What Is More Sacred Than Woman?

As I journeyed through the process of converting to Judaism, I kept smacking up against sexism…particularly in the Orthodox practices. I hated all the dark, restricting, fashionless, entire body-covering clothes…as though a woman’s body is shameful and must be covered up because men aren’t disciplined enough to control their urges. The mechitza rankled me…particularly when it meant that women weren’t allowed to touch the Torah or participate in the service at all. The minyan, a requirement of ten people present in order for a sacred service to occur, was the last straw to my silence. I, as a woman, would not count toward a minyan…either in the Orthodox or Modern Orthodox communities…only men.

I was frustrated. I was angry. I was indignant.

Why is my value as a woman limited to keeping house, having children, and pleasing my husband? Why is my value as a woman not even noticed if I’m single or childless? Why is my value as a single and childless woman only noticed in terms of getting me married so that I can get on with having children and pleasing my husband? Why is there no value of me for me? Why is my intellect not valued? Why are my other skills as a business woman, musician, writer, teacher, philosopher, scholar, and wild adventurer not valued? Although I ultimately chose to convert Conservative so that all these things that I value in myself would also be valued by my community, this philosophy still irritated me…and still does to some degree. Particularly because if I were ever to go to Israel, Orthodoxy rules…which also means even though I converted Conservative, I will not be considered to be a Jew in Israel. Only those who convert Orthodox are fully accepted as being Jewish and given rights to Israeli citizenship. But, as long as these prevailing practices and attitudes toward women remain, I will never embrace Orthodoxy.

One Shabbas, I was ranting on this topic to my spiritual “Jewish father,” and, true to form, he listened to me with his full attention and interest.

When my words were exhausted, he asked, his eyes twinkling in delight with my thoughts, “Are you finished?”

I flopped back into my chair, indignantly sulking, and stated, “YES!”

“May I suggest an alternative view?” he offered.

I snorted. “I don’t see how that’s possible.”

“Weeellll,” he mused, “it’s debatable by some, and it’s simply a suggestion, but…it might help a little.”

“Ok.” I finally agreed. “I’d love to change my mind and attitude around this issue because it’s using up a lot of energy. I’m listening.”

He nodded and began. “You know my wife?”

I chuckled reluctantly and nod.

“You know that she doesn’t observe many Jewish practices.”

I nodded.

“She always uses her leather purse…regardless of what day it is,” he continued. “She talks on the phone on Shabbas, she’ll go to the store on Shabbas if she needs to, she drives on Shabbas, she may or may not attend services…you get the picture.”

I nodded.

“I, on the other hand,” he placed his hand on his heart, “go to minyan twice each day, attend all services, attend an Orthodox Torah study on Tuesday nights, keep kosher, walk to shul on Shabbas, don’t turn lights on or off on Shabbas…in other words, I’m observant.”

I nodded again.

“Who do you think is the most spiritual?” he asked with a smile.

I looked at him suspiciously, “Spiritual, or religious?”

He smiled as his head nodded, his index finger waggling. “Spiritual.”

“Well,” I hesitated, “just because she isn’t observant doesn’t necessarily mean she isn’t spiritual.”

“Exactly!” he responded. “Why do you think that is?”

I looked at him. “Please don’t tell me that housework inherently creates spirituality.”

He laughed. “I would never dare to say such a thing. But,” he chuckled, “there is a connection.

My eyes narrowed

“Hear me out.”

“Continue…with caution,” I said.

“Have you ever considered,” he spoke slowly, choosing his words carefully, “that a woman is inherently spiritual? That she doesn’t need all the trappings of the Jewish practices?”

My eyes widened slightly, my head cocked in interest. “Continue,” I said.

“These rituals that are required by men…that I observe…are meant to refine the soul in order to bring the soul into a union with Divinity. A woman doesn’t need them…my wife doesn’t need them…I definitely do.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because Divinity is not Who I think of naturally…or easily. I think of myself. I think of my needs…my wants…my desires…my ego. Women, and of course there are always better examples than others, have an easier and more natural access to Divinity on a regular basis.”

“Really?” I asked skeptically.

“Yes,” he insisted. “My wife doesn’t need a service to bring her close to Divinity…she infuses Divinity into everything she does…including housework.” He grinned at me, “She doesn’t need to be limited by ritual because she’s beyond that. Ritual is for beginners.”

“Huh.” I said. I’m still not sure I wanted to give up my rant…although, this makes for an interesting substitute.

“This is not to say that the accompanying attitudes around ritual are at all welcoming or appreciative of women…but perhaps this perspective can help ease the sting around that failing,” he offered.

I nodded slowly as I sort through my thoughts. “Where did you come up with this idea?” I asked.

“The Torah,” he grinned.

My eyes rolled upwards, my hands facing the sky, “Of course you did.”

“Seriously!” he insisted. “Remember the story of creation in Genesis?”

“Which one?” I countered.

“Any of them. For this purpose, it doesn’t matter.”

“Ok.” I replied. “Yes, I remember.”

“How does it begin? What is created first?”

“Mmmmmm,” I pondered, “that’s a really hard question.”

“Not philosophically,” he encouraged, “just what is stated in the story.”

“Oh,” I laughed, “you want the simple answer of light.”

“Yes!” he laughed in return. “How hard was it to create light? How complicated is light?”

“Weeellll,” I began, “You’re talking about the foundations of existence and potentials, so….”

“Ok,” he conceded, “but we’re going for simple here. For argument’s sake, let’s just say that it was easy.”

“Ok.” I agreed.

“Then what comes next?” he asked.

“Darkness,” I replied.

“Again, easy,” he said.

I nodded, beginning to understand the parameters of the argument.

“Then?”

“Atmosphere and separating water.”

“Good!” he seems pleased. “Harder or easier than light?”

“Ok.” I said, “I’ll play along…not harder or easier, but more complex perhaps.”

He conceded with a simultaneous hand/face gesture. “Continue through creation. Each day, does the creation get more complex or more simple?”

“More complex.”

“Good!” he agreed. “Now, what happens on the sixth day?”

“Humans are created.”

“Ah.” He agreed, “But in what order?”

“Well, if you’re talking about the conjoined human, then they were created at the same time.”

“True,” he shrugged, “but look how that ended.”

I laughed, “They were separated at the rib and Lilith ran away.”

“So then what?”

“Ah!” A light dawned. “Woman is created…separately…not attached to a man…whole and complete on her own.”

He beamed proudly.

He continued, “If you look at Creation from a simple-to-complex continuum, where is woman?”

“Most complex,” I said slowly, in wonderment.

“Almost,” he said blissfully. “If you look at Creation as also being a movement toward sacredness, where is woman?”

“Most sacred,” I said breathlessly.

“Almost,” he said enraptured. He paused, breathing in ecstasy before saying, “The only thing created that is more complex and more sacred than woman, is Shabbas. And yet!” he emphasized with a finger and a chuckle, “Who’s to say they aren’t one, for she was created Erev Shabbas.”

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Polytheism or Attributes?

I read somewhere, perhaps Heschel, that a person trusts themselves more than their idea of a Divine being. The author went on to illustrate the point. He (I’m assuming at this point that the author was Heschel) invited me to think of the one thing that I couldn’t do for any incentive. Then, he asked me, “Would you do it if G-d told you to do it?” I laughed as I realized that not even God/Goddess was incentive enough to do this thing.

In that moment, my concept of what/who God/Goddess is and what/who I am shifted dramatically.

I thought about this as I percolated on the existence of other god and goddesses in the Torah. The fact that the rabbi agreed with my interpretation did nothing to ease my discomfort around challenging monotheism. In light of Heschel’s (allegedly) exercise, I had to face a myriad of other questions as well…the biggest being, How true do I believe the Torah to be? 

