Friday, February 26, 2010

Tetzaveh 5770: Esther and Aaron at the -- Roller Derby?

I need to confess something. When I began writing this weeks commentary, I did a review of my previous pieces and they are all thematically a comparison of two people: Esther and the High Priest. Comparing an exiled orphan who intermarried into Persian royalty, then seduced the king to kill his prime minister and make an ordinance to kill anyone who hated Jews is so different than the one man in a generation who can enter the holy of holies of the Temple. they seem like such different people. The reading of parshat Tetzaveh very often directly precedes the reading of Megillat Esther. This year they are almost back to back. I've compared these two several times based on the theme of Tetzaveh, that clothes are more than just something to keep us from being naked. Besides a mere coincidence, why do these two reading so often correspond to each other?

This time however it is not Torah or Megillat Esther I start with, it is my new found love of roller derby. Sweetie, who is a big fan, took me to see the recent movie Whip it, and last month took me to my first bouts at a local university. Strangely enough, I'm hooked on one of the most improbable sports for me to ever be a fan of.

But then, Roller derby is one of the most improbable sports of all time. For those unfamiliar with the modern sport, it appears to me some mutant combination of Speed-skating, Hockey, and football, all played by a bunch of women in revealing tops and fishnets. There are two teams of five on a skating rink. One player on each team, wearing a star on her helmet, is a jammer. She is the one who scores points for her team. The other four are called blockers and try to block the opposing jammer from scoring points. Simply put, a point is scored when a jammer passes a player from the other team. Of course the other team tries to prevent this by blocking or knocking down the jammer in order to prevent her from scoring. The action is fast, and might be best described as a large scale shoving match on wheels.

Besides the game, there are other aspects of Roller derby that make it an interesting sport. The fans are very often a younger, alternative looking set than many sporting events. Unlike any other sport I'd pay money to see, the entire league is a volunteer league. Players, coaches, refs, and all the support staff are there just for the love for the game. Fans have favorite players of course, but unlike any other sport besides professional wrestling, everyone knows a player's track nickname, but rarely their real name. But there is one aspect of the game, one I think most everyone there is attracted to No matter if they are fan or player, is the women who play roller derby appear to be the most comfortable women in their own skins.

Watch any of the Winter Olympics and you will notice something: there is an ideal body form for all of these high performance sports. How much we fit female athletes into a ideal body image is best noted by an annual February tradition: The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue. This year along with the supermodels was several Olympic hopefuls decked out in bikinis. Who is model and who is athlete is hard to tell in these photos. Yet, roller derby girls don't fit this rather artificial ideal. One thought I had watching them line up for a bout was rather startling to me. When I was young and the proverbial 98 pound weakling, I remember being picked last for team sports in Phys ed class. The rare case when I was not was the times we played co-ed. Girls who did not look much different than those on the track, some very small, some very thin, or those who were above average weight were those who were picked last as their looks dictated their athletic ability.On that track those years of being picked last are proven wrong. These are trained athletes who don't fit the model's ideal of an athlete. They are comfortable in rejecting the ideal for the real.

As Purim has become a kids holiday, we often hear a Disney Princess version of a rather R-rated tale. The story which has more twists than a coil of rope starts with an interesting one. Bragging about his wife's beauty, The king of Persia orders his wife, Queen Vashti to come wearing nothing but her crown to the court to show off her beauty. Vashti refuses and ends up executed for her insolence. Now the king needs a new queen, and a search is made for a new one. Women throughout the kingdom are gathered at the palace, sent through beauty treatments, given whatever they want in jewelery, dress and ostentation to get ready for the king. They are eventually sent to the king for a night "interview." If the king likes her he will declare her queen. If not, she is moved from the house of the virgins to the house of the concubines. One Jewish exile, Esther, cared for by her cousin Mordecai is one of the women set to meet the king. Yet she takes advice other women do not:

15. Now when the turn of Esther, the daughter of Abihail the uncle of Mordecai, who had adopted her as his daughter, came to go to the king, she asked for nothing but what Hegai the king’s eunuch, the keeper of the women, advised. And Esther found favor in the sight of all those who looked upon her.[Esther 2]
Esther is described only once as beautiful, but three times as "having found favor" of those who saw her. The word for favor can also mean gracious, and I believe it was Ester's graciousness more than her looks that made the difference:

