Female Agency in the Kabbalah

I don’t think it’s too big of a generalization to say that Judaism mostly conceives as divinity as male in nature. The liturgical language alone suggests that God is a male deity, rather than a female goddess. Of course, the exception to this statement is the concept of the Shekinah, a divine personification of divinity which is often referred to as a complement to the masculine God. But how much agency does the Shekinah have, especially with regards to Jewish mysticism? Turns out, not much. While doing some research on the origins of Kabbalism, I was surprised to learn that the Shekinah is far from being Yahweh’s female contemporary, rather she is subordinated to the male conception of power.

I want to share with you here some observations made by Elliot Wolfson in his paper “Hebraic and Hellenic Conceptions of Wisdom in Sefer ha-Bahir.” The Bahir is one of the foundational texts of the medieval Kabbalistic movement, and Wolfson’s observations make clear that it is male generative power that runs the sefirotic board.

“The heart of God, associated in other bahiric passages with the feminine, is related specifically to the thirty-two paths of wisdom mentioned at the beginning of Sefer Yesirah. What is most significant to note in this text is the intricate use of gender symbols to convey the process of emanation of the feminine potency from the masculine… It is likely, moreover, that the paths contained within the feminine potency are related to the phallus. Ontologically, the being of the female is constituted by the phallic energies derived from the male; indeed, the female comprises within herself the thirty-two paths of the masculine wisdom.” (160)

On the one hand, the above idea is similar to other ideas of creation—that male and female energy combine in a generative force. Ignoring the heteronormative nature of this conception for the moment, let’s go back and look at the “female” role in this. Whereas in some varieties of Hinduism, the masculine Shiva derives his power form the Shakti, in the Kabbalah, the situation is reversed. Any creative power ascribed to the feminine is done so through the male. Wisdom is inherently “phallic” in nature, and not of the feminine.

“The image of mother at first blush would seem to signify that in some sense the male comes from or is sustained by the female. Upon closer examination, however, it becomes clear that even the image of the mother does not challenge the ontic dependency of the female on the male…Clearly, the intent here is not to imply that Israel is the mother of God, but only that God can love Israel even as a son loves his mother. ” (161)

If you’ve read the paper, you’ll know that I’m leaving out a whole bunch of stuff that is basically an elaboration on the whole “Kether in in Malkuth as Malkuth is in Kether” thing. But the point is that the feminine imagery is not symbolic of divine power, but rather is considered a receptive container for divine masculine power. In other words, its existences is solely to serve the male god (who seems a bit narcissistic about things, but ok.), and nothing more. Let’s read on…

“By an obvious play on the words dalet and dal, the fourth letter of the Hebrew alphabet comes to symbolize the divine gradation that is impoverished. In this context, the impoverished gradation is not distinguished in terms of gender from the other potencies that are depicted parabolically as kings. However, in subsequent Kabbalistic literature, in some cases based on this very passage, the impoverished one, symbolized by the dalet, is associated more explicitly with the feminine Shekhinah. The state of poverty is linked essentially to the character of femininity, for the female is portrayed in Kabbalistic literature as that which has nothing of her own but only what she receives from the beneficent male…The ontic condition of the feminine is that she is a weakened or inferior male.” (165)

To further reinforce this view of the feminine being subordinated to the masculine, we now go back to one of the creation stories in Genesis. Similarly, the Kabbalistic view is that woman is as an adjunct to the male:

“As we have seen, the lower Shekhinah, the light that emanates from the first light or wisdom, the upper Shekhinah, is often described in feminine images. Here, however, the lower Shekhinah is treated parabolically as one of the seven sons of the king. The ontic containment of the feminine in the masculine is reinforced in the continuation of this passage. The seven sons are related to the “seven holy forms,” which are the seven limbs that make up the divine image with which Adam was created. The limbs are delineated as follows: two thighs, two hands, the phallus, and the head. The seventh is found in the woman who was constructed from the side (or rib) of the man.” (166)

It is interesting to note that woman is part of the divine Adam in this conception, and not a full being in her own right. In fact, in this view, not only does she lack a penis, but also limbs, further suggesting male dependency. On the other hand: Yay! women are considered a holy form! However, it’s one that is made from the masculine and dependent on such for its existence.

This reading of the Bahir suggests that, despite the presence of female imagery in the Kabbalah, the feminine lacks any creative agency. The creative power of the Shekinah is not her own, but rather is instigated by a masculine being. Any power she has, derives from an outside masculine source.  Any divinity of the feminine is strictly contained within the referential of the masculine. In other words, the Shekinah, despite her exaltation, lacks any meaningful agency.

Wolfson, Elliot. 1998. “Hebraic and Hellenic Conceptions of Wisdom in Sefer ha-Bahir.” Poetics Today 19.1: 147-176.

Creation of Eve by Michelangelo via Wikimedia Commons.

2 thoughts on “Female Agency in the Kabbalah
  1. Respectfully, it is questionable to base one’s analysis upon the deconstruction by someone rather than going to the source. If using secondary sources is the limitation of one’s research, I would respectfully suggest using two books by Raphael Patai, the “ethnographer, historian, Orientalist and anthropologist” (Wikipedia).

    Specifically, I would suggest “The Hebrew Goddess” showing how the Jews worshipped a goddess both in the home and in the Jerusalem temple until 70 c.e. This would place working with a Goddess throughout biblical and post-biblical eras, during the period where the Kabalah was actually being formulated, assuming (as I do) that the Sepher Yetzirah was written in the 1st century c.e.

    I would also suggest “The Jewish Mind” which has a section showing how the Kabalah was influenced by the proto-Tantrics of India, a spirituality that looks at the female energies as being equally or more important than the passivity of the God energies.

    Isn’t it interesting how researchers tend to find what they’re looking for? I wonder what would happen if you looked for something outside of your presuppositions?

    1. Thank you for your comment.

      Respectfully, these observations were part of a blog post, not a research project. The scope of which, in my opinion, are two entirely different things in terms of research, methodology, and presentation.

      Obviously, as you have pointed out, there are scholars who have produced monographs on the subject of gender in Judaism. For those who want a fuller picture of these issues, I certainly encourage them to investigate those more fully.

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