Genesis 2:21–25

Woman, the World’s First Idol

Commentaries by Melissa Raphael

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Unknown Spanish artist

Adam and Eve, from The Sarajevo Haggadah, c.1350, Illuminated miniature on velum, 6.5 x 22.8 cm, The National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sarajevo; Photo ©️ Zev Radovan / Bridgeman Images

The Woman of His Dreams

Commentary by Melissa Raphael

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In the upper right-hand quarter of an illumination from the fourteenth-century Sarajevo Haggadah (the text used in Jewish households at the ritual meal or Seder on the eve of Pesach) we find a visual interpretation of the creation of Eve in Genesis 2.

Here, God does not seem to have fashioned her from one of the man’s ribs. This may be because rabbinical commentators were broadly of the view that it would be somewhat beneath the dignity of a man to be married to a mere bone of the sort that might be thrown to a dog.

Yet, from a feminist theological perspective, is it any better for the woman to have been delivered to the man by means of a kind of Caesarean section from his body, than carved from one of his ribs? Feminists have long observed of Genesis 2 that for a woman to have been ‘birthed’ from a vulva-like opening in a man’s side represents a patriarchal reversal of the natural reproductive order. As a woman born of a man, her power to give the gift of life has been taken from her. As a woman subsequently married to this man, she is reincorporated into him. They become as one flesh; once more, his flesh. She will forever be at once his bride, his child, and, effectively, himself.

One of the jobs of the Haggadah is to keep the table awake and (instructively) entertained. The pantomimic comedy of this image is that Eve comes up behind Adam, with a wide smile, as he lies asleep on his bed of lush grass. ‘She’s behind you!’, we want to cry out at the image. She is the (all but literally) tail-end of creation (see Babylonian Talmud Eruvin 18b).

But the mirror image of comedy can be tragedy. Here, the moment of egalitarian truth in Genesis 1, where the female no less than the male was created in the image of God, has been forgotten—even by God. In place of the woman who will be who she will be—a non-reproducible woman for whom there can be no likeness—is an appearance of the feminine dreamed up by the masculine.

 

References

Epstein, Marc Michael. 2011. The Medieval Haggadah: Art, Narrative, and Religious Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press)

Kogman-Appel, Katrin. 2006. Illuminated Haggadot from Medieval Spain. Biblical Imagery and the Passover Holiday (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press)


Elena Dorfman

Rebecca 1, 2001, Chromogenic print, 840 x 840 mm, Collection of artist; Courtesy of Elena Dorfman

A Male-Ordered Woman

Commentary by Melissa Raphael

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The sex doll photographed by Elena Dorfman in Rebecca 1 can be read as a nod to the newly designed woman of Genesis 2, who was also received by the man as a ready-made, custom-made shape to fill the hole in his lonely condition.

Looking at Genesis 2 through the lens of Dorfman’s camera, we might interpret the first woman as not, in fact, a woman at all, but—like this elegantly dressed and coiffed one—an idol of a woman. As the influential twentieth-century rabbi Rav Kook would put it, ‘the woman whom God threw in his way as a gift, will furthermore expand his mind if she is ornamented and beautifully dressed’ (Ein Ayah Shabbat 99; see also 101). Earlier proto-feminist commentators like Mary Wollstonecraft were less sure that an idol of the feminine would expand anyone’s mind. According to Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Eve was created to be ‘the toy of man, his rattle, and it must jingle in his ears whenever, dismissing reason, he chooses to be amused’ (Wollstonecraft 1792: 68).

Of course, regardless of Genesis 2, few men would regard the women they love as sex dolls. Nonetheless, Rebecca 1 prompts an interpretation of this text as a primordial cancellation of the woman’s full humanity. Historically contingent on his need, her being constitutes an a priori idea of what will facilitate his.

The doll’s serene face/presence is painted on. Merely lifelike, she is an absence to his presence: unspeaking, unhearing, and unseeing, she is apathetic. She cannot suffer or die, therefore she also cannot live. In Dorfman’s photograph, the man’s genuinely tender devotion to his empty idol is necessarily unreturned. In other words, the project attributed to God in Genesis 2 here fails men as well as women: with the creation of an idol-woman the man’s loneliness, far from being assuaged, deepens. 

