Esoteric Online

illustration is "Princess Sabbath" by E.M. Lilien

The Sacred Feminine in Judaism I

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.

(The universe envisioned as the "womb" of Ein Sof)

The Sacred Feminine in Judaism II

Iggeret ha-Kodesh
("The Holy Letter") is a medieval mystical sex manual, often credited to Nachmanides. Part mystical metaphysics, part "Tantric" practice and part Feng Shui, it teaches the meaning and ideal conditions for sexual union. In it we find this striking remark:

Such is the secret of man and woman in the ways of Kabbalah. Thus, this union is a matter most elevated, [when] it is done properly, and the greater secret is that the Merkavot [also] unite, this one to that, in the manner of male and female.
Iggeret ha-Kodesh (I, p. 49)

The Merkavot ("Chariots") mentioned in this passage is the early Jewish mystical term for the structure of the godhead, an idiom derived from the vision of the celestial order described by the Biblical Prophet Ezekiel (Chapters 1 and 10). So what the author of the Iggeret ha-Kodesh is saying is that our bi-sexual nature (that is, our division into male and female) is a reflection of the larger cosmic structure and when we unite in sex, the act is a mimesis of what happens within the divine realms.

According to ha-Iggeret that reality is the ha-sod ha-gadol, "the great secret" of Jewish mysticism. And by all indications it is indeed one of the most esoteric of all esoteric traditions in Judaism. For many centuries it was truly "occult" in the sense that it was hidden from general view. Until the great Kabbalistic flowering of the 13th Century, this notion of an engendered universe was only rarely alluded to and never (to my knowledge) fully spelled out in Jewish literature. Only occasionally do we see hints of this doctrine appear in Rabbinic literature, such as this passage from Talmud, where one scholar describes the two cherubs that decorated the Ark of the Covenant as actually embracing like two lovers. His colleagues were scandalized this claim. Yet another Talmudic Sage, Resh Lakish, rallied in defense of this claim, remarking:

When the Babylonians entered the sanctuary, they saw the cherubs embracing one another, they took them out to the market and said: 'This is Israel whose blessings are blessings and curses are curses, are involved in such things!?' They immediately denigrated them, as the verse says, 'All their valuables were denigrated for they saw her nakedness (Lam. 1:8)' (Yoma 54a-b).

This brief account was given little attention, even in early mystical texts, but those same mystical texts understand the Cherubs in the Temple to be personifications of the "merkavah," the divine order. It was therefore left to the disciple to "connect the dots." In is only in the medieval work of classic Kabbalah, the Zohar, that this notion of heiros gamos, of a sexual dynamic (and therefore a sacred feminine)in the godhead is made explicit. Thus Zohar states that the two cherubs were visibly males and female (III:59a). Even more revealing is the Zoharic model of the Sefirot, the ten divine emanations. In the classic model of how these divine forces interact, they are divided into "male" and "female" quantities, and it is the "union" of these attributes that enlivens and sustains our material universe.

From the time of the Zohar on, this teaching became more visible to the discerning reader, yet even to this day it remains unknown to most Jews. The mainstream of Jewish thought has cleaved to the rational medieval philosophic tradition which eschews ascribing any "human" qualities to God. Kabbalism also embraces this in the sense that the "essence" of God, the Ein Sof, the incomprehensible, absolute reality God, is beyond all discussion of gender or sex. Yet Kabbalah insists that within that aspect of the godhead that interfaces with creation, this male-female complex is the the organizing principle of the divine order.

Zal g'mor - To learn more consult the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism:

About the Author
Geoff Dennis is rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami and teaches Kabbalah and Rabbinic Literature in the Jewish Studies Program at the University of North Texas. He is the author of The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism, a Runner Up for the 2007 National Book Award, and recipient of an Honorable Mention for the 2007 Jewish Library Council Book Award. He has written numerous articles. The most recent, "The Bride of God: Jewish Erotic Theology," appears in the anthology Jews and Sex, edited by Nathan Abrams (2008).

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