Beyond Binaries: Father/Mother, Sister/Brother

In this post, I’d like to look at language that is brave enough to go beyond the binary. The word brave is important because masculine language tends to be wimpy, afraid, without courage, and so forth. “Beware the Binaries” was the warning earlier; now my encouragement is to be brave with language. Let’s just keep this personal and admit that men, especially men hiding behind “logic” like Aristotle did, tend to use language that keeps females and women separate, and marked by Nature, as different from and therefore as lesser than males and men. This is especially a problem with the set of texts we call the Bible written mostly by men, for men, and to men; and it’s even more of a problem when men are translating the Bible without women. Men tend to construct their binaries because they tend to be afraid of losing control. Men construct linguistic theories using binaries because they want to maintain control. Men tend to be language police. Of course, there are exceptions. But of course the ways of using language to know and to translate go well beyond the binaries. Let’s look together at three examples: Nancy Mairs’s, Suzanne McCarthy’s, and Rachel Barenblat’s.

Beyond the Binaries for Nancy Mairs

Let’s first acknowledge how Mairs gives credit to men who can and do go beyond the logical, male either/ or binary. Next, let’s review what the male binary of “A is not non-A” binary looks like. Then let’s hear how language may be different from such limited logic.

Mairs says men such as Michel de Montaigne aren’t afraid of females and don’t hate them, as Aristotle seemed to be and seemed to do. Mairs almost even calls Montaigne a “feminist” except he also turns out to be sexist when talking with Comtesse de Gurson about male priority. Nonetheless, Mairs suggests that we all go beyond his male/ female binary to see how Montaigne, by his language, “invented, or perhaps renewed, a mode open and flexible enough to enable the feminine inscription of human experience as no other does.” Look. “Preference for relation over opposition, plurality over dichotomy, embodiment over cerebration” is what Montaigne tends to bear out in his writing. See page 75, in Mairs’s chapter “Essaying the Feminine” in her book Voice Lessons: On Becoming a (Woman) Writer.

A little earlier in her book, on page 41, in that essay entitled “Body at Work,” Mairs reminds us what the preference for opposition over relation, dichotomy over plurality, and cerebration over embodiment looks like. It looks like this (with the bold font added by me):

In order to get what he wants, then, the father must have power to coerce those around him to meet his demands. To have power is to alienate oneself, however, because power is always power over and the preposition demands an object. The fundamental structure of patriarchy is thus binary: me/not me, active/passive, culture/nature, normal/deviant, good/bad, masculine/feminine, public/private, political/personal, form/content, subjective/objective, friend/enemy, true/false. . . . It is a structure, both spatial and temporal, predicated upon separation, not relation. It demands rupture, the split into halves engendered by the abrupt erection of the phallus: those who have and those who have not. It speaks the language of opposites. . . [in] a dimorphic world.

If we are braver, and will go beyond the binaries, then that sounds more like this:

Which is not women’s language, since women, for a variety of reasons, live in a polymorphic rather than a dimorphic world, a world in which the differentiation of self from other may never completely take place, in which multiple selves may engage multiply with the multiple desires of the creatures in it. Some theorists would claim that all subjects function thus. But as Julia Kristeva points out, female subjectivity, traditionally linked to cyclical and monumental time rather than to linear time, lies outside “language considered as the enunciation of sentences (noun + verb, topic – comment, beginning – ending).” Possessing an “irreducible identity, without equal in the opposite sex and, as such, exploded, plural, fluid,” a woman may be driven “to break the code, to shatter language, to find a specific discourse closer to the body and the emotions, to the unnamable repressed by the social contract.”

