Notes on the Missing Daughter

Hades abducting Persephone (Macedonian fresco, 340 BC)

I walk the familiar walk to my rabbi’s home on a certain Sunday and notice for the first time the blooming of wildflowers. I arrive; sweaty, delirious holiday morning prayers. By lunch he tells us about spring: by way of a familiar hermeneutic pun, we should not read the word as aviv-“spring” (אביב) but instead as av-“father” (אב). The season of returning flowers is the season when the transcendent Father emerges and reveals himself from within the immanence of creation. The ontological distance between creator and created is closed, at least in a symbolic or anticipatory manner. In the same sense that Passover is understood as our “small redemption” (preceding the “big [Messianic] redemption”), the mood of spring can offer a “taste of redemption.” It’s no mistake that this season is the one in which we celebrate our freedom.

haru mo yaya | keshiki totonou | tsuki to ume
slowly spring / is making an appearance / moon and plum

Thus if nature is the first book then its around this time of year that we read about redemption and rebirth. And if for Israel spring is the father, for the Greeks it was the daughter. The Greek vernal equinox, as is well known, was the season wherein one remembered the abduction and return of Persephone from the underworld. The transition into spring, then, as marked by its signs—natural fecundity and agricultural harvest—seems to imply the principle that even those most apparently dead and buried, chthonic forms have in the end a chance at resurrection.

The beauty of nature is problematic, especially for those of us who take classical metaphysics seriously. If beauty (like all good things) is identified with unity (specifically: the absolute unity of God) and, inversely, the created world is identified with the many, then where is beauty in creation? Nature is nothing if not multiple, often to an alarming degree. Annie Dillard does a good job of bringing our attention to the horrors and awe associated with fecundity, especially in its organic forms; “I don’t know what it is about fecundity that so appalls,” she writes, “I suppose it is the teeming evidence that birth and growth, which we value, are ubiquitous and blind … that nature is as careless as it is bountiful.”¹

And yet: even the most orthodox neoplatonist is moved to silence in a meadow of wildflowers. Aquinas resolves the question neatly when, in a revision of Plotinus’ definition of beauty as “unity in multiplicity,”² he writes of the “flowering of reality”³ as a mass of separate parts which in their difference testify to the multiplicity of forms that God’s unity can take. Beauty is a unifying principle, just as unity is a beautiful one. This is precisely why the natural world (in all its difference, all its separate blades of grass and discreet colors) boasts an apparent cohesion. Multiplicity in immanence is as much an expression of divinity as unity in transcendence. The theologian in springtime thus notices the variety of flowers that have sprung out of the ground and reflects in wonder and gratitude on the number of forms by which God allows Himself to be known to us; the number of names (geranium, bergamot, wood poppy) He allows Himself to be called.

haru kaze ni | fukidashi warau | hana mogana
o for flowers / that burst into laughter / in the spring winds

It’s difficult to resent phenomenal reality at this time of year, anyway. We learn something important about immanence in the spring, and immanence is always feminine. This is Persephone, this is shekhina: the expression of God in natural multiplicity. The missing daughter, lost and then returned to us in the movement of each year. It’s not a coincidence that the Zohar identifies shekhina/malchut—divine immanence, spirit of the Jewish people in exile—as the estranged daughter of Binah, divine womb. Shekhina’s exile from the upper levels of divinity, like Persephone’s abduction, speaks to our apparent distance from God. Spring, on the contrary, symbolizes our ultimate proximity: the unity of the divine name, the return of the missing daughter. At risk of pantheism, then, the blossoming of spring flowers reminds us that God exists as much in worldly difference as in simple celestial homogeny.

A girl [likely Persephone] with Eros kneeling on a half-pomegranate (Greek, ca. 400–323 BC)

Make no mistake: these similarities between Persephone and shekhina are as shallow as my patience for comparative religion as a methodology in general. Even the limited extent to which shekhina should be received as a “daughter” (as opposed to her much more canonical designation as “bride”) is cause for suspicion, as is the important distinction between the linear-historical nature of her ultimate return and the seasonal-cyclical nature of Persephone’s. Nonetheless, I would suggest that the chain of associations invited by receiving these two figures in tandem (exile/return—immanence—femininity—springtime) should be taken seriously, if only as long as it remains beautiful to do so.

I leave the rabbi’s house—reformed Platonist turned naive attempter of orthodoxy—and take in the diversity of colors and perfumes with my bleary, religious senses. The radicalism of wildflowers. Over the course of the week I catch myself accidentally muttering aviva (fem. form of “spring”) in place of avinu (“our father”).

tare yara ga | katachi ni ni tari | kesa no haru
the first morning of spring. / I feel like / someone else

Haikus from Basho throughout.

  1. Dillard, Annie. “Pilgrim at tinker creek.” New York (1974): 137.
  2. See Gál, Ota. Plotinus on Beauty, (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 21 Mar. 2022): 109. Also attributed to John Scotus Eriugena.
  3. Borrowing the language of de Wulf, Muarice. Mediaeval Philosophy. Illustrated from the System of Thomas Aquinas.. Harvard University Press, 1922: 137.

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J. N.

J. N.

Theology, Hermeneutics, Jewish Mysticism | Oberlin 2022