Marriage and Mysticism in a Less-Gendered World

Dedicated to Anne Tamar-Mattis, a hero of equality for all genders, on the occasion of her birthday.

What a week! With the Supreme Court knocking down the Defense of Marriage Act and also confirming the undoing of California's Prop 8. It is a week to celebrate the freedom to marry, and to rethink what marriage means, and perhaps to wonder why this institution has been so inflexible.

I was re-awakened yesterday to the deep assumptions that we all hold around how marriage operates, and the importance of gender dualism in that conception. I was doing some business in town, and I happened to refer to my partner, my spouse, as "my husband." I paused for a moment to savor the deliciousness of a previously forbidden term. The other person, earnestly celebrating with me, asked, as a follow-up question, "So are you also a husband, or do you think of yourself as a wife?"

It took me a moment to realize this person was not being flip or phobic, but was really wondering how one organizes the institution of marriage in this new era. And the question is, in fact, a deep and pertinent one. The terms "husband" and "wife" are obviously gendered, but not neutrally so. That is they represent a composite of competing  and opposite characteristics, each associated with a gender. I know that what follows sounds old-fashioned, but I submit that it is alive and well and is probably the nemesis of many well-meaning modern heterosexual couples. "Husband" has and continues to suggest breadwinner, protector, perhaps even at times philanderer. "Wife," on the other hand, connotes, well, servant. I could say that nicer - something about productive activity in the domestic sphere, but really we all know the the activity of a "wife" is to meet the needs of husband and children. And a marriage traditionally requires (or thinks it requires) both of these opposing elements. The words "husband" and "wife" are loaded - perhaps irremediably so. So while the court says a marriage of two men or two women can exist, it is unclear, culturally, whether a marriage of two "husbands" or two "wives" can.

Now gay people have often used these terms over the years - but mostly with imaginary quotation marks around them. Lots of us used to call our partners "husband," in ironic mimicry of an institution we were not in fact invited to join. And I've known overworked lesbian couples to sigh over a well deserved cocktail and say, "Let's face it. We need a wife."

But this week is a good week for marriage, not just for LGBTQ people, but for everyone, for the institution itself. Because it is now clear that marriage must be able to accommodate relationships that are not built on the idea of the oppositeness of men and women. Because - as my friend Anne finds herself having to point out again and again - men and women are not, in fact, opposites. Still, that's what we learn. Ask a child, "What's the opposite of boy" and they will say, "girl." But boys and girls are far more alike than they are different. I don't know what the opposite of boy is. Nebula? Lunchbox? Whatever it is, it is not "girl".

In fact, there is very little in this cosmos that has an "opposite." Is a positve charge the opposite of a negative charge? Protons and electrons? I don't know if these things are opposites or just different and attracted to each other. Are matter and energy opposites or just different? If darkness is the absence of light, is it really light's opposite? Or is that like the difference between thighs and lap? It's a lap when there's something on it, and thighs when there isn't? That doesn't make lap and thighs opposites. Left and right might be opposites, but only conditionally so - if you're on the North Pole, both left and right are alternative ways to go south. The truth is, much of what we consider the basic elements of cosmos and cognition that oppose each other, don't quite, upon closer inspection.

And yet we've really played, or overplayed, the idea of opposites in our understanding of the world. We can't see a duo without inventing a duality, a pair without a polarity. Part of this might in fact be the result of a world in which we perceive much pairing - there is predominant (but not complete) gender dimorphism, there is apparent (but mostly superficial) bilateral symmetry in the body. In any event, it has somehow been convenient in our cultural and intellectual history to divide the world into two, along just about any axis you can name. There are two kinds of people in this world: people who divide the world into two kinds of people and people who don't.

The truth seems to me that we are all complex; our internal makeup, our interactions with each other, are all multifaceted and unique, even if there are generalizations that can be drawn. The question is knowing when to let go of the generalizations. When does dividing the world into men and women make sense? At an exclusively heterosexual mixer? Maybe. At the gynecologist's office? Less than you'd think. In quickly organizing groups for a school activity or a synagogue responsive reading? Never.

Men and women are not opposites, but represent part of a spectrum of variation of the human body. Yes, there seem to also be some differences in behaviors and preferences, at least in the aggregate, but the extent to which those are chemically versus culturally driven continue to be a source of controversy.

In any event we keep deeply wanting to divide the world in two, and for the two sides of the dividing line to stand in opposition to each other. Somehow that conveys both dynamism and stability for us. Then we apply that model of opposition to as many binary distinctions as we can dream up. And because gender has played so great a role in our culture, we tend to gender those oppositions. "Hard/soft, intellectual/emotional, strong/weak" - even though in real life, among our families and peers, we know darn well that those distinctions are often misapplied.

And yet we draw them, we gender them, and we pit them against each other. One of the places where this is done extensively, and with undeniable beauty, is in our Jewish mystical, or kabbalistic, cosmological system, which relies on the 10 sefirot of the Tree of Life. This scheme, which represents the flow of Creation, or perhaps God's internal mechanics, is visualized with a central vertical axis, which holds 4 of the ten sefirot, or elemental or spiritual hubs. Then there are three that sit to the left and three that sit to the right. The ones on the right are associated with maleness; the ones on the left with femaleness. The central column contains elements that represent a balance or synthesis of the two previous opposing sefirot. So, for instance, the right, or male, side includes chesed - compassion and kindness, which are considered externally focused - ways of interacting with the world. Opposing it on the left or female side is gevurah, representing strength and discipline which, even though in Western gender archetypes seems male, is here female, reflecting an internal focus. All human characteristics and tendencies end up lined up on one side of this gender-divided tree or the other.

Now I say this is beautiful, because from inside its own cultural context (a hetero-normative world, in which the cosmos was primarily described and theorized by men), having Creation resemble the meeting of the sexes, making Creation resemble heterosexual intercourse, is both daring and arousing. What drives the world to exist is desire, arousal! The attraction of opposites for each other. The dynamo of Creation is based, for instance, on the desire of power to merge with kindness, wisdom to unite with understanding, the masculine to unite with the feminine.

The metaphor is beautiful and romantic. But it is a metaphor, a souped-up yin-yang, thesis-antithesis. It is a metaphor, and sometimes we forget that. I was once at a kabbalistic study session in a town full of hip Jews, a town I shall not name, but it sits next to Oakland and begins with a B. There I challenged the idea of our having to gender the seemingly opposing forces of the kabbalistic tree of life. I said that for many of us - people who are transgendered, people who love in a same-sex way, maybe some intersex people who choose not to think of themselves in traditional gender terms - the system doesn't have the same fire to it; we can understand it and speak in its language, we can understand how the tension of duality is supposed to work, but it doesn't feel like it's representing some essential truth about gender. The responses I received were surprisingly defensive and angry. I was told that the Tree of Life doesn't represent actual biological sex but rather everyone's internal masculine and feminine.

But of course, that doesn't answer anything; it just begs the question, at least for me. Moving the male-female divide from the social world into one's internal world is no less problematic. People who are used to being strongly gender-identified will be expected to naturally identify with that "side" of their personality, even if they are supposed to imagine containing both sides somewhere internally. Telling a man to access his feminine side reinforces the gendering of certain qualities; if he wants to access his nurturing nature (in the broad social scheme) or his sense of gevurahz (in Kabbalah), he still needs to cross a metaphorical gender divide; he needs to pass through an internal mechitzah.

In other words, instead of seeing himself as a beautiful mix of human (and/or divine) qualities, he instead is being asked to see himself as a person with easy access to Quality Set A (the "male" qualities), and so more effortful access to a suppressed, or remote, or hidden Quality Set B (the "female" qualities). And the only reason Quality Set B is presumed to be hard to access is because he is male. So even if this male/female quality divide is conceived of as internal rather than social, it still reinforces the idea of a divide, and that he belongs on a specific side of it. For someone like me, who has always felt rather like a Switzerland in this presumed "war between the sexes," the metaphor holds no power, and the clear divide of qualities that is supposed to exist inside of me feels untrue, unnecessary, and puzzling.

