That Would not go Away
An extract from The Feminine Face of God: Unfolding the Sacred in Women
Bantam Books New York 1991
Sherry Ruth Anderson and Patricia Hopkins
Shekhinah. Shekhinah. The word simply popped into my mind like an uninvited guest and wouldn't go away. At times it seemed to disappear, but then it would come again, quietly, this strange word Shekhinah. It seemed to be waiting patiently for me to pay attention to it. After hearing it in my mind for three days I tried saying it out loud. "Shekhinah." It had an interesting sound. And when I said it, I felt a soft tug somewhere deep inside. I began to ask my friends if they knew what it meant. It sounded as if it could be Hebrew, but although I knew some Hebrew, it was not familiar to me. When my husband and friends were unable to help, I tried the library in our small town but found no answer there either. Shekhinah. Shekhinah. It was becoming more insistent now, demanding my attention. Still puzzling over what it could mean, I was sitting in my bedroom one morning when my friend Joan hurried through the door. She strode across the room and thrust a book into my hands.
"Let's try this," she said. I glanced down at the blue cover on which the word Kabbalah was written, and tumed to the index. Running my finger quickly down the S column, I read, "Shekhinah: the feminine face of God." The words sent shock waves rippling down my spine and goose flesh bristling on my bare arms because I realized at once that the Shekhinah was not an uninvited guest at all. She had been announced to me with great ceremony in a powerful dream a full month earlier. In the dream, I happily soar high above the clouds on a great golden dragon until I wonder, "Is this all there is?" The dragon immediately descends to earth, alighting at the side of a jewellike temple on a large body of water. I want to enter the temple, but I'm afraid to go in alone. I tum back to the dragon, hoping it will come and protect me. But this temple is human-sized and the dragon will not fit through the door. I begin to climb the stairs to the entrance anyway, and now I see a ferocious temple guardian with bulging eyes looming menacingly in the doorway. Black dogs snarl on either side of him. With uncharacteristic bravery I continue walking, and as I stride through the door the guardian and his dogs evaporate as if made of fog. Once I'm inside the doorway, an old man with long robes and a white beard emerges from an inner hallway to greet me. Without actually speaking, he lets me know that his name is Melchizedek. He is wearing a handsome dagger with a handle of turquoise and jade, and as soon as I notice this he presents me with a:matching dagger, indicating that I am to wear it on my right side. Then he motions me ahead of him. It is clear that he expects me to lead the way.
I step into a long hallway with a high ceiling and red tiles on the floor. Walking slowly, we eventually come to a pair of polished wooden doors at the end of the corridor. I open them silently and lead the way into a large, empty room. A plain wooden stage is set against the far wall. At the back of the stage is a built-in cabinet. I approach the cabinet and pull open the doors.
I am dumbfounded by what I see. Rolled onto finely carved wooden poles is the most sacred object in Judaism, the Torah. I leamed as a child that the Torah contains the five books of Moses written on parchment by an Orthodox scribe, and that if even one letter has been written incorrectly, the Torah cannot be used. I have never actually seen a Torah close up or held one, since these privileges were permitted only to men when I was growing up. But now I lift this Torah carefully out of its cabinet and cradle it to me tenderly as if it were a baby.
Then I notice something unusual. Instead of a mantle of velvet covering the scrolls, or a simple ribbon holding them closed, the Torah has been sealed shut by a dark round blot of red wax. I look at Melchizedek. "This is a very special Torah," he says. Pulling out his dagger, he breaks the seal and rolls open the scrolls. They are absolutely blank. "The Torah is empty," he says, "because what you need to know now is not written in any book. You already contain that knowledge. It is to be unfolded from within you."
"What is this Torah for?" I ask.
My question seems to set in motion the next sequence of events. Without speaking Melchizedek lifts the Torah and lightly places it inside my body, from my shoulders to my knees. I accept this gratefully, feeling my body as a sacred vessel.
At once, a great commotion breaks out behind us. Spinning around, I see that the room is now filled with long-bearded patriarchs wearing black coats and trousers. They're holding hands, laughing, singing and dancing jubilantly around the room. They pull me into their celebration. As I dance I seem to see Moses, King David and King Solomon, and Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They, too, are dressed in black coats and trousers, dancing with such heartfelt abandonment that I catch their joy and am filled with it. Ecstatically we whirl round and round the room, laughing.
Finally the dancing stops and I ask, "What is this all about?" Melchizedek answers, "We are celebrating because you, a woman, have consented to accept full spiritual responsibility in your life. This is your initiation as one who will serve the planet."
As I wonder what this means, he continues, "And you are not the only one. Many, many women are coming forward now to lead the way. "
"But who will be our teachers?" I protest.
"You will be teachers for each other. You will come together in circles and speak your truth to each other. The time has come for women to accept their spiritual responsibility for our planet."
"Will you help us?" I ask the assembled patriarchs.
"We are your brothers," they answer, and with that the entire room is flooded with an energy of indescribable kindness. I am absolutely confident in this moment that they are our brothers. I feel their love without any question. They say then, "We have initiated you and we give you our wholehearted blessings. But we no longer know the way. Our ways do not work anymore. You women must find a new way."
Feminist Judaism RESTORATION
OF THE MOON Arthur I. Waskow 261-72.
from Heschel, Susannah (1983) On Being a Jewish Feminist, Schocken Books, NY.
