Male and female

Addendum to yesterday’s entry on feminist aggadah

Actually, Jewish feminists working to reclaim their heritage do have one advantage over their Muslim and Christian sisters: they already have an abundance of female images of the godhead to draw from. In the book of Proverbs, Wisdom (Hokhmah) is co-eternal with YHWH and is represented there as a goddess of sorts. (This becomes the Christian Sophia.) In later Kabbalah, however, Hokhmah is thought of as male. As the first (or second*) manifestation of godhead – also called the Beginning – it is the point from which Binah (Knowledge) expands. At this point, Binah and Hokhmah become explicitly female and male, egg and semen (to update the imagery slightly from the no-longer-valid notions of semen as seed and womb as passive medium). Of all of Binah’s “daughters” the most famous, which surely predates this schema of the ten Sefirot by hundreds of years, is the hypostasized Divine Presence, the Shekhinah. The central focus of religious effort is to join Tif’eret – the sixth of the ten Sefirot, representing Heaven, Sun, Harmony, Compassion – and Shekhinah, associated with Earth, Moon, Garden of Eden, Justice. A kind of Jewish tantra encourages married mystics to make love on Sabbath Eve in an attempt to realize this divine union in their own bodies. Finally, it’s worth noting that the Sabbath itself is also commonly hypostasized as female.

All this is a little apart from the theme of this blog, except to show the flexibility and creativity of the Western religious imagination once it divests itself of rigid subject/object and mind/body dichotomies. And I don’t think any of it would have been possible without the prior determination of the divine’s absolute unknowability. Putting ultimate reality beyond all conceptual reach licensed the invention of the Sefirot as a kind of heuristic – in fact, it probably necessitated it, both as a focus of devotion for ordinary believers and as a mandala or source code for divine autopoiesis.

*Depending on how closely one identifies Keter with Ein Sof. Multiple versions of the Sefirot diagram (with sometimes divergent descriptions) may be found on the web. Here’s one that’s particularly well done and easy to navigate. Read especially the descriptions of The Right Side (male) and The Left Side (female). The diagram can of course be used as a map of the human body. But I can’t help thinking that there are probably many, more esoteric interpretations that have never been put into print (or at least into translation).

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.