Let’s see if the following course of events makes sense. A few Wednesdays ago, I was thinking about possible topics for this post considering it would be Mother’s Day. In the midst of thought, the warning sirens in Prague began. They were only being tested but, nontheless, I immediately thought of tornados. You see tornados, as awful and devastating as they are, make me think of thunderstorms and lightning. I love a good thunderstorm, the louder the better.
A Wisconsin childhood supplies plenty of thunderstorms. I cannot tell you the number of times as I was growing up that I stood outside watching the sky turn into that distinctive greenish-purple and smelling the storm on the breeze. Nor could I count the umpteen times we gathered in the basement as the tornado sirens blared and the radio advised its listeners in no uncertain terms to seek shelter. Nor could I recall how many times I sat with my mom during more recent summers watching the storms come in or the lightning blaze across the sky like a spider’s web. We’ve been lucky. Never once did a tornado hit our neighborhood although a house or two has been hit by lightning.
The thoughts of childhood thunderstorms brought me back to childish explanations: thunder happened because the angels were bowling strikes; it rained because the Holy One cried. Sheesh, those are some strange explanations!
So, then, thinking about the divine’s tears and ethereal creatures bowling re-centered my mind on the blaring siren again. While I love thunderstorms because I can
enjoy them from the comfort of safety, I can only imagine what experiences of drenching rain, lightning, thunder and tornados were like before the advent of safe shelters. I imagine people sought safety elsewhere.
The Torah is full of violent nature imagery around the appearance and presence of the divine. The deity is often described as pillars of clouds or fire, loud claps from the sky (thunder), earthquakes and perhaps even volcanic activity. Think Mount Sinai and the giving of the Torah or the Israelite wanderings through the desert. These scary encounters with the divine were rewarded with deliverance, safety, protection, and/or direction (both literally and figuratively).
This may explain why the Torah’s depiction of the divine is one of power-over and eternality: King of kings, Father, Lord of hosts (literally armies), G-d Almighty, and the tetragram signifying eternal existence. In the midst of human frailty and uncertainty, it is no wonder these have stuck around. Yet, they inculcate divine power as power-over and control which has to me has nothing to do with safety, comfort, care, flourishing, etc. Nonetheless, explaining thunderstorms and natural rumblings as encounters with the divine makes so much more sense than successful angelic bowling and holy tears.
The sirens ended and my mind jarred away from the bowling and crying to thoughts of Mother’s Day. It is quite common knowledge that to disrupt images of the divine focused on control and power-over, many feminists have turned to motherhood. Many also explore instances of the divine as female and/or possessing traits associated with femininity. For example, the same name of G-d that is often translated into G-d Almighty, El Shaddai, can also be translated into G-d of the Mountains or G-d with Breasts. This image of the divine relates to fertility (hence flourishing) and to the nourishment and comfort of newborn babies on their mothers’ chests. Another example of our Mother has to do with how mothers recognize cries of hunger, pain and discomfort in their little ones as my mom did for me. G-d heard the cries of our ancestors in Egypt and saved them from suffering under slavery. This same deity also heard the hunger pains of the wandering Israelites and satiated them with manna and quails. Another image of this feminine or female–associated care and concern is the comparison between the deity and a mother eagle found in Deuteronomy 32.
However, I remind myself that the divine Mother should not partake in patriarchal notions of motherhood, prescribe biological determinism or support theologies of gender complementary and homophobia. These images of Mother have that potential. Yet, if they are non-patriarchal, non-heterosexist and equally balanced with similar models of G-d as father, then the divine could be understood as both a mother and as a father who have equal responsibility to provide, care for, protect, educate, serve as role models, comfort, love, and nourish those under their care.
The motherhood and fatherhood of the divine moved my thoughts to the book of Genesis when the divine creates humans. In the first story, the divine is not a mother or a father but a plural entity. In Genesis 1:27, G-d’s name is Elohim, the plural of Eloah (or Eloha). Some scholars have suggested that she was a local goddess incorporated into the Israelite El and therefore their understanding of the divine. Here, then, the divine would appear to be non-binary or at least some combination of male and female, saying “let’s make humans in our image as male and female.”
From non-binary notions of the divine, my thoughts moved to ungendered or genderless concepts. In many Jewish feminist circles, the Shekinah was often associated with the feminine aspect or presence of the divine. While I herald this attempt to counter the power-over and controlling images of the divine in the Torah in a way that is true to tradition, another important aspect to remember is that the Shekinah, through most of Jewish history and in most Jewish writings, is actually often genderless. This entity is G-d among us, that immanent face of the divine, the one whose presence is felt both in the temple and in our wanderings. As long as the Shekinah dwells with us, we are safe.
So, to conclude, warning sirens led to thunderstorms and then to bowling and tears. Then came kings and armies, insecurity and uncertainty. Smash the patriarchal power and its confining roles and build up new images overflowing with equality and justice. The Divine can be mother, father, ungendered, genderless and/or non-binary. Besides, who are we to set limits on the divine? After all, these distinctions matter considerably less than what the divine does for us, what our mothers do for us, and what we do for others. Thanks mom for everything.
Ivy Helman, Ph.D. is feminist scholar and faculty member at Charles University and Anglo-American University in Prague, Czech Republic where she teaches a variety of Jewish Studies and Ecofeminist courses. She is an Associate of Merrimack College‘s Center for the Study of Jewish-Christian-Muslim Relations and spent many years there as an Adjunct Lecturer in the Religious and Theological Studies Department.