Jill Hammer
An Altar of Earth: Reflections on Jews, Goddesses and the Zohar, p.4

Critically, to allow oneself to see God in a new image, to see God as mother or moon or sea or little girl or crone, is not valuable simply because of political correctness, or some feminist ethic of fairness. To do so is a religious experience-and we grow from these experiences. Religious experiences do not neatly conform to philosophical firewalls. If we open ourselves to the feminine Divine, some of us will see goddesses. This merits theological discussion and debate, but it does not merit censorship.

Moreover, if goddesses are non-God, then what are we seeing when we look at goddesses? I would argue that we are seeing the same thing that we see when we look at God: both a mirror and a window. All of our God-images, masculine, feminine, multi- and non-gendered, singular and multiple, come from our own repertoire of psychological needs, memories, stories we have absorbed, people we have loved, images we have seen. They are mothers and fathers we need, judges and warriors that frighten us into good behavior, lovers that inspire us. Some of them are flawed, some are wrong, and some will not survive the test of time. There is no way to portray the ein sof; what we hope is that, through some or all of these avenues, some glimmer of Divine truth reaches us.

Our conceptions of God, being partial and imperfect, always deserve critique-we cannot assume any God we see is a true God. There is always the real risk that we will distort the truth and fracture it. Yet if we believe (as some of us do) in the panentheistic promise that God can be found anywhere, then we may come to accept the fact that others throughout theological history have felt the same thing. Finding God in a tree and calling Her Asherah, or finding God in the thunder and calling Him Baal, or finding God in the cycle of life and death and calling Her Demeter and Persephone, seems less strange when we think that everything we know about God comes from something we have seen, heard, or felt in a text, in the world, or in ourselves. Jews may see things differently, but they are still limited-and blessed-by human sight.

If we take seriously the idea that God speaks not only in fixed revelation but also through human experience, we cannot help but entertain the idea that the ancient poets who praised goddesses and gods were, at least part of the time, praising the same infinite holy source that we wish to honor. When I look at some of those ancient poems, and the modern ones that echo them, I feel a desire for the sacred that stretches across history and theology to meet mine.

When I meditate on God, I see many things. Sometimes what I see reminds me of Genesis or Exodus, and sometimes what I see reminds me of stories of Mother Earth, or the creative and destructive Hindu goddess Kali. I no longer edit out those images, because I believe they too hold grains of truth. The important thing, for me, is to make sure that my God-image leads me closer to an experience of Divine love and human responsibility, and not farther away-that it is a korban, an intimate offering, and not a churban, a destruction. Part of making an offering, a korban, is being willing to give it away. My Jewish sensibility tells me that no image should be reified above the whole.

I do not want to give up the imageless worship of my tradition, its mandate of justice through the specifics of law, or its emphasis on Divine oneness. But neither do I want to surrender the tales of Kali and Persephone, Asherah and Inanna. They are problematic stories, and regrettably they are no less patriarchal than myths about thunder gods, but, being a Jew who reads the Torah, I am used to problematic and patriarchal stories. I still hold my own sacred myths as uniquely primary and central to my life, but I am no longer willing to shut my ears to the wisdom of others-especially if I can use that wisdom to affirm the holiness of the feminine as well as the masculine.

The synagogue where I pray now is quite sensitive to these issues. Yet sometimes, when familiar accusations of idolatry begin from the bimah, I slouch in my seat and read the weekly parashah for signs of feminine imagery. If things get really bad, I take out my pocket copy of Sappho and silently read hymns to Aphrodite. It's not a very traditional way to observe Shabbat, but the Zohar, at least, would understand.

[1]       [2]       [3]       4
Image: Pamela Yates, Red Road

Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD, is a senior associate at Ma'yan: the Jewish Women's Project of the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan. She is an author, poet, midrashist, and ritual-maker. Her book is entitled Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women (JPS, 2001).
Pamela Yates is a self-taught painter who was born and grew up in Australia. After living in Europe for twelve years she moved to the US in the late 70's. Her art is supported by organic symbols from nature, culture heroines and heroes, and story tellers in many forms. Cradled in her intent as an artist is her belief that art communicates on four levels through spirit, emotion, mind and body.

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