Once-fashioned by God for man, the woman is industrially re-produced and re-presented to a melancholy patriarchal culture as an ever-closer likeness to a perfected replacement of herself. Too often carved into an acceptable form by a plastic surgeon, whence will come her living, loving, heart of flesh?

 

References

Levinas, Emmanuel. 1948. ‘Reality and its Shadow’, trans. by Sean Hand, in The Levinas Reader, ed. by Sean Hand (Oxford: Blackwell:), pp. 130–43

Friedländer, M. (trans.). Moses Maimonides: The Guide for the Perplexed (London: George Routledge & Sons)

Wollstonecraft, Mary. 1891 [1792]. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, with Strictures on Moral and Political Subjects (London: T. Fisher Unwin)


Liliane Lijn

Inner Light I, 1994, Pentelicon marble and neon, 65 x 20 cm, Collection of artist; ©️ Liliane Lijn. All Rights Reserved, DACS, London and ARS, NY 2023

Towards the Breaking Light

Commentary by Melissa Raphael

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Liliane Lijn has constructed numerous forms to explore the interplay of truth and myth, repression and liberation, in the idea of feminine energy. In recent correspondence with me, she wrote:

I read your [argument for Genesis 2’s attribution of the creation of the world’s first idol to God] and found it pure dynamite! ... It is very important to me that the spiritual and mental powers of women be … fought for—not just the liberation of their bodies … One cannot split apart the two. (Personal correspondence, 26 August 2022, with permission)

Lijn’s Inner Light I visualizes the dyadic form with which the rabbinical literature of late antiquity and the medieval period reconciles apparent discrepancies in the creation stories. That is, they suggest that Adam and Eve were first, as in Genesis 1, created as one androgynous being, with their backs conjoined (see, e.g. Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 61a; Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed 2:30). When Eve is presented to Adam in Genesis 2, she was therefore not a separate subsequent creation but derived from the generically human.

That said, the rabbis did not hold modern views on the equality of the sexes and the word ish as used in Genesis 2 usually connotes a biologically particular male rather than a generic human being. Most rabbinic commentators regard the man to have been a double-faced creation, only split down the middle and turned face to face with his other half (himself?) when he needed a helper: the woman. The Talmud records at least one opinion of her as then ‘built’ to form a pyramidal shape that narrowed towards a point at the top, but which stood four-square on the ground to contain, like a well-constructed storehouse, a foetus (Babylonian Talmud Eruvin 18a).

Not dissimilarly, Lijn’s pyramidal form can also stand for a first woman. But Lijn’s woman is neither a reproductive vessel nor a woman made for the man and his glory (as in 1 Corinthians 11: 7–9). In Lijn’s work, the feminine may be captive or walled-in, but it is still alive. Itself a work of idoloclastic ‘dynamite’, Inner Light is now escaping through its own body of stone. In this first woman, the patriarchal principle of divide and rule is breaking down. Both halves of her—mind and body—are united and emanating the same transcendent energy, from the inside out. Here, the woman points and lights the way towards a liberated futurity.

 

References

Levinas, Emmanuel. 1972. ‘And God Created Woman’, in Nine Talmudic Essays, trans. by Annette Aronowicz (Bloomington: Indiana University Press), pp. 161–77

Maimonides, Moses. 1910. The Guide for the Perplexed, trans. by M. friedländer (London: George Routledge & Sons)

Rothenberg, Naftali. 2009. The Wisdom of Love: Man, Woman and God in Jewish Canonical Literature, trans. by Shmuel Sermoneta-Gertel (Boston: Academic Studies Press)

Sinensky, Tzvi. n.d. ‘Androgynous Myth: The Creation of Adam and Eve in Peshat and Midrash’, www.sefaria.org. Available at https://www.sefaria.org/sheets/179959?lang=bi [accessed 1 August 2023]


Unknown Spanish artist :

Adam and Eve, from The Sarajevo Haggadah, c.1350 , Illuminated miniature on velum

Elena Dorfman :

Rebecca 1, 2001 , Chromogenic print

Liliane Lijn :

Inner Light I, 1994 , Pentelicon marble and neon

Jewish Feminist Art and the Re-creation of Eve

Comparative commentary by Melissa Raphael

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The twentieth-century women’s liberation movement charged patriarchy with the alienation of women’s being from their becoming. ‘Woman’, it was argued, had been created by a masculine divine–human order in accordance with a specified set of ancillary functions and norms that were lodged in women’s consciousness by means of what Emma Goldman had called ‘internal tyrants’ (1910: 219–32).

