A dear friend rang yesterday. "Mike is away for the week", she said "would you like to come for dinner?" I accepted graciously, but had I been feeling a little more wicked, I might have said " oh, thanks, but I would rather wait till Mike came home so I could see him too."
There is a strong tendency for my married friends to struggle with where to put me now that I am no longer married. There is a discomfort with odd numbers at a dinner party, a feeling that all will become lopsided if a single woman takes her place around the table. A sense perhaps that it will all just be too sad to invite a family no longer intact to Shabbat. It is, I am sure, intended to be kind. A slightly hyper-vigilent attempt to protect their friend from discomfort. Yet, I suspect it is to protect themselves as well. Protect themselves from the projection of what could so easily happen to them, and their own discomfort with those of us who apparently no longer uphold the mitzvah of family and shalom bayyit - peace in the home. Or, indeed, have chosen another alternative to maintain it.
I tried the communal dinners at my synagogue. I was after all a part of the greater community that the shule offered. It went well at first, sharing a table with a couple of family friends, lighting the candles, making the blessings. It was when the men were instructed to turn to their wives and recite Eishet Chayil, the Woman of Valour blessing that I began to feel somewhat tense. I stood looking around with a fixed smile on my face, feeling a cold breeze beside me. Then I saw the other women and men, standing, waiting - going through their own private torment perhaps, being reminded so sharply that there is no-one there to honour them - for being members of community, hard workers, quietly living their lives of yiddishkeit. Amongst them were the widowed, the single, the divorced. They deserved to be honoured. I wanted to stand on my chair and say "to those of us who stand here without a partner, know that I honour you. For being a part of my greater family, for being here to fill the space that is sometimes so very silent, with your voices and your hearts. For all the good you try to do every day, for the struggles you face so bravely, for the pleasure you give to those around you." I remained silent however, whilst the blessing for the children began. My children were with their father. I could see women who yearned for children, had lost children, whose children had grown and become estranged....... and once again I had restrain myself from shouting "Are we not all children? And do the children here tonight not belong to us all, Kol Yisrael? Let me join you in your blessings, so that we can feel that we too have a family."
My synagogue tries hard to be all embracing. It defines "Jew" broadly and generously. It is modern in its outlook and deeply respectful of our rights and differences. Within Judaism though, is the deeply intrinsic drive for children and family, and with our ever changing society, as the familial fibre becomes increasingly frayed, it is time to have a look again at the traditions that I took so much for granted when I was married.
On a more personal level, I struggle as a single Jewish woman, to find a balance between the woman and the mother. The Torah understands this duality very well, expressing it in the numerous pairs of women - one barren and one fertile, that are found there. Rachel and Leah, Hagar and Sarah, Hannah and Peninah are examples. It suggests to me, and many modern scholars - that women have two sides - the creative and powerful and sexual woman on one hand, and the creator of life, the mother on the other.
I feel split between Lillith and Eve - Lillith being the midrashic first wife of Adam, stemming from the lines in Genesis 1:27 'So God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him: male and female He created them.' Several pages later in the Torah Adam is alone and God puts him to sleep, removes a rib and creates Eve. So, who is the first woman and what happened to her? She became Lillith - the woman who would not be laid upon, refusing the supine position during their love making, claiming equality, which was apparently not her due. As a result, she left the Garden, doomed to give birth to one hundred children who would die every day. This story, written in the eighth century by Ben Sira of Alphabet became the basis for many subsequent stories from the Zohar and Midrash- Lillith became the scum of the earth, killer of children, tempter of men, destroyer of families.
So, a powerful woman who demands equality becomes a scurge, a threat, an anarchic force that men fear. And although it is true that our modern world has little place for such a legend, I wonder at times how much of that consciousness still pulsates in our blood. I suspect we still have some distance to go to exorcise the fear that a single and creative woman engenders. I know in myself, that I struggle somewhat with the pursuit of my work and creative destiny and the woman that I am - my Lillith side, and being a mother, the provider of sustenence and love and nurture, the selfless Eve.
It is an interesting world, marked by choice and consciousness. We are redefining terms that we once took so much for granted - terms like family, home, and community. We know that we must struggle to find our own place of resonance, to interpret Judaism and find our own meaning within it - drawing from all that has come before, all that we know now, and what we want our future to be. We have the freedom to examine the fears and the prejudices we carry, to keep what is good and rid ourselves of that which is not. To rewrite the stories, and replace them with new legends, new visions. And to embrace this mutable society of ours, with love and understanding.