I too see God in these ways. I want to be a monotheist, but I also want to recognize the godliness in many images of feminine and masculine divinity, and not only those in Jewish text. I want not to edit my moments of contact with the Divine to get rid of any "pagan" influence. I want not to demonize goddess-imagery while thunder-god imagery rolls through the Hebrew Bible without comment or controversy. In short, I want not to be afraid of goddesses. That's why I love this text in the Zohar.
The Jewish mysticism of the Zohar (a twelfth-century mystical document from Spain that influenced the course of all Jewish mysticism after it) is saturated with panentheism, the belief that God is both separate from and embodied in the natural world, i.e., that God "surrounds and fills" the universe. Even so, the passage that appears at the beginning of this article is so shocking that it is hard to decode. The Zohar quotes a classic text from Deuteronomy prohibiting pagan worship: "You shall not set up an asherah, or any kind of tree, near the altarů" An asherah, as most scholars agree, based upon excavations as well as other ancient references, is a pillar or tree representing the goddess Asherah. Stone inscriptions show that Israelites may once have worshipped Asherah, a goddess of love and fertility known as "She Who Walks on the Sea," as the female counterpart to the Israelite god we call Adonai. References in Jeremiah 7:18 and 44:17 indicates that Israelite women worshipped the "queen of heaven" by baking cakes-this queen may have been Asherah. In general, the stamping out of Asherah-worship was one of the main concerns of the pure monotheists who established themselves as normative in the days of King Josiah and who are responsible for the composition, according to scholars, of much of the Torah. From those radical monotheists, Judaism evolved. We would expect, then, that all later Jewish references to Asherah would be negative, as indeed most of them are.
Yet the Zohar, steeped in multiple personalized, sexualized, gendered images of the deity, chooses to read this passage in a radically different way. The Zohar writers do not equate Asherah with Lilith or another demonic figure, which would be an easy theological move. Instead, they reread the verse. It is not, they say, that the Torah wants to tell us not to plant an asherah by the altar because it is an idolatrous object. If the Torah had wanted to tell us that, it simply would have said: "Do not plant an asherah anywhere." Rather, the Torah wants to tell us that Asherah is a name for the Shekhinah, the feminine Divine presence, already at the altar. An extra Asherah image would be redundant.
The Zohar proves this assertion by connecting the name Asherah to the word asher. Ordinarily, this word simply means the word "which." However, in Zohar-speak, many common Hebrew prepositions like asher and et are regarded as names for God. In this case, the Zohar reads Asher as a name for masculine divinity. The Zohar redefines the word Asherah as the feminine form of Asher: the Spouse of Asher, the Spouse of God. The verse now means, in the Zohar's reading, that we must not plant an asherah by the altar because Asherah already resides in the altar in the form of the Shekhinah. We do not need a pillar to remind us of Her.
The Zohar does not choose to say that the goddess Asherah is evil or false and that worshipping her is a theological mistake. Rather, it says that the theological mistake would be to assume that Asherah (the tree) is separate from Shekhinah (the altar), when in fact they are one. The Zohar seems to be saying is that the object used to worship (i.e. the altar) God must be single rather than multiple, just as all the faces of the feminine and masculine Divine are ultimately unified.
The Zohar then quotes a passage related to the biblical queen Jezebel's worship of other gods, and informs us that the priests of Baal and Asherah (male and female deities) are worshippers of the sun and moon. The sun and moon, the Zohar goes on, are really Tiferet and Malkhut, the Holy One (male divinity) and the Shekhinah (female divinity). Baal and Asherah worshippers, the very people whom the Torah rejects as the worst of pagans, are actually worshippers of the (legitimate) masculine and feminine Divine. The Zohar appears to be saying that pagans and Jews are worshipping the same aspects of divinity by different names.1 Zohar III, 65b
2 See the writings of Lynn Gottlieb, Susannah Heschel, Leah Novick, and Kim Chernin, among others.
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