Thursday, 20 June 2013

Many pillars support peace

Jewish grave-site in Mantua, Italy.

Over dinner one night in Mantua, a retired English psychiatrist asked me a question.

I had noticed that earlier he had ordered donkey stew (which I had found strange as we were part of a Jewish group exploring the history of the Jews in Renaissance Italy) 

I didn’t say anything as he went around the group offering everyone tastes of his meaty stew.  I silently ate my mozzarella stuffed courgette flowers, and tried to remain non-judgmental of his choices.

When the next course was served (I had pasta with capers, olives and tuna) he turned to me, pulled out one of the texts we had been studying and asked me to explain what Responsa were.

I told him that they were written over a period of 1,700 years and it’s a form of ask-the-rabbi. I said it covers questions about Halacha mostly in relation to everyday life.

He interrupted me angrily and said: “oh you mean like women showing their used tampons to their rabbi’s to see if they were ok. I read about it in a novel”

I had one of those moments when you don’t know which way is up, when the floor seems to fall away from your feet. I was speechless.  I wasn’t shocked by a man talking about women’s periods at the table.  I was shocked that his entire perspective on the issue was from one source. He didn’t want to listen to me at all.

I’ve read the novel he referred to. It’s about a woman straining to be free from Haredi society. I can’t remember much about it other than it wasn’t profound or well-written.

But that was all he was preferred to hear. And it’s such a loss to him. There are thousands of songs in our world. By choosing to hear one, you miss out on a rich and beautiful range.

I wish I had said the Responsa show the nuanced, multifaceted voices of many people on many issues. They are a window into an ancient world, and when we look through it, we can see how we are still connected.

Women’s galleries were all he saw in the beautiful, abandoned old synagogues in Northern Italy. His entire Jewish experience was around the need to liberate traditional Jewish women from perceived oppression.

That isn’t the way I see it. I have many encounters with deeply enlightened Haredi women today.  And their intelligence, love of life and respect for the other is also a joy to encounter. The women I have met don’t seem to need saving from their oppression.  They struggle with the same issues I struggle with.  Again and again, we both see that although we wear different clothes, we are the same underneath.  

If I learned anything about the Renaissance on my Jewish Journey, it was what I learned about dialogue with the other.
that the face of truth has many facets
And that in truth, there is no other.

I hope one day to sit down quietly and talk to the retired English psychiatrist about Responsa.
I hope he hears what I have to say.
And it is this:
We are all connected in the space between paradigms.
And that before we start liberating anyone else, 
we should start with liberating ourselves.