This exhibition juxtaposes one medieval Jewish illumination (commissioned from an artist who may well have been non-Jewish) with two contemporary works by women artists, at least one of whose oeuvre—Liliane Lijn’s—is inflected by her Jewish and feminist identities.

In doing so, it suggests that women’s internal tyrants may originate in Genesis 2, a story that has, in its many different contexts, shaped the experience of every Jewish, Christian, and Muslim woman who has ever lived.

Numerous feminist commentators on the Bible—from Mary Wollstonecraft through to Mary Daly and Rosemary Ruether—have established the connection between Genesis 2 and the ordination and naturalization of masculine dominion over the feminine Other. Drawing on a mix of Jewish and non-Jewish textual sources, I have further suggested that, haunted by an ideological spectre of the feminine as variously dreamed and spoken by a man, birthed from, crafted out of, or split off from a man, woman is henceforth neither a full ‘I’ to herself nor entirely a ‘You’ to others. ‘Bone of his bones and flesh of his flesh’ (v.23), she cannot but live for him because she is him, or what he says she is.

Two works in the present exhibition have been used to suggest that Genesis 2 inadvertently violates the Second Commandment and attributes the creation of a false, untruthful image of women to God. Whether as an extract of the masculine (in the Sarajevo Haggadah) or as a manufactured confection (in Elena Dorfman’s Rebecca 1) we can see how the scriptural text renders ishah’s (‘woman’s’) being and becoming categorically other to that of ish (‘man’), who is, from the outset, what the text calls a ‘living being’—as are even the animals (v.19). As the very breath of God blowing through the earth (v.7), the man is granted unbounded, undetermined, existential possibility. He was not created for the sake of woman, undermining any notion that her status is equal to his, or that their sexual complementarity is equally beneficial to women. Without the primary existence of the man, a woman would be an existential redundancy; her only occasion and necessity is the man to whom she is given.

The ready-made woman of the Sarajevo Haggadah and the ‘love doll’ photographed by Dorfman were created over six hundred years apart. Yet a line marking the production and reproduction of the grounds of gender alienation, discrimination, sexual harassment, and the abuse of women’s rights can be traced between their two figurations of the feminine. It is as if the woman taken from an incision in Adam’s side in the manuscript illumination has been put in a box and mailed to an expectant customer.

This criticism of Genesis 2 as the first crime (of many) against the full humanity of women is far from secular in character. On the contrary, it urges a more rigorous observance of God’s Second Commandment. It urges that we refrain from turning women into the first of the ‘foreign’ (zara), that is, (e)stranging, alienating idols the Torah proscribes. I interpret our third artwork, Liliane Lijn’s sculpture Inner Light I, as initiating a reversion to the first chapter of Genesis, where the female is also made in the image of God, the One for whom, by whose nature and commandment, no image or likeness can be manufactured.

Like the other two artworks, Lijn’s pyramidal form does not yet have (visible) feet. It can be seen as a woman who is still fixed to the plinth of her idolising idea. Yet Lijn came of age during the Women’s Liberation Movement. Her work encourages women to move: to stand up and walk away from Genesis 2, back to Genesis 1, towards a new sexual-political order that is both now, and for too many women around the world, yet to come.

 

References

Goldman, Emma. 2005. ‘The Tragedy of Women's Emancipation’, in Anarchism and Other Essays (New York, Cosmino)

Raphael, Melissa. 2019. Religion, Feminism, and Idoloclasm: Being and Becoming in the Women’s Liberation Movement (New York: Routledge). This virtual exhibition draws on a reading of Genesis 2 given in its Prologue, pp. 1–7.

 

Next exhibition: Genesis 3:1–13

Genesis 2:21–25

Revised Standard Version

21So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh; 22and the rib which the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. 23Then the man said,

24Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh. 25And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.