March 23, 2006
A Woman’s Touch
Parshat Vayakhel-Pekudey (Exodus 35:1-40:38)
The stereotypical Jewish woman is strong, supportive, receptive and respected. Growing up, she is showered with love,
pampered by objects and experiences of beauty and quality. She keeps a welcoming home. She attends to detail, wants what she wants and is unapologetically "high maintenance." She is wise, and capable of keen manipulation. She is emotional -- following her heart more than her mind. She is nurturing, loyal, generous and willing to sacrifice. She finds total fulfillment only when she has balanced her work with marriage (preferably to a doctor or lawyer) and children. Most significantly, she loves receiving beautiful clothing, fine perfume and dazzling jewelry.
She might (stereotypically) become annoyed reading such generalizations, and seek out those attributes that do not apply to her. Her annoyance may also rise around the seeming male dominance of her religion: the subordinate roles of women, the deficiency of female voice and presence in Torah. She might question where the goddess part of the One Divinity is in Judaism; why parshot such as this week's Vayakhel-Pekudey speak only of male priests and male builders creating a space within which to worship a male god.
That's what I have wanted to know, anyway -- Jewish American Princess/rabbi that I am. As wonderful as Judaism is, the apparent disregard for the feminine side of things really bugged me. More than that, I didn't understand how Judaism had survived with this kind of imbalance. Be it a battery or a plant: Both the male and female aspect to its makeup must engage in equal and opposite reactions in order to maintain homeostasis. If the positive charge is stronger than the negative, if there's too much water and not enough sun, too many carbs and not enough protein, more yang than yin, more tonic than gin.... OK, I'll stop.
Disproportion in something's receptive and aggressive qualities quickly destroys it. In accord with these irrefutable physical laws, it seemed impossible that Judaism could have subsisted with such dominant chauvinism.
I sought out the ancient hidden femininity within Judaism, knowing that the goddess had to be there somewhere -- deep, concealed and receptive: as her feminine nature would dictate. The Divine aspect representing the stereotypical Jewish woman must have existed as consort to the father/ruler/protector/provider in equal but opposite strength. But where? As it turns out: everywhere!
As with the laws of homeostasis, kabbalah also acknowledged that both masculine and feminine elements exist equally within the emanations of the one God. They diagramed this: with the Ain Sof -- the infinite, active, masculine, source of all -- flowing down into existence until he is finally received by his woman: the Shechinah. This goddess aspect of the One is Its in-dwelling, the part that accepts, conceives and makes manifest what flows toward her. She is Mother Earth. The bearer of all that is: trees, buildings, humans; the finite that is married to the infinite in sacred communion. She is around us, within us, and certainly in Torah. Vayakhel-Pekudey, I have come to realize, is a description of goddess worship as much as adoration of god.
For in building the tabernacle and dressing the priests, homage is paid to the ultimate Jewish woman. In helping her to properly accommodate the presence of her man, her wood is measured in uncompromising detail to assure strength and support. Her people respect strict rules for manipulating the materials in their building. They follow their hearts rather than intellects in offering her objects of beauty. With loyal adoration they bring her perfumed oils and incense; flowery carvings, precious metals to be shaped into womb -- like rings.
From the rings hang curtains and veils -- such as those worn by the Egyptian goddess Isis and the Greek Penelope. Their cloth is from threads of fine linen, thread being the symbol of fate, woven by Aphrodite and the Cretan goddess Ariadne. So, too, the priests' "robes of woven work" reflect ancient rites of women's magic -- weaving and knotting have been since time immemorial methods by which to control fates (example: marriage is "tying the knot"). They gather gemstones once connected to acts of female divination for the breastplate, such as sapphire -- the stone of destiny, invoking the triple goddess of fate. And upon the hem of the priest's robe, bells are intertwined with pomegranates -- apples of many seeds (in Hebrew rimon, from rim: to bear a child) with their universal symbolism as the fertile womb.
With every material and every action, the congregation of Israel celebrates the goddess in her endless manifestations. And while her husband may not be a doctor, his capacity to co-exist with her as the ultimate equal and opposite partner explains how Judaism has maintained its glorious presence throughout history. The stereotypical Jewish woman is connected with, and ever empowered by, the sweet-smelling, jewel-wearing, high-maintenance Mother Earth goddess Shechinah. And she reflects a universal femininity that is powerfully, albeit subtly existent throughout the Bible. Through her partnership with the masculine, she calls to us to love what is along with what could be, and to celebrate the faces of woman in balance with the gender that is our equal, opposite partner in the Divine gift of recreation.
Karen Dietsch is rabbi at Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge.