pamela yates grandmother tree

An Altar of Earth: Reflections on Jews, Goddesses and the Zohar

1.

For many years, as I sat in synagogues, someone on the bimah would make an off-handed reference to the evils of idolatry. Many Jews who would never think of condemning the religious practices of Australian aborigines, Peruvian shamans or Buddhist nuns, and who might even enjoy the art in a Catholic church, give sermons about how worshipping images or praying to multiple deities is the root of all evil. Traditional teachers often equate idolatry—that is, worship of multiple gods, worship using images, or worship of components of the natural world-with murder, child sacrifice, and incest. Less traditional ones still condemn idolatry, but identify its evil with the worst kind of misguided materialist beliefs (worshipping one’s money, for example). In Torah study sessions, I have seen individuals share their private ideas about God’s tangibility or presence in nature, and even point out these ideas when they appear in a Biblical text. But then, someone asks “Isn’t that pagan?” as if the conversation is now over. Paganism is bad. Even a hint of paganism is bad. That is the Jewish position.

What is so bad about paganism? For some Jews, it is a matter of ethics. Many have argued that paganism, because of its multiple gods, its focus on nature, and/or its multiple images of God, does not promote ethics or unity among humankind and therefore leads to atrocity. Yet both pagans and “monotheists” (a difficult distinction, as some pagans are monotheists) have massacred innocent people, conquered countries, enslaved the poor and members of other nationalities and races, etc. Some pagan societies are peaceful, and some are violent and warlike; we could say the same for Jewish, Muslim, and Christian societies. I value Jewish theological and ethical traditions, and believe that the Torah comprised a powerful critique of the religions of its time and region. Yet looking at history, it would be hard to make the argument that monotheism promotes universal brotherhood and sisterhood or that it is more ethical by definition than polytheism. Nevertheless, I hear these arguments all the time in shul.

Others say the problem with polytheism and paganism is not ethics but theology. Notably, I have heard this critique leveled many times in (and at) the Jewish feminist community. For the last fifteen years, I have been part of the community of Jewish feminists who are attempting to re-vision God: to re-experience God as not only male, but also female. At this point in time, some Jewish feminists prefer gender-neutral and/or impersonal language for God, but many revel in personal, anthropomorphic God-images that include the pregnant woman, the midwife, the seamstress, the bereaved mother bear, the Lady Wisdom who cries in the streets for people to discover the truth. All of these images have their sources in Jewish tradition, and all come from Jewish texts. Why, then, have they been repressed? God has many attributes, many names. What is the great danger if some of those images are female?

Part of the perceived danger is that using feminine language for God will lead to paganism. And why would that be a problem? Many fears have been expressed: Having both masculine and feminine languages for deity will lead to our creating two gods. Using feminine language will make us think of God as earth-mother; we will think that God forgives all things and our sense of good and evil will disappear (Paula Reimer expressed this in the nineties in an article in Conservative Judaism). We will begin to invoke the fertility goddesses of Canaan, which our ancestors rejected as evil (Cynthia Ozick). We will alienate ourselves from the human-Divine drama of monotheism (Tikvah Frymer-Kensky) or from Jewish communal norms (Judith Plaskow). All of these fears stem from a sense that if we come face to face with a goddess-figure, She will be exactly what the patriarchal, Talmudic critique of Her says She is: an untruth about God.

As a result, many Jewish feminists seem to believe that we should suppress any desire to read stories of goddesses as in any way sacred or connected to the Divine. Yet suppressing a desire never completely works in practice. While some Jewish feminist (and, of course, non-feminist) theologians may be able to legislate against goddess images in their intellectual structures, Jewish mystics and poets, modern and medieval, often perceive the Divine feminine outside the conventions and fears of the Jewish community. They may see the Goddess-and/or God-not only in text but in the trees and the sun and the moon, just as pagans do. They may see her as “dark womb of all,” 1 as if She gave birth to the universe (a pagan image Genesis emphatically edited out). Many of us 2 find divinity not only in Jewish texts and prayers about the divine feminine, but in myths of goddesses as well.