The difference that emerges here is not the polarity intrinsic in the dominant discourse, which reduces “woman to man’s opposite, his other, the negative of the positive.” No, this is an absolute and radical alterity that enfolds the other, as in pregnancy a woman’s immune system shuts down in such a way that she shelters and nourishes, rather than rejects and expels, the foreign body within her: “Cells fuse, split, and proliferate; volumes grow, tissues stretch, and body fluids change rhythm, speeding up or slowing down. Within the body, growing as a graft, indomitable, there is an other. And no one is present, within that simultaneously dual and alien space, to signify what is going on.” Feminine discourse is not the language of opposites but a babel of eroticism, attachment, and empathy.

The thing I’m going to want to remind my male readers of is that this is brave stuff. To use what Mairs calls “feminine discourse” might be one of the most manly things a man can do. Maybe it’s actually one of the most divine things a man can do. I’m thinking of manly Hebrew men, like Moses and like Jesus, who play with language and don’t reduce it to the binary logic of separating males from females so that the former are always, and Naturally, over the latter.

Beyond the Binaries for Suzanne McCarthy

Suzanne has written a blogpost this week entitled, “Fathers or Ancestors: Who do you sleep with?” If you read it, then you get what she’s after. She’s going beyond the binary and is letting male Hebrew writers and male English translators go too. She actually starts with what the male Hebrew speaker (quoted, I presume, by Moses) is saying:

Here is Jacob, asking to be buried with his “fathers.” Does this translation “fathers” make any sense in this passage, or should we think rather of the term which is used as a synonym, “my people?”

What McCarthy is getting at is the parallelism of the Hebrew of Jacob, the appositive of the noun phrase אֶל־עַמִּי with the noun phrase אֶל־אֲבֹתָי. She points us readers to what the NRSV translation team has done my letting the appositive, the parallel, be between “my people” and “my ancestors” in their English just as it is a parallel, an appositive, for Jacob speaking Hebrew (and for the writer Moses recording what Jacob says). And then she address us:

But you might ask me whether or not the Herbrew really says “fathers.” It does, and it does not. In Hebrew, as in Greek, the common word for “parents” is the plural of the word for “father.” But it is clear from its constant use for parents of both genders that this is its meaning – parents. In the English of today, the word “fathers” cannot refer to parents of both genders.

I’m going to ignore McCarthy’s metaphorical personification of the language as a thing so personally really saying something. I’m going to remind her blog readers and you that it’s really people, persons using Hebrew and humans using English, who are really saying “fathers” and “ancestors” and “parents” and “אֲבֹתָי.” Likewise, our meaning, Moses’s meaning, Jacob’s meaning, McCarthy’s meaning, my meaning, your meaning, the NRSV team’s meaning, the ESV team’s meaning, are really what we mean. The words don’t mean unless we make meanings. And yet, the crucial point is this: if the binary has to be “fathers” vs. “mothers,” then McCarthy is urging us meaningfully to go beyond the binaries. We can, she says. And Jacob and Moses do, I say. They’re saying “ancestors” by saying “people” — by saying and writing אֶל־עַמִּי with the noun phrase אֶל־אֲבֹתָי.

(Now, there’s a bit of a discussion following her post in which some are insisting on a binary, a division, a separation and distinction between “gender inclusive translation” and “gender accurate translation.” Even to that, I say, Let’s go beyond the binaries here, please, and bravely so.)

Beyond the Binaries for Rachel Barenblat

Let’s return now to Rachel Barenblat’s blogpost in which she begins to go beyond the binaries. She’s recounting what she heard of a lecture by Joel Hoffman, in which he pooh poohs, or at least downplays the gendered binaries between “sister” and “bride” and between “sister” and “brother.” Hoffman has already translated or at least is referring to English translation when he makes statements that Barenblat recalls:

Returning to the Song of Songs, take the phrase אֲחֹתִי כַלָּה / “my sister, my bride.” We have other texts from this period of time, written by kings to other kings, which say things like, “To my son, the King: how dare you address me as ‘my brother, the King’?” The words “son” and “brother” aren’t there to tell us about literal familial relationship: they mean power structure. “Brother” in this context means a fellow king who is equipotent; “father” means one who is more potent; “son” means one who is less potent. This tells us how to understand it when our text says “my sister, my bride” — it doesn’t mean “sister” as we use the word now, but rather means “my equal.” In antiquity, it was possible to buy a wife — “unfortunately,” he hastens to add — and a man’s wife could be a concubine or a slave. It is in this context that the Hebrew Bible uses the term “my sister,” in order to argue that men and women should be equals in relationships.