15. Now when the turn of Esther, the daughter of Abihail the uncle of Mordecai, who had adopted her as his daughter, came to go to the king, she asked for nothing but what Hegai the king’s eunuch, the keeper of the women, advised. And Esther found favor in the sight of all those who looked upon her. 16. So Esther was taken to king Ahasuerus to his royal palace in the tenth month, which is the month Tebeth, in the seventh year of his reign. 17. And the king loved Esther above all the other women, and she found grace and favor in his sight more than all the virgins; so that he set the royal crown upon her head, and made her queen instead of Vashti.[Esther 2]
When she later comes to the king in her rather ingenious plot to save her people, she comes unbidden, which could mean a death sentence. The text tells us:
1. And it came to pass on the third day, that Esther dressed in royalty, and stood in the inner court of the king’s palace, opposite the king’s palace; and the king sat upon his royal throne in the royal palace, opposite the gate of the house.2. And it was so, when the king saw Esther the queen standing in the court, that she found favor in his sight; and the king held out to Esther the golden scepter that was in his hand. So Esther drew near, and touched the top of the scepter. 3. Then said the king to her, What do you wish, queen Esther? and what is your request? It shall be given to you even to the half of the kingdom.[Esther 5]

While in parshat Tetzaveh we hear of virtually every stitch in Aaron's outfit as the high priest, what Esther wore in front of the king is a bit of a mystery. The word used is royalty, which leaves much to the imagination. The rabbinic opinions differ greatly from a very formal presentation of jewels and dress, to the most common opinion: she was dressed in the spirit of the Divine Presence. I've had the opinion, given the irony that Vashti refused to come in nothing but crown to her husband, that Esther was wearing nothing but the Shechina. Yet, I'm not sure about that anymore. The story does not mention what she wore is because it was not important. Her mere presence in a room, no matter what she was or was not wearing was incredibly intoxicating. Such things only happen to someone who was completely in touch with who they are, who is comfortable in their own skin. Much of this comes from a belief in God, and a sense of humility before God. Yet with Esther's graciousness she was able to turn a genocide decree up side down and execute Haman and his cronies instead.

This week in Tetzaveh there is a lot of detail and a lot that Aaron and anyone in the role of High priest was to wear.
4. And these are the garments which they shall make; a breastplate, and an ephod, and a robe, and an embroidered coat, a mitre, and a girdle; and they shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, and his sons, that he may minister to me in the priest’s office.[Exodus 28]

Later on, God even commands the wearing of underwear.[28:42] Much of these garments contained stones and gold. the hem of the robe was made with gold bells, the ephod epaulets of gold and onyx. The Urim and the Thummim, the breastplate of judgement, was gold and stones, with more gold chain to secure it to the ephod. God begins his instructions for all this with:

2. And you shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother for glory and for beauty[Exodus 28]

the word kavod, however might mean glory or honor, but it also means heavy and burdensome. The weight of all those accouterments certainly weighed down Aaron. But so did the weight of his responsibility for the sins of everyone else, and the weight of knowing how dangerous it is to be near the inner chambers of the mishkan. In a few weeks we'll read the story of the death of Aaron's sons Nadab and Abihu under such circumstances. Even in this portion we hear about all the gold bells on his robe:

35. And it shall be upon Aaron to minister; and his sound shall be heard when he goes in to the holy place before the Lord, and when he comes out, that he should not die.[Exodus 28]

Looking at Aaron as a person, He is a quiet man. This is man who holds his silence after watching his sons die horribly only a few feet away from him. He has only three times in all of Torah he gets his own solo speaking part. In the golden calf incident he speaks twice, and once when he repents for both himself and Miriam after they slandered Moses. While he does not say anything on the death of his sons, when Moses starts getting cranky about not following procedure to the letter after the tragedy, Aaron intercedes. From when we first hear of him after the burning bush until his death, he always plays second fiddle to his younger brother, and sometimes even his sister Miriam. This despite a man who God knows is a good speaker [Exodus 4:14]

Kavod is a weighty honor, with many responsibilities. Some believe that for his acts in the Golden calf incident he was never punished. I think he was -- He was made high priest, the man designated to bear all of the sins of Israel, and to preform his duties exactly right to absolve Israel of those sins, or else he may not survive the ceremony. Tractate Yoma tells the classic story that the high priest, when he went into the Holy of Holies for Yom Kippur has a cord tied around his leg so that if he died or got into trouble they could pull him out. We never know Aaron as a person, but we know what he wears. We know his uniform, and the sanctity and safety measures of his uniform.