I too see God in these ways. I want to be a monotheist, but I also want to recognize the godliness in many images of feminine and masculine divinity, and not only those in Jewish text. I want not to edit my moments of contact with the Divine to get rid of any “pagan” influence. I want not to demonize goddess-imagery while thunder-god imagery rolls through the Hebrew Bible without comment or controversy. In short, I want not to be afraid of goddesses. That’s why I love this text in the Zohar.

2.

“It says in Deuteronomy, ‘”You shall not plant for yourselves an asherah or any kind of tree beside the altar of the Lord thy God which (asher) you shall make for yourselves.” Are we to suppose that anywhere else it is permitted [to plant an Asherah]? [Of course not!] The truth is that the He’ [the letter of God’s name that represents the feminine Divine] is called Asherah, after the name of its spouse, Asher, and the meaning of the verse is therefore: “You shall not plant another Asherah by the side of the altar which is established upon this[Asherah].” Observe that throughout the Scriptures the worshippers of the sun are called servants of Baal and the worshippers of the moon servants of Asherah; hence the combination “to Baal and Asherah.” If this is so (that Asherah is the name of the feminine aspect of God), why is it not used as a sacred name? The reason is that this name brings to mind the words of Leah, “happy am I, for the daughters will call me happy (ishruni),” but this one is not “called happy” by other nations, and another nation is set up in its place. It is written, “all that honored her despise her” (Lam. 1:8). But the real altar is one that is made of earth, as it is written, “An altar of earth you shall make for me.” That is why it says in Genesis, “dust from the earth.”
—Zohar I, 49a

The Jewish mysticism of the Zohar (a twelfth-century mystical document from Spain that influenced the course of all Jewish mysticism after it) is saturated with panentheism, the belief that God is both separate from and embodied in the natural world, i.e., that God “surrounds and fills” the universe. Even so, the passage that appears at the beginning of this article is so shocking that it is hard to decode. The Zohar quotes a classic text from Deuteronomy prohibiting pagan worship: “You shall not set up an asherah, or any kind of tree, near the altar…” An asherah, as most scholars agree, based upon excavations as well as other ancient references, is a pillar or tree representing the goddess Asherah. Stone inscriptions show that Israelites may once have worshipped Asherah, a goddess of love and fertility known as “She Who Walks on the Sea,” as the female counterpart to the Israelite god we call Adonai. References in Jeremiah 7:18 and 44:17 indicates that Israelite women worshipped the “queen of heaven” by baking cakes-this queen may have been Asherah. In general, the stamping out of Asherah-worship was one of the main concerns of the pure monotheists who established themselves as normative in the days of King Josiah and who are responsible for the composition, according to scholars, of much of the Torah. From those radical monotheists, Judaism evolved. We would expect, then, that all later Jewish references to Asherah would be negative, as indeed most of them are.

Yet the Zohar, steeped in multiple personalized, sexualized, gendered images of the deity, chooses to read this passage in a radically different way. The Zohar writers do not equate Asherah with Lilith or another demonic figure, which would be an easy theological move. Instead, they reread the verse. It is not, they say, that the Torah wants to tell us not to plant an asherah by the altar because it is an idolatrous object. If the Torah had wanted to tell us that, it simply would have said: “Do not plant an asherah anywhere.” Rather, the Torah wants to tell us that Asherah is a name for the Shekhinah, the feminine Divine presence, already at the altar. An extra Asherah image would be redundant.

The Zohar proves this assertion by connecting the name Asherah to the word asher. Ordinarily, this word simply means the word “which.” However, in Zohar-speak, many common Hebrew prepositions like asher and et are regarded as names for God. In this case, the Zohar reads Asher as a name for masculine divinity. The Zohar redefines the word Asherah as the feminine form of Asher: the Spouse of Asher, the Spouse of God. The verse now means, in the Zohar’s reading, that we must not plant an asherah by the altar because Asherah already resides in the altar in the form of the Shekhinah. We do not need a pillar to remind us of Her.

The Zohar does not choose to say that the goddess Asherah is evil or false and that worshipping her is a theological mistake. Rather, it says that the theological mistake would be to assume that Asherah (the tree) is separate from Shekhinah (the altar), when in fact they are one. The Zohar seems to be saying is that the object used to worship (i.e. the altar) God must be single rather than multiple, just as all the faces of the feminine and masculine Divine are ultimately unified.

