Balancing Kindness and Strength (Beyond 14)

With the new week, we begin a third leg in our journey away from oppression, and so shift focus to a new aspect of divinity. The first week focused on Chesed [“loving-kindness”]. The second, on Gevurah [“strength” or “boundaries,” sometimes “judgement”]. The third, “Tiferet” [“beauty”], is said to combine the first two. On its own chesed and gevurah are each untenable: in individual lives and in the universe as a whole a non-stop flow of loving-kindness leaves no room for boundaries; unmitigated strength leaves no room for compassion. The third attribute of God, and this third week of the Omer count, represent a balancing of forces.

In the early days of this omer journey, we focused on knowing as an act of loving-kindness, moving away from the moral deficiency of not-knowing — as when Pharaoh didn’t know Joseph (his country’s past) — in the early Exodus story. In the second week, we focused on strength required to persevere in the face of oppression and complex boundaries of gender and race.

To launch the third week, here are two potentially “balancing” thoughts —

one from bell hooks on Black women and feminism:

Usually, when people talk about the “strength” of black women they are referring to the way in which they perceive black women coping with oppression. They ignore the reality that to be strong in the face of oppression is not the same as overcoming oppression, that endurance is not to be confused with transformation.
— bell hooks. Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1981.) p.6

and one from Avivah Zornberg on subjectivity and post-slavery views of a “good Land”:

bewildermentsThe world cannot be seen without ‘interference.’ According to a classic Talmudic description, Moses alone of human beings ‘saw b’aspaklariah meirah— through a clear lens.” All others, including prophets and seers, saw through an unclear glass, a distorted lens of subjectivity (Babylonia Talmud: Yevamot 49b, Rashi to Numbers 12:6). The problem arises when one is not aware of one’s own deflections of vision. Imagining oneself clear-eyed, one may become the greatest fantasist of all….the greatest illusion may be the pretension to total lucidity.

[Moses sees the land as “good.”] But the people are driven by fantasies and anxieties that make goodness an issue of love and hate; the Land represents other questions about themselves, the world, and God. No demonstration of lush fruit can ever lay rest the efes [however] coiled within them. Moses’ dream of vindication cannot address their need. For them, a journey will have proved necessary, if they are to find a way of speaking of the good Land with all their heart.
— Avivah Zornberg. Bewilderments. (NY: Schocken, 2015), p.134, 146

We counted 14 on the evening of April 17. Tonight, we count….
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More Race and Gender and Strength and Boundaries (Beyond 13)

Shabbat approaches, and this week’s Torah portion is Shemini (“Eighth [day],” Lev: 9:1 – 11:47; see also “In Praise of Silence” ). It’s one in which women are simply not present — not even, as in the next double portion of Tazria and Metzora, as a source of potential impurity — unless by extrapolation: The portion is largely about kashrut; women have traditionally borne responsibility for keeping a kitchen kosher; therefore, women’s presence is implied. Earlier in Exodus, we learn the name of Aaron’s wife. When Nadav and Abihu die after offering “strange fire,” however we are told that “Aaron was silent,” but Elisheva is not even mentioned. (Lev. 10:1-3)

It is worth noting, I think, that this woman-less portion closes out the week of Gevurah [“strength” or “boundaries”] in our omer journey away from oppression. Jews, and Jewish feminists in particular, have been grappling for a long time with the ways the Torah defines women, when it isn’t ignoring them entirely. And this seems a good time to focus our attention on the ways in which Black women have been defined by others when the narrative isn’t ignoring them entirely.
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