THERE is a strand of Jewish tridition that has some curious things to say about the moon. Says the Propliet Isaiah (30:26), "The light of the moon shall become like the light of the sun." And the Babylonian Talmud expands on this unsettling notion:
[When God created the sun and moon, the two great lights], the moon said to the Holy One, "Sovereign of the Universe! Can two rulers wear one crown?" He answered, "Go then and make yourself smaller!" . . . R. Simeon ben Lakish declared, "Why is it that the he-goat offered on the New Moon [for a sin-offering] is distinctive in that there is written concerning it, 'unto the Lord'?" Because the Holy One said, "Let this he-goat be an atonement for Me [for My sin] in making the moon smaller." (Hullin 60a)
R. Akha said to R. Ashi: In the West, they pronounce the following blessing: "Blessed be the One Who renews the moons." Whereupon he retorted: "Such a blessing even our women folk pronounce." [Let there be added] . . . "The moon He ordered that she should renew herself as a crown of beauty for those whom He sustains from the womb, and who will someday, like her, be renewed and magnify their Maker in the same glory of His kingdom" (Sanhedrin 42a).
These texts express an ancient tradition that when Creation began, the moon was equal to the sun; that God reduced its brightness just as the Shekhinah-God's Presence in the world, a brooding, nurturing female aspect of God-went into mourning exile; and that the moon will again become equal to the sun when the Messianic redemption comes and the Shekinnah returns to Her full glory in the days of love and justice. Arlene Agus has suggested that we read this strand of the tradition as a veiled comment on the possibility of a profound change in the relationships of women and men in Jewish religious life-with the moon symbolizing women and the sun, men. The Talmud promises that the moon will be made bright again in Heaven when those who are like her on earth are restored to their rightful place: those whom God has sustained "from the womb" but whose splendor God has dimmed. Who are these? According to rabbinic and mystical tradition, these are the people of Israel -who almost disappear from history and then return in unexpected glory; disappear and return, over and over. We can accept this tradition that the redemption of Israel is one meaning of the passage, and believe as well that the passage should be read to include the female half of humankind who also, like Israel and the moon, have been p pushed to the shadowy side of history. For it would not be surprising for the moon to be a symbol of women. The "moonthly" and menstrual cycles have in many religious traditions been seen as echoes of each other. And the imagery of God as Midwife and Mother Who sustains "from the womb" would fit well with God's concern for those people whose womb moves and changes with the moon. What else in the tradition might suggest this outlook? The tradition teaches that for the sake of their refusal to give their jewelery to the making of the Golden Bull-calf at Sinai, the women of Israel were given by God an exemption from work on Rosh Hodesh the renewing of the moon at the beginning of the Jewish lunar month. This, it seems to me, can be understood as a kind of anthropological field observation with a religious dimension: that men, remembering the cults of Egypt, cast the male fertility idol of the Golden Bull-calf; that women refused to join in its worship; and that God confirmed their right and affirmed their desire to continue celebrating (not worshiping) the moon, which symbolized female spirituality because her ebb and flow seemed akin to the menstrual cycle.
The Jewish Patriarchs Isaac and Jacob, according to tradition, married into a family of strong women the family of Rivkah, Rahel, and Leah. It was, by the way, the family of Lavan a name for the pale-white moon, as in kiddush levana, the ceremony of hallowing the moon. These women had strong associations with a well and of Rivkah there is a traditional midrash that when she met Abraham's servant Eliezer at the well, the writer rose to meet lier.' When would water do this? When it is attracted by the moon. Is it possible that the household teraphim that Rahel took from Lavan's household when she left with Jacob were sacred moon-symbols, and it was no mere accident or trick that led her to conceal them from Lavan by explaining she was in the time of her menstrual flow? (Genesis 31:19, 31:30-35) Was it necessary for those women to become the mothers of Israel precisely because they carried a strong "feminist," moon-centered religious tradition, but were not moon worshipers?
The first four chapters of Exodus lay out a female-male rhythm of the first stage of the liberation of the Mitzrayim in which women are crucial. It is they who take the initiative and teach men the process of freedom, because they know the mysteries of birth. (The birth of a new person is the biological archetype of freedom in the historical-political arena. Every birth brings newness, uncontrollability, into the world.) Thus the midwives save the baby boys; Miriam and Pharoah's daughter Moses; Moses must flee to seven women and a well, marry Zipporah, and have a child before he can experience the Burning Bush; and Zipporah must complete the birth by teaching him to circumcise his son before he can reenter Egypt to become the liberator. Zipporah was not Jewish. Was she a celebrator of the moon? (Note her association, like that of Rivkah and Rahel, with a well.)
The Book of Ruth goes out of its way to assert that Lot's nameless daughter, Tamar, and Ruth all women who invoked something like the levirate law, the right of a childless widow to marry a close kinsman of her dead husband, in order to transcend the normal law-code and claim their husbands-were crucial elements in the genealogy of King David (and therefore the Messiah). All these women were also non-Jewish. Were they celebrators of the moon?
The Song of Songs, which Akiba called "the holy of holies" among the Holy Writings, affirms and celebrates not only an assertive woman, but a mode of spirituality that flows from the life-experience of women.
Thus at a number of moments of great mythic power crucial points in the earliest stages of Jewish peoplehood and in the progenitoring of David women and symbols of women (such as the moon and wells) were absolutely crucial. To read the tradition this way would mean that these texts preserve both a dim memory of the past and a shadowy prophecy of the future: A dim memory of a time in the early history of the people of Israel perhaps even before it viewed itself as Israel when women and the symbols of their spiritual experience (e.g., the moon) were equal to men and their symbols, in the religious life of the people; and a prophecy that someday, in Jewish practice, not only women but also the symbols of women's spiritual experience will be restored to equality with men and their symbols.
When that "someday" comes, women will not simply take a numerically equal place in the traditional forms of Jewish religious practice; the forms of practice will themselves be transformed as women's spiritual experience is discovered, uncovered. I think "someday" is now, if we will make it so. I am suggesting that in the fragments of mystical thought quoted above and in some other fragments of the Tradition are hints toward a feminist transformation of Torah expected and invited by Torah herself, as part of the unfolding of the oral tradition.
