Kabbalah Studies and the Woman Question

Maurycy Minkowski, Eil Molei Rachamiem, 1922

“Woman makes a hole in language … we fail to say her.” (Pierre Naveau)

There’s something telling in the discursive centrality of women and the feminine among contemporary academic scholars of Kabbalah. As in other Jewish studies subdisciplines, researchers in Jewish mysticism have been attempting with various degrees of success to reconcile the dearth of female authorship in the literary (?) canon that is classical Kabbalah with an ethical responsibility toward gender egalitarianism. This tension has resulted in two broad methods of scholarship in the present generation of research: (i) highlight the rare female voices and personalities that do exist in this canon—thus producing work on, for instance, the mystically informed tkhines of Ashkenazi women and Hasidic rebbetzins like the Maiden of Ludmir; or (ii) accept the lack of female authorship and instead focus one’s research on the evaluating the Feminine as a spiritual or metaphorical category, generally without writing about women qua women.

This latter (dominant) approach allows scholars to engage in questions related to gender in Kabbalah without necessarily contradicting the claim advanced by Gershom Scholem in the opening of his seminal collection of lectures—which, as my teacher Sam Shonkoff once suggested, have since their delivery become something of a primary source themselves—Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. Here Scholem not only takes the lack of female authorship for granted but portrays it further as the essential characteristic of “Kabbalism” distinguishing it from other mystical traditions. He speaks in frank terms: “There have been no women Kabbalists.” This for Scholem implies at once a deficiency (Kabbalah lacks the “feminine emotion” coloring, especially, Christian mysticism) and a benefit: the Hebrew tradition is lucky, he insists, to have “remained comparatively free from the dangers entailed by the tendency toward hysterical extravagance which followed in the wake of this [female] influence].” On the other hand, and shifting the tone a bit, we’re meant also with Scholem to regret the manner with which the “exclusive masculinity” of Kabbalah gave way to an essential symbolic association of the feminine with evil: precisely because of the Kabbalah’s identity as a male discipline (“for men and by men,” he says verbatim) the cosmic Feminine came to be inextricably linked with the realm of the demonic.

We’re generally asked to believe that all worthwhile scholarship is oedipal in nature, borne of killing and replacing the primacy of one’s intellectual fathers. This is perhaps what makes the career of Elliot Wolfson so exceptional: rather than rejecting Scholem’s early premise (that Kabbalah is essentially anti-female) Wolfson instead has devoted a significant chunk of his bibliography to defending this thesis against its detractors. This overarching mission is expressed well in Kalman Bland’s review of Wolfson’s 2007 opus Language, Eros, Being (hereafter LEB), a sequel of sorts to his groundbreaking Through a Speculum That Shines (1994). Alluding the LEB’s reception of the National Jewish Book Award for Scholarship, Kalman notes—correctly, I think—that “specialists in Jewish mysticism, aware of ongoing controversies in the field, might understandably construe the book and its award as vindications of Gershom Scholem against his critics”; vindication, namely, of the thesis concerning “gender bias.” Kalman cites Wolfson’s summary of his defense:

Kalman notably praises this conclusion not merely as a triumph of the objective truth of the Text against its feminist distorters but instead, inversely, as a testament to Wolfon’s own “exceptionally rigorous, egalitarian, feminist ethics” and his refusal to project or “impose” said ethics on rabbinic culture. It is not that Wolfson wishes to hide or refute a positive treatment of women in the text; rather (following Scholem) such a treatment is nowhere to be found. This philological stubbornness is illustrated well in the above passage: one might be tempted, Wolfson anticipates, to point to the honorable position of the Shekhina, divine feminine immanence, as evidence of the Zohar’s complexly anti-patriarchal streak. Rather, even if we accept that the Zohar affords Shekhina an exceptionally lofty metaphysical position—and this alone is doubtful—such a position is contingent on Shekhina’s masculinized portrayal. Even in the celebration of the divine feminine one thus fails to find a “genuine celebration of the female.”

Wolfson’s elaboration of the androcentric (elsewhere “phallocentric”) thesis in LEB is the culmination of a career-long project, and as Kalman points out this project has not been without its critics. We might point first to the resurgence of a female-centered Jewish spirituality—exemplified by groups like Kohenet and scholars like Jill Hammer—as the primary target and antagonist of this thesis. Contra Wolfson in the extreme, Hammer has famously (if, for some of us, disturbingly) cited Zohar I:49a as a proof-text for an equation of Shekhina with the Asherah [tree idol] and the worship of the divine feminine therein. Kohenet, a priestess organization finding spiritual precedent in Hammer’s scholarship, seems on the institutional level hardly to mind accusations of paganism or idolatry. Rather: they find in sources from classical Kabbalah a wellspring of resources to provide precedent for a type of feminist worship that presses against the boundaries of monotheistic dogma.

While cursory searches fail to find any instance of Wolfson explicitly referencing Kohenet or Hammer, the feminist reception of Kabbalah among progressive Jews—particularly regarding their embrace of Shekhina—provides a foil to Wolfson’s research and an example of the kind of revision against which his work functions.

