The Divine Feminine in Kabbalah: An Example of Jewish Renewal
Jewish Renewal uses under-appreciated mystical texts to engender spiritual meaning.
The Jewish Renewal movement, the stream of Judaism whose approach is reflected in this article, is an informal network of individuals and synagogues, many of which have formal associations with ALEPH: The Alliance for Jewish Renewal. A longer version of this article was published in New Menorah (Summer 2002).
The Jewish Renewal movement's emphasis on spirituality is rooted in the images and ideas of kabbalah, medieval Jewish mysticism.
Jewish Renewal has its own interpretation of kabbalah, however, one that is humanistic, egalitarian, and highly accessible. To a large degree this interpretation comes from a handful of important teachers, especially Zalman Schacter-Shalomi and Shlomo Carlebach, who both taught a Hasidic perspective on Judaism and kabbalah that was influenced by the spirituality of the 1960s.
One important expression of egalitarianism in Jewish Renewal is the use of feminine God language, drawing especially on the kabbalistic idea of the Shekhinah--the female aspect of God.
Using this example, we will study the way Renewal draws on kabbalah.
God's Feminine Side
The focus in Jewish Renewal kabbalah on the "divine feminine" as a model of gender liberation is controversial, and it has been criticized by several scholars. Elliot Wolfson, to take the most preeminent example, calls the feminist and Renewal embrace of kabbalah, "a misreading that I readily endorse as a human being but regrettably reject as a historical scholar." ("The Mirror of Nature in Medieval Jewish Mysticism," delivered at the Harvard conference on Judaism and Nature, 1998.)
Wolfson's criticism is rooted in the approach to the feminine one finds in the vast majority of kabbalistic texts. In general, kabbalah understands the feminine aspect of God to be a limb of the body of the divine, which is masculine, or as something which exists to complete the male. In other words, the feminine in kabbalah has no feminist implications, since the feminine in its redeemed state is assimilated and masculinized.
While it is true that the Jewish Renewal interpretation of kabbalah may not always be historically accurate, the Renewal movement is primarily interested in the spiritual power of kabbalistic imagery for contemporary Jews. Nonetheless, when we focus on what literary critics call "counter-texts," there seems to be an alternative vision of gender within kabbalah itself that Renewal can authentically draw on without making a false or a-historical reading of kabbalah.
The following passage in Lurianic kabbalah, for example, suggests that the female ultimately unites with the male only after becoming complete in herself:
"There are two aspects to the female of Z'er Anpin ['the little face', which is the masculine dimension of God], one when she is contained initially in the male, and the second when she is separated from him and he gives her the crown of strength…When she separates from him and becomes an autonomous aspect, then the two of them are in the secret of a husband and his wife, the male alone and the female alone." ('Ets Chayim 10:3, 49a-b, cited in Wolfson's Circle in the Square, p.116.)