What would it mean for God and the Jewish people now to restore the former brightness of women and their spiritual experience?
It would mean that women and men come to understand the Jewish feminist movement as a process in which there must be several levels of change. One necessary level is the demand that women must count in the minyan, be called for aliyot to read the Torah, become rabbis and that men must rear children, care for households, feed the hungry. In short, the demand that all the mitzvot, all the commandments, apply fully to all adult Jews.
It is true this demand has not yet been accepted even in theory in some areas of Jewish life. It has not yet been carried out in practice even in most of the areas where it is accepted in theory. So Jewish feminists must continue to press this demand. Yet there are other levels of change that Jewish feminists need to pursue as well the changes involved in the brightening of "the moon" that is, the forms by which women can more richly express their spiritual experience.
These deeper levels of change are necessary because the Jewish people women and men need more than the inclusion of women in the same kind of Jewish life the rabbis knew. We need the renewal of Jewish life its becoming as fresh, creative, and new in its response to Torah after the earthquakes of the last generation as it was after Sinal, in the wilderness; as it was after the First Destruction, when it gave us "the Prophets"; as it was after the Second Destruction, when it gave us the Talmud. And in our generation we need this renewal to include the lessons of the life-experience of women. Some aspects of the special life-experience of women may be biologically rooted. Most are culturally rooted. This matters, but it does not matter as much as our being open to the lessons women might teach whether these lessons are rooted in biology or culture. It is true that some men experience in some degree the elements of a life that we often think of as especially part of women's experience. That is, men experience the moon, water, life cycles, feeding, giving birth, rearing children, caring for households, nurturing families and communities, even nekevah [feminine] sexuality open, pierced, and receptive. But all these are, for biological and cultural reasons, more fully experienced by more women.
Now we need to reclaim and renew this "women's element" in Judaism.
Some feminists have been concerned that focusing on the womanliness" of the aspects of life may encourage old stereotypes of women's roles, and thereby assist in the resubjugation of women into these roles. My own view is that women can draw on these elements of their own past special experience without fear, if two conditions are met: if women and men are clear that both men and women can draw on the whole spectrum of life-experience, even if perhaips to different degrees; and most important if women hold enough power in our culture to control the use of these symbols and roles enough power to make sure that they are used in the service of a broader "feminization/ humanization" rather than resubjugation. That is why the demand for equality for women in Jewish institutions cannot be separated from the demand for a feminist transformation of those institutions.
Why do we need to pursue these intertwined issues at this moment of Jewish history? We need to do this for the sake of those women who have been excluded and whose life-experience has been ignored and for the sake of justice toward them. We also need to do this for the sake of giving health to a Judaism that is now suffering from the exclusion of niuch else in life. In this sense we may see the restoration of the moon more broadly still -meaning the messianic liberation and redemption, not only of women and of the Jewish people, not only of the poor, the weak, of all who have been excluded, diminished, demeaned, but also the liberation, the reemergence of all that is valuible within each human being, but that has been repressed.
For Isaiah and the Talmud to see even the moon as a diminished equal who will return in splendor to her place, as the weeping Shekhinah will return to hers, can be seen as a metaphor for all tikktin: all repair of the world.
In this way there would emerge as part of the Jewish feminist process what might be called a "feminist Judaism" a Judaism informed and transformed throughout its fabric by the feminist consciousness. Such a feminist Judaism would mean not only the restoration of women to their almost forgotten equal place in life, but also the "return of the repressed" in other spheres for example, the reawakening of the repressed sense of sexuality that is celebrated in the Song of Songs, and that was pushed underground by tradition even when it elevated the Song of Songs. For example, the reawakening of music and dance, the celebration of our bones and muscles that was repressed when the Temple was destroyed. For example, the celebration of the earth through the cycles of shmitah and Jubilee (a kind of body-cycle writ large, a kind of menstrual cycle of the Shekhinah, expressed in the land and the society). For example: hie celebrition of equality tilat is expressed in a circle dance (where everyone must sooner or later stand in the footsteps of everyone else) and the circle of recycling the wealth from the rich to every newly equal family. For example, the repressed sense of God not as a separate Other, "out there," but "in here," in process.
What specific actions could we undertake in order to effect a feminist transformation of Judaism? First, we can strengthen moonand water-symbolism in our liturgies. This has already begun as women and men have developed various kinds of liturgies for Rosh Hodesh, the Renewing of the Moon. As these spread, and especially as groups of women develop more and more expressive ceremonials, they need to be shared with and taught to the Jewish people as a whole. So do rituals of water, old and new wells, rivers, seas, mikvah, taslilikh, the bitter water/sweet water ceremony of reconciliation developed for Slichot by the Menorah journal, perhaps a reworking of the water-pouring that was celebrated at the Temple for Sukkot. Second, we can encourage circles in planning space. The fluid and circular seating arrangements of the havtirot seem to owe something to the (unconscious?) influence of women who fully participated in forming havurah practice. For the biology of women's inner life-space, as contrasted with men's outward lifeprojection, seems to be congruent with the circular seating where God feels present in the center, not far out along one dimension. These havlirah circles have taught us that when we look for God, what we see is not tlie Ark or the rabbi but one another's faces. And the circles have encouraged a sense of equality, participation, and community that may also stem partly from the life-experience and needs of women. What would happen if all Jewish meetings, for prayer and for discussion, were held in circles small enough for us to tlik witti each other, instead of in rows where we see only the back of each other's heads, plus the face of one Grand Master? If we talked in circles, we could stop going in circles. If we do not live out the circle, the circle lives us: Zero. Third, we can look for circles and spirals in time. We need to strengthen our sense of the cycles in our bodies and in society.
For example, we need to see the holy days as not simply individual events but parts of the spiritual cycles of the month and year. The social-political cycles of Shabbos, the shmitah, and Jubilee need to be renewed, accentuated, made much more real. These cycles alternate hard work toward economic development, with contemplative rest; the swift piling-up of wealth and power, with an equal sharing of all wealth and power; doing, with being. Fourth, we can celebrate, honor, and materially support tile life-moments of sexuality, sexual intercourse, menstruation, giving birth, nursing, parenting, and grandparenting, much more richly and thoroughly than we do now. For example, in an era when the overwhelming proportion of Jewish women ignore niddah and abhor the mikvah as a demeaning of menstruation, what if there were one or two days of sexual separation around menstruation, precisely to celebrate it without treating it as a time of "impurity"? For example, what if there were ceremonies around first menstruation and menopause? Around beginning to nurse and weaning? Could such ceremonies include men, even at some remove, as brit milah did women? Could we create ceremonies to mark the shift that occurs when children leave home-away from parenting toward the provision of wisdom to a wider world? Ceremonies to honor the link with an older culture that is represented by those who are grandparents either through their own bodies or in a cultural, generational sense? And whlt if we honored all these processes in the "workaday" world by making time (and money) available for child care, for menstruating, grandparenting, and so forth? How would our bureaucracies and our volunteer organizations change? Fifth, as we have suggested in the previous chapter, we can enrich the Jewish sense that the spirit is the body, that the spiritual and the physical fuse, by encouraging dance, mime, body movement, breathing, the arts and artisanship, and theatrical "acting" as part of prayer, Torah study, and midrashic storytelling. Already this process is being renewed by many women and some men. Sixth, we can develop that element of Jewish theology, already present in Kabbalah and Hassidus, that focuses on God within us and the world, the "still small voice," the Sheklnnah.
These six will be enough to begin with. For on the seventh day Queen Shabbos, the Bride, will teach us how to continue.
To this point what I have said is midrashic It uses an ancient process to draw on the ancient texts, in order to make new solutions grow for our new life-problems. By coming to the old texts with new questions, we newly discoverdis-cover -meaning that was always there within them, waiting till we needed it. This is the authentically and perhaps uniquely Jewish process, which the modern" Jews of every generation from the wilderness of Sinal to the Lehrhaus in Frankfurt have used to create new meaning for their lives. But why should modern feminists desire to use this method? Why should women who seek an equal share of power in all the institutions that control their lives not simply shrug off the sexist institutions of conventional Judaism and refuse to let these institutions any longer control their lives? Why should women and men who share a feminist vision of a transformed society bother to transform the one minor subculture in which, it has been argued, the vision and practice of patriarchy may have been born, and may have been most forcefully transmitted across the millennia from civilization to civilization? Why take the trouble? The reasons are partly personal, partly public or political. The personal reasons are tliit for some Jewish families, specific strands of Jewish memory, ceremonial, community, and practice still have a powerful appeal. Whether it is identification with the oldest, longest-lived resistance movement against oppression that is known to human history; or the sense of fulfillment that arises from participation in such a ceremony as the Passover seder, or a strong rush of feeling about one's foggy mental picture of pioneer kibbutzniks in the Land of Israel for some Jewish feminists (although by no means for all) this appeal is there. If the tug is real, and if "the personal is political," as feniinists liave reiiiinde(i lis, then the turf of Judaisin must be struggled for. In itself, this tug might or might not be enough to "go with," might or might not be enough to spark a growing fire of interest in Jewish renewal. But these personal responses are not casual or accidental they do not in fact simply exist "in themselves." The personal response is a symptom, a sign, of the powerful truths within Jewish tradition. It is because there is powerful truth in the tradition's resistance to power, in the multilevel poetry of its ritual, in its sardonic view of the transitory idols of convention, in its commitment to the creation of counterinstitutions reaching toward equality and community -that feminists feel pulled toward the kibbutz, the seder. The truths of the tradition have retained their power to work toward justice, community, holiness in the world, even when women and their deepest truths were kept on its margins. But all this is not enough. There is good reason for feminists, both men and women, to struggle for a major forward step in the tradition. Some of the truths-toward-change that already are fermenting in the tradition not only accord with feminist perceptions of the world, but might even-at the very moment when patriarchal power was defeating the ancient matriarchies-have been smuggled into Torah through the insights of certain ancient matriarchs, the moon-celebrators of whom we have spoken. Many of these insights have been smuggled into, around, and underneath the patriarchal surface of the Torah. And some of these are insights that modern secularists, even feminists, need to hear about-insights that secular liberal, socialist, and feminist thought may not supply. To soine extent, it is tlie struggle of mo(teril felilillists to rlise some profound questions that has brought to the level of audibility some yet-unheard proto-feminist concerns that lay beneath the surface of Torah. It is as if the voice of modern feminism woke a Sleeping Beauty in the Torah, a wisdom that recognized her daughter's voice. What are these truths of Torah that our world-on-the-brinkof-dissolution needs to hear? Here we will sketch two of them, which we will explore in detail afterward. First: the necessity of rhythm, of making Shabbos, of pausing to take a breath, to rest, to meditate, to contemplate. Especially the necessity of pausing from incessant, explosive economic development-not to end development, but to pause long enough to sense again its limitations, its purpose, its Owner. In the last decade or so we have come to see that 300 years of life without a Shabbos has brought us to the edge of killing the human race and poisoning the biosphere. The world is teaching us that if we will not stop ourselves in accord with Torah, by making Shabbos, we will stop ourselves by catastrophic force. The sense of biological and social rhythms-the week, month, year, Jubilee may very well have come into our tradition out of some matriarch's close sensing of her body and of Mother Earth. We need to hear that Teaching.
