Gender in Kabbalah by Judith Laura

Judith LauraI 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!

tree of life kabbalah

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.

asherah

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!

*Note

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.



Categories: Feminism, Feminist Theology, Gender and Power, Goddess, Judaism

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23 replies

  1. Really, really interesting piece, Laura. My knowledge of Kabbalah is very limited – in Israel, saw lots of people selling the wrist bands, and many know that Madonna is a follower. But it’s sad to see how all belief systems seem to follow this constriction and throwing out/lessening all that is divine about women. Thereby reducing the leadership opportunities. We must keep fighting this!

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    • Thanks, Annette. I believe the red string bracelets were originally the 20th century invention of The Kabbalah Centre, which started in California and now apparently has centres worldwide. (See kabbalah.com/locations) This is NOT to give them a plug. I disagree with most of their approach.

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  2. Judith, thanks, what a great piece. Very helpful.

    I think the prohibition of images goes hand in hand with the prohibition of the most popular images–the female ones. Interesting that you speculate the prohibition of saying the name of God may also have to do with gender of God issues. I don’t think the prohibition on saying the name of a female divinity would go back to the Neolithic. Why? Because I think the idea of being unnameable goes hand in hand with notions of transcendence and lack of intimacy with the divine power. I could be wrong on that, this is my sense.

    I have two questions that I hope will lead to you writing other blogs.

    I would like to know more about the Qabalah and how it has influenced contemporary Wicca or other pagan forms and how it has influenced Tarot decks–in patriarchal ways, or not.

    I believe what you say is true about the Shekinah’s subordination. I would love for you to write a blog about Jewish women’s appropriations of Shekhina as the name for the Jewish Goddess or the female face of God. Even though the Shekhina has been “less” than God, do you think Jewish women can ignore that and reclaim her? Obviously to do so requires Jewish women claiming that they can be their own authorities, not dependent on Torah or even Kabbalah as authorization for their own experiences of God-She and Goddess.

    I’m also interested in knowing how the Kabbalah became the Qabalah–what was the process of transmission of texts that were supposed to be in some sense secret–available only to male Jews who had completed studies that would prepare them to be allowed to learn Kabbahlah. As this is not strictly a feminist question, perhaps you can answer it briefly here.

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    • Thanks for your comments and questions, Carol.
      Re: the influence of the Golden Dawn and Qabalah on the later development of Wicca, etc., I go into this in the chapter on Qabalah in my book, Goddess Spirituality for the 21st Century (see judithlaura.com/gs21.html). (My book has 2 chapters on Jewish Kabbalah, 1 on Qabalah, and 1 in which I propose a more equitable re-visioning of the Tree.)
      An excerpt from this chapter appeared in Matrifocus http://www.matrifocus.com/BEL02/myturn-qabalah.htm (no longer publishing but site is till up. The pic from book cover shown with article is from the original edition, now out of print. See my website link for current cover/edition).
      Re: Influence on Tarot decks: The Golden Dawn placed the cards of the deck on the various paths and sefirot of the Tree. Some decks placed Hebrew letters on the cards (this practice continues even in some non-Golden Dawn decks, to this day.) FWIW, although I have a Tarot practice, I don’t mix Kabbalah or Qabalah with Tarot.
      Re: ” how the Kabbalah became the Qabalah–what was the process of transmission of texts that were supposed to be in some sense secret…”: By the time Qabalah was developed, all the Jewish writings were publically available. Further influences on the Golden Dawn and its development of Qabalah included Rosicrucianism, Freemasonry, and Alphonse-Louis Constant (1810-1875), a former Benedictine monk who assumed the Hebraicized name by which he is better known, Eliphas Levi. He studied Jewish Kabbalah and incorporated Christian concepts and some Tarot material. His writings are, imo, VERY misogynist.
      Re: Contemporary Jewish women’s relationship to the Shekhinah, it is definitely occurring, but I’d rather leave a post on that to someone more active in this than me (yes, I would have a recommendation, but I’d have to check with her first.)

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    • Carol, as you probably know, a few Jewish women are also claiming Asherah, the probable consort of Yahweh For me, Asherah is preferable as a metaphor to inspire Jewish feminine/feminist identity because she has not been co-opted by centuries of patriarchal rabbinic subversions of the Feminine, unlike Shekinah. But precisely because she’s not part of the tradition (in the last 2000 years at least) –and because her existence challenges cherished Jewish notions about the superiority of monotheism–there are not too many women who identify strongly as Jewish, who claim her as part of their heritage.

