Amy Levin is a graduate student in Religious Studies at New York University with an interdisciplinary focus on American religion, gender and queer theory, secularization, spirituality, and consumption. She is a regular contributor to The Revealer and a practicing feminist.
If Kabbalah has frequented the media’s gaze in the past decade, the name Madonna has most likely infused the headlines, along with perhaps Mick Jagger, Britney Spears, and “A-Rod,” among others. Unsurprisingly, most of the media coverage on Kabbalah and its famed celebrities tends to conceal its central teachings, focusing on only one contemporary Kabbalah movement: The Kabbalah Centre. Valorized as one of the most financially successful movements of its day, The Kabbalah Centre began in the early 1970s by Rabbi Philip Berg and his wife Karen Berg. The movement exists alongside many of the contemporary groups that seek to renew and reinvigorate an ancient Jewish tradition.
Kabbalah, which literally means, “to receive,” is an umbrella term for a particular set of ancient Jewish mystical practices and ideas, dating as far back as 13th century Spain, and possibly even farther. It is commonly noted that Kabbalah was an esoteric, and thus exclusive practice, studied by only highly educated Jewish men over the age of forty. Like most religious categories, the limits and boundaries of its definition of Kabbalah differ in the various historical and geographical contexts in which it flourished. Jody Myers, author of Kabbalah and the Spiritual Quest: The Kabbalah Centre in America, notes that one of the central tenants of the Kabbalah Centre is that while Kabbalah is useful for anyone and everyone, one should not be coerced into belief or practice, and it is solely up to the individual to choose it as his or her personal path. Another tenant in Berg’s teachings is a central belief that God is a form of energy, called “the Light.” This loving and spiritual light fills infinite space, and seeks to share its positive energy with anyone who desires it. Berg’s noncoercive model is part of an overarching egalitarian structure that posits religion as authoritarian and conformist, and spirituality as individual and liberating.
Though it is highly criticized for its sophisticated and discrete marketing strategies and “inauthentic Judaism,” the Kabbalah Centre’s their principles are built on egalitarianism, posing Kabbalah as a spiritual and religious melting pot in which everyone can have their daily bread. This commitment to egalitarianism, however, does not make the movement impervious to hierarchy, patriarchy, or inequality. But while I have never witnessed an accusation of the movement being antifeminist, I have yet to see the opposite case being made.
Fortunately, the Kabbalah Centre isn’t the only outlet of its kind for spiritual seekers –many Jewish feminists have begun taking an interest in contemporary Kabbalah through various means, including art, prayer, performance, literature, and so on. Because Kabbalah is full of symbolism and metaphor reflected in ideas like the sefirot (divine emanations from God) and the Ein Sof (infinite God), these concepts are malleable in their meanings, and thus useful in feminist expression. Women’s studies scholar Gloria Orenstein looks at Jewish women using art to reclaim and connect to their Jewish identity through feminist interpretations of Torah and Kabbalah. This subversion is particularly radical because the artists are infusing a mysticism in their feminist projects that was once prohibited to women.
Orenstein features Gilah Hirsch, whose paintings utilize kabbalistic symbolism for feminist reclamation. Her painting of the Ein Sof incorporates a breast motif in order to connect female procreation to Shaddai, one of the names for God, which is linguistically related to the Hebrew word for breasts, shadayim. Another of her paintings links Kabbalah to procreation through the sacred meanings of Hebrew letters. Explaining the linguistic-mystical meaning of the piece, Orenstein writes, “As Hirsch tells us, the sung sound of the first Hebrew letter, Alef, is aaaah, the sound of life after birth –but it is also oooooo, a sound of sorrow and pain. Her organic, floral forms resemble Hebrew letters.” While Hirsh’s pieces are symbolically ritualistic, Cheselyn Amato’s kabbalistic installations are performatively ritualistic. Amato describes one of her installations as such: “Taken as a single, whole event/experience, the piece is committed to the envisioning of transcendence, transfiguration, divine presence, womanhood, the pleasure of light, the pleasure of magic, and the pleasure of spectacle.” Amato portrays just how powerful the experience of these symbols is when ritualized through art installation.
In a more conventionally religious context, women have increasingly begun using kabbalistic symbols as a way of connecting to Judaism. During davening (Jewish prayer), some Jewish circles are incorporating the Shekhinah, the kabbalistic conception of the feminine aspect of God which occupies one of the ten sefirot. The Shekhinah is naturally a way for women to spiritually connect to the Divine, and deviates from the normalized male attribute of God that occurs in many Jewish contexts. Scholar Chava Weissler notes the way in which Jewish women, particularly Renewal Jews, express this concept, saying that, “We misunderstand the meanings of Shekhinah for Renewal Jews if we fail to attend to the artistic and the experiential dimensions. . . There is a difference between making an argument and creating a painting, a song, or a ritual.” For these women, ritual is a space that allows for the feminine divine, and without this space, the potential power of the Shekhinah is threatened.
The question of whether or not contemporary Kabbalah is a feminist practice is frankly too simple. Kabbalah today is both a product of contemporary culture and a medium to cultivate a particular kind of spirituality, or meaning. Whether one chooses to explore Kabbalah through the lens of Madonna’s guru, New Age literature, or ancient canonical texts, bring your feminist imaginings with you, along with a canvas, perhaps. After all, like so many religious traditions refurbished and reincorporated today, although Kabbalah is wrought with a history of patriarchal rule, its history does not determine its future.