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Anita Sarkeesian studies the portrayal of women in video games. Brianna Wu develops video games in which female characters, as she describes it, transcend the ordinary roles of girlfriends, bimbos, sidekicks, and prizes to be won. Zoe Quinn developed a game called “Depression Quest” which has over a million downloads. Quinn’s game is meant to help people find a creative way of dealing with their depression.
עזר כנגדו– #Gamergate and Restoring Eden
Sermon delivered by Rabbi Helfman on October 18, 2014.
Anita Sarkeesian studies the portrayal of women in video games.[i] Brianna Wu develops video games in which female characters, as she describes it, transcend the ordinary roles of girlfriends, bimbos, sidekicks, and prizes to be won.[ii] Zoe Quinn developed a game called “Depression Quest” which has over a million downloads.[iii] Quinn’s game is meant to help people find a creative way of dealing with their depression.
All three of these women, active in the world of video games – of gaming – have recently been subjected to threats against their bodies, their partners and even their children. Some of these threats have been so specific, listing sexual acts and giving home addresses that two of these women fled their homes and alerted police.
When Anita Sarkeesian went to speak at Utah State University, the university received the following threat against its student body, “This will be the deadliest school shooting in American history, and I’m giving you a chance to stop it,” signed Marc Lepine – the name of the man who killed 14 women in Montreal in 1989. The talk was canceled after the school refused to check for concealed weapons.[iv]
And now God said, ‘Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness: and let them hold sway over all that is on the earth’ So God created the human beings in the divine image, creating them male and female. God then blessed them. – it was very good.[v]
This is the first story of creation in our biblical narrative. Man and women being created at once – equals in all things. Created with a dignity that is little less than Divine. This is what Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the Rav of 20th century Orthodox Judaism, calls “Majestic Man” – man seeking to explore the dignity and Majesty of the world around him/her. While, when Rabbi Soloveitchik says man, he means man, it is clear from the biblical text that Majestic Man – Adam the First – is male and female. Soloveitchik teaches that these are male and female, but without intimate relationship between them.
In the second creation story, Man is created first – אדם from the אדמה – man from the earth, in covenant with God. And when Adam tries and fails to find a helpmate from the animals, God creates a being subservient to him in order to be his helpmate. From איש comes אישה – From man comes wo-man. Soloveitchik says that while Adam just happened to meet the first Eve, the second Eve is a partner joined to Adam by purpose – to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. This marriage, this covenant, mirrors the covenant that this Adam has with God, leading to the name Covenantal Man – a man in relationship to women. This man of faith, Covenaantal Man, in the Garden of Eden, has a covenantal partner –an עזר כנגדו. – a helper that is different than him, yet supplements him completely.
In later writing, Soloveitchik discusses a third stage – a time of the ‘fall’, where the relationship of mutual help breaks down with a lack of trust. .. the time of today.
Modern man has forgotten how to master the difficult dialectical art of עזר – of being one with and, at the same time, כנגדו different from, his human confronter, of living in community and simultaneously in solitude. He has developed the habit of confronting his fellow man in a fashion similar to that which prevails at the level of subject-object relationship, seeking to dominate and subordinate him instead of communicating and communing with him. The wondrous personal confrontation of Adam and Eve is thus turned into an ugly attempt at depersonalization. Adam of today wants to appear as master-hero and to subject Eve to his rule and dominion, be it ideological, religious, economic, or political. As a matter of fact, the divine curse addressed to Eve after she sinned, והוא ימשול בך – “and he shall rule over thee,” has found its fulfillment in our modern society. The warm personal relationship between two individuals has been supplanted by a formal subject-object relationship which manifests itself in a quest for power and supremacy.[vi]
Articles in scientific journals and in mainstream papers are hitting the news, as women in the field of science – of exploring the majesty of our world’s creation – are describing more than just ingrained prejudice, but unwanted advances, and even assault. In personal story after personal story, those seeking to find the majesty of our world, reveal instead the smallness and single-mindedness of their colleagues, teachers and mentors.
A Canadian author recently wrote, “A story like [mine] is a password. Once you say it out loud, doors start to open.” In the Canadian literary scene stories are just starting to emerge of relationships of power that border on assault. As writers are seeking to capture human relationship through ink and paper, they are being captured in human relationships they did not seek and do not desire.[vii]
And, the news of an orthodox rabbi who installed a camera to watch women showering in the mikveh, turning his relationship with his congregants from human to human, from עזר כנגדו into one of subject-object, this just one recent story of private moments and images being captured against the will of the women to whom they belong.
We listen to these news items and think – this is not about us – we channel our yetzer ha-rah – our impulses – for the improvement of the world. Enlightened self-interest. We are respectful, and kind. We are scientists, doctors, writers, lawyers, clergy, who are only in relationships like that in the Garden of Eden – of respect and support. Of working together to improve this earth.
Gamergate – the name given to the recent episode of threats against women like Anita Sarkeesian, Brianna Wu and Zoe Quinn – Gamergate is about us, because these relationships are reinforced in our culture.
It is about the games that we allow our children to play, the videos we allow them to watch. The narratives that fill their heads un-checked by conversation and commentary. Microsoft’s answer to Siri the עזר – the personal assistant persona that lives inside of our Apple devices – is Cortana. Unlike Siri, Cortana has an image. This עזר, this helper, like many in video games, is a graphic designer’s idea of a beautiful woman, who instead of wearing clothing wears drawings of circuity. Featured from the Halo series, at a recent talk on the role of women in technology, Microsoft set up a photo-op outside with a model wearing a skin tight suit in the role of Cortana – the voice and image which will teach us how to relate to an image of the most perfect assistant – עזר, but not כנגדו: the divine curse addressed to Eve after she sinned, – “and he shall rule over thee,” has found its fulfillment in our modern society. The warm personal relationship between two individuals has been supplanted by a subject-object relationship.
This is not a topic that we can confront in a single afternoon. This is constant work of awareness of the images around us. Of awareness at the role of ‘prize’ or ‘sidekick’ that women play in many of the narratives we enjoy and share. This is about giving context to and having conversations around narratives with our children.
Soloveitchik finds in our text three relationships between Adam and Eve – as partners, but unaware of intimacy. As helpmates that are in respectful relationship with one another- an עזר כנגדו. And as an ugly depersonalization of woman by man.
This year, let us be aware of our culture, our narratives of dehumanization, and work to again create a world of equal partners. Of Eden. Shabbat Shalom.
B’reishit Bara Elohim: Next year, when we roll back to the beginning, may we find ourselves closer to a world of עזר כנגדו. Closer to Eden: A world with more kindness and more respect. Shabbat Shalom.
[v] Gen. I:26-8, paraphrased.