A Jewish mystical-mythic musing for Mother's Day.
A divine mother in Judaism? Given how devoted so many Jews are to their moms, this doesn't seem so far fetched. In recent years, archeology in the Land of Israel has clearly established that, at least for some Israelites, YHVH was the male aspect of a divine syzergy that included a female consort.[Illustration by Ephraim Moses Lilien]
We have several Iron Age inscriptions (graffiti, really), such as the ones found at Khirbet el Qom and Kuntillet Arjud, which bear words like "Yahweh of Teman...his asherah" and "Yahweh of Samaria and his asherah." Now the structure of these phrases clearly makes the “asherah” the possession of YHVH. The most obvious thing we learn here is that “asherah” in this context is not a proper name. Some therefore posit this means that it is a cultic object, like a sacred [totem] pole. But I have no problem believing that “l'ashrt
” actually means "His consort," a subordinate female divine force, complimentary to, but not on par with, the God of Israel. Crude graffiti that accompanies one of these inscriptions showing two similar figures, a larger and a smaller, is suggestive in this regard. Neither the idea of the God of Israel having a goddess nor the fact of God being illustrated should come as a shock, even to a Biblical believer (For Asherah worship in the highest royal circles, see I Kings 15:13 and 2 Chron. 15:16 - and for a long time it seems to be the norm, rather than the exception: 2 Kings 18:4; 2 Kings 21:7; 2 Kings 23:4-6). After all, the prophets spend a good part of their oratory reproaching their fellow Israelites for both their worship of other gods and their chronic failure to serve YHVH correctly. These finds are proof positive of what the prophets were carrying on about.
More provocative, to my mind, is that the prophets never actually discard the notion of God having a feminine consort. They simply displace it by declaring the collectivity of Israel, it’s “spirit” as it were, to be the true bride of God (Jer. 2:2; Hosea 12; Ezekiel 16).
Post Biblically, the Sages speak of similar notions in somewhat different terms. Elaborating on the Biblical notion of divine "glory" (Kavod
) residing in the Temple and among the people (Zech. chapter 2, for example), they begin to speak of “God’s Presence,” a divine aspect that never departs from Israel, rests with it whenever it is gathered in kinship, watches over the sick, remains with Israel even in its failings, even going into exile along with the people (Sanhedrin 39a; Berachot 6a; Shabbat 12b; Yoma 56b; Megillah 29a). This presence is usually termed the Shekhinah (“Dwelling”), a feminine noun. This Presence is even described parabolically as a woman. One can also see a distinctly maternal imagery in some of the dynamics between her and Israel. While not usually understood as the "spirit" of the Jewish people per se (She is more akin to the Greek notion of Parousia*
or the Christian concept of the “Holy Ghost”), in places she is in fact equated with the people by being called Knesset Yisrael
(“Assemblage of Israel”). She is at times linked to another feminine hypostatic entity, the Torah. When Israel studies Torah, it draws the Shekhina closer.
A shift in thinking about the meaning of Shekhina and its relationship to the Godhead starts to emerge in the Middle Ages. Urbach (The Sages, p. 64) notes that in Bereshit Rabbah,
an 11th Century Midrash, for the first time we see an expression that clearly distinguishes between God and Shekhina: "The Holy Blessed One...He withdrew Himself and His Shekhina..." (Holy Israelite graffiti, Bat Kol!). The Spanish Kabbalists go further, reviving the theme of the divine feminine in a way not seen since those early Biblical times. But rather than placing a female deity next to the God of Israel, the mystics expound on the male and female forces within
God (a kind of di-theism or di-ity). Thus traditional terms for God with some 'masculine' connotation, such as ha-Kodesh Barukh Hu
(the Holy One, Blessed be He) signifies the masculine side of God, while Shekhina
comes to represent the feminine side of God. These two polarities are harmonized via a constant and dynamic process of heiros gamos,
of intra-divine union.
In the Kabbalistic model of the sefirot, the ten divine emanations that connect the Godhead with creation, there are a cascading series of complimentary male and female structures: Chochma
and, closest to material existence, Yesod
(Kingdom), which is Shekhina.
In the Zohar, Moses De Leon makes the Shekhina the centerpiece of his theosophy. No other divine aspect receives even half his attention. He has multiple titles for this divine presence that interacts with creation in general and Jews specifically. Often these titles are laden with feminine, fertility, and maternal tropes (Queen, Apple Orchard, Moon, Rainbow), but De Leon specifically loves the term Metrona
("Lady," a Latin term derived from parables in Midrash, where the figure of a Roman matron or high lady often interacts with Jews). This figure of divine nurture has been said to have served medieval Jews as a feminine comforter akin to the role that Mary played for the Christian believer. Higher (and more abstract) in the divine order is Binah
, the 'mother' of all. It is her, with her male counterpart Chochma
, that "births" all the structures of positive existence.
Already present in some parts of the Zohar, the notion of Partzufim
("[Divine] Countenances") is further developed by Moses Cordovero and Isaac Luria. Chief of these "divine faces" is Imma
, the supernal "Mother," which corresponds - a little ambiguously, even confusingly, I will add - with the Zoharic role of Binah.
So Judaism finds "motherhood" in both its abstract notion of generativity and its more intimate motif of caretaking to be a compelling vehicle for understanding and relating to God.
Zal g'mor - Go learn more by reading the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050 P.D. Miller alternatively suggests that "asherah" is actually the hypostatized female aspect of the God of Israel. "The Absence of the Goddess in Israelite Religion" HAR (1986). We see this theme will become a major one in later Jewish mysticism. I don't reject Miller's hypothesis, but given the dearth of data, all solutions are more speculation than firm conclusion.
*Also a feminine noun, I might note.