Shekhinah

I invite you to encounter Her as I encountered Her— with mystery, and with surprise.

The Sabbath night is the joy of the Queen with the King, and their uniting… Scholars who know this secret are intimate with their wives only on the Sabbath night.

This is a text from the Zohar, an important kabbalistic work.  We all know who the King is—the disembodied yet fatherly entity who creates the world by word— not by sex with a goddess— and who gives the Torah.  But who is the Queen?  Don’t Jews reject the idea of a divine queen?  Didn’t the prophet Jeremiah scold Israelite women for worshipping the Queen of Heaven?

There is a Jewish custom to recite the poem Lecha Dodi “Come, My Beloved”— on Friday night, as they turn to the door of the synagogue to greet the Sabbath.  What most Jews don’t know is that Jewish mystics regard the Sabbath as an embodiment of the immanent, feminine face of God.  The Sabbath’s entry into the synagogue, and the sexual coupling of lovers on Friday night, are embodiments of the divine union of the masculine face of God and the feminine face— dare we say— of Goddess.

This feminine immanent face of God has many names, but the most prominent of them is Shekhinah. Shekhinah means “dwelling,” with the noun-verb force of that word: the act of dwelling.  The state of being somewhere.  This talmudic word describes the numinous presence of God that abided in the Temple. In the centuries following the destruction of the Temple, sages begin to depict the Shekhinah as a woman.  They see her as a loving mother who suffers the same exile as her people:

When the Shekhinah went forth from the Temple, she hugged and kissed its walls and pillars and wept, and said: “Shalom, goodbye, my Temple, goodbye, my royal dwelling, goodbye, my beloved house!… —Lamentations Rabbah

In an era when Jews feel punished by God, they turn to a divine mother who loves them and takes to the road with her people.  Shekhinah is the estranged wife of God, beloved but living separately as long as the world remains unredeemed.

This divine mother, according to Raphael Patai (author ofThe Hebrew Goddess) and other scholars, has her roots among the earliest Israelites, who worshipped the divine mother Asherah along with the God of Israel.  The mysterious female figure of Proverbs, Lady Wisdom, may be a version of Asherah, since she is called “happy” (asher) and described as a tree, as Asherah was depicted as a tree:

She is a tree of life to all who hold her fast,
And all who cling to her find happiness.
Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.

The Divine made me at the beginning of his road,
the most ancient of his works of old….
And humankind was my joy.
Now, children, listen to me,
Happy are they who keep my ways.
                             Proverbs 3:18, 8:22, 27-32

Centuries later, kabbalists take these biblical references, and later talmudic references to Shekhinah, and create a fully-formed female divine figure.  Sometimes she is a warrior, sometimes a mother, and sometimes she is all of nature. A kabbalistic scholar, Hayyim Vital of sixteenth-century Sfat, reports a vision of Shekhinah:

Behold, I saw a dignified woman, beautiful like the sun, standing on top of the ladder.  And I thought in my heart that she was my mother.

The kabbalist vision of Shekhinah still has issues of sexism and heteronormativity— the Shekhinah is often portrayed as passive and defined by her relationship with the divine masculine. Yet she is a powerful antidote to our idea that the Jewish God is male.  Even more interesting is what Jewish feminists have done with the Shekhinah.  She becomes, not a piece of the pie, but the whole pie— an all-encompassing Divine presence who can receive prayer, be in relationship, tend to the world.

Alicia Ostriker, the poet and critic, writes in her poem “Prayer to the Shekhinah”:

you folded wings patched coats
dragged mattresses pans in peasant carts, lived your life
laboring praying and giving birth, you also
swam across the hard Atlantic
landed in the golden land
they called you greenhorn
you danced in cafes
bargained pushcart goods ice shoes Hester Street
put on makeup threw away wigs
and you learned new languages…

Here, the Shekhinah is an exile, but a lively and joyful one.  She is embodied in Jewish women in all their fullness.  In an untitled poem from her book The Volcano Sequence, Ostriker writes of Shekhinah as a complicated figure of compassion and natural law:

womb compassionate pitiless
eyes seeing to the ends of the universe
in which life struggles and delights in life
Alicia Ostriker

Rachel Adler, in her poem “Second Hymn to the Shekhinah,” plays with the mystical idea of nothingness and relates it to the hollow space of creativity. She cries:

Nothing is my own mama and
I am nothing myself…

Hollow in the pot                     nothing
Hole in the flute                       nothing
Rest in the music                      nothing
Shabbat in the week                 nothing

I am your daughter, Lady,
And pregnant with you… 

Holy wind whistle through me
Been a long time since you had a pipe for this music

Many others, men as well as women, have been inspired in the modern age by the image of Shekhinah, emerging from the hidden depths of the Jewish psyche, changing as She is spoken, not only by male mystics, but by women seeking language for their own spiritual experience.

