I am in love with a God transcending all forms and constructs. I am awed by the concept of a deep divine flow worlds beyond what my own finite imagination can capture. In many ways, I need my entreaties to HaShem to be spilled into something utterly unknowable. I am not interested in a God that acts, thinks, feels or even looks as I do. Most of us, beautiful certainly, are a bit messed up, as well. I prefer to think of God as more wholly perfect than all of us spectacular and truly flawed human beings.
Such ideas of divinity stand in stark contrast to the anthropomorphic and decidedly male deity of our Torah. Directing prayers of gratitude and veneration to some faraway “He” never felt comfortable for me. How can I embrace an image of God so devoid of my own distinct femaleness? My identification as a woman is as central to who I am as my identification as a Jew. Frankly, if I have to devise an image of the infinite, I’d much prefer a righteous mashup of Lisbeth Salander and Margaret Atwood, with a little Angela Davis and Wonder Woman thrown in for good measure. Which is why, on the one day our sages electrified with female energy, I am willing to suspend my whole hearted acceptance of a God entirely beyond gender.
In Parshah Va’ethanan, we are told, “observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you” (Deuteronomy 5:12). Shabbat is arguably the most important Jewish institution. For centuries, its observance has been defended, advocated for, and enthusiastically adopted. Shabbat is a sanctuary common to all Jews. Through evolving interpretations of our Torah, it has also become a space for welcoming the divine feminine.
During Shabbat services, many of us sing “Lecha Dodi” and turn to greet the Sabbath Bride. In so doing, we usher the divine presence into our midst. The mystics of Safed, from whom our modern Kabbalat Shabbat celebrations derive, considered the presence of God (those respective pillars of smoke and fire accompanying the wandering Israelites) specifically female. And, though never appearing in the Torah, the name Shekinah was used by later Rabbis when referring to God’s presence dwelling with the Jewish people. It is the only name for God which in Hebrew is gramatically female.
Within the Jewish household, it is typically the responsibility of women to light the Shabbos candles and prepare the meal. The Eshet Chayil, or Woman of Valor, hymn is sung to honor the women present, and women recite blessings over their children. From shul to home, Shabbat is infused with the feminine.
I have largely rejected the notion of gendered attributes. That “assertiveness” gets labeled “masculine” while “nurturing” is generally “feminine” is a reflection of gender stereotypes intrinsic in our culture and nothing more. But perhaps understanding Shabbat as space for the female within divinity can help us broaden our concept of God, and find room for the infinite in our own lives. Recognizing the Shekinah who dwells with us on Shabbat may encourage us to celebrate whatever we individually associate with the terms “female” and “feminine.” In considering such words, what images might your mind conjure? Homemade chocolate chip cookies, deadlifts, vegetable gardens, spirited political debates, stock trades or bedtime stories? All are valid. Gender, like holiness, is a human construct. We decide how we identify and what our specific expression of self looks like. I like to think God encompasses every aspect of us all. A Shabbat focused on the feminine may help us recognize divinity within ourselves. When we can step fully into the femaleness of divinity we can understand ourselves, our sisters and our brothers a bit more. We may see God anew and experience a truly soul sourced Shabbat.
Akiva Yael is an enthusiastic participant in all that is holy, including Torah study, powerlifting, and the beauty of our world.