Twice a year, in autumn and springtime, mom shlepped us all east from the suburbs of St. Louis to United Hebrew Temple. Ten minutes into the service, dad fell asleep, his head grazing the bronze memorial plaques of the back wall. But I was mesmerized. Rabbi Grollman wore a long black robe, giving him a magisterial dignity largely missing in my seven-year-old life. As he rambled on—he liked to tell a story about an egg—I gazed up into the soaring dome above us. Someone had painted it powder blue, hinting at sky, suggesting something vast and significant.
I wouldn’t have said God was here, in this place. But a nameless spirit stirred me, and seemed to be with us as we filed out. There, in the glint of my sister’s black patent shoes, a patch of light falling on mom’s shoulder. Everyone somehow more than they’d been before, though maybe it was just relief. The service was over and we could all go back to real life now.
Years later, when I fell for a rebelling Orthodox man, I found myself in another shul—this one a basement tucked behind Olive Street road, with the women on one side of a wooden mechitza topped by a slim panel of glass. Rabbi Bienenfeld never shared his thoughts about God. He seemed to take it for granted that we’d answered the question of God’s existence and the dominant role this kingly figure played in our lives.
I didn’t go exactly gently into that Orthodox world and its male-dominated structures. The part of me that had taken women’s studies classes in college was determined to make up for the lack of women—in public prayer, in the liturgy, in the stories, too. And so, with a teensy group of dedicated others, I read Plaskow, I read Zornberg, I read of the women on the east coast demanding a Torah at their synagogue.
Sometimes I slipped out of the invisible Orthodox gates to study and talk with two rabbis I’d befriended. It was the late 80’s and Jewish women across the country were wrestling with the heavy patriarchal inheritances. We all seemed to know the old idea of God—that bearded rascal who sits on high judging and pronouncing, naming our sins with the stark verve of an accountant—had done damage to us all.
But it wasn’t until I reached midlife, and was interrupted by a series of panic attacks that seemed to arrive out of nowhere, rendering me sleepless and raw, that I first heard the word, Shechinah, whispered to me by a woman rabbi as I faced my thirtieth nearly sleepless night. Rabbi Susan Talve had been called to my side by a desperate friend.
When Rabbi Susan arrived, she looked deep into my face, reached for my arm, and pinched at the skin near my wrist. “We have to go to the ER,” she said, “You’re dehydrated.”
Later, after an IV was hooked up and the ER doc had gently talked me into some xanax, Rabbi Susan sat up with me until one a.m. I told her about this dark punishing God that seemed to be with me now, one that in my better days I didn’t even believe in. She explained that the Kabbalah, the mystical tradition of Judaism had another name for God, one that was feminine. She said that a more supportive, gentle presence of God was possible to imagine. Before she left, she told me, “You might try laying your head down in the arms of the Shechinah.” That seemed like a good idea. A more soothing, less punishing version of the God I’d been carrying around lately.
When Rabbi Susan first said that word, Shechinah, I loved the quiet sound of it, the lingering of vowels and hush at the end. But all I could picture, besides some amorphous feeling sense of what a feminine God might look like—tender, nurturing, kind—were the loving arms of the women I knew, a group I’d only recently come to be a part of: Lainie, Lisa, Deborah, Sarah Anne. We even had a Miriam amongst us, our eldest.
We had met once for a women’s seder and loved each other so much, instantly, that one of us had insisted we all meet again—next month. We cooked for each other and studied and talked, endlessly. And continued to meet, month after month, for years.
So when Rabbi Susan said that—about the Shechinah and sleep—I pictured those women, the way we sometimes sang Debbie Friedman’s version of the Shehecheyanu, pausing before we ate the bounteous feast spread before us, our ten voices falling so naturally into each other, without effort, like water in a rushing stream.
I imagined something akin to Lainie and Deborah and Sarah Anne’s arms, a pillow beneath my head, and with the help of the xanax, had my first night’s sleep.
Who was this Shechinah? In the next few years, besides leaving the Orthodox world—in retrospect that was a part of what the panic was about—I began to ask some new questions. What did the texts have to say about the feminine face of God? And how, in all my years of study, including Plaskow and Zornberg, too, had I missed her?
It turns out she’s easy to miss, even if you’re not in the Orthodox world. Our texts and liturgy hammer images of a decidedly male God—one who rescues and also wages war, punishes, and muscles out others.
Newly awake to the knowledge of how much, almost in spite of myself, I’d imbibed these patriarchal inheritances, these dinosaur ideas of God, now I began to pore through the tradition looking for what Zornberg calls, “the subversive power of the women,” running like some subterranean truth beneath the dominant one. How might the women intuit a different idea of what God might be?
Whereas Plaskow re-envisions Sinai, trying to imagine women into the story at the climactic moment when the Torah is given, I discovered a midrash in Zornberg’s “Particulars of Rapture” that focuses on women’s experiences of God:
When the Israelite women came to give birth in Egypt, they did so in the Fields, and God sent one from the highest heavens to clean and tend to them, like a midwife. So when God appeared to them at the Sea, they recognized Him first.
