Shekhinah-Mother (Leaky Body) (Zohar)

So here She is again, Shekhinah in one of her more fearsome appearances in the Zohar. To the best of my knowledge, none of the other sephirot come close to this kind of ferocity. King-Sun-Tiferet tends to be more stand-offish. Eclipsed as it were, He carries nothing like Her violent, physical force. Here’s how R. Shimon puts it:

Come and see: In various places they have established that name of the moon. When She is blessed by all, as it is written: terev, she increased –in the days of King Solomon when She and was blessed and assumed fullness. We have learned: A thousand mountains sprout vegetation before Her, all constituting a single bite for her. A thousand rivers swell toward Her, and She swallows them in a single gulp. Her nails clutch in 1,070 directions; Her hands grasp in 24,000 directions. Nothing escapes Her on this side and nothing escapes Her on that. Thousands upon thousands of shields adhere to Her hair. A single youth extending from the end of the world to the other, emerges from between Her legs with sixty strokes of fire, decked in his colors. This one is empowered over those below in Her four directions. This is the you who holds 613 supernal keys from the side of Mother, dangling from the flaming sword girded on his lions. That youth is called Enoch, son of Jared…” (Zohar 1:223a-b, Pritzker translation)

Psychological interpretations are tricky. Really, what the Zohar boys are thinking here I don’t know, and I’m not sure it’s even worth the bother to guess. Do they con-fuse horror and fascination? Or are these observations about gyno-power more clinical? I tend to think that pre-modern thinkers were far more comfortable and less phobic with this kind of stuff than are “we.”

For example, I was going to post a picture of Judy Chicago’s Red Flag (1971). An equal match to Shekhinah mother and her fantastic leaky body, Chicago’s photograph is, to my mind, the most radical icon of feminist art ever produced. Go look it up on Google image if you want. I was told not to in no uncertain terms by someone whose judgment I respect much more than my own.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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5 Responses to Shekhinah-Mother (Leaky Body) (Zohar)

  1. leakyink says:

    I, too, don’t know what the Zohar boys were thinking, but the power they see in her is both amazing beautifully and powerfully haunting!

    • zjb says:

      do you also think it’s gynophobic? and if so, is that part of the power and beauty? i’m trusting your judgment on this one.

  2. C.M.W. says:

    When I try to get into the minds of pre-modern authors, I always remember a couple little bits of data. The first is that the English word “awe” and all of its relatives were considerably more ambivalent in their Middle English origins than our post-Valley Girl compliments. They carried connotations of dread, fear, and terror, especially when they were used to describe the divine. God was not cuddly. He and his manifestations were as frightening as they were comforting.

    The second is to recall Luke 2:10 and the first words of the angel to the shepherds: “Be not afraid.” Why would shepherds fear an angel? Twenty-first-century shepherds wouldn’t. Their angels are adorable fat flying Victorian babies and beautiful humanoid androgynous winged things with harps. First-century shepherds would have a different cultural catalog. Their angels are the ones from Ezekiel 1 and Isaiah 6 that are flaming monsters with hot coals and swords. Their error is not to con-fuse horror and fascination; it’s our error to separate them.

  3. hayyim rothman says:

    i not convinced that the shechina mother is supposed to be all that much of a mother. in Through the Speculum That Shines wolfson talks a lot about the homoerotic quality of the kabbalistic fascination with the shechina.

    on that note, i remember having – on several occasions – having come across imagery in chabad maamarim where the breasts of the shechina end up being described as if they were ejaculating penises… and it is by his/her breasts that s/he relates to the lower worlds.

    the hyperbolic praise of “her” military prowess could just as well play into a larger homoerotic fantasy… conquering the world by harvesting its products with weapons and then eating them all up, elevating them into the upper realms.

    in a sense, i would say that the zoharic images of the female are a lot like a certain brand of 70’s feminism. eg. i have this horrible children’s book from then, the premise of which is an ongoing game of make believe between a little boy and a little girl. the little boy constantly comes up with things he’d like to be when he grows up and then tells the girl she cant be those things. instead of having her come up with her own aspirations, the whole book repeats her “proving” to the little boy that all the things he says she cannot do she, in fact, can. at the same time as she attempts to show her strength and independence she ends up proving over and over again that she is utterly dependent on the little boy, she can live only within his visionary framework.

    same thing in the zohar. there are no independent images of females, only a male who happens to have breasts and a vagina and uses them in an utterly masculine manner.

    • zjb says:

      I’m not sure, Hayyim. I admire Elliot’s work here, but reading the material fresh, I can’t help but think that this zoharic construction is supposed to represent what its men re-cognize to be a theomorphic “Woman-Mother-Dominatrix,” as opposed to some Male Potency dressed up in drag. I’m not sure why I’d want to identify Her actions as masculine. On these kinds of things, I’m more willing to trust colleagues and students more versed in gender studies, who I’m sure too would also go at a text like this with any number of interpretive frames, including the homoerotic line that you want to pursue.

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