Esther and Aaron make up a polarity, though they have much in common. They are the point person saving their people. they also have to do so with the threat of death hanging over them if they should make any mistake. Both have relatives that seem to get all the hero spotlight. Aaron however is defined by his clothes, and Esther by what is under them -- the person she is. Both however are part of our identity, the person we are comfortable being inside and the outer things in our world that define who we are. No one is immune from extreme cold, abrasions, falls and tumbles. Aaron's clothes on one side protected him from the dangers of his job, as does the knee and elbow pads and helmet protect many an athlete. No one is a mind reader either. Without the clothes it becomes difficult to identify someone. Our choices in dress is what will define us to others in that impressionable 90 seconds of first meeting. We will get much of our identity information from clothes. But at the same time how we present ourselves in those clothes is also important. When we show confidence and graciousness, others are confident of us, even interested in being part of our inner circle.

All of this comes down to the roller derby again, and seeing many very interestingly dressed women looking so confident. When buying a season program I got to meet one of the players, decked out in full All-star uniform. I got two impressions as she towered over me in helmet elbow pads, and short shorts with fishnets as the other woman in the booth sold me my program. The first was how much I would never want to fight with her, but the other was one of her grace and confidence, and that was the driving force behind the first.Going back to my seat to watch the end of the first half, I thought of her and Aaron and Esther. She is neither a queen or a priest, but embodied both Aaron and Esther. Maybe that is what I like the most about roller derby. At least in the current set of local bouts, the game isn't about winning, though one team does win. It's about being an all-together person, something so lacking in our sports heroes or leaders today. I can remember Ester and Aaron and those girls on the track to remind me that it is possible to be an all-together person.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Teruma 5770: Why build the Mishkan?

This week, God tells Moses that the Israelites should bring free-will offerings of various precious raw materials to build the Mishkan, then proceeds to give rather detailed instructions on how to build not only the tent itself, but all of the utensils that go into it, including the ark, menorah and offering tables. This description is so long it will continue into next week's portion. Yet there is a nagging question: why do this? Torah gives a simple explanation, yet one that is somehow not satisfying:

8. And let them make me a sanctuary; that I may dwell among them.9. According to all that I show you, after the pattern of the tabernacle, and the pattern of all its utensils, so shall you make it.[Exodus 25]

The Simple explanation is that this is where God will dwell. Yet God is clearly omnipresent, even in one of God's many nicknames "the Place" HaMakom (המקום) do we find the idea of this. God is one place because God is all places. If God is all places, how could one place be more special than another? Some modern Jewish thinkers, as did Abraham Joshua Heschel in The Sabbath reject Judaism as a religion of place, but instead one of time. God is eternal too, but time is marked with reminders of specific dates which we use to remember events. Purim reminds is of the events of the book of Esther, Passover the Exodus from Egypt.
It's interesting to note something else: these are directions for the Mishkan, not the later Temple. Dimensions and other details are derived for the Temple from this text but God commands directions explicitly for the Mishkan, not the temple. Like we will read later in Exodus when Betzalel puts the Mishkan together, I Kings only chronicles the construction Solomon initiated four hundred and eighty years later. The Temple was wood and stone, a rather permanent structure. The Mishkan wasn't: it was cloth, poles and sockets and thus portable. Until the time of David and Solomon, it moved around. It was not stuck in one place.
Place, however is tangible -- time far from it. Even the things marked by time happen in a reference place. Yet this reference place itself is relative to the one observing by remembering that event. The Mishkan was there for every Shabbat, wherever it was in the wilderness or in the land of Israel. In ancient times, The Passover sacrifice could always be performed right at the Mishkan. With the destruction of the temple, as Resh Lakish, R. Johanan and R. Eleazar all said

While the Temple still stood, the altar used to make atonement for a man, but now that the Temple no longer stands a man's table makes atonement for him.[Ber 55a, Men 97a,Hag 27a]