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  3. ALL the religions of the Book (Christianity, Islam and Judaism) always absorb ALL feminine power into their own male, monotheistic, authoritarian systems. Why would you expect Kabbalah to be any different ? In Jewish tradition, the study houses were (and are) for men. Women didn’t even get to read the books.

    In reply to Carol’s questions: Cabbalah (Christistian Cabbalah, derived from and largely similar to, Jewish Kabbalah) is historically one of the most important streams within the Western Mystery Traditions (WMT). But the WMT are not the same thing as Paganism. Many followers of the Northern Faiths, and many Wiccans, come to that, don’t study K/Cabbala at all. I don’t; I dislike it’s essentially masculine view of the cosmos. The kind of Traditional (ie non-Wiccan) Witchcraft that I practice is wholly Goddess based while at an operative level it looks more to the Natural Magic of Agrippa and Ficino than to John Dee (see below). But many, many Pagans within the WMT do study K/Cabbalah as the basis of both their practice and their faith.

    The history of Cabbalah within the WMT traces its roots back to the Elizabethan magician and court astrologer, John Dee. John Dee was a practicing Cabbalist, but he also evolved a highly elaborate magical system known as Enocian or Angel Magic. Both Enocian Magic and Cabbalah were fundamental to the development of the Golden Dawn in the late 19th/early 20th C and continue in use by many occultists who would in no shape or form (and the shapes and forms of Enocian Magic are many and various) consider themselves Wiccans.

    Cabbalah has had an important influence on Tarot, and many Tarot systems are wholly based on it. In the 19th C the French occultist Eliphas Levi evolved an elaborate connection between the twenty two letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the twenty two Major Arcana of the Tarot, thus creating ‘…… an indispensable tool for the student of Christian Kabbala and high ceremonial magic ‘ (Paul Huson, Mystical Origins of the Tarot).

    Since then, Cabbalistic symbolism, especially Cabbalistic number symbolism, has become very widespread in Tarot interpretation. For myself, I find it over complicated, and so tending to stifle the intuition which I think necessary to all divinatory systems. In other words, I think the influence of Cabbalah on Tarot has been to emphasize a more learned and so bookish kind of Tarot, which I see as essentially masculine. I prefer to look back to the Neo-Platonic magical traditions of the European Renaissance – which is where after all, the Tarot as we know it first emerges – in order to understand the occult meanings of the cards.

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    • June, thanks for your comments. I agree with much of what you say, especially on Tarot and Cabbalah/Qabalah. I agree that Golden Dawn is not the same as Wicca or Paganism, but it’s not a stretch to see similarities and wonder about influence of Golden Dawn. To further answer Carol’s question about this, I’ll just summarize from my book some similarities between Golden Dawn and Wicca and possibly other forms of Paganism: the “circumambulation” in GD rituals is similar (but not exactly the same as) the casting of a circle in Wicca; both GD rituals and Wicca incorporate association of four elements with four directions; GD purifies with water and consecrates with incense; GD inscribes pentagrams and other symbols in the air with wands and swords.

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      • Both the GD and Gardnerian Wicca derive much of their ceremony from
        Freemasonary . The purification with water and the consecration with incense are both inherited from the ancient world via Catholicism. The four elements and the four directions are common themes in all the WMT and certainly not confined to either the GD or Wicca.
        My point being, that Wicca is as like/unlike the GD as it is Freemasonary, and Freemasonary is as like/unlike esoteric Catholicism as it is to any other mystery tradition and that these ritual elements (which you will also find in similar mystery traditions all over the world) are not what define these very different belief systems.
        Certainly as a practising pagan who ‘purifies with water and consecrates with incense’ and who associates the four elements with the four (geocentric) directions I would distinguish my own faith very clearly from both the GD and Wicca; as would many other pagans, for example those of the Northern Traditions as well all the other non-Gardnerian Wiccans like myself

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      • ps My answer sounds a bit abrupt because for some reason it got decapitated in cyber space !!! – It should begin : ‘Hi, Judith, and thanks for your response ‘. Then it would sound more friendly, as was intended !

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  4. Marvelous and fascinating, Judith Laura, great introduction here to the Kabbalah!! There was a time after I graduated college and hungry to direct my own reading, that I began to plumb mysticism in various religions. I used to frequent a local Spirituality bookstore, where the “Zohar” handed itself to me one day, and very soon I was enchanted. I noticed the gender slant you describe, but the teachings as ideas in themselves were so filled with loveliness, one could sense at the heart of it, a sincerely profound, feminine quality, radiant, like the book’s name, with sweet splendor.

