RE-SOULING ON SHABBAT BY IVY HELMAN


I attended a service at Congregation Shalom in Chelmsford, MA two Fridays ago.  During the service, Rabbi Shoshana Perry spent a few minutes addressing the last word of a Hebrew prayer found in the Reform siddur, Mishkan T’filah.  It was translated in the siddur as “God rested” but the Hebrew word used was vayinafash, which comes from the word nefesh, or soul.  The prayer emphasizes on the seventh day that God did not rest as much as God took time out to re-soul.  Rabbi Perry believes that our Shabbat should be spent doing things that help us also re-soul.

Initially, I spent quite a long time considering why God would need to re-soul and what exactly God would do to re-soul.  When I realized the futility of trying to sort that out, I moved a little closer to home: what do I do on Shabbat to re-soul?  I was quite overwhelmed trying to answer this question as well.

Traditionally, Shabbat is about study, rest, prayer and family among other things.  In fact, many Jews avoid creative processes like writing, cooking, painting, driving and working because God rested from creative work on the seventh day.  (Incidentally, our creativity is also how we are considered to be made in the image of God).  Part of the reason this idea struck me so deeply is because I often find painting, cooking and writing rejuvenating.

I discussed this idea with a friend I used to live with during graduate school at Yale.  I cannot remember what things exactly we had decided would re-soul us – none of the ideas must have been that great – but I do remember something that happened after she left that day.  She sent me a text.  It said, “Spending time with you today was good for my soul.”  She’s right.  I felt refreshed as well.

There are other ways to be refreshed.  I also enjoy attending services.  Haim Watzman describes a service a group of orthodox Israeli women have developed in her book Next Year I Will Know More: Literacy and Identity among Orthodox Women in Israel.  While religious law, halakhah, prohibits women from reading Torah in public (meaning in mixed company), it does not forbid them from reading it at all. Instead of going to the synagogue on Shabbat, these women gather instead in someone’s house to read, study and discuss Torah.  By creating “a room of their own” in which to read Torah, Watzman also believes that they are fundamentally altering the nature of their synagogue.  It is no longer that public place where women sit behind curtains often in the balconies and be more or less spectators as the men read from the Torah.  Now, the men read amongst other men as well.  By creating their own space, men now read in private as well.  The absence of women at Shabbat morning services significantly disrupts the power structure of their community.  I admire them.  Not only are they caring for their souls, they are participating in a liberating experience within the framework of their own kind of feminist vision.  Who knows, in a generation, their daughters could want even more.

For other Jewish feminists, this is not enough.  Some Jewish feminists for example read Torah in front of the Western (Wailing) Wall.  They occupy the public spaces believing that women should not have to break away from men into a private space so that they can read, study and wrestle with Torah.  There is no space more public and often no space more male-dominated than the Wailing Wall.

Yet, in my opinion, both of these groups of Jewish women show tremendous courage.  They are carving out spaces to re-soul, even though they are doing so in vastly different ways within the same religious tradition.  That, it seems to me, is the really challenging part about any effort to re-soul: what rejuvenates me may not work for you.  In the end, only you can decide what re-souls you.

Have you ever thought about what might re-soul you?  Would you mind sharing it with me here on feminismandreligion.com?  In my quest to figure out what might work for me, I would love to know what you do.

To start the conversation, I want to share a prayer that continues to re-soul me.  It can also be found in Miskan T’filah and was first introduced to me during a meditative Shabbat service led by my Rabbi, Rabbi Dawn Rose.  Since Debbie Friedman’s yahrzeit (one-year memorial of her death) just passed this weekend, I think it is only fitting to share her musical arrangement of it.  You can click on the transliteration of the prayer to hear it sung.

Transliterated:

Elohai, n’shamah shenatata bi t’horah hi.

Translation:

My God, the soul You have given me is pure.

I am looking forward to reading about what you do to re-soul.

Ivy A. Helman, Ph. D.: A feminist scholar currently on the faculty at Boston College teaching in its Perspectives Program and an Adjunct Lecturer at Merrimack College.  Her most recent publications include:  “Queer Systems: The Benefits of a More Systematic Approach to Queer Theology,” in CrossCurrents (March 2011) and Women and the Vatican: An Exploration of Official Documents(2012).