The midrash imagines the women singing as they cross the sea, encountering again the divine source they came to know intimately when they gave birth in the fields of Egypt. God as a midwife.
Reading this passage, as someone who had given birth, and knew that stunning moment after the blood and sweat of labor, when the crown of a new being appears at the edge of her own body, it was easy to imagine God as a midwife. The story named the way I had felt, that sense of some unseen presence and mystery in the room.
In Zornberg’s account, during a moment of liberation, the God relationship deepens, intertwining with an earlier encounter.
As I began to think more about how much male-dominated ideas of God had lodged in me, I intentionally set out to “correct” some of these imbalances. I spent an entire year of Shabbat prayer—at various shuls—deliberately and forcefully intoning a “she” whenever I hit the innumerable “he’s” in the prayer book.
It’s not that I believed God was either male or female. Those of us interested in the question of whether a divine source or mystery infuses our lives might all agree it is better to transcend gender issues when thinking about God.
But I also knew I had imbibed the decidedly male bent of our tradition. And I needed to spend some time correcting on the other side. As I did so, it became easier to intuit God as something other than that which the texts describe.
When a friend passed a copy of “The Feminine Face of God,” into my hands, I found a treasure trove of companions whose encounters with the divine feminine encouraged me. The writers had interviewed women from various spiritual traditions across North America. Nearly all of them portray more nurturing forms of feminine spirituality—akin to the goddesses who had been present in pre-Judaic times.
Their stories depict what the mystics might call Shechinah in more earthy, sensual, body-centered ways than the rabbis ever did. These women’s experiences of God are limned with deep connections to the natural world; they are informed by the everyday, the mundane, and especially, by relationship. They include mortality and the mess of human living.
Many of the women focus on receptivity and vulnerability as conduits for their relationships with the divine feminine, and the encounters they describe are deeply personal.
In the book, Meinrad Conrad, a writer of “Mother’s Songs: Images of God the Mother,” depicts a God figure “of blood and birth, one whose breasts flow with milk.” And Jean Bolen, a Jungian analyst says, “As long as what is considered sacred is always in the image of men, a whole aspect of what divinity is for women is not accessible to us.”
As I moved further into my search, I also became aware of how much language limits us when we try to convey our encounters with the Sacred. Art Green, whose mystical theology draws upon Hasidic sources, describes God as a unifying Force or Mystery or Power. This non-dual version of God transcends gender divides, can be both immanent and transcendent, and permeates all of existence, rendering the separateness we experience as an illusion.
I was recently out in Big Sur, God’s country if there ever was one. We were perched on the edge of a mountain, with the smell of wood smoke and pinion pines drifting from fires nearby. Some hundred feet below, a stretch of blue and boulders scattered along the coast. Waves built and crashed, pounding the rocks and spraying water, and the feeling that some not quite earthly symphony was being played and I was only here to listen.
It was one of Green’s “moments of holy and awesome presence.” Out there, at the Pacific’s edge, I chose to name and bless that Godness, a transcendent and immanent presence I felt in my toes, and at the same time, experienced as so much more than myself.
This Presence, this Mystery, was neither male nor female, but in these later days of my spiritual search, there is a definite sense of restoration within. Something has been added to the old God ideas, something distinctly feminine, as a corrective of sorts to the God I had experienced at United Hebrew Temple and at Young Israel, too.
Art Green says that our tradition’s stories are “an attempt to put into narrative form a truth so profound that it cannot be told except when dressed in the garb of narration.”
I’m still probing the layers, written and not, of those narratives and their truths. The other night I sat with another group of women. This time, at a cramped wood table in an apartment in Manhattan. We shared our thoughts and feelings about the Divine, our sense of an enduring mystery we intuit, beyond all the explanations. We read Zornberg, a Zohar text on Shechinah, and wondered aloud together what a more feminine face of God might be, one not burdened by thousands of years of patriarchy.
Towards the end of the night we all wrote letters to her. Mine went like this:
It’s been awhile. I think I found you again the other day as I did walking meditation at New York Insight. That radiant light coming through the smudged windows of an eighteenth floor loft on 37th street. The therapist turned guru was talking too much, having said he would be doing a silent retreat, and my friend Diane kept fidgeting in her chair every time he interrupted our silence to speak again. But when I walked and he said to find our peaceful safe place, after I had scrolled through all of the ones that wouldn’t work—too noisy, too cold, too bright with summer shine—I ended up at Horseleach Pond. First with the husband in our rickety folding chairs, and then, scooting him aside, just you and me and the reeds and the frogs. You know all the answers to the questions I’ve been too afraid to say out loud.
One by one, the answers came. Oh, so here you are again, I thought. Just like when Rabbi Susan told me I could lay down in your arms and I put my head—after thirty sleepless nights—on that pillow and went to sleep.