The next question, of course, is: If Asherah is simply the Shekhinah by another name, why is it forbidden to worship her? A standard answer one hears is that idolatry is really about separation-idolatrous practices separate the particular manifestations of God (e.g. the moon/Asherah or the sun/Baal) from the singular godhead, and sees them as different entities. Yet the Zohar does not take this easy approach. Instead, it comes up with a statement even more shocking than the first: The only reason we may not worship the Shekhinah as Asherah is that the name Asherah, as translated by the Zohar, means "happy." (The Zohar proves this by connecting the matriarch Leah, who herself is an image of feminine divinity in the mystical tradition, to the root alef-shin-reish, which translates as "happy" or "fortunate.") The Shekhinah is in exile among the enemies of the Jewish people, and therefore we cannot call Her happy. That-not separation and not idolatry-is the error. The Zohar implies that we abstain from using the name Asherah, not out of theological exactness, but out of courtesy: we abstain in order to empathize with the pain of the Shekhinah.
The unspoken implication of this is that in the world to come, when the Messiah has arrived, we will be able to call the Shekhinah Asherah. It is only in this imperfect world, where the Shekhinah is exiled, that we are banned from doing so. In a completed world, the Zohar implies, Jews would be able to rejoice in the fact that gods and goddesses can be aspects of divinity. Yet because we are exiled, oppressed, divided from others, we can't let ourselves know it.
The Zohar concludes with a brief moment of panentheism. The altar must be made of earth, the Torah says. The Zohar comments: the real altar (that is, the real Shekhinah) is made of earth. Therefore Genesis says: dust from the earth. Humans are made of the dust of the earth that is Shekhinah. Their physical substance as well as their spirit is made of Shekhinah-stuff. That's a mother-earth image if there ever was one.
The Zohar does often get accused of near-paganism. In this passage, more than any other I have seen, I feel the Zohar tips its hand. The Zohar knows that paganism is forbidden. The Zohar also knows, as it reveals in this passage, that its mystical impulse to explore multiple simultaneous God-images, gendered deity, panentheism, and embodied divinity is a pagan impulse-perhaps a holy, ultimately God-centered pagan impulse, but a pagan impulse nevertheless. Yet instead of running away from the mythologized, pagan-like aspects of its vision, the Zohar betrays a discomfort with the complete condemnation of goddess worship. It's the condemnation, not the paganism, that is rejected.
The Zohar believes that oneness underlies all things, even pagan goddesses. Yet the mystic of the time knows the Jews cannot recognize this. So, the Zohar says, in the world to come, we will be allowed to call the Shekhinah by Her name Asherah. Then, She will be one and Her name will be one.
I know the Zohar has terrible things to say about non-Jews, and that one may read this passage as saying that pagans worship aspects of the true God, but do not know that they are doing so. Yet I cannot help but imagine the mystics of medieval Spain holding the secret knowledge that God answers to different names all over the world -- even names that invoke God in nature, even names that call God multiple, even feminine names from ancient Canaan. I imagine them slipping this secret knowledge into the Zohar: the oneness of the Divine is a many-named oneness, a oneness that encompasses the earth.
The truth is that the fears that Jews have about the introduction of feminine God-language are partly justified. But they are justified only within the construct of a limited and fearful partial theology. In fact, the changes are mostly positive.
First, using masculine and feminine names for God will lead to images of deity that are so multiple they seem like different beings. In fact, this has already happened: the Zohar has male and female aspects of God marrying one another, which is a fairly multiple image (though Jewish tradition seems to have carried on just fine anyway). The connection of God with the earth will change our views about the nature of God's judgment-one has only to read the poetry of Lynn Gottlieb, Marcia Falk, or Marge Piercy to realize this. And we will be the richer for it.
Second, acknowledgement of Jewish demonization of paganism will change our evaluation of how Jews, Christians, and Muslims have used power and continue to use power around the globe, and force us to ally ourselves with people we have regarded as "other."
Third, the introduction of feminine God-language, as Alicia Ostriker has noted, will make us aware of how Jewish text and theology suppressed or absorbed the Divine feminine at the beginning of history-making some of us curious about the original goddess-images that were suppressed. We may not want those images back, and we couldn't get them back in their original form if we tried. But we will no longer be able to suppress our knowledge of them.
and the Zohar
Hasidism and Homoeroticism
Sound & Image
Andy Alpern and
Shir Yaakov Feinstein-Feit
One Ring Zero
Josh's Jury Duty
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From previous issues:
A Song of Ascents
Some things have changed, some have stayed the same
Shtupping in the Shadow of the Bomb