The morning air is hot around the pillars of Jerusalem stone, but the congregation is already tired. The prayers are old, pro forma and remote, drawing power now from the sound of the Hebrew more than from the meaning of the words. “Thank you for mercifully restoring my soul to me…” intones the small group of gathered men, “and for not making me a woman.”
The voices are smooth and practiced, unmixed with the rustling of pages except for a teenager who cannot recite from memory, whose Hebrew is still bad enough that he has to pay attention. This boy tires of waking, and wonders why God did not make him a woman—why he will never be a thing as close to his maker’s image as a woman seems to him to be.
He does well in school but not in life, because he cannot name a role model to whom he will admit. He does not want to be his father, or his uncle, or the rabbi. He wants to be Jill Hammer, Patti LuPone, or his Hebrew teacher—the rabbi’s wife. He does well in his studies because God means everything to him, but he cannot understand what the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob could mean.
His God is the God of Hagar—of one who has no place. He knows what it is like to carry the seed of an alien people. He knows what it is like to carry something beautiful inside and then wish to smother it before it can starve. He knows what it is like to waste away in the wilderness and then, when the miraculous water comes, be forced to cry, “Stop! It is too much!”
His God is the God of Sarah—of one who laughs at the promises of God. He knows what it is like to pretend—to live as something he is not. He knows what it is like to believe no good can come from his body and that God mocks at his desires. He knows what it is like to feel insufficient and to believe that everyone would be happier with someone else.
Revelation, said the Protestant theologian Karl Barth, does not lie in the text of the Bible, but in the work God does within us when we open ourselves through its pages. So often, that opening is about letting a character enter us in the place where our own identity is, as Thomas Mann said, “open behind.” For a Christian like Barth, that is the process of being indwelt by the Holy Spirit—of having Christ live in him. For a Jew, it is the process of finding one’s own story in the story of Israel. It is the process, as the Hassidic rebbes used to say, of being there when the covenant was given. So what happens to the young man who cannot see himself in Jacob the blessed son, but finds a voice in Naomi begging Ruth to join her people?
He learns, just a little bit, to see himself in Abraham, because he learns what it is like to disappoint his father. He learns what it is like to have to walk away into a strange land. He learns what it is like to argue with God. This memory stays with a man who learns to speak of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—to recognize the God of the Patriarchs. It stays with a man who learns to bury himself like the words of a prophet tied upon a stone and cast into Euphrates.
But at the bottom of the river he always finds the God who has never left him, the only God he has ever truly known or loved. In the twisting eddies and the glint of sun She is sometimes Saraswati wending Her way through the subtle realm, and sometimes the Dea Matrona Who gave Her name to the Marne. When the breath of wingbeats is upon the waters She is the kite of Isis, and when the rivers turn to blood She may be Kali Ma. But when the torrent is most dangerous, and it seems that being washed out of captivity might well be death, She will again be El Shaddai—the many-breasted God of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar, who succors the Israelite and the Egyptian, the embraced and the rejected, the saint and the scoffer and the one who, seeking water, does not know where to turn.
Race MoChridhe is an independent scholar of religion with special interest in the intersections of feminism, new religious movements, and Traditionalist thought. He is also a spiritual resource volunteer for the Minnesota Sex Offender Program, an Ovate in the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, and a Filianist. More of his work may be found in the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Women in World Religion and through his website, www.racemochridhe.com