Along with Holly Taya Shere, I am the co-founder of the Kohenet Institute, an earth-based, ecstatic, embodied, feminist spiritual leadership program for Jewish women.  Through ritual, study, and self-reflection, we are reclaiming a vision of Jewish women as priestesses: vessels for Divine presence in the world.  We use the name Shekhinah when we pray, as well as other feminine and masculine God-names.  Like the mystics, we believe in the power of seeing God/dess as a woman, and in all the other ways we authentically experience spirit.  We, and many others, are rebirthing Shekhinah into the world.

One of our students, Tiana Mirapae, writes:

Since the destruction of the Second Temple, we have carried the Spirit of the Divine One within us. Wherever we go, wherever we are, we are home; within us is Shekhinah, Divine Spirit. It is our duty to ourselves and to the Divine, to heal and love ourselves, that we may open fully to serve Her and others, as Her.

This article originally appeared on http://feminismandreligion.com/2013/06/10/shekhinah-by-rabbi-jill-hammer/

Lilith, Lady Flying in Darkness

“Half of me is beautiful
but you were never sure which half.”
—Ruth Feldman, “Lilith”

Lilith is the most notorious demon in Jewish tradition. In some sources, she is conceived of as the original woman, created even before Eve, and she is often presented as a thief of newborn infants. Lilith means “the night,” and she embodies the emotional and spiritual aspects of darkness: terror, sensuality, and unbridled freedom. More recently, she has come to represent the freedom of feminist women who no longer want to be “good girls.”

Biblical and Talmudic Tales of Lilith

The story of Lilith originated in the ancient Near East,where a wilderness spirit known as the “dark maid” appears in the Sumerian myth “The descent of Inanna” (circa 3000 BCE). Another reference appears in a tablet from the seventh century BCE found at Arslan Tash, Syria which contains the inscription: “O flyer in a dark chamber, go away at once, O Lili!”

Lilith later made her way into Israelite tradition, possibly even into the Bible. Isaiah 34:14, describing an inhospitable wilderness, tells us: “There goat-demons shall greet each other, and there the lilit shall find rest.” Some believe this word “lilit” is a reference to a night owl, and others say it is indeed a reference to the demon Lilith. A magical bowl from the first century CE, written in Hebrew, reads:” Designated is this bowl for the sealing of the house of this Geyonai bar Mamai, that there flee from him the evil Lilith…” Ancient images of Lilith which show her hands bound appear to be a form of visual magic for containing her.

In the Talmud, Lilith becomes not only a spirit of darkness,but also a figure of uncontrolled sexuality. The Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat151a) says: “It is forbidden for a man to sleep alone in a house, lest Lilith get hold of him.” Lilith is said to fertilize herself with male sperm to give birth to other demons.

Lilith as Escaped Wife

In Genesis Rabbah, we encounter a brief midrash that claims that Adam had a first wife before Eve. This interpretation arises from the two creation stories of Genesis: in Genesis 1, man and woman are created at the same time, while in Genesis 2 Adam precedes Eve. The rabbinic tale suggests that the first creation story is a different creation, in which Adam has a wife made, like him, from the earth. For some reason this marriage doesn’t work out,and so God makes Adam a second wife, Eve.

In the ninth or tenth century, a clever collection of legends titled the Alphabet of Ben Sira draws on earlier stories of Adam’s wife, and of Adam’s coupling with demons, and spins an elaborate story in which Lilith is Adam’s first wife:

When the first man, Adam, saw that he was alone, God made for him a woman like himself, from the earth.God called her name Lilith, and brought her to Adam. They immediately began to quarrel. Adam said: “You lie beneath me.” And Lilith said: “You lie beneath me! We are both equal, for both of us are from the earth.” And they would not listen to one another.

As soon as Lilith saw this, she uttered the Divine name and flew up into the air and fled. Adam began to pray before his Creator, saying: “Master of the universe, the woman that you gave me has fled.” God sent three angels and said to them: “Go bring back Lilith. If she wants to come, she shall come, and if she does not want to come, do not bring her against her will.

The three angels went and found her in the sea at the place where the Egyptians were destined to drown. There they grabbed her and said to her: “If you will go with us,well and good, but if not, we will drown you in the sea.”

Lilith said to them: “My friends, I know God only created me to weaken infants when they are eight days old. From the day a child is born until the eighth day, I have dominion over the child, and from the eighth day onward I have no dominion over him if he is a boy, but if a girl, I rule over her twelve days.”

They said: “We won’t let you go until you accept upon yourself that each day one hundred of your children will die.” And she accepted it. That is why one hundred demons die every day. They would not leave her alone until she swore to them: “In any place that I see you or your names in an amulet, I will have no dominion over that child.” They left her. And she is Lilith, who weakens the children of men….
Alphabet of Ben Sira 23a-b

Some believe that this story is a serious attempt to explain the death of infants, while others are convinced it is a humorous tale of sexual quarrels and unsuccessful angels. The Lilith of this story confronts both Adam and God: she defies patriarchy, refuses a submissive sexual posture,and in the end refuses marriage altogether, preferring to become a demon rather than live under Adam’s authority. Notice that Lilith flees to the Sea of Reeds: the place where the Hebrews will one day go free from slavery. In this version of the Lilith story, Lilith becomes what all tyrants fear: a person who is aware she is enslaved.

This version of the Lilith tale in the Alphabet of Ben Sira quickly spread throughout Jewish life, and others expanded on it. The Zohar, a mystical work from 12th century Spain, imagines Lilith not only as the first wife of Adam but also as the wife of Satan. In the kabbalah, Lilith takes on cosmic power. She is a chaotic counterpart to the Shekhinah (the feminine Divine Presence, the bride of the Infinite). In fact, the Zohar imagines that while the Jews suffer in exile, the Holy One (the masculine aspect of the Divine) separates from the Shekhinah, and consorts with Lilith.Lilith’s sexual-spiritual link with the Divine will only end when the Messiah comes and the brokenness in the world is mended.

In folk Judaism, the primary myths about Lilith continue to identify her principally as a stealer of babies. Numerous amulets for pregnant women and babies from medieval through modern times use the three names of the angels mentioned in the Alphabet of Ben Sira (Sanvi, Sansanvi, and Samangelof) to ward away Lilith. Such amulets may also contain a circle with the names of Adam and Eve on the inside of the circle, and the name of Lilith on the outside: a clear warning to Lilith to stay outside the family realm. A red ribbon is also sometimes placed on a crib to ward off Lilith.

Lilith and Modern Jewish Feminist Midrash

In the modern period, the tale of the put-upon wife who flees to a place of liberation became a celebrated paradigm. Numerous modern Jewish poets and authors, female and male, wrote accounts of Lilith that use old stories to express new ideas.

Perhaps the most well-known of the new Lilith tales is”The Coming of Lilith,” by Judith Plaskow. In this feminist midrash,Lilith flees the garden because she is an “uppity woman” who doesn’t want to be pushed around by Adam or God. However, she misses female companionship.Lilith soon sneaks back into the garden and befriends Eve. Eve has been told Lilith is a demon, but once the two women share their stories, they become allies and companions in the search for knowledge.

Enid Dame, in her poem “Lilith,” imagines Lilith as an eternal bohemian who leaves Eden, drops in and out of men’s sexual fantasies in the Middle Ages, and now lives with a cab driver in New Jersey,where she still cries in the bathroom as she remembers Eden “and the man and the God I couldn’t live with.”

In Lynn Gottlieb’s story of Lilith, Lilith is made from the sky and Adam from the earth. In her love for Adam, Lilith chooses to forget she came from the sky, and she becomes Eve, settled and happy but ignorant of her own true nature. In her story, Gottlieb dramatizes the struggle of women to love men while still loving themselves.

On the other hand, Jacqueline Lapidus’s brief poem”Eden” imagines a lesbian encounter between Lilith and Eve. Using the Lilith legend, Lapidus invents an origin story for love between women. Scholar and author Ohad Ezrachi frequently writes about Lilith as a split-off sexual component of women, an image created by men fearful of a full relationship. He encourages men and women to see Lilith and Eve as the same person.

Lilith has become such a popular figure that whole enterprises (like the women’s music concert Lilith Fair and the Jewish feminist journal Lilith Magazine) are named after her. Once a source of fear, Lilith has been transformed into an icon of freedom. While some disapprove of this widespread embrace of a former demon,Lilith’s rehabilitation makes sense. The frightening character of Lilith grew,in part, out of repression: repression of sexuality, repression of the free impulse in women, repression of the question “what if I left it all behind?” As modern Jews begin to ask questions about sex, freedom, and choice more directly, Lilith becomes a complex representation of our own desires.

This article originally appeared on MyJewishLearning.com.

Author, teacher, midrashist, mystic, poet, essayist, and priestess