Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Women at the Threshold

by Susan Weinberg

Most of the religious literature has been written by men. Their eyes, their experience, their pre-conceptions, color even the most thoughtful analysis. In today’s session the rabbi sought to draw out the voices of those who are often silenced, the women.

As with many of our sessions, we began with a question. Imagine you are standing at the entry to God’s tent. What is it like? What do you feel?

Now when he spoke of God’s tent, he was referencing the ark which was carried through the wilderness, the earthly residence of God. Each of us considered our idea of the divine as we stood on its doorstep. Frightening, anxiety-producing, exhilarating, naked and exposed, we replied.  I was slow to respond as I tried this idea on, having a hard time conceiving of God personified. Instead I contemplated the Universe, as close to a God concept as I can get. It is a place I find mysterious and surprising, frightening, yet affirming, an unknown that invites us into its mysteries. Yes, that would have to do. Each of us must face the unknown beginning with our birth, ending with our death. It is a series of gateways and thresholds.

So what role do women have with the tabernacle? The people gathered and brought supplies with which to construct it. We turn to Exodus 38:1-8  (handout-Women at the Entrance to the Tent) which tells us of the materials from which it was built. Shittim (acacia) wood, horn and bronze formed the altar and utensils. But when Bezalel came to the laver, the container for the purifying water that the priests used to wash prior to their priestly duties, he drew on copper.  And copper that came from a most unusual source. The women who gathered at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting contributed their copper mirrors, transforming reflection into a container holding yet another reflective and purifying substance, water.  The women also brought goat's hair to weave the curtain that covered the tabernacle (Exodus 26:7).

We get a surprising glimpse of the role of women through these small clues, contributing reflection and the separation between God and the people.  Rabbi Elyse Goldstein reminds us that communal leaders often value the actions and lives of only those most like themselves. Women's experiences are often written out of the collective memory and history.

We ended our session by exploring the midrash as it considered the role of women in Exodus 38: 1-8 and I Samuel 2:11-12, 22-25. Aviva Zornberg suggests the midrash functions like the unconscious, revealing layers of meaning that can alter and destabilize the primary story.  Each rabbi took a different view of the women in the story: generous, seductive, pious, a force, violated, inconvenienced or unfulfilled.  Perhaps this reveals more about how men view women than the women themselves.

The rabbi closed with this passage by Rabbi Goldstein: "As women become more visible and active in contemporary communities, as our roles expand, how will we tell our communities' stories, and how will future generations remember them and tell them? Will there be those whose participation is absent or limited? Will there be those whose place in our history is consciously erased or diminished?"

For the second half of our session, Rachel Breen joined us to share her collaboration with Alison Morse on "The Labor We Wear," a show that will be at the Tychman Shapiro Gallery from February 13-March 1.  Rachel shared her history as a series of thresholds, from community organizing to an MFA to the path a sewing machine took her on the day it ran out of thread.  Mark making by sewing machine became her art form, a path that led to the concept of repair and Tikkun Olam. Her efforts to stitch the world together took on new life when she heard about the factory collapse in Bangladesh.  It connected with her as a Jew through its association with the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.  The threshold it took her through was a decision to do something new with her artwork. When Alison posted a poem connecting the two events, Rachel connected with her and a new threshold was bridged, a collaboration. She noted that a collaboration is challenging as you give up some control to allow it to happen as you go down a new path to the unknown.

After the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire there were many changes in the laws to provide greater protection to workers. Since that time; however, the clothing industry has moved overseas. I was surprised to learn that in 1960, 95% of clothing was made in the United States. Today it is 2%.  In 1960 clothing purchases represented 10.4% of the household budget, today it is 3.5%. As the price of clothing drops we buy more of it, filling our landfills. I think ruefully of the bags I gather for Goodwill each year. It also means that all of those hard-won worker protections that grew out of catastrophes are for naught and the catastrophes have just moved overseas with the clothing industry. Brands take little responsibility because the plants are owned by Bangladeshi businessmen who are involved with politics. That gives them great latitude as a result.

We are all wearing clothing from many other countries, seldom the United States, and hence bear some responsibility to advocate for issues such as worker safety.

Rachel and Alison's project continues to evolve. A Rimon grant enabled them to go to Bangladesh where Rachel discovered piles of scraps around the clothing factories. She took this negative space, the remaining scraps, and fashioned it into new artwork. Her work has moved into sculpture and performance and continues to evolve.

Stop by the Reception at the Tychman Shapiro Gallery Feb 15 6-8pm and catch the Poetry Reading at 7pm.  Rachel will be doing a performance event on Friday February 23, 12-3pm.