The Zohar then quotes a passage related to the biblical queen Jezebel’s worship of other gods, and informs us that the priests of Baal and Asherah (male and female deities) are worshippers of the sun and moon. The sun and moon, the Zohar goes on, are really Tiferet and Malkhut, the Holy One (male divinity) and the Shekhinah (female divinity). Baal and Asherah worshippers, the very people whom the Torah rejects as the worst of pagans, are actually worshippers of the (legitimate) masculine and feminine Divine. The Zohar appears to be saying that pagans and Jews are worshipping the same aspects of divinity by different names.

The next question, of course, is: If Asherah is simply the Shekhinah by another name, why is it forbidden to worship her? A standard answer one hears is that idolatry is really about separation-idolatrous practices separate the particular manifestations of God (e.g. the moon/Asherah or the sun/Baal) from the singular godhead, and sees them as different entities. Yet the Zohar does not take this easy approach. Instead, it comes up with a statement even more shocking than the first: The only reason we may not worship the Shekhinah as Asherah is that the name Asherah, as translated by the Zohar, means “happy.” (The Zohar proves this by connecting the matriarch Leah, who herself is an image of feminine divinity in the mystical tradition, to the root alef-shin-reish, which translates as “happy” or “fortunate.”) The Shekhinah is in exile among the enemies of the Jewish people, and therefore we cannot call Her happy. That-not separation and not idolatry-is the error. The Zohar implies that we abstain from using the name Asherah, not out of theological exactness, but out of courtesy: we abstain in order to empathize with the pain of the Shekhinah.

The unspoken implication of this is that in the world to come, when the Messiah has arrived, we will be able to call the Shekhinah Asherah. It is only in this imperfect world, where the Shekhinah is exiled, that we are banned from doing so. In a completed world, the Zohar implies, Jews would be able to rejoice in the fact that gods and goddesses can be aspects of divinity. Yet because we are exiled, oppressed, divided from others, we can’t let ourselves know it.

The Zohar concludes with a brief moment of panentheism. The altar must be made of earth, the Torah says. The Zohar comments: the real altar (that is, the real Shekhinah) is made of earth. Therefore Genesis says: dust from the earth. Humans are made of the dust of the earth that is Shekhinah. Their physical substance as well as their spirit is made of Shekhinah-stuff. That’s a mother-earth image if there ever was one.

The Zohar does often get accused of near-paganism. In this passage, more than any other I have seen, I feel the Zohar tips its hand. The Zohar knows that paganism is forbidden. The Zohar also knows, as it reveals in this passage, that its mystical impulse to explore multiple simultaneous God-images, gendered deity, panentheism, and embodied divinity is a pagan impulse-perhaps a holy, ultimately God-centered pagan impulse, but a pagan impulse nevertheless. Yet instead of running away from the mythologized, pagan-like aspects of its vision, the Zohar betrays a discomfort with the complete condemnation of goddess worship. It’s the condemnation, not the paganism, that is rejected.

The Zohar believes that oneness underlies all things, even pagan goddesses. Yet the mystic of the time knows the Jews cannot recognize this. So, the Zohar says, in the world to come, we will be allowed to call the Shekhinah by Her name Asherah. Then, She will be one and Her name will be one.

I know the Zohar has terrible things to say about non-Jews, and that one may read this passage as saying that pagans worship aspects of the true God, but do not know that they are doing so. Yet I cannot help but imagine the mystics of medieval Spain holding the secret knowledge that God answers to different names all over the world — even names that invoke God in nature, even names that call God multiple, even feminine names from ancient Canaan. I imagine them slipping this secret knowledge into the Zohar: the oneness of the Divine is a many-named oneness, a oneness that encompasses the earth.

3.

The truth is that the fears that Jews have about the introduction of feminine God-language are partly justified. But they are justified only within the construct of a limited and fearful partial theology. In fact, the changes are mostly positive.

First, using masculine and feminine names for God will lead to images of deity that are so multiple they seem like different beings. In fact, this has already happened: the Zohar has male and female aspects of God marrying one another, which is a fairly multiple image (though Jewish tradition seems to have carried on just fine anyway). The connection of God with the earth will change our views about the nature of God’s judgment-one has only to read the poetry of Lynn Gottlieb, Marcia Falk, or Marge Piercy to realize this. And we will be the richer for it.

