GENDER AND THE MILLENIUM

Some Reflections on the Politics of Patriarchy In an Age of Anxiety

Eveline Goodman-Thau

 

"Until when will you refuse to see,

you, wandering daughter,that God

created a new order in the world:

woman will encompass man."

Jeremiah 31:21

"I am the one whom they call Life,

and you have called Death".

"The Thunder,Perfect Mind"(6:2)

in Nag Hammadi

"Woman is today on her knees before an

error because she has been told someone

died on the cross for it".

Friedrich Nietzsche, Antichrist

 

As we are rapidly approaching the end of the Second Christian Millennium, we witness in our increasingly globalised and technically intertwined world, an almost frantic effort to recapture some ultimate meaning for the turning of time. Caught in the apocalyptic web of western — religious and secular — hermeneutics, which has locked text and time together at the dawn of history and has turned canon into the stage of human drama, the varieties of historical experiences, of men and women as agents of human history within the divergent cultural settings around the world, take on an almost omnious presence.In the face of a common concern for conformity, dictated by the constraints of the digital clocks of our advanced technology, we are pushing the limits of time. Poets have felt the crisis of this condition: "The hour leaped out of the clock, stood before it, demanding the right time".(Paul Celan)

From time immemorial, the order of the world and the place of self and of community has been linked to the order of time, transforming nature into culture. The changing of darkness into light has inspired priests and prophets alike to create a human design of a world, ruled by the forces of nature. Time and space thus cease to be mere objects: in the human mind they become active agents in the shaping of life in all its ramifications. They help create the contingency of collective memory and inform our historical consciousness. The natural flow of time is held up by human intervention, which interlocks time and place, as the latter is separated from the burden of unlimited space, of being afloat aimlessly in cosmic infinity. In religious practice, as well as in the symbolic acts of secular life, the convergence of time and place, creating a now and here, free time from its neutral flow, turning the fleeting moment into an hour of decision at the ‘right time’ and define the limits of space as the ‘right place’. Time and place are thus less viewed as being ‘right’ in terms of an eternal or absolute quality, but gain significance by an act of conscious choice and decision on the part of an individual, securing his or her place in the human effort of shaping culture and meaning-giving. Thus world-view and self-image are intrinsically connected, and time is the medium which serves to bond world and self.

The ordering of time has however an additional existential quality, which touches on the core of the human experience of measured time, the end of time, as the threshold between Life and Death: One lives one’s own life and one dies one’s own death. Our world views, be they religious or secular, are deeply affected by this aspect of human time-consciousness, which is, unless one decides to end one’s own life, out of our control. At millennial passages speculations on time and eternity are therefore not only the outer appearances of collective memory or historical consciousness but bring into the open some of the most deepest fears of le condition humain. Western apocalyptic anxieties are rooted in the above described search for the ultimate meaning of human existence above and beyond the constraints of time and place, to provide for ontological security.

In the ancient word, to be sure, belief in life after death was widespread and considered normal. While opinions varied greatly as to the actual nature of afterlife, it was generally accepted to exist in some idealized form. The various interpretations of life-after-death are usually the result of the historical experiences of a given community and it becomes clear, that the image of the individual members, be they male or female, play an important role in shaping the face of this world as seen from a perspective of the world-to-come. Death does therefore not mark the end of life, but serves as an extension into the future, which lies beyond time and space on earth, but is intrinsically bound up with it. The beyond is thus mirrored in human life and human life becomes a mirror of the beyond. Man created in the image of God, creates God in his own image, and the Son of Man becomes the Son of God, in order to eventually replace the Father altogether and gain immortality.

Still, the human predicament of Being-in-the World, despite all pronouncements of the death of God in modern and post-modern discourse, is still unsolved, as it is related to our ultimate concerns with first and last causes and the human effort to provide adequate answers to questions of the ultimate meaning of life and death.

