Friday, October 13, 2006

The Sacred Feminine in Judaism I

Illustration from the Song of Songs by E.M. Lilien

A couple of the comments submitted to me have made reference to the role of the divine feminine in Judaism. This is an important aspect of Kabbalah, and one of its fundamental contributions to the Jewish worldview. In her book, Standing Again at Sinai, Judith Plaskow makes the absence of women at the great revelation at Sinai a centerpiece of her call for a new feminist Jewish theology. Yet it is interesting to see that Jewish mystics were discovering the sacred feminine in Jewish tradition centuries before contemporary feminism tackled the issue, though in a very different way. The Jewish mystical project probably began with the campaign to ensure that the book Shir ha-Shirim, Song of Songs, be included in the Biblical canon. Rabbi Akiba, something of a mystic himself, was shocked when he learned that the inclusion of that book had once been controversial to earlier Sages. He said of it,

"Heaven forbid that any man in Israel ever disputed that the Song of Songs is holy. For the whole world is not worth the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all the Writings are holy and the Song of Songs is holy of holies.” (Mishnah Yadayim 3:5).

That is because the early Jewish mystics understood that book, which narrates the often lusty love between a woman and a man, to be the internal musings of God; the book expresses His feelings toward Israel during the Exodus. More then that, it describes the essential nature of God's creation. Thus Jewish mysticism has always embraced a kind of erotic theology, and envisioned a universe both engendered and sexually-charged. In such a cosmos, the feminine is in indispensable to the balance and harmony of all things and it is to be celebrated. This is in marked contrast to other religious ideologies of late antiquity which were embarrassed by the raw carnality of our material existence and sought by various means to transcend it, both in theory and in practice. For Jewish mystics, male and female are more then merely part of the divine plan, they believe gender marks and maps the very structure and order of the universe. This attitude has been expressed in a variety of ways in Kabbalah, both in feminine images of the divine, such as Hokhmah, "Wisdom", and in Shekhinah, "[Divine] Presence" and in, as Moshe Idel put it, “sexual metaphor and praxis.” I will offer more reflections on that in future installments.

To learn more, look up the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism available at Amazon. http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050/sr=1-1/qid=1159997117/ref=sr_1_1/002-7116669-7231211?ie=UTF8&s=books