    It is said that mystics from different religions have more in common with each other, than most people do with members of their own religion. I believe that is true. I ordered your book, “Goddess Spirituality for the 21st Century” this morning at Amazon. Loved this question, in the book description:

    “Is Goddess a Being? A metaphor? A process?”

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    • Thanks for your comments, Francesca. I understand what you are saying about the “loveliness” of Kabbalah. This to me is the problem, not only with Kabbalah, but with other spiritual/religious paths or doctrines. The surface of them is so lovely, that we have to sort of detach to get the objectivity to really analyze what the writings are saying. For example, I find the King James Version of the Bible quite beautiful in its literary quality. But when we dig down, some of its messages are not so beautiful.

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  5. Brava, Judith! Excellent blog. As we know, the Golden Dawn was pretty much misogynistic, too. All those so-called great men dressing up like gods and being served by the women. Give me Dion Fortune any day. I’m sure you’ve read her novels and her Mystical Qabalah, first published in 1933. That’s where I learned about the Qabalah.

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  6. Thanks, Barbara. Yes, the Golden Dawn incorporated misogynist outlooks that were common at the time, but they also deserve credit for being the first Masonic-like group to include women, and they did include (most Egyptian) goddesses in their rituals. Dion Fortune (birth name Violet Firth) joined the Golden Dawn in 1919, later left the group and founded the Fraternity/Society of Inner Light. In her Mystical Qabalah, she reveals some of the Golden Dawn material that members were forbidden to reveal, supposedly upon “pain of death.” She also deviates from some of the GD views, adding her own.

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  7. Once again, Judith, your detailed knowledge of an important subject and the clarity of your prose have inspired me. I haven’t read this particular book of yours yet, but I will soon.
    The increased sexism of the Jewish mystical tradition follows a general pattern in the general trajectory of spiritual traditions. (I’m thinking of Max Weber’s Sociology of Religion here). What begins as a relatively open, fluid insight into spiritual experience and “reality” within a usually egalitarian and less-gendered and sexist community eventually morphs into a more rigid and restrictive doctrine promoted by an increasingly hierarchical, sexist, closed social structure. The power of spiritual insight is a great temptation to those who want to wield conventional power and men are always trying to lock this spiritual power up and use it to serve their own purposes at the expense of women, not to mention children and other men. This is why I favor the loose-knit, amorphous spiritual communities that are typical of goddessians because there is more chance for actual spiritual experience and genuine human to human contact and communication in these kinds of fluid groups.

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  8. Hi, Judith, et al,
    Great information! Thanks.
    A Jewish Kabbalistic healer (who is non-sexist in real life) explained to me that there is no hierarchy in the Kabbalistic tree and I was not sufficiently knowledgeable to contradict him. I look forward to his response when I point to the imbalance between the male and female sephirot.
    I gave a talk a few years ago on the concept of Sophia as a transexual. Some day I’ll explore this further.
    And although I don’t remember the source, I read somewhere that the difference between Jewish Kabbalah and Christian (which I usually spell Cabala, leaving the Q spellings when I mean both) is that the Christians (including the 19th century esotericists) put a shin at the center of yod heh vav heh, turning it into “Jeheshua”, ie from Jehovah to Jesus.
    Judith W. in Ottawa

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    • Hi Judith,
      There are many versions of Jewish Kabbalah. If your friend the Kabbalistic healer is using one of the earlier ones, it is likely that it is less hierarchical than, for example, Luria’s version. Re various spellings Kabbalah/Cabala/Qabalah: as you probably know these are all various tranliterations of the same Hebrew word. There is no right or wrong spelling–only customs of various groups, and on the internet I’ve found people spelling them all which ways for various versions. Some people use Kabbalah for all versions, some people drop the final h, some people use two bb’s, some people use two ll’s, etc. I adopted Kabbalah for the Jewish version(s) and Qabalah for the Hermetic (aka Western Esoteric) version because it is the way adherents of these most commonly spell it and it made it easier to distinguish between the two in writing my book. Interestingly, the “Cabala” spelling is the one used by the U.S. Library of Congress when categorizing books, whether they are Jewish, Hermetic, or Christian (there is some distinction between “Christian” and “Hermetic” K/Q/C).

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  9. Great post and fascinating follow-up discussion. I very much enjoy your books too–I have all of them. :)

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  10. BTW if you are interested in real authentic kabbala. Not watered down but translations of original kabbalah works, neirot.com is a great site. It offers full books on the principles of kabbala as well as many other great works. Enjoy

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