I do think the Kabbalistic imagination is beautiful and brave. On Shabbat eve it is the custom, originating with the mystics, but now universal among Jews, to open the door and greet Shabbat, imagined as a bride. Most people hear the song that embodies this image, Lecha Dodi, and they imagine us as her bridegroom. But that's not the case. Shabbat is associated with Shechinah, the female-personified, experiential, immanent aspect of God, and also with Yisrael, the People of Israel. Us. We are the bride, on the way to consummate our marriage to the Eyn Sof, the masculine-gendered, remote and unknowable God of the Cosmos. The thought of all these bearded mystics, all men, in their male-only academies, imagining themselves to be God's bride - well, that just pleases me in all sorts of ways. They were able to see the gendering of the system as a metaphor not tied to biological sex or lived gender perhaps more than we can. Whether or not that made a difference in the lives of their real-life wives is unknown. But still, they used their male privilege to imagine themselves not-male. And that's worth something in my book.

But for me, the important thing is that seeing the world as a series or system of dualities is artificial. It might be based on some observations of the world, but it is a tremendous metaphorical leap from some very select elements of existence. Why pairs? There are other elementals that come in other numbers. There are three primary colors. What if our mystical concept of the world involved threes. Everything was either of the blue sort or the red sort or the yellow sort - every emotion, every behavior. Or the four archetypal elements - water, fire, earth and air? Or the directions? "Ah, strength, well that is very north. Mix it with passion, which is very west, and you get bravery, at center-left." Couldn't we imagine a system like that? Or what if we wanted a system that accounts for predominance of certain types or phenomena, without denying the legitimacy of the less frequent? How about a mystical system based on prime numbers? Each one is equally unique. But they are not equally prevalent. The number 1 is ubiquitous, 2 is associated with half the universe of whole numbers; 3 with a third of them. And then there are some of us who are a 17 or a 71 or a 457. We are all similar to each other, we are all magnetic poles of some sort, each with a similar pull, but exerted in all directions. We are all similar, but some fit into more common types, and some don't. And wouldn't that make a better metaphor for Creation and for the flow of shefa from the Eyn Sof into our world? A mix of infinite unique elements, in unequal proportions?

So back to marriage. I'll stop short today of wondering about whether pair-bonding at all makes sense in the world that we live in. I'll stop short of wondering if community, intimacy, childrearing and legacy are best served by a pairing of two people, as opposed to loosely associated and mutually supportive single people, or even a more closely bonded kibbutz-like group, such as my own remarkable family. I'll stop short because why rob this week's marriage victories of their sweetness by wondering if marriage is still relevant. And I'll stop short because I'm part of it too. I understand the romance of finding someone who feels like your bashert, even though I don't actually believe that any of us are specifically destined for each other. I understand the pull and feel the romance, and I've benefited from them for sure.

But I will say this: that same-sex marriage does hold the possibility of destroying traditional marriage, in ways that will accrue to the benefit of all partnered people, straight or gay. Because we bring to marriage an idea of complementarity without polarity. Marriage can no longer rest on assumptions of how each partner will be, based on the dictates of their sex. Every marriage will have to be seen fresh, and assessed on the basis of each person's gifts and each person's needs without regard to gender. Just as racial integration has benefited every institution that opened itself up to it, so marriage will now be enriched. Spouses, partners, maridos, can now be a team that does not require husbandness and wifeness in order to flourish. We can at last exorcise the antiquated dybbuk of gender roles from the body of marriage. Modern heterosexual couples have been trying to do this for a long time; now they do it with the added support of a surge of thousands of new married couples for whom organizing their relationships without reference to traditional gender roles is not just a progressive anti-sexist step, but an utter and definitional necessity.

A friend said to me today, "marriage is never equal." Meaning that at any moment, in any sphere, one partner is demanding and one deferring. Compromise, negotiation, respect, complementarity. Those will always be part of marriage and of the flow of this Creation. And we don't need oppositeness to make it happen.

Shabbat shalom.

PS. I'm available for weddings. My husband handles my bookings.

Very important insights in this essay flowed from conversations with Eli Herb, Janet Shifrah Tobacman, and Anne Tamar-Mattis (with whom my conversation is constant and delicious). I am also grateful to Yael Raff Peskin, who helped me fix a rather glaring error which, now that it's fixed, I'm too embarrassed to identify!