Second: the necessity to act consciously in order to keep ourselves from murdering the next generation. Over and over, from the Binding of Isaac to the bris of circumcision, to the biblical horror at the offering up of children through fire to Moloch to the rigorous restrictions in Deuteronomy against the old sending the young to kill and die for their wars over and over, the Torah teaches that there is a serious danger: that the older generation will want to kill the younger; that especially fathers will want to kill their sons; and, most important, that we must create law-codes, rituals, and stories that train ourselves to struggle against this danger. Elijah will come, says the last passage of the last Prophet, before the great and terrible day of the Lord-to turn the hearts of the fathers to the sons and the hearts of the sons to the fathers. This too is a feminist teaching. One commentator on the Torah, David Bakan, has even said that the Torah comes precisely to "motherize" men to teach men to love ind care for the community, as mothers have to act if their children are to live. And in our time, when the human race stands poised on the brink of destroying not a son here or there or even one whole people, but the entire next generation this teaching stands between us and the danger. But it is now also clear that the Teaching as we have so far understood it is not yet strong enough to keep us safe from the over-arching dangers of destruction. If Torah once bore within herself a secret feminist guerrilla victory smuggled into an obvious public patriarchal triumph, then the victory has oozed away. The feminism must be made explicit and public. Torah must be transformed and the feminist element in it strengthened. The modern feminist "daughter" must revitalize the sleeping feminist "mother."
If we do this for the sake of human survival, we will also be aiding in the struggle for Jewish survival. For the Jewishness of the Jewish people will last only so long as most Jews find in Jewishness some sustenance for their lives. Not just sustenance for their "Jewish lives" seen as only holidays and life-cycle turning points, but for their whole lives, "all the days of their lives." So I am arguing that a feminist transformation of Judaism is now necessary for the sake of Jewish women who have been marginalized in Jewish life; for the sake of Jewish men who have had to repress those aspects of their selves that the tradition viewed as female; for the sake of the human race, which needs a renewal of Torah in order to solve the problems that it must solve to save its life; and for the sake of the Jewish people. For "the Jewish people" is neither an abstract entity nor the mere census-count of all the Jewish men and women on the Earth. The "Jewish people" is made up of countless everyday acts of making a consciously Jewish life-the ongoing process of Jewish focusing by those flesh-and-blood Jewish men and women who will live or die according to how effectively they can draw on Jewish sources in order to live.
Encountering the Shechinah,
The Jewish Goddess RABBI LEAH NOVICK 204-14.
from Nicholson, Shirley ed. 1983 The Goddess Re-Awakening
She so pervades this lower world... that if you search in deed, thought and speculation, you will find Shechinah, for there is no beginning or end to her. Rabbi Joseph 13th-cent mystic
Traditional Jewish scholars have always insisted that the Shechinah is not a separate presence from the one God whom Jews worship. At the same time, they have given us a Shechinah literature replete with images, descriptions, and qualities of the most detailed and often anthropomorphic nature. This body of commentary, poetry, and prayer provides, in my view, a filtered but consistent memory of "God the Mother," and is the basis for the "Jewish Goddess." I say "Jewish Goddess" pointedly to distinguish her from the "Hebrew Goddess" that Professor Raphael Patai has documented so well namely the Canaanite Mother Goddess Asherah. The Bible itself tells us that the ancient Hebrews honored her until about 800 B.C.E. when King Josiah removed the Asherah from the Jerusalem temple and destroyed the outlying shrines. While her worship had been denounced repeatedly by the Prophets, they themselves chronicled consistent Jewish homage to Asherah or Astarte, Queen of Heaven. While the development of the Shechinah may indeed be an outgrowth of earlier Nhddle Eastem Goddess worship, that is not the subject of this paper. The Shechinah is a distinctly Jewish conception and contains theosophical elements which evolved after the destruction of the great temples in Jerusalem. So long as the Jews lived an agrarian Iffe, there was less need to define the Shechinah as the source of all things in nature. The process of spelling out her attributes-like the development of the synagogue and the prayerbook-came with the exile of the Jews from their own land. The Shechinah is defined, in traditional Jewish writings, as the "female aspect of God" or the "presence" of the infinite God in the world. She is introduced in the early rabbinical commentaries as the "immanence" or "indwelling" of the living God, whose role as the animating life force of the earth is to balance the transcendent deity. While she does not appear by name in the five books of Moses, the explicators of the Old Testament refer to her in interpreting the text. For example, when Moses encounters the burning bush, he is told to remove his shoes and prepare himself to receive the Shechinah. According to the rabbis, the choice of the simple thorn bush as the vehicle for the revelation was to emphasize the Shechinah's presence, since nothing in nature can exist without her. In Proverbs, we are introduced to the Divine Mother as Chochmah (Wisdom), who was present from the time of creation as the loving consort and coarchitect with the YHVH. In this Solomonic portrayal, she delights in humanity and provides us with her wise direction towards the path of truth and justice. (In this form, she is related to the Sophia of the Gnostics, who were influenced by Jewish thinking, and also included Hellenized Jews in their numbers.) This association with humanity was emphasized by the Talmudists who saw her as suffering when human beings erred: "Acts of bloodshed, incest, perversion of justice and falsification of measures cause her to depart." They tell us: "Whoever is humble will ultimately cause the Shechinah to dwell upon earth. Whoever is haughty brings about the defilement of the Earth and the departure of the Shechinah." In the Talmudic view, actions harmful to other human beings or the earth cause the Shechinah to flee, and she rises upward to the Seven Heavens.' On the other side of the scale are the positive actions of humanity which attract her presence downward to the earth. Specifically, in Jewish tradition, we are told that the goodness of our patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, merited her presence, although even they "lost" her at times when their behavior was amiss. (Of course I am sure she spoke to the matriarchs as well; unfortunately they didn't publish.) The other way that the Shechinah is drawn downward is when people are in need of her as a comforting presence. The rabbis tell us she hovers at the bed of all sick individuals and is seen by the dying as they exit the world into the great light. According to tradition, the Shechinah comes to the good and true at death, giving them the opportunity to go straight up the center of the heavenly ladder in a moment of pure consciousness, into the merger with the Divine. The Shechinah is intimately connected with expressions of human love, particularly romantic and marital bliss. It is she who blesses the happy couple; the glow of lovers is considered to be the reflection of her presence. The rabbis say: "When man and wife are worthy, the Shechinah abides in their midst. If they are unworthy, fire consumes them." Here they allude to her role as destroyer; sometimes she is presented as the punisher of mankind. While reference is made to the bank of fire that accompanies her, along with two angels, the concept is not stressed as much as her other qualities . Early Jewish mystics emphasized the splendor of the Shechinah, often envisioning her as God's glory. In their conception, she is the jewel or precious stone represented by the Torah, as the crowned bride of God. She is the luminous presence of the Divine, the great light who shines on all creatures. Similar concepts are expressed in later Jewish writings, reflecting the continuity of the received oral teachings back to the early centuries of the common era. This received knowledge or "Kabbalah" was ffifther developed by the twelfth and thirteenth-century German "Pietists" (also called Hasidists) and reached its zenith with the later Spanish and Safed Kabbalists. It was the latter group, living in a spiritual enclave in Northern Israel in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, who articulated the qualities of the divine female in considerable detail. Within the Kabbahstic system of "sephiroth" or emanations of divine energy (known to the readers as the "tree of Iffe" or "cosmic tree"), the ten sephiroth are equally balanced with one side of the tree representing female qualities and the other male qualities. Within this system or map of consciousness, Shechinah is most often identffied with Malchuth (which translates as "sovereignty") at the base of the cosmic tree, which to me represents the energy of the earth. In the poetry of Rabbi Isaac Luri (the Ari), leader of the Safed Kabbalistic school, there are many phrases that describe Shechinah. The Ari's liturgical poems refer to her as the "Matronit...... holy ancient one, the old of davs, the holy old one without eyes," and the "holy apple orchard" (the latter consistent with the teaching that to experience the Shechinah one needs oniv to enter an apple orchard in bloom). While the outdoor rituals and breathing practices used to induce visions of the Shechinah declined with the sacred community of Safed, the images of Shechinah as Shabbos Queen were passed on in the prayers for receiving the Sabbath, which are still used each week by Jews around the world. Because the Kabbahsts were devoted to the reunification of the dyadic Godhead, all of their prayers began with blessings that invited both the YHVH and the Shechinah. This form, too, has been preserved and continues to be used. The scholars of the Spanish and Safed schools also understood that the Shechinah could "appear" to inspired individuals (or "Prophets"), and that the form adopted would be a reflection of the divine purpose. For example, Rabbi Joseph Caro a great seventeenth-century scholar and mystic known for his compilation of the Shuichan Aruch (code of Jewish laws) "channeled" the voice of the Shechinah, especially on Friday nights. His guide sometimes announced, "The Shechinah speaks to you," or, "I am the Mother Who Chastises." Yet another contribution of the Safed school was its emphasis on spiritualized sexuality as a part of sacred practice (of course, within Jewish marital guidelines and family purity laws). Unfortunately, we lack descriptions of home life at that time and have little knowledge of women's views within that community, since there is no women's literature per se, or none that has been preserved. Despite the fact that this was an all-male esoteric movement, the writings acknowledge female orgasm and recognize the persona of wife and mother as earthly representatives of Shechinah. This view of Shechinah resting on or being reflected in the human female form would be further developed in Eastern European Hasidism. The Baal Shem master-teacher of the seventeenth-century movement believed that the prayers of women ascended directly to God. He also acknowledged women's capacity for prophecy, and he attracted many female followers. In the early years when the movement was still quite radical, the openness to women's spiritual charisma resulted in the emergence of women " rebbes, " mostly daughters and wives of the great masters. Charisma is one of the blessings of Shechinah, according to the Talmud. Taking the teachings of Kabbalah and adapting them to community life in a more egalitarian wav, Hasiduth restored the belief in each individual's ability to access the Shechinah and bring her back to earth through personal actions. The key elements in the practice were meditation and prayer with Kavannah (deep faith and intentionality), devekuth (clinging to God) accompanied by a sharing lifestyle, in which justice, mercy, and charity prevailed. Added to this mixture was the inspired persona of the Tsaddik (saint) who provided the inspiration for devotees, facilitating and affirming personal experiences of the divine.8 Hasidic teachers saw the Shechinah as Goddess in exile and associated her with the redemption of the Jews. 9 Some of the early masters-like Dov Baer, the Maggid of Mezerich-emulated her wandering by serving as itinerant preachers who taught in the villages and rural areas. The great maggid, like the Kabbalists he studied, was a philosopher of elegance and depth who emphasized the importance of meditation. Meditation practice using the traditional Hebrew prayers in a mantra-like manner was central to the teachings of the great rebbes, as it had been to the mystical predecessors. Dov Baer, the master who followed the Baal Shem, taught the need for dearing the mind and forgetting the self in prayer in order to pray for the return of the divine presence to the earth. Connecting the Shechinah to the ensoulment of the individual, he urged: "Think of your soul as part of the Divine Presence, as the raindrop in the sea." As the reader can discem even from this brief and limited review of traditional teachings, there are rich sources of inspired thinking about the Jewish Goddess. While the unconscious