Monday, December 21, 2009

REVIEW: Rabbi Leah Novick's Book on Shekhinah

On the Wings of Shekhinah: Rediscovering Judaism’s Divine Feminine by Rabbi Léah Novick (Quest Books 2008) trade paperback, 210 pp.

I received this book as a holiday gift last December and was in middle of reading it when I had to clear up my desk to accommodate a tech coming to deal with my computer. I put things where I thought I could find them—most, I thought, in piles off-desk but in plain sight around the room. Several days after the tech departed I looked for the book—on my book shelves, on other shelves in this room, even through stuff on my desk, and then in in stacks of other unread or half-read books elsewhere in the house. Couldn’t find it. Anywhere. I repeated this process several times over the next few months. Then this Dec. 17, just about a year after I received it, I was going into drawers in a cabinet where I stash holiday cards to get one to send. I have the cards in a particular drawer, but for the second time, I erred in opening another drawer first. The first time I just slammed the drawer shut, aggravated with myself for not remembering that it wasn’t the "card" drawer. The second time a flash of teal caught my eye. What was that? Could it be? No, must be something else... probably one of my many notebooks or folders stored in that drawer. But maybe I should take a look anyway, just in case? And to my surprise and befuddlement (because I don’t remember putting it there) it was the book that had gone missing for so long, On the Wings of the Shekhinah. So here is the review, a little late, but with gratitude for Goddess guidance:

In her Introduction to On the Wings of Shekhinah, Rabbi Léah Novick, who was ordained in 1987 in the Jewish Renewal tradition, tells of feeling "a gigantic goddess" calling to her as she wandered the California coastline 26 years ago.

Pictures of ancient civilizations and memories of great temples filled my mind with no specific or exclusive ethnoparticularity....I no longer know how or when I went from general pantheistic celebration of life to a respiritualized Judaism.
But she does remember spirits of Jewish and female "bodhisattvas" calling to her. She "labeled them Messengers of the Shekhinah" and began organizing meditation groups around their birth and death dates. She began hearing the voice of the Shekhinah, the "Divine Presence," a female voice, whom she also refers to as "Divine Mother." She describes the many places around the world where she has heard this voice and continues to hear it, especially Friday nights after lighting Sabbath candles. She notes that in all her Jewish training, including a "prestigious" Jewish school in Manhattan, she had never been taught about Shekhinah. She also notes that the word "Shekhinah," is not in the Hebrew Bible, although its root word, based on the verb "to dwell," is. She tells how she expanded her understanding of this usage and traces it from being male and/or gender neutral to being female/feminine. The rest of the book, which includes meditations at the end of each chapter, is essentially an examination and expansion—really a spiritual adventure—into the development of the concept of Shekhinah.

The first section, "Shekhinah in the Tapestry of Time," looks at interpretations relating to the Shekhinah in the Genesis narrative about Hebrew matriarchs, and in Exodus where there are clear manifestations of the Shekhinah, such as in the narratives about Miriam’s well, the clouds of glory (Shekhinah often manifests in the Hebrew scriptures as a protective cloud), in the pillar of fire, in the manna, and in the building of a tabernacle "which becomes Shekhinah’s dwelling place on earth." She also discusses the legend that Moses was consort of the Shekhinah, which she relates to the Isis-Horus myth. She then moves on to a chapter on Canaan, which she subtitles "Encountering the Pagan Past." I found this chapter somewhat confusing. First, there is the use of the word "pagan," to separate goddess worshippers from Israelites, and then there is her description of Asherah as a Canaanite Goddess, whom the Israelites adopted due to their proximity to the Canaanites. AFAIK, Rabbi Novick’s separation of Goddess worship from indigenous Israelite and Judean practice is contradicted by Raphael Patai’s The Hebrew Goddess (which she refers to), and more recently (and more archeologically substantiated), William Dever’s Did God Have a Wife? At the beginning of the chapter Rabbi Novick seems to accepts the controversial idea that as part of their Goddess worship, the Canaanites practiced "sacred prostitution." Yet later in the chapter Rabbi Novick explores the idea that the description of sacred prostitution in the Bible could just be part of the biblical discrediting of Goddess-worship and/or the Canaanites and she provides a helpful discussion of Asherah, including facts that