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Categories: Feminism, Foremothers, Gender and Power, General, God-talk, Identity Construction, Judaism, Men and Feminism, Prayer, Scripture, Women's Spirituality

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5 replies

  1. I think that the separation/seclusion of women in certain cultures can necessitate the creation of amazing women-only creative and spiritual space. The Torah readers you mention are a great example, as are female bellydance circles in societies where the female body is taboo, nevermind female creative and/or sexual expression. These circles are typically very informal and family-based, nonetheless they can be very strong communities.

    In my own experience studying at a women’s college, I know something special happens when women study together without the presence of men, even in a supposedly liberated society like the US.

    But to answer your question, I re-soul by singing and practicing yoga.

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  2. Hebrew, like many languages, assigns gender to all nouns – specifically, Nefesh (soul) is feminine. Therefore there may be an implication that a male (even if it is God) cannot survive without the feminine nefesh (soul).

    Just as in Genesis 2:7 “And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul (nefesh hayya)” – A man cannot be complete and became a living being without the feminine nefesh.

    This also reminds me of The Christian idea of the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. In the Kabbalah, the Deity manifests simultaneously as Mother and Father and thus begets the Son. Christian interpretation tells us that the Holy Spirit is essentially masculine. But the Hebrew word used in the Scriptures to denote Spirit is Ruach, again a feminine noun. The Holy Spirit is really the Mother, and thus the Christian Trinity properly translated should be Father, Son and Mother.

    The apocryphal, Gospel of Philip also confirms this: “Some said that Mary conceived by the Holy Spirit. They are in error. They do not understand what they say. When did a woman ever conceive by a woman?”

    Interestingly the Hebrew words for “soul”, “spirit” and “breath”: nefesh, neshama and ruach are often used as synonyms or interchangeably and they are all feminine gender. Traditional Jewish interpretations explain the different spiritual characteristics of the words, but again emphasize their feminine nature. A very healing, liberating and re-souling thought in a world, which worships the masculine…

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  3. Thank you for these comments cubehermit and Andre. I’ll have to give belly dancing a try!

    If only there was time to say everything possible about nefesh and the feminine, Andre. I appreciate your comment on this post. However the Christian tradition is not as open-minded as it could be about the Holy Spirit as feminine even though it is definitely a part of theological discussion. I have never heard of someone calling the Holy Spirit Mother. I’ve also never heard of the trinity depicted as Father, Mother and Son. Do you read that somewhere? I would love to know where. Nonetheless, important ideas to consider as ways to move away from worshiping the masculine.

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  4. Hi Ivy, and thanks for your response.
    I certainly think that the Gospel of Phillip is remarkable, as it questions the virgin birth and implies in a number of verses that the Holy Spirit is feminine.
    ( http://www.metalog.org/files/philip.html#18 )

    “Some said that Mary conceived by the Holy Spirit. They are confused. They do not understand what they say. Whenever has a female been impregnated by a female?”

    But of course Phillip was a Jew and familiar with Hebrew grammar. Here attention is being drawn to the fact that ‘spirit’ is of feminine gender in Hebrew [ruach]: breath, wind, spirit). This fundamental point, traditionally obscured in scriptural translation and largely ignored by commentators, clearly has the most far-reaching theological implications. The Greek translation of the word – ‘pneuma’ (πνεῦμα) is already neuter and the Latin ‘spiritus’ is masculine in gender. We need hardly remind ourselves of the confusions, schism and religious machismo to which this gender-shift has given rise across the centuries, asordinary people struggled to make sense of a presumably all-male Trinity.

    However, you may be surprised to see, that the iconography of a 12th century German church contributes to the argument that the Trinity was the Father, Son and Holy (Mother) Spirit. The fresco hidden in the 12th century church in Urschalling celebrates this!

    http://www.celtoslavica.de/imago/_Urschalling.html

    Here the central figure, the Holy Spirit is clearly a woman. Observers however point out, that what makes this depiction really unique is that the folds of the robes in the middle of picture are a beautiful representation of the female vulva.

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  5. I thought of your post as I gathered with other mothers last night. We get together in a form of ‘blessing’for a pregnant mom (instead of the traditional baby shower). These blessing times have become very spiritually important to me. It is where I get to re-soul. Thank you for your post.

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