August 07

Making Room for the Divine She

Julia Watts Belser

I met God the summer I turned fourteen, standing on the patio beyond my grandparents’ kitchen and letting the gravel stones slip through my fingers while I watched the sun sink into the trees. I can’t describe that moment, not with all the florid possibilities of words. The sky was slowly turning purple, twilight shot through with darkening gold. The wind was crisp and bright against my face, and the rocks were humming against my hands, pulsing with a kind of kinship I’d never known. She was none of that and all of it: the Presence that flooded through me, the feel of my own body finding center, the press of the balcony rail against my skin, the strange, sudden wideness of the sky.

That meeting is the center of my story, the way a stone drops into the center of a lake and sends the water rippling out in slow, certain waves. This presence – this divine She – lives at the heart of my Jewish experience.

Goddess and Judaism are not irreconcilable. Jews can and do experience the Divine as a feminine presence. Jews can and do serve Her as an expression of their Jewish practice. The reality that most Jews through most of Jewish history have related to and experienced God as He does not obligate all of us to do so. In fact, Jewish ways of gendering the Holy have shifted considerably over the course of our history. Yet regardless of how an individual soul experiences the Holy Presence, claiming the freedom to know God as She can throw open a window on God that has long been closed. Understanding the Jewishness of God who is She calls us to cut through constructs of language and culture, artifacts of old metaphors and misperceptions – a process that can help us come closer to the living Presence that reveals Itself in so many ways.

This memory is the truest answer I have to give when people ask me how Judaism and Goddess fit together: this fragile, certain knowledge of my own blood and bones. Now I have training as a rabbi and a scholar. I have learned to marshal theological and scriptural arguments, and I could offer myriad prooftexts and explanations to account for my life. But there is a danger in them, the danger of denying my first knowledge and my truest love. Goddess is. Goddess is a being, not a belief. Goddess is the name I give to the Presence who births, sustains and cradles this world and everything in it. She is the One who binds us together, the fabric of the universe that surrounds us, and the Being who forges us. She is the Holy that I know, the face of the Divine who illuminates my life and guides my way. She is a Presence, not a theology. She is the living core on which my life is built.

“God is like a mirror,” the midrash teaches. “The mirror never changes, but everyone who looks at it sees a different face” (Pirke d’Rabbi Eliezer 12). At its core, Judaism emphasizes this moment with the mirror, the experience that comes from that gaze. God is not an idea we consider or a thing we conceptualize, but a vital, vibrant being: el chai v’kayam, a living, existing God. “The essence of Jewish religious thinking,” writes Abraham Joshua Heschel in God in Search of Man, “does not lie in entertaining a concept of God but in the ability to articulate a memory of moments of illumination by God’s presence. Israel is not a people of definers but a people of witnesses.” Theology is the explanation we give to conceptualize experience and to give it expression. Often, theology becomes the public expression of particular moments with the mirror – and when it does, it can become a limiting substitute for the polyphony of our own less tutored, private voices. Sacred books and wise teachers teach us our communal story, bringing out the shape of Jewish myth and memory. But the vitality of Jewish spirit and practice depends upon interplay between the personal and the communal, between the individual tale and the collective story.

Consider the revelation at Sinai: In the Jewish mythic imagination, Sinai is the root and ground of our collective God-memory. Sinai is the mythic place from which Torah springs, the place where our people gathered together to witness revelation. The souls of all Jews – present and future, whether born Jewish or come to Judaism later in life – gathered there to receive the divine presence. The public fruits of that moment manifest themselves in the books of Torah and the unfolding words of rabbinic teaching.

But Sinai was not only a collective experience. It was also the place where each soul encountered its God. The first words the Torah records from this moment are addressed to an individual – to each individual. When the Holy declares itself to be our God, the Presence speaks to me or to you, not to us. Exodus 20:2, which recounts God’s words at Sinai, begins: “I am the Lord your God” – with the you in the singular. In this most public of gatherings, the midrash suggests, we were each spoken to as individuals. (Exodus Rabba 5:9). But even this speech may be veiled in speechlessness. The Hasidic master Menachem Mendel of Rymanov taught that when the Holy spoke from Sinai, the Israelites heard only the first aleph of the first word – the silent letter that begins the Divine speech. Reflecting upon this insight in Seek My Face, Arthur Green writes, “God speaks only the great silence; the Divine is a silent womb that contains all of language within it.”

At its most potent, the Sinai moment is a dance between the individual and the collective. The communal testimony that has become our people’s Torah remains a powerful fabric to draw us beyond our own selves. It binds us to a mythos and a memory that is larger than any individual story. But it comes alive through the yearning of each individual heart, through the fingerprints our God has left upon our souls. The private contours of that Presence – the particular ways it revealed itself to each waiting soul – remain veiled in mist and shrouded in the luminous darkness of our own hearts. At the heart of this communal gathering, the Divine blossoms for each one of us: a private unfolding in the midst of the public revelation. In the soundless speech, our souls found their echo. At the mountain, we all met our Mystery.

For some of us, that Mystery revealed Herself with a feminine face.

That revelation does not shatter the integrity of our people’s story. Jewish tradition recognizes and respects the individuality of our relationships with the Holy. The opening words of the Amidah, the central series of blessings that forms the heart of Jewish prayer, call us to praise the Holy: Elohei Avraham, Elohei Yitzhak, Elohei Yaakov, God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob; and in many contemporary liturgies: Elohei Sarah, Elohei Rivkah, Elohei Rachel, v’Elohei Leah, God of Sarah, God of Rebecca, God of Rachel, God of Leah. The sages taught that rather than simply saying “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah,” we repeat the word God with each name to acknowledge that each of our ancestors had a relationship with a unique God. Each had a relationship with the Holy that would never be repeated. Each of them knew the Divine in a way that no one else ever could.

The Hebrew word for God itself expresses this powerful paradox of radical multiplicity and ultimate unity. The word elohim looks like a plural and almost always functions like a singular. The echad, the oneness that Jews affirm in the Sh’ma, lives in beautiful tension with the myriad names for the Holy that appear in Torah and tradition. The God of Abraham and the God of Rachel are my God, and my God is one of a thousand faces. Jewish tradition teaches that the particulars matter. Each of us reaches toward – and each of us is touched by – a unique face of the Holy. We are each linked to a manifestation of the divine that no one else can experience. When we are in touch with our own soul, we know something of the divine that no one else can express.

When I pray, I pray to elohei Eliana, to the One who unfolds Herself to me.

Goddess isn’t a concept. She isn’t a socially-productive theory or a useful feminist idea. She isn’t simply a kindly nurturer or the idealized image of some perfect femininity. She shatters gender like the cedars. She is the thunder and the dew, the raging fire and flickering candle flame. She is a Presence who belies our categories and conceptions: awesome Mystery, at times inscrutable, at times revealing. Her Presence bears witness to the full range of human experience: tragedy and grief, joy and horror, uncertainty and achievement, rage and love, stillness and desire.

Goddess is neither tame, nor tepid. Just as She is not metaphor or symbol, She is also not a product of feminist theology. Goddess is. Yet writing and speaking about Goddess, particularly through a Jewish lens, demands an encounter with politics and theology. Jewish mysticism and tradition has long held a central place for the divine feminine, often known as the Shekhinah, the imminent presence of God. Yet the medieval conceptions of Shekhinah that still shape our contemporary understanding of Her have largely understood Shekhinah as a part of God, as an element of the Holy One in exile from Himself.

In so many ways, the feminine has been fragmented, exiled, and marginalized. In so many ways, women’s experiences have been made secondary to the dominant stream of male thinking, writing, and imagining. As I struggle for words to express the luminous ineffable, I claim the word Goddess because it feels the best way I have of honoring Her wholeness, Her integrity, Her vastness. The radical wholeness of Goddess challenges a pervasive conception of the feminine divine in classical Jewish theology: that it is inconceivable for the feminine to exist in Her own right, without recourse to an external hallowing Source. The Goddess I know is neither a shard nor a fragment. She is not a marginal notation, nor a piece of someone else’s pie. She is entire. She is echad.

She is echad, like elohei Avraham is echad. Gender matters. But gender does not make a split in the fabric of the ultimate. Rather than splitting off Goddess from God and declaring them distinct and separate spheres, Jewish affirmations of divine unity and wholeness suggest that God is Goddess – a Goddess who is God who is Goddess. Gender matters. But gender is not a discontinuity that separates me and my Holy from the tapestry of my people. The discomfort the pronoun She provokes in certain quarters – and the rejoicing that it brings in others – testifies to the power gender has in our world. The panic the pronoun causes exposes a silence that often goes ignored. It calls into question the false neutrality of the masculine and opens wide a window of possibility and profound responsibility.

The presence of Goddess as an authentic and integral part of Jewish life emerges in community, as Jews who know and love Goddess craft our religious insights into the larger Jewish narrative. Religious experiences are not “born Jewish.” They become Jewish as individuals and communities learn to express them Jewishly, to find a Jewish context for understanding and sharing them, to seam them into the larger tapestry of Judaism’s sacred stories. When communities engage intentionally in this process, when we wrestle with the new and strive to integrate it into our understanding and practice of Judaism, we create Jewish authenticity.

Ultimately, I suspect, in a realm that is far removed from our own, gender is actually insignificant. Ehiyeh Asher Ehiyeh – the ultimate divine force that will be whatever it will be – has neither a womb nor a phallus to tangle our thoughts. But we live in a world in which gender matters. We live in a world scarred by the denial of the feminine sacred. Wounded by our loss of Goddess.

But She is present, no matter how the vagaries of history and tradition may have hidden Her. She is not erased, no matter how sacred scriptures may have silenced Her story. She is the stones and the sea, each leaf of every tree and the lines that lace up every human hand. She is the letters of Torah, if not always the words we read. She dwells within the soul of everyone who’s ever searched for Her. She cradles this world and all the realms beyond it, just as she holds the hearts of all who love Her.

Those who love me, I love; and those who seek me will find me. (Proverbs 8:17)


Images: Dog Scribble, I'll Be Right Back and Varying Shades of Regret by Carol Radsprecher.


Rabbi Julia Watts Belser received her rabbinic ordination from the Academy for Jewish Religion, California and is currently completing a Ph.D. in rabbinic literature at the University of California Berkeley and the Graduate Theological Union. She serves as retreat director for Nehirim, a spiritual initiative for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews.