The Divine Feminine in Kabbalah: An Example of Jewish Renewal
Jewish Renewal uses under-appreciated mystical texts to engender spiritual meaning.
This motif was built upon by a handful of later Jewish works, such as the Hasidic Or Hame'ir (18th century). The author of this work explains that the Holy One, or Tif'eret [another name for Z'er Anpin], "trembles" for the Shekhinah to become "body opposite body," so that the male and female dimensions of divinity can be united with each other. He wrote that we bring redemption by seeking to complete the female aspect of divinity:
"And all this falls upon us, to bring near the time of redemption through means of good acts [so that] her body [qomah] will be built and established…Know how to raise up, now in this day especially, the limbs of the Shekhinah, in order to redeem her from exile, for this is the tendency of our souls…to build her and to prepare her with a complete body [qomah sh'leymah]."
Making Use of Counter-texts
None of these passages changes the fact that the overwhelming message of kabbalah is not about gender liberation. But if it is up to us to "bring near the time of redemption," then that also means it is up to us to make new interpretations. To do this, we need to be able to hear in these texts a teaching about the future of kabbalah and not only the past. That teaching is that we are supposed to help complete the feminine aspect of divinity so that this can happen. For me this means that liberating the feminine by using kabbalah is something that kabbalah itself warrants.
The challenge for Renewal is how to stay connected to the traditional texts of kabbalah while doing this. One important Orthodox feminist work which accomplishes this is Sarah Schneider's Kabbalistic Writings on the Nature of Masculine and Feminine. Schneider's work is built on the insights first articulated by Jewish Renewal, but it goes beyond Renewal by going back to the sources.
Thinking further about how we use kabbalah in the Renewal community, my main concern is not whether we choose this or that interpretation, but that we learn the sources well enough to preserve the richness that is in them. I am also concerned that we become clearer in our teaching about the difference between what is already in the traditional texts, and what we are adding to them in order to make kabbalah meaningful to our lives.
Hermeneutically, we can use careful text study to "retool" the system of kabbalah and to build the future of our tradition. Looking at this example of retooling, I would say that Jewish Renewal has done well for its first generation of teaching, but that in the second generation we need to deepen our understanding--both through self-criticism and through new creativity.
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