Second, acknowledgement of Jewish demonization of paganism will change our evaluation of how Jews, Christians, and Muslims have used power and continue to use power around the globe, and force us to ally ourselves with people we have regarded as “other.”

Third, the introduction of feminine God-language, as Alicia Ostriker has noted, will make us aware of how Jewish text and theology suppressed or absorbed the Divine feminine at the beginning of history-making some of us curious about the original goddess-images that were suppressed. We may not want those images back, and we couldn’t get them back in their original form if we tried. But we will no longer be able to suppress our knowledge of them.

Critically, to allow oneself to see God in a new image, to see God as mother or moon or sea or little girl or crone, is not valuable simply because of political correctness, or some feminist ethic of fairness. To do so is a religious experience-and we grow from these experiences. Religious experiences do not neatly conform to philosophical firewalls. If we open ourselves to the feminine Divine, some of us will see goddesses. This merits theological discussion and debate, but it does not merit censorship.

Moreover, if goddesses are non-God, then what are we seeing when we look at goddesses? I would argue that we are seeing the same thing that we see when we look at God: both a mirror and a window. All of our God-images, masculine, feminine, multi- and non-gendered, singular and multiple, come from our own repertoire of psychological needs, memories, stories we have absorbed, people we have loved, images we have seen. They are mothers and fathers we need, judges and warriors that frighten us into good behavior, lovers that inspire us. Some of them are flawed, some are wrong, and some will not survive the test of time. There is no way to portray the ein sof; what we hope is that, through some or all of these avenues, some glimmer of Divine truth reaches us.

Our conceptions of God, being partial and imperfect, always deserve critique-we cannot assume any God we see is a true God. There is always the real risk that we will distort the truth and fracture it. Yet if we believe (as some of us do) in the panentheistic promise that God can be found anywhere, then we may come to accept the fact that others throughout theological history have felt the same thing. Finding God in a tree and calling Her Asherah, or finding God in the thunder and calling Him Baal, or finding God in the cycle of life and death and calling Her Demeter and Persephone, seems less strange when we think that everything we know about God comes from something we have seen, heard, or felt in a text, in the world, or in ourselves. Jews may see things differently, but they are still limited-and blessed-by human sight.

If we take seriously the idea that God speaks not only in fixed revelation but also through human experience, we cannot help but entertain the idea that the ancient poets who praised goddesses and gods were, at least part of the time, praising the same infinite holy source that we wish to honor. When I look at some of those ancient poems, and the modern ones that echo them, I feel a desire for the sacred that stretches across history and theology to meet mine.

When I meditate on God, I see many things. Sometimes what I see reminds me of Genesis or Exodus, and sometimes what I see reminds me of stories of Mother Earth, or the creative and destructive Hindu goddess Kali. I no longer edit out those images, because I believe they too hold grains of truth. The important thing, for me, is to make sure that my God-image leads me closer to an experience of Divine love and human responsibility, and not farther away-that it is a korban, an intimate offering, and not a churban, a destruction. Part of making an offering, a korban, is being willing to give it away. My Jewish sensibility tells me that no image should be reified above the whole.

I do not want to give up the imageless worship of my tradition, its mandate of justice through the specifics of law, or its emphasis on Divine oneness. But neither do I want to surrender the tales of Kali and Persephone, Asherah and Inanna. They are problematic stories, and regrettably they are no less patriarchal than myths about thunder gods, but, being a Jew who reads the Torah, I am used to problematic and patriarchal stories. I still hold my own sacred myths as uniquely primary and central to my life, but I am no longer willing to shut my ears to the wisdom of others-especially if I can use that wisdom to affirm the holiness of the feminine as well as the masculine.

The synagogue where I pray now is quite sensitive to these issues. Yet sometimes, when familiar accusations of idolatry begin from the bimah, I slouch in my seat and read the weekly parashah for signs of feminine imagery. If things get really bad, I take out my pocket copy of Sappho and silently read hymns to Aphrodite. It’s not a very traditional way to observe Shabbat, but the Zohar, at least, would understand.

1 Zohar III, 65b
2 See the writings of Lynn Gottlieb, Susannah Heschel, Leah Novick, and Kim Chernin, among others.

This article originally appeared in Zeek, July 2004.
Image: Pamela Yates, Grandmother Tree

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