awareness of the twentieth-century seeker mav be rooted in this sacred tradition, few of us have been given the benefit of a Jewish education in which the Shechinah is even mentioned. While the knowledge is rooted in the old prayer forms, Talmudic commentary, and Hebrew poetic language, the contemporary Shechinah work is coming mostlv (although not exclusively) from Jewish women. Some of the articulators are individuals who have studied Hebrew sacred texts however women who have studied mysticism tend to do so on their own or in secondary sources. A few are rabbis, scholars, and cantors who acquired traditional knowledge and skills. The majority are musicians, dancers, storytellers, and actresses, therapists and healers, who developed their insights first and then found themselves drawn towards acquiring information to match their awareness of the energy called " Shechinah, " which they express through their work. For most of the Shechinah celebrants, experience preceded study, or was interlaced with it. In this respect, we/thev depart from the traditional Jewish formula (and the male model) which says that one must study the basic texts first and go to the mystical interpretations after there is a firm grounding in the biblical exegesis. For women who must overcome the misogynistic text in order to get to the poetic metaphor, interpretation must come earlv in the study process. This is why Jewish women are writing new Midrash, expositions of the significance of biblical texts, to restore the Torah to both sexes as a meaningful source of sacred knowledge. Contemporary Jewish feminists have had to confront sexism in religious Iffe and language including the exclusion of women from the sacred professions. As a result of our activism, some important doors have opened in the last decade. Increasingly, we are now working on bringing forth our own images of the Divine and turning to the creation of new forms to nourish those who are ready for change. In this process, the Shechinah that is emerging especially in North Americ ais a varied Goddess, indeed a Goddess with a thousand faces. For what is apparent in the workshops and conferences on Jewish feminism and in the New Moon groups (which are springing up spontaneously in many places) is that Jewish women carrv the imprint and the images of the Goddess within them; th the traditional Shechinah and the earlier Canaanite and Middle Eastern forms. Because this generation is serving as the midwife for the rebirth of the Shechinah, we will have to be familiar with the ancient knowledge and traditional prayers which invoke her, at the same time that we are creating new forms. In this ancient/future subculture we will need poets and prophets, rebels and rabbis, musicians and mothers. What is clear is that we have the beginnings of a movement without a hierarchy, a central leader, or a single organization. This Goddess who shines on us as we study sacred texts is found in redwood groves and apple orchards. She is coming to us in the wind and the water, in the ocean and the mountains. Like the underground Goddess herself, this movement comes from the subterranean parts of the human psyche. It emerges from a place of discovery and awe, from a place of wonder and worship.
Lest this sound too simplistic, let me remind the reader that receiving the "inner voice" usually comes after periods of silent meditation which go along with disciplined spiritual practice. When the illumination does arrive, not all of us are ready to receive it, and for many there are years of confusion and ambivalence over what spiritual path to take. The recognition of the Goddess for Jewish women brings us face-to-face with the traditional taboo on worshipping other gods, " on creating images of God, and the centuries-old question of whether the Shechinah is indeed a separate entity from the genderless infinite God. In workshops on Shechinah that I have conducted during the last few years, I find that men and women, Jews and non-Jews, carry concepts, feelings, and images of the Shechinah within them. Again, in most people experience precedes naming the energy or having a knowledge of her characteristics as presented or expressed in the Jewish sacred literature. Interestingly enough, when we share these experiences, we find that individuals "know" or uncover most of the traditional characteristics of Shechinah on their own. The most common experiences are of light and radiance, which is consistent with the writings of many Jewish scholars who described her as a great light which shines upon all God's creatures. Many writers considered her the light of creation itself or the place of the primordial light. Some people's experience of Shechinah involves hearing a voice or feeling a great warmth. For myself she is most present on Friday nights after I light the Shabbat candles; that is when I hear her speaking to me. At other times I feel she is present when I begin composing songs with words that address issues or people I care about. During these times, usually in the forest or at the ocean, a great sense of joy overcomes me, and all ordinary problems fade alongside the bliss I feel. On other occasions I have experienced myself falling into a great soft whiteness that is her embrace, as if all the down feathers in the world were in a single pile waiting for me to fall into them. My favorite linage came on a Fridav night when I saw her "dressed" in stars and the planets. Her size was beyond imagination, and her celestial "diadem" was made up of the heavens. I was overwhelmed. While there is clearly a rebirth of Shechinah consciousness, concepts of a Jewish Goddess have not yet influenced mainstream Judaism or even the larger New Age movement which tends to regard Jewish feminism as a paradox. Serious scholars, including non-Jews, have tended to regard the Shechinah as an abstraction, or a wav of writing about the attributes of God rather than an energetic form to be experienced. At this point, it is too early to know how this contemporary Shechinah -consciousness will be absorbed into Judaism and into the growing Goddess movement. What is hopeful is that more scholars are studying and researching the old material to find these connections, and increasing numbers of Jewish women and men are finding the face of God in the Shechinah. I believe that her form resonates for more of us now because there is a literature and poetry about her that are part of our usable past, which our female ancestors also used in calling on her. While she needs to be reinvented or remembered, at least our reconstruction of Shechinah fits with the sacred tradition and the inner music of our people. Their basic philosophy that her presence is needed in order to bring wholeness back to the planet still provides a living philosophy for our own times.
Extract of Bride, Spouse, Daughter
Arthur Green 255-7
from Heschel, Susannah (1983) On Being a Jewish Feminist, Schocken Books, NY.
