Over at Velveteen Rabbi, Rachel Barenblat (really, a wonderful blogger, thinker, and spiritual leader) wrote about her recent experiences in a class combining quantum physics and Jewish mystical writings. Go ahead, read it (I’ll wait), because she is both infectiously enthusiastic and has some good insights. I came for what I thought it was “just” an account of a non-scientist discovering how much fun quantum physics can be, which would have been more than enough reason to read; but I stayed for the way those thoughts on science impact the way she thinks about theology. Really, it’s great stuff.
Pointing you all to Rachel’s post is reason enough to write this, but I also wanted to talk about a quote she quoted toward the end. This is from Rabbi Fern, one of the teachers of the class:
If we imagine everything unified and connected, there can be no giving and receiving. If we’re completely separate, there’s no flow between. It’s only when we make an agential cut, recognize that there’s a phenomenon through the intra-action of which there is an emanator and emanated, a giver of flow and receiving of flow, that the giving and receiving can take place. That’s how we experience our connections: with Hashem, with each other, with all existence.
This dovetails quite nicely with some of my own musings, on gender. According to Genesis 1:27 (NKJV), “God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” I’ve heard two competing accounts of what this verse means. First, there’s the standard picture I heard growing up, that God created a male (Adam) and later created a female (Eve). When God looks at man (ha-adam) and describes it as very good, he’s talking about Adam proper, the male human, and Eve becomes a separate creation – more equal to Adam than any of the other animal species, to be sure, but not the pinnacle of creation that male humanity is.
But as I’ve studied medieval philosophy, I’ve also come across another reading: essentially, that Adam at first was both male and female, and that it was only after God later decided “it was not good for man to be alone” that he separated part of humanity out from itself and made a new thing. On this view, the Adam created at first is both male and female at the same time, and later God takes part of this first man out of himself and we get the two genders we are used to. But in the first instance, Adam was not male, or at least not purely male. Both Adam and Eve were part of that first creation considered very good. The Bible commentator John Gills writes this off as “what the Jews fabulously say,” but I’m sure I’ve heard about it from medieval Christian mystics as well.
The more I learn about this second account, the more it fascinates me. I’m not sure if I can reconcile it with the Bible because that Genesis 1 verse does say “in the image of God He created him.” If that him is meant to be exclusively male, that may be a game-ender, and I’m not enough of a Biblical scholar to look at it. (If it’s gender-neutral and we’re dealing with translation issues – a real possibility given English’s lack of gender-neutral pronouns for persons – there’s more room to play around.) But on the flipside, it’s a really shallow understanding of God’s nature to think He is just male in the same way humans are male. I could point you to example after example of Christian theologians and artists that depicted the Holy Spirit as God’s feminine side, and even a few cases where Christ is described as a mother. I don’t mean that God is female; rather, He (and She) is neither and both all at the same time. If humans are made in God’s image in this area, then we should also be neither and both at the same time. Not just male or just female, but something that combines aspects of both, at least at the moment of creation.
Which is a long way of saying that second account seems more plausible when you think about it. At least to me. And even if it isn’t plausible on a literal reading of the text, it’s still fascinating and meaningful to me. But I started this wanting to discuss Rabbi Rachel’s quote about separateness and unity. Which leads me to the point I’d been turning over in my head these last few months: if humans were created male-and-female together, and this was seen as very good, why was it also necessary to separate them?
Here’s where I think that quote from Rachel’s teacher really becomes helpful, I think. If we are so unified that we’re really just one body, there’s no room for movement between us. When we were male and female in one being, we were very good. Very perfect. Very complete – not lacking anything. And at first that seems like just what we should want to be, except for one small problem: if we are complete unto ourselves, there’s nothing left to reach for. We become static, we do not move. And static things do not grow. Even if you have no faults, nothing lacking, that doesn’t mean you couldn’t be even better if you were still changing.
When we are drawn together, that brings movement and growth. And because inertial is a wonderful thing, as long as we’re reaching for something we don’t have, we often end up acquiring more than we were reaching for. It is better to be incomplete but growing than to be complete because in that case you’re never going to get beyond where you are right now. This seems self-evidently obvious to me, but if you need convincing, consider Star Trek: The Next Generation, and in particular the Q’s concern over humanity. The Q are the closest thing to gods we see in the Trek universe: infinite power, control of time and space, boundless knowledge, and so on. But in the Star Trek opening, Picard suggests to Q that humanity will one day be greater even than the Q are now – because the Q are static (well, until Janeway gets involved in any event) whereas humans are growing.
More than that, for some reason we seem to be better off when we help each other out, aside from what it does for us. This is the great message of Harry Potter, or one of them: that Voldemort is to be pitied because he will never know love. Love involves vulnerability to someone else, it involves a kind of death to the self, but it is also what makes life ultimately worth living. And I think Rachel’s teacher is ultimately right: “If we imagine everything unified and connected,” if we are so self-sufficient that we need nothing outside ourself, “there can be no giving and receiving.”
But I think she’s also right in what comes next: “If we’re completely separate, there’s no flow between.” I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s heard the old saying that men are from Mars, women from Venus. There’s a move in some quarters to say that men and women are so different, they can never really communicate and interact. For this dynamic to work, we need men and women to see each other as (and really, to be) two sides of the same coin. We need to be different in exciting, intriguing ways so we are drawn outside ourselves and towards each other. But we also need to see each other as the same type of thing, so we fit together well and naturally. If we really are from separate planets, if we’re so far apart and so different there’s no bridging the gulf, we will end up reaching until our arms fall off – and then give up on ever reaching what we hope for, and settle into our comfortable selves instead.
I am not sure this is quite the point Rachel drew from her class, but reading her account of it, it’s definitely where my mind went. Wonderful to see insight taken from the sciences applied to other contexts as well.
P.S. – I’ve talked about men and women here, and I may have given the impression that men and women can only be truly completed by the opposite gender. I believe Adam was completed by Eve, and not just because she was the only human available. But I also have seen my gay friends and classmates get the same kind of fulfillment and reaching for something bigger when they fall in love with their own gender. Personally, I think the important thing is to find someone who draws us out of ourselves, even if you’re both women or both men. Most of us are drawn to the opposite gender, but not all of us, and I view that more as a feature than a bug. But even if you disagree with me and think true loving relationships require one man and a woman, I hope we can agree on this much: to make that kind of love work, we need people who can truly come together. None of this Venus/Mars junk.