The place of either the Mishkan altar or a dining room table changes depending on who is having an Erev Shabbat or Passover Seder. Places can act a reference to other things, even when place is not absolute.
I spent last weekend in a place where Sweetie once lived. She left this place to be with me. So we went back and visited -- and connected with friends. It was not a lot of spending time in place, but in relationship with people. It was activating memory for Sweetie, with every description of a place or an event at a street corner, shoreline or store. We even stopped in a few places of import to both of us: the breakfast restaurant she frequented every Saturday and the coffee shop she drank most of her caffeine in. Both places, during my visits to her became customary stops for both of us, cherished by both of us. To be there is to remember our other visits and the thing we ordered on their menus. It also is to be ready to go back for even more visits, to remember the past and make new memories.
The Mishkan is not about a place. It is about memory and relationship. Purim and Passover, for example are very different when celebrated in a group or alone. There is more meaning in the relationships generated at a synagogue Purimspiel than a private reading at home. A big Seder may be a lot of work and preparation, but it also is extremely rewarding in the relationships we strengthen at the Seder table. Each interaction creates new and precious memory.
God is infinite, yet finite amounts of God are in each of us. The Perkei Avot tells us

If three have eaten at one table, and speak there words of Torah, it is as if they had eaten at the table of HaMakom, Blessed be He, as it is said, "This is the table before the Lord" [Avot 3:3]

This and Avot 3:6 point to the idea of synthesis which brings God closer. The old joke about two Jews three opinions always make me think the third opinion is God's. The more people, the more we gain aspects of God, of HaMakom, in one place.
The Mishkan, as a temporary structure, was one that could and did move frequently. It was, most of all, a focal point. When encamped the people surrounded it. When marching its components were at the center of the ranks. When it was time to celebrate Passover, Shavuot, or Sukkot, everybody knew exactly where to assemble. The Mishkan was a place of assembly, and a place to get into relationship with everyone else. Within that relationship we gain memory, and revive memory of previous events. With those memories, we remember God, what God has done for us. We thus cause God to dwell with us and within us.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Mishpatim 5770: Why 'these three things'?

This week we have a rapid fire succession of mitzvot involving civil and criminal litigation, though ending with the calendar of festivals. Near the beginning of this vast number of rules there is a the discussion of having slaves and the proper way of keeping them. For the female slave there is an interesting verse:

10. If he takes for himself another wife; her food, her garment, and her conjugal rights, shall he not diminish. 11. And if he does not do these three things to her, then shall she go out free without payment of money.[Exodus 22]

As specific as the rules that make up Mishpatim are, they leave a lot unanswered. Such answers would come through the Oral law, written down in the Mishna and the Gemara, what is know collectively as the Talmud. the rules of jurisprudence and how to try cases involving each of these cases make up a whole order of the Talmud, Nezikin. Yet here and there other orders of the Talmud find their basis in this week's text. In the order Nashin, the rules concerning the relationships of women and men and marriage. We have the commentaries on these rules.

The rabbis quickly connected slavery with marriage. Contemporary minds might scoff at that, that wives were nothing more than slaves, but the point of this passage in Mishpatim was the exact opposite. Female slaves were elevated to a responsiblity level for a man as if he had a wife. The rabbis derive this that 22:10 refers to the slave as "another wife." A slave could be treated a lot worse than a wife, but is put on a equal footing.

The implication of this is that all women under the power of man either by buying her or marrying her are guaranteed three basic needs. While this might seem simple for the first two it is not as simple as it seems. The phrase in Hebrew is Sh'airah, c'sutah, and onatah. But these a difficult words to translate, and the rabbis in Ketubot 47b debate their meaning. In its most literal sense the first word Sh'airah would be her remnant, or her flesh. the second word, c'sutah means covering or clothes, but sometimes used as a word for gift. Finally there is Onatah, which oddly enough means her affliction. None of these words make sense, and so are open to clarification by the rabbis. Flesh, most rabbis decide means food, a covering means clothing, and her affliction means the affliction found in the curse of Eve:

16. To the woman he said, I will greatly multiply the pain of your child bearing; in sorrow you shall bring forth children; and your desire shall be to your husband, and he shall rule over you. [Genesis 3]

The rabbis came to the conclusion the the desire for sexual satisfaction was not strongest in a man, but in a woman, so much so she suffers because of it. The only way to relieve it was to have orgasms. The rabbis were so adamant on this, they even created a timetable for providing a woman with satisfaction depending on a man's profession.

Students may go away to study the Torah, without the permission [of their wives for a period of] thirty days; laborers [only for] one week. The times for conjugal duty prescribed in the Torah are: for men of independence, every day; for laborers, twice a week; for ass-drivers, once a week; for camel-drivers, once in thirty days; for sailors, once in six months. These are the rulings of R. Eliezer [M. Ketubot 5:1]

Some of the rabbis combined 'her flesh' and 'her suffering' and come up with a second idea - you gotta have sex naked:
R. Joseph learnt: Her flesh implies close bodily contact, viz, that he must not treat her in the manner of the Persians who perform their conjugal duties in their clothes. This provides support for [a ruling of] R. Huna who laid down that a husband who said, ‘I will not [perform conjugal duties] unless she wears her clothes and I mine’, must divorce her and give her also her kethubah.[Ketubot 48a]

Where that leaves us is a Torah passage which means a wife must be given food, clothing and sex or else she has grounds for divorce. I've written more about Onatah before, but there is another question that nags me: why these three? Is this the basic needs of a human being or of a woman? What about shelter, or of less hard things like learning and creativity? Sex is one thing, but what about love and emotional support? What else could be considered basic needs?

For the most obvious physical need, shelter, we do have an obvious answer. Her covering does not just apply to clothes, but also to shelter as well, a covering of a roof over her head. If following Maslow's hierarchy of needs, all others of a higher order are not required for the husband to provide. I have yet to find much about these higher needs of women in the tradition, and from what I have read our view of wives and slaves comes full circle: beyond basic needs wives have little needs -- relationship between men and women are not required.

Yet when we break those assumptions in our contemporary world and break the mould of who is in a partnership or marriage, we need to re-evaluate this. While I've thought about this a lot theoretically, it is only this year I am finally blessed to think of it from the view of living it. Form that view I believe two things. First is that as the role of husbands and wives have changed, it is no longer the mans responsibility to provide these things but the couple's. Both provide for the other. At any given time, there might be inequalities, like one working while the other goes to school, but in the end, it will all balance out. I've know many a couple, who have one spouse working to support the couple in order to allow their partner to achieve their dreams -- often with a possibility of switching off in some time in the future. Often I believe people percieve this idea of equality is too short term -- that both need to be equal in the instant observed, when it may be there are some long term investments to make that so, or even to switch off pursuing a higher dream.

That brings us to the second belief of mine. Onata does not mean merely physical sex needs, it is far grander than that.Onah is an affliction, one I have felt for so many years myself. Maybe I first noticed it fourteen years ago, how lonely and empty the single life is. Some of my friends reminded me of this recently with Valentines day coming. It is hard to be single. I' ve felt that affliction all too much myself. Yet in the last year I know what the absence of Onah is, having that gap filled. Onata is the need for all of the higher needs we have: validation, appreciation, emotional support. It is the shoulder to cry on after a bad day, it is the ear to listen to stores of the day's adventures. It is the mouth that kisses for no apparent reason, and tells how wonderful their partner is. It is the arms that hug, it is the eyes which cry together, and even once in a while the voices clearing the air in an argument. it is learning together and exploring together, it is found in gifts of plush animals and flowers. . It is being loved by your partner and loving back with all your heart and all your might. Love fulfills all the higher needs.

I give give sweetie flowers, chocolate and plush stuffed toys to say that I love her. I might give her a message every once in a while to say how I love her. Mishpatim is a set of rules, of mitzvot. Most make sense. Some are about the relationship between human beings, some about our relationship between man and God. Some seem to have no reason, like not mixing milk with meat. In our observance of each commandment, we are saying "I love you" to God, we are giving the spiritual equivalent of a rose or chocolate truffle. Like a gift to our sweetie, it needs to be done with the right attitude, not a cold "here!", but with joy and warmth and showing our love. I think the relationship between committed intimate partners and between God and Humanity is parallel. Both feel Onah, an affliction of being without the other. Only through loving each other can that emptiness in Onah be filled.

May we fill it with our partners, may we fill it with Hakadosh Baruch Hu.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Yitro 5770: Is Art Idolatry?

