THE SACRED FEMININE

There is arguably a lot to hate about Facebook. I am thinking of tracking people’s online activities for mere capitalist interests. I am thinking about the manipulation of people’s minds by feeding them with certain informations and by doing so having an influence on major elections—just think of the Brexit or the last presidential elections in the US.

But I have to confess, that to a certain degree I still like Facebook. In fact, I like Facebook, because I am constantly tracked. Call me crazy, but because of being tracked I sometimes get very interesting recommendations of groups and articles on Facebook. I wouldn’t be aware of their existence without being tracked. I don’t know in detail how those ingenious algorithms work, but I know that they often do. Today they worked. I discovered a Facebook group called חכמת נשים, literally “Wisdom of the Females.”

“Wisdom of the Females” posted the picture of a poster portraying “the Kotel Plaza.” The Kotel is the so-called Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City and the plaza is the relatively huge square in front of it. On this very poster, the females have been ‘eradicated’ by being painted over with a spray can. Surely, this can easily be understood as an act of misogyny. In certain branches of Judaism, the extreme or fundamentalist one’s, females should not be looked at, if it is not your own wife or female child—not even accidentally. Therefore, since the age of the Rabbinic sages, males and females have to be separated. According to the orthodox, in public transportation services males sit in front, while females sit in the back; in Synagogues females sit either on balconies, opposite to the direction of prayer, or they sit behind a mechitzah, a physical, mostly wooden partition of the room; males and females should not walk on the same sidewalks. Wherever men gather, especially in order to direct themselves towards the divine, the presence of the feminine has to disappear from the male perception.

Surely, this can easily be understood as misogyny, and if it isn’t misogyny, one at least has to find the answer to several deriving questions. Just to name a few: Why are men so easily distracted by females? Are women not also attracted by the physical appearance of men? If that’s the case, why are men all the time being literally on display, even while they are dancing in the Synagogue, which surely must have an arousing effect on some women?

Well, I do not intend to answer questions like these nor do I want to argue either for or against the interpretation of the separation of males and females as an act of misogyny. Instead I want to suggest an alternative reading of this phenomenon of the isolation of the feminine.

Whatever the female appearance might induce in man, the prohibition of looking into female face, the prohibition to encounter the female visage in a Levinassian sense, is not a singular one in the Ancient Israelite and Rabbinic-Jewish tradition. According to Ex 33:20, Moses, venerated by Jews until today as “our teacher” and the prophet in the Hebrew Bible who was as close to God as no other prophet, was not allowed to look upon the face or visage of God. “And he (God) said: ‘you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.’” (ויאמר לא תוכל לראת את־פני כי לא־יראני האדם וחי) And like Moses before, the High-Priest was prohibited of glancing at God’s appearance—that’s why he had to fill the Holy of Holies with smoke before addressing God on Yom Kippur. No human creature is allowed to see God’s face.

Hence, is it not surprising that the only other thing man is prohibited from looking at, or to be even more precise: males are prohibited from looking at, are females? Is it imaginable that the feminine visage has the same status as the divine? Could the feminine image be as sacred as the divine image? That might be the case. At least there is quite some effort taken to isolate the feminine face or feminine visage as much from ordinary everyday life as was taken to isolate the divine visage in ancient times or to isolate the Torah, the divine revelation written upon a scroll, having a divine status. In a strict sense you could say that you are not just prohibited from looking into the feminine face, but that you cannot simply look into the face of the sacred feminine and expecting to henceforth keep on living one more moment among your people without atonement. Or to put it differently: looking upon the sacred feminine means to die in front of the divine. Therefore, I would argue that the female face has the same status as other incarnations of the divine and that the archetype of the sacred feminine manifests itself in every (Jewish) female being.

So yes, there is a kind of gender inequality existing in certain branches of Rabbinic Judaism, there are (ordinary) men and women, the living embodiments of the sacred feminine.