A new myth of Judaism emerged in,the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, hiding behind the word kabbalah, which means tradition itself. Here is presented a Judaism of mythic complexity that had been previously unknown, one in which the single, static, nic monotheism is and essentially masculine God of biblical-rabbi replaced by a dynamic, multifaceted, ever-flowing, separating and uniting, new kind of ten-in-one monotheistic deity. In that paradigm of the inner life of God, described through so many rich and varied images in the kabbalistic literature, the Shekhinah took a major role.
Using an ancient term for the indwelling or presence of God, the Kabbalists employed Shekhinah to symbolize a particular realm within the divine world. Described as daughter, bride, mother, moon, sea, faith, wisdom, speech, and a myriad of other figures, usually but not always feminine by fact or association, the Shekhinah is the chief object of both the divine and human search for wholeness and perfection. She is the bride of God within God, mother of the world and feminine side of the divine self, in no way fully separable from the male self of God. Indeed, the root of all evil, both cosmic and human, is the attempt to bring about such a separation. The picture of that feminine aspect of divinity is a complicated one. As the tenth of the sefirot, or manifestations of divine selfhood, she is, when facing those above, passive and receptive. She takes all the upper powers into herself; "All the rivers flow into the sea," as the Kabbalists love to quote from the Book of Ecclesiastes (1:7). But as the sea transforms all the rivers, gives them new life as a dynamic power all her own, and reaches her destined shores as a new being, so is the Shekhinah, when facing the lower worlds, described as giver, provider, ruler, and judge. In a way that cannot be fully understood, she is represented ts the mystical embodiment of the Community of Israel: the Kabbalist has transferred the locus of mystical marriage from the relationship of God and the earthly Israel to an entirely divine plane. Rather than seeing himself and his people as the bride of God, he now joins with God above in rejoicing at a sacred marriage that has taken place, as it were, within God. Perhaps most interestingly, Shekhinah is the only aspect of divinity that most Kabbalists ever claim really to experience. The Shekhinah, the outermost gate to the divine mysteries, is all the Kabbalist dares to say that he has attained. It is through the union of Shekhinah with God above that the Kabbalist, too, is bound to those higher forces. He serves as "attendant of the bride," knowing secretly at the same time that his soul is born of this union that he has helped to bring about. We read now of the Shekliinali froin the earliest text we liave in all of Kabbalistic literature, the Sefer HaBahir, that appeared in southern France in the latter decades of the twelfth century. The Bahir is written in an intentionally mystifying and yet defiantly simple tone, one that does much to set the stage for the later symbolic development within Kabbalah. Here the Bahir is commenting on the biblical verse "Blessed be the Glory of God from His place" (Ezek. 3:12). Glory, in Hebrew kavod, is the Biblical term which the Kabbalists (following the Targum) usually took as a code word for the Shekhinah.
This may be compared to a king who had a matron in his chamber. All his hosts took pleasure in her. She had children, and those children came each day to see the king and greet him. They would say to him, "Where is our mother?" And he would answer, "You cannot see her now." To this they would reply, "Blessed be she, in whatever place she is."
Immediately the Bahir adds a second parable:
This may be compared to a princess who came from a faraway place. Nobody knew where she came from. Then they saw that she was an upstanding woman, good and proper in all her deeds. They said of her, "This one surely is taken from the place of light, for by her deeds the world is enlightened." They asked her, " Where are you from?" She said, "From my place." They said, "In that case, great are the People of your place. Blessed are you; blessed is she and blessed is her place."
The Shekhinah, the mysterious woman, queen or princess, hidden or coming from a place beyond, is the only one we see, the only one we greet. What is her place, what is her origin? These are hidden somewhere in the mysteries of God beyond. All we can say of the God we know, of that feminine God we encounter is "Blessed is she and blessed is her place." The glory of God is apparent to us, the glory of God lies within the realm of human experience. The Shekhinah is the God we know. Surely, that Shekhinah stands in relation to a transcendent deity, whether described in male terms or in terms of more pure abstraction, but our knowledge of that is only through her. Blessed is she and blessed is her place. While the Shekhinah plays a central role in all of Kabbalistic literature, it is especially in the Zohar that its feminine character is highlighted. The author of the Zohar was possessed of a seemingly boundless mythic imagination, a great deal of it centering on female figures, both sacred and demonic, as well as on deeply ambivalent fantasies concerning human women in this world." In what is surely one of its most strikingly impassioned passages, the Zohar speaks of the love of God through the symbol of the kisses that Jacob gives to Rachel. From the passage it becomes clear that the experience of the mystic is that of being aroused, drawn into, and kissed by God. As the passage develops, Rachel, the recipient of the kisses, is really related to an entirely hidden and abstract God beyond, a God so abstract and hidden, however, that He cannot be described as one who kisses. How, indeed, can one be loved by a God who is hidden beyond all being? Jacob is the personified manifestation of this hidden God, personified only, as it were, in order that the great mystery be enabled to kiss the bride. The passage reads as follows:
When it (the spirit of love) enters the palace of love, the love of supernal kisses is aroused, those of which Scripture says: "Jacob kissed Rachel" (Gen. 29:11). This arousal brings about the kisses of supernal love, as needs to be. These kisses are the beginning of all love, attachment, and binding above. That is why the Canticle opens its praises with: "Let Him kiss me." Who is to "kiss me"? The one hidden in sublime hiding. but should you ask: "Do kisses apply to the most hidden One? Does that one kiss below?"come and see: that most hidden of hiddens, no one knows it. It reveals of itself but a slim ray of hidden light, revealed only through a narrow path that proceeds from it. But this is the light that gives light to all. This is the arousal of all the sublime secrets, yet it remains hidden. Sometimes hidden, sometimes revealed. But even when it is not revealed at all, it remains the source of arousal for those ascending kisses. And since it is hidden, the Canticle begins its praises in a hidden (i.e., third-person) way.'