In this weeks portion Moses father in law teaches Moses delegation, then the people get prepared for the big event: the revelation at Sinai, starting with the Ten Commandments. One of the ten, mentioned in many more places afterwards is this:
4. You shall not make for you any engraved image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth;[Genesis 20]
This has brought up a question that has bothered people for generations afterwards. Is what an artist does a transgression?
As an artist, this is not a trivial question for me. As I usually paint figures of women, is this some form of idolatry I'm involved in? Figurative work adds a bit more weight to the problem, since Genesis states
27. So God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female He created them.[Genesis 1]
If God made man in the image of God, so any figurative work, any portrait is the image of God. This issue creates a ban concerning portraits found in the Talmud.
Why then has it been taught: All portraits are allowed, save the portrait of man? — R. Huna the son of R. Idi replied: From a discourse of Abaye I learnt: ‘Ye shall not make with me’ [implies], ye shall not make Me.6[RH 24b]
Key in this is another passage about making idols found immediately after the ten commandments, and also part of this week's portion:
20. You shall not make with me gods of silver, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold[Exodus 20]
The rabbis, noted an exception :
A man may not make a house in the form of the Temple, or an exedra in the form of the Temple hall, or a court corresponding to the Temple court, or a table corresponding to the [sacred] table or a candlestick corresponding to the [sacred] candlestick, but he may make one with five or six or eight lamps, but with seven he should not make, even of other metals.[RH 24a-b]
Therefore if something was not a direct replica, it may not be considered an idol. Possibly if there is some level of abstraction, then it is not a prohibited image. Pure geometry, as in Islamic design, would be permissible. Archaeological evidence might seem to contradict this. Abstraction seemed to be common in the Biblical Levant. Yet, by rabbinic times abstraction was not the only game in town. The Greco-roman aesthetic was less abstract and far more realistic.
The commandment seems to make an assumption, that all art is religious art. Yet the rabbis living in that Roman world saw things differently. All trees were not Ashera, and all figures were not idols. The most notable of these statement we have the following story from the Mishna:
Proclos, son of a philosopher, put a question to R. Gamaliel in Acco when the latter was bathing in the bath of Aphrodite. He said to him, it is written in your Torah, and there shall cleave nought of the devoted thing to thine hand; [Deut. XIII, 18] why are you bathing in the bath of Aphrodite?’ He replied to him, we may not answer [questions relating to Torah] in a bath.When he came out, he said to him, ‘I did not come into her domain, she has come into mine. Nobody says, the bath was made as an adornment for Aphrodite; but he says, Aphrodite was made as an adornment for the bath. Another reason is, if you were given a large sum of money, you would not enter the presence of a statue reverenced by you while you were nude or had experienced seminal emission, nor would you urinate before it. But this [statue of Aphrodite] stands by a sewer and all people urinate before it. [in the Torah] it is only stated, their gods — i. e., what is treated as a deity is prohibited, what is not treated as a deity is permitted.[Avodah Zarah 44b]

R. Gamaliel believes there is different intents for making a statue of even a goddess like Aphrodite. The primary purpose of the place was to bathe, not to worship. The Aphrodite images were in the margin as decoration. So much in the margin that the toilets were under the statue, hardly a sign of respect one would make of a goddess. As such disrespect is a constant, this could not be considered an idol.
In my modern mind, to connect art and idolatry one must first decide what is art, and that alone is difficult. But the verse above makes an assumption for the most part. Making something into an idol means you intend it to be an idol or a representation of an object. If an piece of art loses all symbolic value in its abstraction, say a Jackson Pollack painting for example, can it be an idol? Can a detailed piece with lots of symbol, like the ceiling in the Sistine chapel be an idol then?
When I paint, I get around the idolatry problem with a twist on the symbolic approach. I've yet to come up with a general solution, since anything might be turned into an idol. When I paint I am abstract enough that I cannot be considered real, yet even then it is not what I am painting that is important to me, but that I am painting and how I am painting. The process of art is far more important than the final product. In that time of close focus and deep attention, I am in a state akin to meditation, but not in worship of the object in front of me. Instead I am witnessing a creation of the Creator. When I look at a female model I do not see a goddess, but some great creation of God. One of the most poignant passages in Talmud say it best
For if a man Strikes many coins from one mould, they all resemble one another, but the supreme King of kings, The Holy One Blessed be He, Fashioned every man in the stamp of the first Man, and yet not one of them resembles his fellow. [Sanh 37b]

Since each man in therefore the image of God, I am looking in each model at a glimpse of part of God, and of God's greatness that every model I use is different, even though we are all the same. I am not making an idol, I am recording a miracle. To note the difference in a nose, and eyebrow or lips, shoulders chest and arms all says the same thing: while the original mold is the same, everything that comes out of it is so very different. Oscar Wilde once quipped "if you want to lose a friend, paint their portrait." Painting people means the artist will see everything, and record everything. Sometimes they might edit as they go along, sometimes not. Often such a process might show someone different than the model or subject expected, and may not even like. But an artist looks at people differently than a mere object. But each woman I paint, either from life or from photo reference is more than a mere picture, I see more of her than most who ever look at her will. Witnessing that and recording that is a testimony to God and what wonders there are in creation.
Such an answer may not be acceptable to everyone, but it works for me. Now if you excuse me, I'd like to paint.