After a few months of sitting with this, and I came to some sort of familiarity around this idea (certainly, I wasn’t comfortable with it yet), I asked my rabbi to show me more places in the Torah where this idea of polytheism is suggested. Ironically, my rabbi pointed to Genesis 1:26: …Let Us make humanity in Our image, after Our likeness…

Elohim,” he explained, “is both masculine and feminine. One description is that Elohim, a plural form, is the blend of Yhvh and El Shaddai.”

There it was. My feminine…creating…the missing piece.

“So,” I asked tentatively, “is that it? Are there no other places where other gods are mentioned?”

“There are,” he assured me, “but not all are explicit. Sometimes you have to read between the lines.”

The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went to the daughters of humans and had children by them. (Gen. 6:4)

“I knew it!” I yelled. “I’ve always thought this meant what it actually says…not that it was differentiating between holy people in the mountain versus unholy people in the valley or other such interpretations.”

“It is hard to refute,” he agreed, “particularly in light of other similar texts.”

Praise, O heavens, his people…Kneel before him, all you gods. (Deut. 32:43)

sons of the Most High… (Ps. 82:6)

sons of God… (Job 38:7)

God has established his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he judges. (Ps. 82:1)

Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods? (Ex. 15:11)

When Elyon divided the nations, when he separated the sons of Adam, he established the borders of the nations according to the number of the sons of the gods. Yahweh’s portion was his people, Jacob, his allotted inheritance. (Deut. 32:8–9)

When the king of Moab realized he was losing the battle, he and 700 swordsmen tried to break through and attack the king of Edom, but they failed. So he took his firstborn son, who was to succeed him as king, and offered him up as a burnt sacrifice on the wall. There was an outburst of divine anger against Israel, so they broke off the attack. (2 Kings 3:26-27)

“This last one,” he explained, “has been interpreted in light of the previous example…that each nation has a Deity assigned to it. It doesn’t really make sense that Israel’s Deity would turn on them after they’d done what He’d asked, but it might make more sense if Moab’s Deity attacked Israel after Moab’s king offered a sacrifice.”

“There are more,” he said, “but I think you get the idea.”

I nodded dumbly. My mind was reeling…everything I thought I knew was, again, being turned upside down. I knew I had asked for this information, but now I almost wished I hadn’t asked…I really didn’t know what to do with this.

Then he turned to Exodus 20:3 and read, “You shall have no other gods before me.”

“In the original text, it really means ‘I am the best in battle of all the gods, so don’t worship them, worship me because I’m the one who brought you from Egypt.’ ”

I sat stunned.

I’d read these verses almost my entire life…especially the last one. But, never had I seen the word other as an implication that other gods or goddesses existed. And, not only is that word implying that they exist, the rest of it is implying something so unbelievable that I’m scared to say it out loud.

“So,” I hesitated, “it almost sounds as though God…whoever this God is…” I speak slowly…not quite believing what is coming out of my mouth…”is giving permission to worship other gods and goddesses, but not to place them higher in importance to Him/Her.”

I was so nervous. I felt like I was blaspheming. I couldn’t believe I was thinking those thoughts, much less saying them out loud.

“Exactly!” he replied.

I laughed…out of nervousness, relief, exasperation, frustration, amazement. What else could I do?

What now?!

To be honest, it took me several years to come to any ease around this idea…in fact, I’m still exploring the implications of this and have renewed my research on this topic. However, I have to thank to Doreen Virtue for offering a bridge of compromise. She offered the explanation that other gods and goddesses were attributes of Divinity, that couldn’t be comprehended except to separate and personify them. I felt much more comfortable with that description, and within that context, I began to explore the world’s religious pantheon.

As I sat in that decision, feeling for fear and warning sensations, I felt none…then laughed.

I think I just became a Hindu.

Feminine Power

Part of the conversion process into Judaism involves choosing a name. A Jewish name.

I was all over that assignment, because I have never identified with my name, nor have I liked it. At all. To me, it’s ugly. And masculine. I’m often assumed to be a man because of my name. I hate that…especially when I see how differently I’m treated once it’s discovered that I’m a woman.

From a very young age, I’ve tried to find a name that fits me…a name that resonates and fully embodies all that I am. Here was my opportunity to legally do that, in the Jewish sense. But, I was stumped. Where does one begin when everything is possible?

“Start by looking at women in the Tanakh that you admire,” my rabbi suggested. “Figure out why you admire them, then see if any of those names resonate with you.”

Three hours later, I was no better off. I couldn’t believe how few women there were in the stories I’ve known since childhood. Fewer still who resonated with me on any level. So many I saw as being manipulative (Sarah, Hagar, Rachel, Jezebel, Delilah), or manipulated (Leah, Rachel, Hannah), or strictly sexual  (Dinah, Lot’s daughters, Potipher‘s wife), were slaves (Esther, Deborah, or most women), or were masculine in their aggression (Deborah, Jael), or had a victim complex (Naomi, Ruth). Very few were recognized as being leaders…women of power and respect…admired by both men and women.

It was then I realized that I was looking for a woman who is powerful…not because she takes power from others, and not because she emulates men. I was looking for a woman who is powerful in her own right…without trampling on others to get there. A woman who is wise and discerning…able to navigate both the feminine and masculine with equal ease, grace and diplomacy. I didn’t know any women who did this expertly…I certainly had no idea how to do this. But, I realized that is the woman I wanted to become…the woman I wanted my name to reflect…the name to guide and foretell my future.

Again. I realize. I’m here again…concerned with women and power, like I’m some sort of feminist. Am I a feminist? What exactly is a feminist?

I had never thought of myself as a Feminist, and in that moment, I realized that I was ashamed to be considered a Feminist. I was ashamed because I knew so many men who rail against Feminists and all that they stand for…I didn’t want to be automatically dismissed by these men in my social circles simply because I cared about my role as a woman.

Do I agree with these men? Why don’t I like Feminists?

I then realized that I have a hard time with forcefulness…in either men or women. So, when Feminists become forceful and masculine in their approach, I turn away. From that perspective, I could understand why some men push back so hard…a masculine energy is pushing against itself because it’s coming from an unnatural source…a woman.

I realized I was torn…grateful, on the one hand, to those who fought and continue to fight for my rights as a woman, but embarrassed, on the other hand, that the fight is so graceless…masked unnecessarily in masculine power, and so lacking in true feminine power. I realized, I didn’t want to be considered one of Them…but I also realized that my desire for true feminine power would inevitably lump me in. Perhaps I can be a part of a new kind of Feminism…even  though I have absolutely no idea what this looks like.

I sighed.

I shrugged.

My rabbi chuckled…again.

“You really do break all molds. And, it’s so very refreshing.”

“Really?!” I’m genuinely surprised. He, a man, is not put off by my perspectives! Maybe there’s something to this!

Together we explore the Tanakh for examples of these feminine qualities I seek…nebulous qualities because I don’t really know what they are, but are provable by their circumstances and results…a gentler, kinder, collaborative way…without losing or compromising self.

Eventually, we finalize on two names:

Aviva: Meaning “Spring” or “Awakening,” like the picture at the top. I took that picture after the devastating fire season of 2008-2009. The entire hillside was burnt black, with no plants in sight. However, a few months later, wildflowers thrived…awakening the earth after a purge. I wanted to awaken myself to a new way of being…a new way of seeing and blossoming that is feminine in nature. And, not only is the name a palindrome, it has symmetrical lines, lending it to being written beautifully…a feminine name.