When considering the underlying premises of this in western tradition, which serves as the background for millennial movements from antiquity until the present day, the notion of gender, as defined by Gerda Lerner as "the cultural definition of behavior defined as appropriate to the sexes in a given society at a given time" is of central importance. The roles assigned to men and women in their relationship to each other and to God in religious narrative and practice, serve as a key towards understanding the notions of Life and Death. They are the expressions of its religious faith. Life, Death and Gender relations are thus the pivotal notions of the above described search for ultimate meaning and it is the woman, who in ancient and modern myth is the very embodiment of birth and of decaying matter in the politics of patriarchy. It is she who is the Mother of all Living and the Mother of all Dying. She, as the Giver of all Life, is at the same time the ultimate Cause of Death, Beginning and End are united in her.

Millennial notions of immortality as an escape from the ever-lasting circle of birth and death are in one way or another connected with a search for meaning and constitute an attempt to break our of the anxiety and the denial of death, found in apocalyptic scripture and modern scripts of the ‘end of the world’. Pushing the end as a way of overcoming it has, at all times served as an adequate remedy against the dread a lived experience in the face of death, which has its proper place in time, at each truly lived moment of decision. Emmanuel Levinas recognises this in the face of the other as the command "Thou shall not kill", the feminine, as understood by him, being the very essence of this sense of alterity, which finds its ultimate expression in the alterity of death. To be poised on the edge of the millennium means to be ready to leap over the abyss without knowing whether the other side exists or not. Break is the precondition for continuity in time and place.

In an Age of Anxiety, the fear of seeing the present turns into radical past or future, where pessimism and optimism meet in nihilism and the fruitful tension between carpe diem and memento mori gives birth to a still-born child . . .. "The daughter of Zion cries out in anguish, gasping for breath like a woman in travail" (Jeremiah 4:31) once found its echo in "She was with child and was crying out in her birth pangs in the agony of giving birth" (Revelation 12:2). It is now deafened by the mortal cry of time itself, the dread of Y2K, when all communication as a substitute for an ultimate call can no longer be responded to. As Paul Virillo reminds us: "Curiously, telecommunication sets in motion in civil society the properties of divinity: obiquity (being present everywhere at every instant) instantaneousness, immediacy, omnivision, omnipresence. Everyone of us is metamorphosed into a divine being here and there at the same time. . ..

The womb, as the symbolic place where eros and thanatos meet, has turned into a tomb, with a hope for resurrection in the cyberspace of virtual reality as a substitute of real presence. Writing, in its origin the voice of an absent person, has become replaced by communication between unknown witnesses in real time to anonymous knowledge. The sending of messages to the unknown has taken the place of receiving messages from the Unknown, meant to be translated in to a human language of ethos. The experience of revelation, of mystical illumination, of breaking the boundaries of the self, once the domain of a privileged few, of prophets, initiates, mystics and saints, have become commercialised and are now the object of consumer indulgence in a post-modern supermarket of global culture, where mailboxes are no longer hung on door posts or fences around one’s home, but exist in imaginary space of cybernetics, where purloined letters have lost their symbolic meaning and humanity hangs on the thread of a total breakdown of man-made machines, who may act like Golem-like creatures deprived of their magic formulas, with no SAVE-button to push……

Disillusioned with irreversible technological progress, a move back into the future is attempted in contemporary millennialism, conjuring ancient texts to overcome the dread of apocalyptic fragmentation of the self, thrown into meaningless space, where escape into the net and the ever-present and infinitely expanding websites remain — for the time being — the only places of refuge, avant la deluge. Anonymous places with common names in a meaningless language, informed by the need to define or perish, with a hope against hope that E-mail addresses will in the end not stand for E-xit.

"I am part of the whole, and I can never escape. But then I can deny my connections, break them , and become a fragment. Then I am wretched" (D.H . Lawrence, Apocalypse)

To regain a sense of self, to restore human dignity to life in all its dimensions, it may me useful to revisit Eden, as the genus loci of western notions on gender. My return is informed by a Jewish reading, aimed towards unmasking the politics of patriarchy, in its wider sense of meaning, namely the manifestation and institutionalisation of male dominance over women and in tradition and in society, which is depriving women(and men) of human freedom inherent in the relationship between the sexes. Apocalyptic script must stand the test of individual choice. Traditional texts speak of a concern to preserve the integrity of a total community. What is mostly lost in contemporary religious — and more so in secular discourse — is contextual knowledge, not of historical facts, but of moral judgement. The emergence of moral responsibility is part and parcel of messianic hermeneutics, as a way of meaning-giving in an unredeemed world and has informed Jewish thought from time immemorial.

