Lilith & the Ecology of Sacred Union
A response to Eco-Feminist theory and discourse
Ohad Ezrahi \ 2002
One of the most unique Kabbalists who ever lived, Rabbi Avraham Abulafiya (Spain, Italy & Greece, late 1200’s), said that the mystical secrets of the Torah are usually regarded as if they are contradicting its simple meaning. This is why in Hebrew the words “SeTeR” (hidden secret) and “STiRa” (contradiction) have the same root. Those who are accustomed only to the simple meaning of the Jewish tradition hear this inner meaning as heresy. It contradicts all that they know. The Torah is full of holy paradoxes, and one needs to get to the hidden secret behind the paradox in order to see how the inner meaning needs the shell of the outer one to protect it, just as a nut receives protection from its hard shell. One of Abulafia’s great
successors, Rabbi Josef Jikatilia, wrote that the mystic journey is symbolized as a journey into the heart of a hard nut. The fruit is inside, yet to enjoy it one needs to cross three layers of shells, or skins, and go beyond them. Each shell is a different veil that blocks the mind from grasping the seed of truth, but the shell is important. No fruit could ever grow with out it.
When we look in a shallow way at the Jewish tradition, we see it only as a masculine one, as a tradition that brought the abstract male God, the sole creator of the universe, into the psychic picture and rolled him over nature deities, giving mankind – that was created in God’s image (and therefore, according to this tradition, is not a real part of nature) – the right to dominate nature, and giving men the right to dominate woman, who were created after the male, in order to entertain him.
Much has been written about this in ecofeminist theology, blaming the “Judeo-Christian Tradition” for creating the cultural background and atmosphere in which the patriarchal and modern society could grow and flourish, and for abusing the feminine of all kinds – both concretely and symbolically, and causing the ecological crisis in which we are unfortunately living today.
In truth, however, Judaism is an ancient and complex tradition. It has so many layers, both historically and conceptually, that reducing its’ meaning into those shallow patterns is a tremendous mistake. Plunging into the mystical layers of Judaism brought me, several years ago, to conclusions that are similar to the theories of eco-feminism but are grounded within the Jewish tradition. In those days I knew nothing about ecofeminist theory. I was totally absorbed in traditional Jewish learning, which was the focus of my entire my life. Nevertheless, my research in Kabbalah and other mystical Jewish sources brought me to understand that nature is connected to the feminine aspect, that the ecological and cultural crisis in which we are today is caused by the over-masculinization of the culture, and that there is a deep process in the hidden layers of reality that calls the feminine energy to unfold, develop, grow and speak out. I saw this first in the way I understood one of the main myths of Lurianic Kabbalah – the Nesirah:
Lurianic Kabbalah (Sfat, 16th century) speaks, in its unique and rich symbolic language, about a process, which can be seen as a historical process, a psychological process, a divine process and as all of those together. The Nesirah myth is a description of a process that takes place between the major symbols of masculinity and femininity in the language of Kabalah: Z”A is the term for the divine masculine, and Nukba is the name for the divine feminine. The Nesirah process has many details, but in summary, there are three stages to it:
The first stage is when Z”A and Nukba do not face each other. They turn their backs to each other, but they are not separated. They cannot separate. Like Siamese twins, they share the same back skin. But – Nukba is very small compared to Z”A.
The second stage is when things are changing: Z”A is falling asleep, becoming apathetic, unaware, unconscious, and Nukba is growing. She no longer receives her abundance from Z”A. Instead, she receives it directly from above. Her mind is being opened; she gets her nourishment in body, mind and spirit directly, not by the mediation of Z”A as before. In this stage Nukba is separating from Z”A as she becomes independent. She builds her own back and grows to the same height as Z”A. In this developmental process, in order to separate, Nukba uses a tough and sharp energy, known as Din. In order to separate and unfold as an autonomous being Nukba rebels against Z”A.
The third stage is described as the stage in which Z”A, the masculine, wakes up. Simultaneously, Nukba no longer needs the energy of Din, and the two turn around to face each other. They meet again, but now they are equal – actually, Nukba is even a little bit higher then Z”A. They are separate and independent beings, discovering that each of them is different, yet equal to the other. They can look eye-to-eye, face-to-face, soul-to-soul (in Hebrew the word Face – Panim – is written the same as the word for “the inner” – Pnim. So in kabbalah by saying “face to face” we mean to express that they share their inner world and meet soul to soul).
Though it was written in the 16th century, this symbolic mythology can be clearly applied to the development of the feminist wawkening: at the beginning, women were dominated (1st), then rebelling and developing (2nd), and then the two genders are coming to the awareness that they have different voices, but equal rights and importance, and they come to a place of union – symbolized in the terminology of the mythic language by sexual unification (3rd).
