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The Jewish Renewal movement, the stream of Judaism whose approach is reflected in this article, is an informal network of individuals and synagogues, many of which have formal associations with ALEPH: The Alliance for Jewish Renewal. A longer version of this article was published in New Menorah (Summer 2002).
The Jewish Renewal movement’s emphasis on spirituality is rooted in the images and ideas of kabbalah, medieval Jewish mysticism.
Jewish Renewal has its own interpretation of kabbalah, however, one that is humanistic, egalitarian, and highly accessible. To a large degree this interpretation comes from a handful of important teachers, especially Zalman Schacter-Shalomi and Shlomo Carlebach, who both taught a Hasidic perspective on Judaism and kabbalah that was influenced by the spirituality of the 1960s.
One important expression of egalitarianism in Jewish Renewal is the use of feminine God language, drawing especially on the kabbalistic idea of the Shekhinah–the female aspect of God.
Using this example, we will study the way Renewal draws on kabbalah.
God’s Feminine Side
The focus in Jewish Renewal kabbalah on the "divine feminine" as a model of gender liberation is controversial, and it has been criticized by several scholars. Elliot Wolfson, to take the most preeminent example, calls the feminist and Renewal embrace of kabbalah, "a misreading that I readily endorse as a human being but regrettably reject as a historical scholar." ("The Mirror of Nature in Medieval Jewish Mysticism," delivered at the Harvard conference on Judaism and Nature, 1998.)
Wolfson’s criticism is rooted in the approach to the feminine one finds in the vast majority of kabbalistic texts. In general, kabbalah understands the feminine aspect of God to be a limb of the body of the divine, which is masculine, or as something which exists to complete the male. In other words, the feminine in kabbalah has no feminist implications, since the feminine in its redeemed state is assimilated and masculinized.
While it is true that the Jewish Renewal interpretation of kabbalah may not always be historically accurate, the Renewal movement is primarily interested in the spiritual power of kabbalistic imagery for contemporary Jews. Nonetheless, when we focus on what literary critics call "counter-texts," there seems to be an alternative vision of gender within kabbalah itself that Renewal can authentically draw on without making a false or a-historical reading of kabbalah.
The following passage in Lurianic kabbalah, for example, suggests that the female ultimately unites with the male only after becoming complete in herself:
"There are two aspects to the female of Z’er Anpin [‘the little face’, which is the masculine dimension of God], one when she is contained initially in the male, and the second when she is separated from him and he gives her the crown of strength…When she separates from him and becomes an autonomous aspect, then the two of them are in the secret of a husband and his wife, the male alone and the female alone." (‘Ets Chayim 10:3, 49a-b, cited in Wolfson’s Circle in the Square, p.116.)
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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