A more explicit and storied adversary is revealed from deeper in the academy. Moshe Idel, himself a direct student of Gershom Scholem, is keen to position himself (with at times more than a shred of pathos) as the last remaining holdout against the androcentric thesis.

Moshe Idel (left) and Elliot R. Wolfson (right)

Certain people like to cast the Wolfson/Idel debate as a microcosm for the larger tensions between American and Israeli schools of Kabbalah research, which would make more sense if other Israeli scholars like Yehuda Liebes and Melila Hellner-Eshed were at all in conformity with Idel’s position. A simpler explanation for their debate stems from Idel’s 2005 Kabbalah and Eros, a book which highlights the primacy and especially the autonomy of the feminine in classical sources. Idel here inaugurates the rivalry by portraying Wolfson’s methodology as monolithically obsessed with gender and the eradication of feminine aspects of the Godhead (KE, 129), leading to a reductive reading of the Zohar’s complex and “layered” treatment of Shekhina. Idel elsewhere criticizes Wolfson’s conflation of masculine and feminine poles into an “androgynous phallus” in Through a Speculum, seeking instead to grant the feminine a degree of independence and self-determined ontology—a project which parallels feminist debates on feminine objectivity/subjectivity, subsequently complicated (as Idel astutely notes) by Luce Irigaray in a critique appropriated by Wolfson (KE, 101).

In Chapter 2 of LEB Wolfson offers a critique of Kabbalah’s maternal symbolism that relies precisely on contradicting the claims made by Idel to the ontological autonomy of the feminine in Kabbalah, reading the symbol of the mother instead as an affirmation of association of the feminine with the terrestrial and corporeal (LEB, 81–82). Applying the logic used in reference to Shekhina above, Wolfson likewise notes that the sefirah of Binah (called I think the “great mother” by Idel) is celebrated by the Zohar for her generative capacity in a manner that aligns her with the “world of the masculine,” serving ultimately to affirm the identification of the sefirotic anthropos as a male body. Where Idel would like to read a union of divine masculine and feminine forms Wolfson insists on the subservience of feminine qualities in deference to masculine subjectivity; as the Zohar states plainly: “the supernal world is a world of the masculine” (I:246a).

Wolfson’s animosity toward Idel’s position is affirmed in more frank terms in his recent book Heidegger and Kabbalah (2019). Responding to Idel’s methodological critiques, Wolfson states that Idel “has doggedly sought to discredit my way of thinking by labeling it a form of essentialism … flattening my methodology.” This accusation of “flattening,” we will recall, derives at least in part from Idel’s appeal to the layered multivocality of the Zohar against Wolfson’s assumed “reduction” of the text to a masculine essence. It fascinates me that a disagreement that is manifest almost exclusively in the terms of the position of the feminine (a “querelle des femmes,” a woman question) was until recently only referenced as a methodological / hermeneutical opposition. (Refer to Wolfson’s 2007 essay “Structure, Innovation, and Diremptive Temporality: The Use of Models to Study Continuity and Discontinuity in Kabbalistic Tradition” for an elaborated defense of his methodology.)

The rivalry took on an explicitly gendered character, however, with the publication of Idel’s The Privileged Divine Feminine in Kabbalah in 2019. Idel’s monograph on the subject was so pointed—uncharacteristic of the more temperately-humored Israeli scholar—that Wolfson began his retaliation by declaring “I will not dignify Moshe Idel’s highly polemical book … with a detailed response, but rest assured that it is based on a lack of understanding of my work in particular and of gender theory more generally,” later referring to Idel’s critique as “repulsive” and “hyperjudgemental”(see “Appendix 2: The Unprivileged of the Divine Feminine” in Wolfson’s 2021 Suffering Time).

Without going into detail, indeed, it remains fair to say that Idel’s thesis here depends on a radical reimaging of the sefirotic body: rather than seeing the sefirot as a descending cascade of emanations from highest (Keter/Ein Sof) to lowest (Shekhina/Malkhut), Idel proposes instead an “uroboric” model wherein beginning and end meet in the same position (PDFK, 29). Thus the transcendent divine masculine and immanent divine feminine would share the same ontological status, rather than being arranged hierarchically. This uroboric logic finds its philosophical basis in a notion once attributed to Aristotle and later adopted by rabbinic culture: “the beginning in thought is the last in action.” Idel finds further precedent for this thesis in the rabbinic midrashic motif that Woman was the first thing God thought to create, despite Eve being in fact last among created things (74)—an idea that was later appropriated in medieval polemics on the nobility of women.

An uroboric logic.

