Speaking of Women and Jews...

...which we were doing both in the last post and in the recent post on Medieval Islamic poetry, Haaretz reports on Jewish prayer from 1471. Just to keep the accounting clear, though both are "medieval" these prayers are several hundred years later than the period in Spanish history in which female Jewish poets were absent (it's also 246 years after Magna Carta, which is to say, a little longer than America has existed as a nation):
According to the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), the 600-year-old siddur replaces the traditional prayer recited by women, “Blessed are You, Lord our God, Master of Universe for Creating me According to your Will”, with “Blessed Are You Lord our God, Master of the Universe, For You made Me a Woman and Not a Man.” 
The prayer offered by the 1471 siddur stands as a clear counterpart to the morning prayer recited daily by observant Jewish men: "Blessed are You For Not Creating Me a Woman".
The article runs with this in several directions, but let me offer something from a thinker -- who happens to have been both a woman and of Jewish extraction -- whose approach to this question strikes me as the right one. I'm speaking of Hannah Arendt, who wrote quite a bit about the differences that define us. She has a pretty sophisticated approach, so bear with me as I try to explain it, because I may not convey it quite right the first time.

In her better-known writings, Arendt speaks sharply against those who allow themselves to be defined by others, and brightly of those who seize upon the categories of their birth and use them to construct an identity that is theirs alone.  Thus, in The Origins of Totalitarianism (pp 81-5 in this edition), she has hard words for "inverts" (i.e., homosexuals) and "Jewish" men who hid in salons; but very high praise for Proust and Disraeli, who each took one of those qualities and constructed something worthy of a true individual.  In Disraeli's case, for example, he was in no way satisfied with being 'Jew-ish' -- he insisted on being a Jew, and in a way that was his very own.

Her position thus guards against the ravages of our modern identity politics, in which people are taught to think of themselves as members of a group -- she wants you to take whatever your genetic or cultural identity happens to be, and find a way to do something new and unique.  The quality of being Jewish or an invert, she says in OT, is "meaningless" when it is a way of putting people into groups:  it can only be valuable if it flourishes as a part of the character of an individual of worth.

That isn't the limit of her insight, however.  In her letters, she expressed a profound sense of gratitude for every kind of human difference that is truly, genuinely impossible to bridge.  It is my belief that you can find her reasoning for this in her horror at the Nazi movement -- which she encountered first hand, arrested by the Gestapo and later spending time in a concentration camp in France.  She writes of how Hitler was so proud of the SS for turning a thousand men into 'examples of the same type.'  That there are differences we cannot bridge is therefore something to be grateful for:  they provide sources of resistance to tyranny.

More than that, though, such differences also provide a unique perspective.  This is crucial to our ability to believe in our own perceptions of the world -- after all, our sense perceptions are often wrong.  Our eyes may fail us, or we may not be sure we heard correctly.  It is in hearing or seeing our perceptions confirmed by an independent observer, another person, that we gain confidence in our impressions.  The more independent the observer -- that is, the more genuine and deep the differences between them and us -- the more confidence we can have from their confirmation of our thoughts and impressions.

For that reason, it is right to feel gratitude for being a woman and not a man, and it is right to feel gratitude for being a man and not a woman.  It is right to feel gratitude for any difference given to us that cannot be bridged.  These things make us stronger, in that they give us access to parts of the world that our own perspective does not, and in that they can help us know how much weight it is safe to place on our own perceptions.

This -- Arendt calls it "plurality" -- is a strength that arises from human nature.  Therefore, it is a virtue:  one of the absolute ones.  It is a virtue for anyone, and a weakness in those who will not have it.

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