The love of God, expressed in the Bible rests in the fact that he did not choose to preserve the Tora in heaven, but has chosen to give it to humankind. The knowledge of cosmic order was not the most important thing here, but the Creator of heaven and earth taught woman and man, created by his hand, to discern between good and evil. Jewish tradition therefore does not read the story of Paradise as a tale of original sin (the word sin appears only in the next chapter, when Cain is about to kill his brother Abel), but as the story of free choice, and the possibility of tikkun olam, of mending the world.

A commentary of the famous medieval Jewish exegete Rashi explains, that before Adam and Eve had eaten from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, they could name the world, but did not know the difference between good and evil.

Now, how are we to understand this from biblical narrative?

After the creation is completed, the garden planted, Adam, as an androgynous creature present, the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge in their places, we read: "It is not good that Adam should be alone" (Genesis 2:18) It is an expression of self-reflection and inner dialogue on the part of God, an echo of the repeated "It is good…" of the creation story in the first chapter, showing a concern for human existence in a mute world of nature, breaking cosmic time into human consciousness of speech..

Present time, as a means of dividing between human beings and between them and the world, can now be experienced in the separation between ‘good’ and ‘not-good’. History can now be broken by human choice. Creation is incomplete until Adam has a counterpart. Naming the world cannot be divorced from moral consciousness. "I will make him a counterpart…" (ibid.) ‘counter’ and ‘part’, in this paradoxical relationship stand not only woman and man, but each human being to God.

Human consciousness it turns out, is incomplete without an additional creation: woman. Everything had been finished, the biological survival of the world secured, but the creation of humankind is incomplete without subsequent divine intervention, presenting (isch) with a woman (isha) as a condition of his autonomy. (As expressed by the Zohar:"He gives her a rib and she gives him his soul in return") She is part of him, but only now visible as a medium of knowledge, not of the knowledge of absolute truth, but of the discernment of good and evil, as the possibility of free choice between the two, within the boundaries of reasonable doubt. Adam recognises himself only as man, when God presents him with his counterpart, woman, and bestows upon him his independence through this counterpart. Man and woman, separate human beings with a new name, ish and isha, are now partners in creation, to keep the world and to preserve it, for good or for bad.

God planted the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden not to teach Adam and Eve absolute truth, but to enable them the freedom of choice - the possibility of choosing the good at the right moment, without which creation cannot exist. The Tora, as the Tree of Life, stands forever as a guarantee of the unbroken faith of God in humankind, not to atone for sin or make others the bearers of one’s wrong doings and the cause of death. It is a sign of a bond in which the truth is forever safeguarded. Thus each moment becomes an hour of meaningful decision, until the Messiah comes.

On the threshold of the Third Christian Millennium it pays to bear in mind, that historically speaking women have played a pivotal role and have emerged directly and/or indirectly in public at millennial moments, challenging the injustice in society and the patriarchal order of things. Women are therefore major agents in the breakdown of institutions and initiators of new forms of religious life based on an equality between the sexes. At the same time, they pose a threat to hierarchical and well-established structures, aimed at preserving a power-based status quo.

At this moment in time, we are entering the third phase of feminist theory and practice: after fighting for rights and roles, the question of the rules of participation becomes urgent, and it is precisely here, that women, having developed from time immemorial new strategies and forms of thinking and practice, can assist and lead society towards a full participation and contribution of all its members.

In an ever more rapidly changing world, questions of the historical role of women and their implications in regard to the larger question of gender, will therefore possibly be at the forefront of the social and political agenda, to carve out an ethos, a new social contract, for western societies locked in the dialectics of time and eternity.