Stranger in the Mirror
I’d like to gesture at the way in which social media effects how our culture processes public events. The omnipresence of screens and the ease of mass communication give the false impression that the whole of a culture can make boundless psychological progress simply by the creation of a meme. The deluge of Weinstein news and #MeToo posts do not go a long way to heal male oppression of femininity; we have learned that healing is concurrent and relational. I am proud of the women around me who have shared their stories, I am shocked at the multitude of the stories, and I have begun examining my role in them. But these posts often go one-way; they are denunciations more than conversations, and they rarely acknowledge the continuum of desire/objectification that both women and men take part in, though men tend toward abuse far more often.
The first charge given to the first human beings, Adam and Eve, is to populate the earth, ‘be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it.’ The rabbis ask – was this directive bestowed upon the man or the woman? Our tradition, which must own up to its share of misogynistic roots, claims rightly that men are more inclined to subduing than women are, and so the onus of the prescription falls to men. The Hebrew word is chivshuha – subdue, conquer, subjugate, master, overpower. And wisely they ask, whether the ‘it’ refers to the earth or the woman – the male subjugation of the earth and of women go hand in hand. What begins as desire, whether its source is a biological drive for procreation, or something more romantic, quickly becomes an assumed privilege in the male ethos. As an implication of my being, it is my right to conquer and possess women and earth.
The first time man and woman meet, Adam had been slumbered by God that a rib might be taken from his side to form woman. When he wakes there is a being standing before him, like him and unlike him. He says to her, ‘This time, bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh, this will be called woman, because from a man this was taken.’ The patriarchy is all too apparent – woman created from man, named by man, after man: woman.
I am struck though, by the recurrence of the word ‘this.’ I think it’s the first word spoken by humanity; in Hebrew it’s barely more than a consonant and a vowel – Zo. And it must be accompanied by gesture – I see him pointing at her, Zo, Zo, Zo. It’s the first time his being is placed before a mirror – she is flesh like him, she breathes as he does, she has parts he has never seen before, she looks back into his eyes. What does he feel? Love? Desire? Fear? Power? Joy? Wonder? Whatever he feels, it is so overpowering to his own being that he can barely talk, all he can say is Zo, Zo, Zo.
We beings, men far more than women, are always running away from our feelings, especially the ones that overpower us, and make us feel small or out of control. If a man can overpower a woman, conquer and objectify her, than he can ignore the deluge of love, fear, wonder and joy that would accompany standing before her glory as an equal. God says to the man, I created woman to be ‘a partner opposite you.’ True partnership is profoundly scary, because our vulnerabilities and flaws are naked for the other to see. But when we are opposite one another in this way, like a mirror, our potential for intimacy, connection, even union, becomes manifest. I am profoundly grateful to my father for modeling what it means to be a man opposite a woman – bowed before her majesty, reverent to the spirit that breathes her being, before her flesh.
Let’s work the healing here together. Come teach with me, what it means to be a man before a mirror.
Rabbi Zach Fredman