Avigail: The Hebrew equivalent to Abigail. I choose it because of Abigail, who became David’s wife after the incident that caused their meeting. She utilized her feminine beauty, intelligence, wisdom, and wealth to gently, but firmly, intervene in a moment of crisis between her husband and David. She didn’t defer to her husband…she acted on her own, with planning and conviction. Neither did she employ aggressive tactics…rather, she employed her intelligence and insight into consequences and helped David choose the path that would take him where he really wanted to go. As a result, she averted a war between them, which could have severely damaged both her community and hindered David’s journey to the throne.

I’m proud, grateful, and satisfied to have found a name that finally reflects me. This isn’t necessarily who I am right now…nor is it who I will be tomorrow…or the next month or year. But, I will become this person…this is a name to grow into…a name to learn to embody. A name that will teach me and inspire me to step into my genuine feminine power.

Balance

Artist: Artemis.com

Part of my personal quest in delving into the mysteries of the Sacred Feminine, is simultaneously honoring the role of the Sacred Masculine. I do not ascribe to the idea that one must be over the other…nor do I ascribe to the idea that in order to gain power, one must take power from the other. Learning what belongs to each and how they mesh has been my desire for quite some time.

While traveling recently, my flight was delayed…several times. Such situations are always dangerous for me because inevitably, I find myself in a book shop…itching to part with money in exchange for something much more valuable…someone else’s thoughts.

This time, I promised myself that I would limit my purchases to two, and that only the books most likely to make a life-long impact on me would be allowed to be considered. At that point, I turned on my intuition and connected with my guides. One book that leapt into my hand was “Aleph” by Paolo Coelho. The book is a mere 270 pages…a number I would have easily devoured in a matter of hours under usual circumstances. It has been two-and-a-half weeks, and I’m on page 219. Here is what I’m compelled to share with you today:

In Ancient times, there were always two dominant figures in a tribe. The first was the leader. He would be the bravest member of the tribe, strong enough to defeat any challengers and intelligent enough to foil any conspiracies–power struggles are nothing new; they have been with us since the dawn of time. Once he was established in his position, he became responsible for the protection and well-being of his people in the physical world. With time, what had been a matter of natural selection became subject to corruption, and leadership began to be passed down from father to son, giving way to the principle of perpetuation of power from which emperors, kings, and dictators spring.

More important than the leader, however, was the shaman. Even at the very dawn of humanity, men were already aware of some greater power capable of both giving life and taking it away, although where exactly that power came from they didn’t know. Along with the birth of love came a need to find an answer to the mystery of existence. The first shamans were women, the source of life. Since they did not have to go hunting or fishing, they could devote themselves to contemplation and immerse themselves in the sacred mysteries. The Tradition was always passed on to those who were most able, who lived alone in isolation, and who were usually virgins. They worked on a different plane, balancing the forces of the spiritual world with those of the physical world.

The process was nearly always the same: the shaman used music (usually percussion) to go into a trance, and then would drink and administer potions made from natural substances. Her soul would leave her body and enter the parallel universe. There it would meet with the spirits of plants, animals, the dead, the living, all existing in a single time that Yao calls qi and I call the Aleph. There, too, she would encounter her guides and be able to balance energies, cure illnesses, bring rain, restore peace, decipher the symbols and signs sent by nature, and punish any individual who was getting in the way of the tribe’s contact with the All. At that time, when tribes had to keep traveling in their constant search for food, it was impossible to build temples or altars. There was only the All, in whose womb the tribe journeyed ever onward.

Like the role of the leader, that of the shaman also became corrupted. Since the health and protection of the group depended on being in harmony with the forest, the countryside, and nature, the women responsible for that spiritual contact–the soul of the tribe–were invested with great authority, often more even than the leader. At some undefined moment in history (probably after the discovery of agriculture, which brought an end to nomadism), the female gift was usurped by men. Force won out over harmony. The natural qualities of those women were ignored; what mattered was their power.

