Thanks to Limmud Winnipeg for bringing Gila Fine to Winnipeg and affording us the opportunity to hear her brilliant readings of these stories and to share in the process of interpretation with her. The wonder of discovering such inspiring and surprising messages about love and woman and women in love was truly a “spiritual adventure.”

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