All the Hebrew matriarchs came from goddess-worshipping cultures,
that Asherah was worshipped by the Israelites—and that according to Patai, there was an extended struggle for about 400 years about whether to include a statue of Asherah in the Temple. This section also has a discussion of the first Temple being a home for the Ark of the Covenant, and thus also the Shekhinah, and the role of the Shekhinah during the Babylonian exile that followed the destruction of the first Temple. She then traces Shekhinah development in "Medieval Years," when She emerged as female in two early kabbalistic texts, Sefir Bahir and Sefir Yetsirah. A separate chapter on Kabbalah opens with a diagram of the kabbalistic Tree of Life, which Rabbi Novick explains, in a note in the aftermatter, contains her own "contemporary variations" on the meanings of the sefirot (Hebrew term for emanations [or, when drawn, round areas] on the Tree of Life; singular, sefirah). She explains that a central theme of the 13th century kabbalistic text known as the Zohar is the reuniting of the divine feminine with the divine masculine. She writes:
In kabbalistic thinking , the exile of the Shekhinah becomes a metaphor for understanding all forms of disharmony that affect human beings.
In her discussion of the sefirah Chokhmah (sometimes transliterated Hokmah–or some other transliterative variation), which in English means Wisdom, Rabbi Novick does not question (as I have) why this emanation is characterized as male and called "the Upper Father of Wisdom" while throughout the Bible (see for example, Proverbs 9) and elsewhere, Wisdom is personified as female. However in the Zohar discussion she does give valuable insight into other matters. For example, she writes:

In their teachings about Binah, kabbalistic sages seemed to have retained a memory of the Mother Goddess in her role as Cosmic Womb....The Zohar projects a medieval division of gender characteristics: the male is architectural and generative in Chokhmah. The female is receptive and birth giving in Binah....In the portrayal of Gevurah; her anger is considered a gateway to the demonic, where her counterpart, Lilith, rules with Samael. Shekhinah becomes a captive of...the other side during the weekdays and is estranged from her consort, while all other Sephirot, as...attributes of the Divine, stay anchored in their divinity....It is female anger that has the potential to go off course and descend into the demonic netherworld.
Rabbi Novick continues with an extensive discussion of the various roles of the Shekhinah in Kabbalah.

The second part of the book, "Holding Her Place," explores Shekhinah as "Sabbath Queen," the return of the Shekhinah through the originally Eastern European Jewish sect known as Chassidim, and the role of Shekhinah in present-day Israel and contemporary Jewish feminism. The chapter on the "Sabbath Queen" gives further information on the development of the Shekhinah concept in Kabbalah and provides an excellent history of the various observances of Sabbath in different Jewish Diaspora communities, including those of the Chassidim. Rabbi Novick describes the singing of a "prayer" called L’Cha Dodi (Come My Beloved) by kabbalists on the Sabbath to welcome the Shekhinah as Sabbath Queen. This prayer is still sung Friday nights in synagogues worldwide. Rabbi Novick notes:

These kabbalists believed that women had an inherent connection with the Shekhinah, and that men were able to receive the Divine Presence through their wives.
and goes on to explain that especially on the Sabbath, men were expected to give their wives sexual pleasure. Because of the large role women are given in the celebration of the Sabbath in the home, Rabbi Novick feels that it is one of the times when a Jewish woman becomes "priestess, ritual leader, and vessel for the sacred energy." She then devotes a chapter to delving more deeply into the role of the Chassidim, who, she says

brought the Shekhinah back to earth embodied in the actions and charismatic personalities of saints called tsaddikim....[who] trained their numerous students to concern themselves with the needs of the people....Caring for the poor, elderly, the infirm....
She also discusses a 19th century Chassidic woman in Ludomir, Poland who became a rebbe, the term for rabbi used by the Chassidim. Born Hannah Rachel Werbemacher, she became known as the "Maid of Ludomir." She sat behind a screen to study in religious school; when rabbi in her own synagogue she stayed behind a door while receiving visitors and veiled her face when speaking of Torah during services. Rabbi Novick goes on to look at the role of women in Judaism and the relevance of Shekhinah in the liberal movements in Europe, during the early years of the State of Israel, and in the United States. The closing chapter of this section, "Contemporary Jewish Feminism and the Return of the Shekhinah," discusses the ordination of women as rabbis and cantors, particularly in the U.S. today, the use of female "God language" in Jewish settings, and other changes even within Orthodox Judaism (the only U.S. Jewish denomination that still doesn't ordain women). She mentions several Shekhinah-friendly organizations and individuals including the Kohenet Institute , which trains and ordains Hebrew priestesses and on whose board she sits, and the work of Rabbis Jill Hammer , Lynn Gottleib ,and Geela Rayzel Raphael
. She then relates this trend to environmental concerns.

The third and last part of the book, "Shekhinah in our Lives," includes discussions of birth, death and reincarnation; love and sexuality; dreams; new moon observances; and spiritual healing. As in other places in the book, Rabbi Novick points out similarities of the Shekhinah with Ancient Near Eastern goddesses and of beliefs and observances in Judaism with those in other cultures. The back of the book includes an appendix with attributes and epithets of the Shekhinah taken from the Zohar and notes on the sources Rabbi Novick used for this book.

On the Wings of the Shekhinah is a book of breadth and breath that I highly recommend to anyone interested in the existence, development, disappearance, and reappearance of the female/feminine divine in Abrahamic religions.


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