The next step was to organize shamanism–now entirely male–into a social structure. The first religions came into being. Society had changed and was no longer nomadic, but respect for and fear of the leader and the shaman were rooted in the human soul and would remain so forever. Aware of this, the priests joined ranks with the tribal leaders in order to keep the people in submission. Anyone who defied the governors would be threatened with punishment by the gods. Then came a time when women started demanding the return of their role as shamans, because without them the world was heading for conflict. Whenever they put themselves forward, however, they were treated as heretics and prostitutes. If the system felt threatened by them, it did not hesitate to punish them with burnings, stonings, and, in milder instances, exile. Female religions were erased from the history of civilization; we know only that the most ancient magical objects so far uncovered by archaeologists are images of goddesses. They, however, were lost in the sands of time, just as magical powers, when used only for earthly ends, became diluted and lost their potency. All that remained was the fear of divine punishment.

Attributes of the Sacred Feminine

 

The idea of a feminine deity, while deeply resonating with my soul, took a long time to get used to, from an intellectual stand-point. All of a sudden, the simple idea of “One God” was blown out of the water. My fundamental, childhood belief in monotheism now started to be questioned, and I wasn’t sure what to do with that.

After several months of exploring and wrestling with this on my own, I asked my rabbi if a feminine deity meant that Judaism ascribes to polytheism.

He chuckled.

I relaxed.

He didn’t squirm.

I relaxed even more.

He responded by acknowledging that there are plenty of arguments to be made in favor of polytheism due to the many names of God/Goddess.

“They very well could be describing many deities,” he said, “and, in fact, the Torah doesn’t teach that there aren’t other gods or goddesses…just that this is the only one that Jews are to worship.”

I sat up startled. There are other gods and goddesses? And the Torah admits that? Where?!

” However,” he continued, “in light of the Shma (Hear O Israel, our God is One), one might consider that these are all aspects of Divinity…that the Highest Power is a balance of Masculine and Feminine and many other attributes that we only know how to experience separately.”

“I need some time to think about that,” I replied, stunned and overwhelmed…and our study session ended.

That Shabbas, while talking with another very learned man about this topic, he told me about the Thirteen Attributes of God, and to look into those to see if they provided any clues for me. While there are many lists of what these thirteen attributes are, this is the list of the most commonly associated attributes:

  1. Adonai — compassion before a person sins;
  2. Adonai — compassion after a person has sinned;
  3. El — mighty in compassion to give all creatures according to their need;
  4. Rachum — merciful, that humankind may not be distressed;
  5. Chanun — gracious if humankind is already in distress;
  6. Erech appayim — slow to anger;
  7. Rav chesed — plenteous in mercy and abundant in goodness;
  8. Emet — truth in integrity and speaking truth in love;
  9. Notzer chesed laalafim — keeping mercy unto thousands, or remembering the good deeds of the ancestors for a thousand generations;
  10. Noseh avon — forgiving iniquity, or bearing with indulgence the failings of humanity;
  11. Noseh peshah — forgiving transgression, springing from malice and rebellion against Divinity;
  12. Noseh chatah — forgiving sin, or forgiving humanity’s shortcomings due to heedlessness and error;
  13. Venakeh — and pardoning those who deserve punishment or consequence.

I asked him why thirteen. He didn’t know.

“But,” he told me, “I do know that it must always be thirteen. Not more. Not fewer.”

“Why?” I asked. “What does it mean?”

“It’s a mystery,” he said with a smile.

He reminded me of this mystery several months later, after many more similar conversations. It was my last Shabbas service at that synagogue before moving back to California.

With much urgency, he pulled me aside and said, “These are the most important words I can think to share with you as we part: Keep your eyes open.”

Puzzled, I asked, “Why? What am I to see? What am I missing?”

“Just watch,” he replied, gave me a hug, and was gone.

Now, several years later, I look at this list with an added dimension. While there are many debates as to the gender of each of these attributes or names of Divinity, some being feminine and some masculine, what really matters is the blending…the resulting whole thirteen. I now know the significance of it…it is the number of the Sacred Feminine.