But this is not the only application. In the psychological realm we need to apply it to the relationships between the male and female aspects of a person – Anima & Animus in K.G. Jung’s terminology. And to the relationships between the two in the colective psychology, which creates cultural trends and situations. Later I will apply this to Human-Nature relationships as well, but first I want to examine the issue from a different yet compromising kabalistic view:
When we say that “at the beginning Nukba is smaller then Z”A” we need to ask our selves was it really this way in the beginning of all? Does this myth of the Nesirah tell the whole story? Or did it take a point in the middle of a longer process and put it as a starting point? I felt this is so, and was guided to find some fascinating and never-before investigated material in the Lurianic Kabbalah.
This material regards an ancient myth in Jewish tradition, which has been reclaimed by many of the Jewish feminist women – the myth of Lilith. The story itself was an oral tradition for many centuries, and was put into writing in Babylon in the 10th century. It is well known, but what is not known is the unique way that it is interpreted in Lurianic Kabbalah. The basic story goes like this:
When the creator created human beings, a man and a woman were created equally from clay. But this holy first couple could not work their relationship out, as each one of them wanted to lie above the other while having sex. The woman – who is later known as Lilith – does not surrender, escapes from paradise and coupling with the “Big Demon”. Only then comes the time in which Adam feels lonely and Eve is created (not from his rib, but according to the correct meaning of the biblical Hebrew term) from one of his sides, or aspects. According to the Talmudic sages, she is created from his the backside. If we put the two myths (i.e. the Nesirah and Lilith) together we can easily see that the Nesirah process begins not in the beginning of all, but only after the escape of Lilith. Adam and his female partner cannot establish good and healthy relationship on an equal base; so then God the creator accepts it and creates a second woman – Eve – that begins from a non-equal base. She is secondary in essence.
But Lurianic Kabbalah does not neglect Lilith as a demon. She is not left out as the bad girl. Not at all. The vision in this unique tradition is looking for ways to redeem her, as an archetype, and to connect her with the archetype of Eve together to create the full cycle of the feminine. In fact – it can be understood that part of what happen in the second stage of the Nesirah process, is that those two feminine archetypes join together, and creates together the whole figure of the Nukbah.
Lurianic Kabbalah says that the reason for the rejection of Lilith is the fact that Adam (symbolizing all of the aspects of masculinity) is not developed enough, and cannot accept or understand a woman of her kind, who is higher then him in spirituality. Frightened by her, he rejects her and prefers to make his life with a woman of Eve-kind.
The second problem is connected to Lilith’s self image: she accepts the estimation that sees her as an evil creature, and as part of the demonic world. This is a self-exile, from the holiness of her soul, which needs to be fixed. The rejection of the shadow side of the feminine is a failure, caused mainly by the fears of men – the fears to face and embrace the shadow sides of the two genders as an important and a holy part of the full picture. Luria is studying the whole story as based in the biblical stories of Jacob and his wives. This research evolved into a book that will be published soon in Hebrew and later in English, by the name of “Who’s Afraid of Lilith? A Jewish Transformation of Gender and Sexuality”. (was published in 2005, Modan publications).
One of the conclusions from this research in the writings of male Kabbalists, who were deported from Spain in the late 15th century and resettled themselves in northern Israel, is that a real transformation in the fabric of society can occur only when we are able to embrace the shadow aspect of our psyche as a part of the whole circle of being. Men have much to learn from women around this, and the process of raising the Anima within the personality is a critical part of reconnecting to the divine seed, which lies in the darkness of the rejected shadow aspect.
Our wild aspect, our ancient natural animal side has been rejected and usually seen as a dark shadow that needs to be dominated by the civilized one. But when this wild woman – Lilith – is rejected, she accepts this untrue assumption that sees her as an evil force, and develops a self-image of a Demon. When this happens, an endless struggle between the civilized and the wild aspects within human psychology is perpetuated. Lilith is rejected, and then tries to hit back and dominate men, using sexual power. Men feel disrespected and frightened, and battle back. Humans attempt to dominate nature, and nature pays back strongly through an ecological crisis, shattering the conditions in which life can blossom.
Linear vrs Circular
Another, more abstract and less mythic, system of symbols that is used to speak about the same issues, sometimes in deeper and more accurate ways, is the symbolism of the Linear energy versus the Circular energy of existence. It is said in Lurianic Kabbalah that the whole universe is built by the compound and the balance of those two divine energies. The natural world, including the natural aspect of the human being, is mostly influenced by circular energy, which is also a feminine symbol, and the other side of the human condition, this side that makes us feel like strangers in nature, is influenced by linear energy, which is masculine.
During the period of time that I spent at the University of Oregon, as a fellow in the “Ecological Conversations – Science, Gender and the Sacred” Rockefeller program, I was blessed with the opportunity to dive deeply into the texts and the meaning that deals with those two symbols. My research from this experience will be published in Israel in my forthcoming anthology God, Nature and Us. What appeared in this research is that the mystical flow in the Hebrew and Jewish tradition is always trying to raise the circular awareness, and to bring it into many aspects of life: into the spiritual work, into social patterns of behavior, and even into political structures.
While the conclusions are too complex to summarize briefly, I will offer here some simple explanations that I hope will make sense in the context of this article:
A straight line, one that has a beginning and an end, is a symbol of a target-oriented mind. It immediately appears as a scale that can measure and judge between each two points – determining which one is closer and which one is farther from the source. In the circle, all of the points are simply equal. There is no beginning and no end to the circle. Yet the circle is blocked within itself when the line is breaking through to infinity.
One important application of those Kabbalistic symbols to social paradigms is seeing morality as connected to the linear symbol, while mythology as connected to the circular symbol. As Jung once said: “mythology describes the wholeness of life, while morality tries to improve it”. Thus, in the spiritual tradition of the ancient Hebrews, which later turned to be “Judaism”, there was always a strong urge to break the circle of life as it is, to find connection with the holy abstract creator God. The linear tradition, which is most prevalent in the history of Judaism, made efforts not to accept life or nature as they are, but to fix them by the domination of the moral-ethical code of Torah. But this trend was always struggling with another strong trend, the mythic-mystic one, the circular one, which was trying to find its way back to the center.
Though many people around the world are accustomed to the opinion that Kabbalah was “a mythic bomb that blew up in the 12th century in Judaism” as the famous scholar Gershom Scholem said, new scholars are describing the roots of the Kabbalistic mythos in Talmudic times, and sowing that this unique mythology was not new to the Jewish tradition, rather it was kept mostly oral, until the medieval times. I postulate that even the Talmudic mythology was not an innovation. What Kabbalah was trying to raise up in medieval times was actually part of the belief system of the ancient Hebrews (and Shebrews…). The main stream of the bible is linear indeed, but the people in biblical times were far away from this mainstream monotheism. In many places in the bible prophets or the biblical editor condemn the people of Israel for not serving YHVH only, but serving other deities, gods and goddesses, as well. In two places in Israel, archaeologists have found in excavations that common people were blessing each other on behalf of YHWH and his Asherah. People in biblical times were worshiping YHWH the male god, together, in union with, his beloved goddess – the Asherah. But they were not the only deities worshipped – it is said that King Solomon built four temples and shrines in Jerusalem, one was for YHWH the God of Israel, but the other three were built to honor different deities, including Ashtoret, the goddess of fertility. The editors of the bible condemn Solomon for what he did, and put him down, saying that he was just told by his wives to worship their deities. But I doubt if this is the whole truth. I think that Solomon, who, as described in the bible, was deeply learned in eastern and Egyptian wisdom, had some different ideas about the meaning of the Hebrew religion. These ideas were quite different than those which were accepted later into the official Jewish tradition.
What Kabalists were trying to convey in medieval times – that the meaning of monotheism should not be taken only in the narrow linear way, but rather can be understood in a way that sees unity as being manifested through variety – King Solomon was trying to express by the building of those four temples. Kabalists were using philosophical language to express their vision, speaking about ten abstract Sefirot, or emanations, that manifest the One, and King Solomon was using the mystical language of his time – the language of mythology – to convey the One through the many. But it was not accepted by the editors of the bible as a legitimate monotheistic belief system. It took more then 16 hundreds of years until such a belief could be accepted into Judaism without threatening the ethical efforts of the mainstream.
Martin Buber wrote about the Theocratic Anarchy of the Hebrews, who did not have a king but God, not as a phrase but as a political leader, until the days of King Saul. From that time and on, we can witness a growing process that led the ancient people of Israel from their indigenous circle-tended life with divinity, which was close to nature, to the linear Jewish religion that in medieval times could not bear the situation any longer and brought the mystery of the circular mythology to the surface, known as “Kabbalah”, literary meaning “that which was accepted” by tradition. Kabbalah in its turn was developed by some religious groups – such as the Sabbatiens and the Hasidic – into a radical theology that was used in order to renew the lost parts of this old path of life, and to rebalance the linear and the circular, the feminine and the masculine.
Not that all that has to be done was done – not at all. The paradigm shift that needs to happen now, before it’s too late, must take serious steps in embracing and raising the circle-consciousness, including it’s shadow sides, accepting the wholeness of the feminine, and making deep peace with nature.
This will occur only if the right balance between the linear and the circular, masculine and feminine (Z”A and Nukba) is achieved. From the sacred unification of the two – from the Heirus Gamus-– the Oneness that is above and beyond binary will appear.
This article was written as a conclusion of my time as a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship, Science, Gender and the Sacred, ar Women Studies Department of the University of Oregon. it was published in a collection of assays by the University of Oregon in 2002.