Is a pregnant woman one person or two? It's hard to know for sure. For even as the baby's heart beats beneath hers, the pregnant woman continues to live her own life, think her own thoughts, do her own thing. Baby flips and flops inside her, likes or dislikes the music she listens to – and remains distinctly separate even as its very being is nourished by her. Mother and baby remain two – even as they are one.
Short moments after birth, mother and child flow into the next sequence of their two-is-one-is-two dance. Birth becomes the going away in order to come together again. Within the nursing relationship, mother and baby coalesce once more into a cocoon of brief, but intense, togetherness. The intense yearning of a nursling who refuses to take a bottle because it wants its mother is matched by the actual physical pain of the nursing mother who is separated from her baby. A short walk through any art museum – with various depictions of mother and nursing baby likely on display – calls to mind humanity's fascination with the merging of these two separate beings into one, if only for a short interlude in life.
And, even though the nursing baby soon toddles off into independence, some mothers would maintain that this identity transformation – this widening of the boundaries of self – never really goes away; a mother entering the delivery room discovers it’s a one-way journey. Biologically, women embody a blurring of boundaries between two discrete entities. Women internalise relationships, and instead of clear demarcations where I am I and you are you, femininity flows over those borders in an undulating fluidity.
Body and soul: mirror images
From a Kabbalistic perspective that sees the physical world as paralleling the spiritual with exquisite exactitude, biological woman becomes a metaphor for relationship, connection and bonding. "Woman” – created “opposite” man because it "wasn't good for man to be alone” – experienced life as a dialogue from day one.
Maleness, on the other hand, represents separation and individuation – which can easily segue into a focus on competition, acquisitiveness, and hierarchy, even if only in the interest of strengthening one's sense of self.
Of course, not all men and women relate to the world in this way. Gender, here, is used as a metaphor delineating two different pulses that animate the human soul – clearly both of them can be manifested by both men and women, and in varying proportions. There are many women who resonate more easily with the impermeability of boundaries than with the fluidity of relationships. And it goes without saying that there are many men who live their lives centred on relationships.
Yet, interestingly, of the two models, Judaism resonates most strongly with the feminine. Relationships with others, with G-d, and with ourselves – bridging the chasms that separate us – is the defining characteristic of Jewish life. Success in Judaism is not measured by the frenetic doing, accomplishing, producing and progressing that characterises our work week – and which strengthens our sense of separateness – but by our relationships; by our emotional, spiritual, and moral well-being, and that of the people in our orbit.
It's hard to remember this truth in real life, because much of Western philosophy valourises the masculine and regards people as intrinsically and primally egotistical. The best we can hope for, as Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and other exemplars of modern Western thought maintain, is to convince people of the benefit of social contracts. Win friends and influence people because you never know when you will need those people in your determined rush up Mt Success. In this context, the feminine voice – which never sees people as a means to an end; which realises that not only I am I and you are you, but also, I am you and you are I – gets trampled on, ridiculed, and all but drowned out.
That feminine voice (which can, of course, be articulated by men as well) gets only one reprieve: Shabbat.
Happy relationship day!
Shabbat is relationship day, which is why it's referred to in Kabbalistic sources as feminine (think “Shabbat Queen” and “Shabbat Bride”). Shabbat is the day on which we place our to-do list firmly in the drawer, jump off the treadmill, and wriggle out from under the suffocating blindfold which our technological toys place over our eyes. On Shabbat we take a deep breath and look around at the family and friends who were at the periphery of our vision all week, at G-d, who was waiting all this time for us to notice Him, and at our very own souls, malnourished and neglected, eagerly looking forward to some attention.
Shabbat is a strangely vulnerable day. Without our car keys dangling from our hands, with our technological digits temporarily amputated, with no work to escape into, we enter a scary world – a world which Western society is hell-bent on protecting us from. In this unfamiliar world, we are human beings rather than human doings, and what is important is not what we accomplish, but who we are.
As we light the candles that illuminate our journey into the magic world of Shabbat, we become the guide sought out by family and friends to help them over the threshold, into that mysterious place.
Metaphorically, women represent the concept of relationships, and in real life, they are often the guardians and nurturers of family ties (there is a reason why it takes so much longer to get off the phone when mom calls than when dad does). As such, women bring a unique gift to the Shabbat experience. Far beyond chicken soup, and even freshly baked challah, is the gift of having someone who speaks the language of Shabbat.
Of course, being born into a feminine body does not guarantee an immediate affinity to prioritising relationships. But since our bodies are the medium through which our souls interact with the world, G-d has gifted women with a readily accessible metaphor to help them help their families and friends – and themselves – sing the song of Shabbat.
On Friday before dusk, women light two candles – two separate entities, shining beacons that lead us into the world of Shabbat. On Saturday night, we perform the Havdallah service using one candle, which Jewish law instructs us must have at least two wicks. After 25 hours spent basking in the feminine world of Shabbat, those two separate candles we lit on Friday night merge into one candle with two wicks – two, which are really one; one, which is really two – shining the light of femininity out into the week.