I first started delving into both Jewish Kabbalah and Hermetic Qabalah in the 1990s, after friends told me these forms of mysticism included both female and male representations of divinity and therefore were gender equitable. They were right about the first part: Kabbalah/Qabalah contain both divine masculine and feminine imaging and male and female images. But as far as gender equity goes, to use today’s slang, not so much!
Though they are both transliterations of the same Hebrew word, as is common I use “Kabbalah” for the Jewish versions, and “Qabalah” for the Hermetic version, best known through its association with the British Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which began in the 19th Century. The word means “that which is received,” with the understanding that it was “received” from ancient times. Though there is one tradition that says Adam was given Kabbalah in the Garden of Eden, the first written material for Kabbalah, Sefir Yetsirah (Book of Creation), is dated to between 200 and 500 C.E. Kabbalistic concepts changed over the centuries, with writings becoming more significant in the 13th century and even more popular in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Beginning with the Sefir Bahir (Bright Book) in late 12th century France, Kabbalah is represented by the Tree of Life, which has round areas transliterated sefirot (Heb. pl.; sing. sefirah) that I think of as fruit and others call “spheres,” but which in the Bahir, are more accurately translated “sapphires.”* These “divine emanations,” as they are often called in English, are gendered. How equal is the gender representation?
There are generally 10 sefirot on the Tree of Life, but an 11th sefirah, Daat, considered “invisible,” is sometimes included. In Kabbalah, the gender representation of 6 of these is male/masculine, 3 of them female/feminine., and 1 non-gendered. In Qabalah, 6 are male/masculine, 3 are female/feminine, and one has both masculine and feminine characteristics. (Though the gender numbers are similar, the identical gender is not always applied to the same sefirah in Kabbalah and Qabalah. For example, Keter is considered ungendered in Kabbalah, but masculine in Qabalah.)
As if the unbalanced representation weren’t enough, in both Kabbalah and Qabalah the sefirah Hokmah (Wisdom) is portrayed as male/masculine. This stunned me because in the Hebrew scriptures Wisdom is portrayed as female, a portrayal that continues through Christian gnosticism, where she is called in Greek, Sophia. What else has been changed? I asked myself, and embarked upon research leading to my deconstruction/reconstruction of the kabbalalistic Tree, using both historical and linguistic analyses. These became significant parts of my book, Goddess Spirituality for the 21st Century:From Kabbalah to Quantum Physics.
Historically what is perhaps most obvious is that interpretations of Kabbalah grew increasingly misogynist, paralleling the increasing subjugation of women in other religious doctrines and in society in general. For example, in the early 12th century, kabbalists considered the Shekhinah understood as female or femimine and located in the lowest sefirah, Malkut (Kingdom), to be synonymous with Torah. But in the 13th century, the Torah scroll became male, phallic, and only the crown remained somewhat feminine, but also represented the penile corona, according to Elliot R.Wolfson in Circle in the Square, (State University of New York Press, 1995, pages 13, 16, 21-22). Wolfson says that this indicates that the female divine has become part of the male deity, rather than remaining independently divine.
The Hebrew Goddess Asherah was symbolically equivalent to and often represented by a tree, as famously first pointed out by Ruth Hestrin in“The Lachish Ewer and the Asherah,” Israel Exploration Journal 1987, 37: 212-223.* Though the Tree as explained in the Sefir Yetsirah represented creation in general and contained symbolism related to the ouroboros, (snake swallowing its tail, a Goddess symbol), by the late 13th century in Sefir ha Zohar (Book of Radiance) the Tree becomes the “Adam Kadmon” (Primordial Man). This is accompanied by other descriptions increasing the importance of the masculine while retaining some feminine symbolism.
For example, the Zohar establishes a divinity with four aspects. The Father, Hokmah (Wisdom), now supposedly male, in further typical patriarchal reversal is said to have “spread out and brought forth” the Mother, sefirah Binah (Understanding). The Son/King, sefirah Tifaret (Beauty) is said to nourish the Daughter, Shekhinah. The four letters of the divine name, YHVH, take on gender related to their Hebrew shapes (read from the right): Y (Hebrew, yod) represents the Father; H (Hebrew, heh), the Mother (Binah); V (Hebrew vau or vav), the Son; and the second H , the Daughter.* It later came to pass that the Hebrew word for YHVH became abbreviated as only two yods (the first “male” letter), thus disappearing the “female” from the written name.
However, YHVH is never spoken in Torah-reading or in prayer. (Considering the name of deity unpronounceable or not to be spoken appears borrowed from the Goddess, one of whose epithets was “She whose name cannot be spoken.”) Instead, the Hebrew word “Adonai”(Lord) is substituted. Today, when the word is used outside a sacred context (such as here), some Jews substitute the term “Ha-shem” (The Name) for Adonai. Although I understand that the rationale for obscuring to at least three levels of substitution is to keep the name sacred and possibly to honor commandment forbidding “graven images,” I also must ask, is this hiding something?
In the mid 16th century, the Spanish mystic Moses Cordovero gave several possibilities for the route taken by divine emanation at creation but affirmed that there is only one route to Malkut/Shekhinah—through Yesod, a male and phallic sefirah.* Cordovero’s teachings were rigidified and made more doctrinal a few years later by Isaac Luria, highly regarded to this day by many kabbalists. For instance, Cordovero, along with previous kabbalists, describes creation as contraction, meaning concentration of God’s power in a specific place, and affirms that “nothing is outside of God.” But Luria teaches that God had to withdraw for creation to occur, making what was created “other than God,” changing the description from the more female-like “contraction,” to the more male “withdrawal” and separating spirit from matter. Among Luria’s other doctrines was the assertion that Malkut/Shekhinah becomes male when exposed to males or masculine sefirot, and that creation included the catastrophic “breaking of the vessels,” due mostly to lack of “receptivity” of some female sefirot. This also elevated the male, as represented by Adam Kadmon, the Primordial Man.*
Yes, Kabbalah/Qabalah contain both divine masculine and feminine imaging and male and female images. But as far as gender equity goes, not so much!
For more information about: the translation of “sefirot” as “sapphires,” and related material see Gershom Scholem. Kabbalah, Meridian, 1978, 99, 312; the Goddess and Tree symbolism see Willam G. Dever, Did God Have a Wife?, Eerdmans, 2005, 225-230; descriptions in the Zohar, see Daniel Matt: The Essential Kabbalah, Harper San Francisco, 1995, 50; gender and the letters of the divine name, see Raphael Patai, The Hebrew Goddess, third enlarged edition, Wayne State University Press, 1990, .114-117; the work of Cordovero and Luria, see Matt, pp. 30-45 and 94-95, Scholem, pp. 130-139, and Wolfson, p. 66.
The second enlarged edition of Judith Laura’s book, Goddess Spirituality for the 21st Century: From Kabbalah to Quantum Physics is Winner of the USA Best Book Awards 2009 in the comparative religion category. She is author of two other Goddess books and two novels. Judith is Jewish by birth and Unitarian Universalist and Goddessian by choice. Active in Goddess feminism since the 1970s, she is founder of the “Asherah” Yahoogroup. She blogs as Medusa at medusacoils.blogspot.com.