This revised sefirotic model completely upends what has become an accepted set of assumptions in this study of Kabbalah (following Scholem) concerning gender and gendered hierarchy. This lends itself well to a thesis which is in itself alarming enough to make Idel’s book worth reading. And yes: Idel’s express frustration around the “problematic academic silence” in wake of Wolfson’s intellectual monopoly on kabbalistic gender theory is probably with good cause. Keeping all this in mind—and as if my sympathy toward Wolfson’s position wasn’t already apparent enough—Idel’s book to my mind raises a number of problems, some of which I’ll hubristically list below:

  • As suggested above in a citation from Scholem, the realm of evil and impurity (sitra achra) is, per Zohar, explicitly linked to the feminine (left) side of God’s emanation. This gives way to an extremely gendered mythology of evil, exemplified well by the demoness Lilith. Idel focuses on images associated with the divine feminine (like Shekhina, ‘Ateret Tiferet, etc) but neglects to compliment this with an explanation of the demonic feminine—Lilith doesn’t earn a single mention in the book—forcing the reader to wonder how he might reconcile these two inverse symbol clusters.
  • Many of the (quite interesting) sources that Idel relies on do indeed make claims to the privileged position of the divine feminine, but do so only by relying on Her association with the divine masculine. See especially Chapter 5: “The Father, the Head, and the Daughter,” wherein Idel cites a passage from Tiqqunei Zohar that describes the divine father (apparently the sefira Hokhmah) as favoring his daughter the Shekhina even more than his sons. This seems to explicitly contradict another of Idel’s central theses; namely, contra Wolfson, that the divine feminine in Kabbalah is afforded a degree of ontological autonomy and subjectivity. The passage in question would suggest exactly the opposite, leading one to realize that when speaking about the divine feminine’s “privileged position” one must in turn ask “privileged by whom?”—the answer, most often, being “Him.” There are parallels to this daughter image in other passages praising, for instance, the divine bride who is beloved by her husband. Thus the celebration of the feminine is generally contingent on her celebration in turn by the masculine, ultimately only reaffirming the position of the divine masculine as highest God and supreme authority. Is this not androcentrism par excellence?
  • Finally, the uroboros thesis—fascinating though it is—was already referenced and criticized by Wolfson on pp. 67–68 of LEB, wherein he sought to distance its appropriation by Erich Neumann in reference to the myth of “Great Mother” from traditional kabbalah. While Wolfson concedes that the Shekhina is often linked with higher aspects of the sefirotic body, he here reminds us (following Scholem) that this “privileged position” again only implies privilege to the extent that the masculine qualities of Shekhina are emphasized. Thus an uroboric model of the sefirot would not necessarily disrupt the androcentrism of the tradition writ large—a critique that Idel nowhere addresses.

While Idel’s book may provide for some an interesting alternative to Wolfson’s thesis, these lacunae among others leave me remaining unconvinced that there is indeed hermeneutical space available for an egalitarian or gynocentric reading of classical Kabbalah in its dominant forms.

I say this at the risk of exacerbated polemicism. Worse, at risk of further obscuring the initial observation which I’ve neglected almost entirely—namely: that it feels resonant, if at times pathological, that women and/or the feminine have been cast as the primary subjects (I almost wrote “agents”) of contemporary Kabbalah research. After recounting the bitter history above this points feels almost moot, but still I insist that the androcentric /gynocentric debate inevitably implies more than the sum of its parts. The failure of communication suggested by Wolfson on the part of the kabbalists in effectively creating a discourse of female subjectivity feels applicable in this sense to the entire problem of academic Kabbalah research, wherein (despite, perhaps, Wolfson’s contributions) we have yet to learn how to properly do scholarship about the lacuna in this corpus that is women.

Maybe it’s because of the tension between women and “the feminine” in Kabbalah, and the eclipse of women therein, that scholars in this field feel so unable to write about women well—always, one runs the risk of reducing an entire demographic to a symbolic category or a principle. Perhaps, likewise, what’s at stake is ultimately a question of reception, and of whether or not this canon should be available to those seeking to create new forms of Jewish thought and expression. In any case it feels clear to me that rather than merely producing more answers to the woman question (which Kalman above coyly referred to as this “ongoing controversy”) it is vital that we think critically about the question itself and its pervasiveness.

I’m skeptical, anyway, about the necessary reality of a separation between women and the feminine, and reluctant still to rule out the possibility of a practical application of Kabbalah to the actual experiences of Jewish women. As a way of closing it’s worthwhile, then, to cite a handful of instances where the multifaced approach to God’s gender highlighted especially by Idel have indeed provided legal precedent for Jewish communities to move toward something we might call egalitarianism.

See for instance to the statement of R. Yaakov Emden of Altona (18th c) on the laws of minyan—the quorum of ten needed for prayer. Here R. Yaakov points out that the minyan is a microcosm of the sefirot, and since at least one of the sefirot is “female” (Shekhina) this may imply that at least one of the people included in a minyan may be a woman. See further, as Idel alludes to (PDFK, 209), the manner with which certain kabbalistic-messianic theories of gender have allowed for increased female participation in Jewish life among modern Hasidic movements, especially Chabad-Lubavitch. The innovation of Chabad women’s acccess to education in particular is owed in large part to a tradition stretching back to the Arizal on shared access to knowledge in the generation anticipating the Messiah. This is all perhaps to say that there’s room, even in the headiness of our discipline, to think once in a while about the lives of Jews.

Ethiopian Jewish woman preparing for shabbat (Joan Roth, 1994)

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Theology, Hermeneutics, Jewish Mysticism | Oberlin 2022

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