A salient clause here is the last one: “the Hebrew Bible uses the term ‘my sister,’ in order to argue that men and women should be equals in relationships.” Of course, what Hoffman surely means is that Solomon, and / or his Hebrew editors use the term Hoffman himself is quoting; and whomever it is using the Hebrew does so to make the argument that men and women should be equals in relationships. What Hoffman overlooks is that Abraham used the Hebrew for “sister” a few times (according to Moses, in the Hebrew “Genesis”) when he (Abraham) was referring to his wife Sarah. This gets the two in trouble, when men who think Sarah is beautiful and suitable as a wife assume that she’s not Abraham’s wife but is merely his sister. Abraham intends his binary language to deceive the other men: “She’s only my sister, and therefore can’t be my lover or my wife” is what the division between words is to argue for Abraham.

But Hoffman himself has a binary that Barenblat suggests we all might go beyond. He suggests that real meanings must be separated and divided away from etymology and words’ internal structure. To this Barenblat says:

My own editorial note: this is, I suspect, the place where Dr. Hoffman is the complete opposite of someone like Everett Fox, whose translation of the Torah plays a lot with word-roots and etymology. About which I may have more to say once I’ve read Hoffman’s book, so stay tuned.

And she adds:

To me as a poet, the word roots do say something meaningful because they offer a place for wordplay and poetic resonance. I think of a book like Rabbi Marcia Prager’s The Path of Blessing — reviewed here — and of how much I’ve learned from her teachings about how word-roots can allow connotations to echo. But Prager’s techniques are poetic and devotional ones, and I understand why that’s not what Hoffman is interested in. She’s also talking about liturgy, not Torah, which makes a difference.

And this makes me think of how Everett Fox is not afraid to go beyond Hoffman’s binaries here. Fox accentuates the Hebrew wordplay and etymologies in English:

No longer shall your name be called Avram,
rather shall your name be Avraham,
for I will make you Av Hamon Goyyim / Father of a Throng of Nations!


God said to Avraham:
As for Sarai your wife–you shall not call her name Sarai,
for Sara / Princess is her name!
I will bless her, and I will give you a son from her,
I will bless her
so that she becomes nations,
kings of peoples shall come from her!
Sara your wife is to bear you a son,
you shall call his name: Yitzhak/ He laughs

So striking is this gender inclusive language, the plays on nations and names, that when it is absent, then good readers and astute translators notice. I remember, for example, translator Robert Alter trying to understand why Dinah (among the sons of Israel) is given the short shrift. She is the one sister named among the twelve famous brothers, the sons, the fathers of the dozen tribes. More could be said about her! And yet here’s the bit Alter notices:

and she called her name Dinah. The absence of a naming etymology for Dinah is by no means an indication, as has often been claimed, that this verse [Genesis 30:21] derives from a different source. There is no naming-speech for Dinah because she is a daughter [not a son] and will not be the eponymous founder of a tribe.

What I want to caution at this point is that male language does exist, that husbands will use binary language (as Abraham does) because they are sometimes afraid of being out of control. Sometimes writers using masculine language will make unnecessary distinctions that cause the male to be over the female in a narrative. We do well to watch for this, and to go beyond it. And, as Barenblat suggests, wordplay is key.

In summary, at least three writers encourage us all to go beyond masculine binaries in language. And all of us includes women and men.

One response to “Beyond Binaries: Father/Mother, Sister/Brother

  1. Pingback: difference that emerges | BLT

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