The Divine Feminine

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Title: The Divine Feminine A Feminist Study of Goddess Appropriation within the Jewish Renewal Movement and Western Interpretations of Tibetan Tantric Buddhism
Physical Description: Book
Language: English
Creator: Rayor, Zoe
Publisher: New College of Florida
Place of Publication: Sarasota, Fla.
Creation Date: 2012
Publication Date: 2012


Subjects / Keywords: Feminism
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Abstract: Feminist spirituality is a contemporary religious movement created in order to abolish the harmful remnants of explicit and subtle patriarchal influence within various religious traditions. To counteract the ubiquitous androcentricity found within many religions, along with the pervasive masculine notions of God, practitioners of feminist spirituality integrate a feminine divine figure, or goddess, into their religious retinue. This thesis examines the religious phenomenon of feminine divine appropriation through two case studies. The first chapter explores the contemporary Jewish Renewal movement and its appropriation of the Kabbalistic divine feminine figure, Shekhinah. The second chapter analyzes Western feminists' and scholar-practitioners' use of the Tantric deity, the dakini, both for feminist ends and to justify the egalitarian nature of the Tibetan Tantric Buddhist tradition. The work of Cynthia Eller, prominent scholar of feminist spirituality, informs my model of interpretation for evaluating these two case studies. The goal of this thesis is to analyze these examples of feminine divine appropriation and to determine whether or not these models for creating a feminist interpretation of religion indeed dismantle the patriarchal structure of religion or unintentionally reinforce it. I ultimately critique both movements on the basis of the essentialist and dualistic ideology that informs their actions.
Statement of Responsibility: by Zoe Rayor
Thesis: Thesis (B.A.) -- New College of Florida, 2012
Bibliography: Includes bibliographical references.
Source of Description: This bibliographic record is available under the Creative Commons CC0 public domain dedication. The New College of Florida, as creator of this bibliographic record, has waived all rights to it worldwide under copyright law, including all related and neighboring rights, to the extent allowed by law.
Local: Faculty Sponsor: White, Heather R.

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Source Institution: New College of Florida
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System ID: NCFE004656:00001

Permanent Link:

Material Information

Title: The Divine Feminine A Feminist Study of Goddess Appropriation within the Jewish Renewal Movement and Western Interpretations of Tibetan Tantric Buddhism
Physical Description: Book
Language: English
Creator: Rayor, Zoe
Publisher: New College of Florida
Place of Publication: Sarasota, Fla.
Creation Date: 2012
Publication Date: 2012


Subjects / Keywords: Feminism
Genre: bibliography   ( marcgt )
theses   ( marcgt )
government publication (state, provincial, terriorial, dependent)   ( marcgt )
born-digital   ( sobekcm )
Electronic Thesis or Dissertation


Abstract: Feminist spirituality is a contemporary religious movement created in order to abolish the harmful remnants of explicit and subtle patriarchal influence within various religious traditions. To counteract the ubiquitous androcentricity found within many religions, along with the pervasive masculine notions of God, practitioners of feminist spirituality integrate a feminine divine figure, or goddess, into their religious retinue. This thesis examines the religious phenomenon of feminine divine appropriation through two case studies. The first chapter explores the contemporary Jewish Renewal movement and its appropriation of the Kabbalistic divine feminine figure, Shekhinah. The second chapter analyzes Western feminists' and scholar-practitioners' use of the Tantric deity, the dakini, both for feminist ends and to justify the egalitarian nature of the Tibetan Tantric Buddhist tradition. The work of Cynthia Eller, prominent scholar of feminist spirituality, informs my model of interpretation for evaluating these two case studies. The goal of this thesis is to analyze these examples of feminine divine appropriation and to determine whether or not these models for creating a feminist interpretation of religion indeed dismantle the patriarchal structure of religion or unintentionally reinforce it. I ultimately critique both movements on the basis of the essentialist and dualistic ideology that informs their actions.
Statement of Responsibility: by Zoe Rayor
Thesis: Thesis (B.A.) -- New College of Florida, 2012
Bibliography: Includes bibliographical references.
Source of Description: This bibliographic record is available under the Creative Commons CC0 public domain dedication. The New College of Florida, as creator of this bibliographic record, has waived all rights to it worldwide under copyright law, including all related and neighboring rights, to the extent allowed by law.
Local: Faculty Sponsor: White, Heather R.

Record Information

Source Institution: New College of Florida
Holding Location: New College of Florida
Rights Management: Applicable rights reserved.
Classification: local - S.T. 2012 R2
System ID: NCFE004656:00001

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THE DIVINE FEMININE: A FEMINIST STUDY OF GODDESS APPROPRIATION WITHIN THE JEWISH RENEWAL MOVEMENT AND WESTERN INTERPRETATIONS OF TIBETAN TANTRIC BUDDHISM BY ZO RAYOR A Thesis Submitted to the Division of Humanities New College of Florida in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree Bachelor of Arts Under the sponsorship of Heather R. White Sarasota, Florida May, 2012


ii Acknowledgements First and foremost I would like to thank my mom. I don!t care much for generalizations, but she is undoubtedly the most wonderful, caring, interesting, fun, and loving person in the entire world. I would also love to thanks my amazing, talented, open-minded, patient, and absolutely wonderful thesis sponsor, Professor Heather White. Without her guidance and belief in my academic abilities, this thesis would not exist. I would also like to thank my committee members, the lovelies Dr. Susan Marks and Dr. Amy Reid. Susanwithout your incredible class on Jewish Mysticism I would know nothing of the rich and interesting field, and this thesis could not have come to fruition. I would also like to thank you for your unending support and love throughout my career at New College. Amyyour course Same, Equal, Different contributed greatly to my knowledge of gender studies and feminism. It significantly impacted the way in which I have chosen to move forward as a feminist. I would not have been able to complete this thesis without the love, support, and willingness to listen (and read) from my friends. Josh Scheible, Emily Adams, Jessa Baker-Moss, Avi Scherr, Caegan Quimby, Julie Lado, Lake Elrod, Kilah Mason, & Mal Kalinowskayou rock!!! Lastly, I want to endlessly thank my fuzzy cat, Dollie/Meatball. She has often been my thesis companion and I sincerely appreciate her songs, poetry, and limitless knowledge on the topics of both feminism and mysticism. She is my big, beautiful, and wonderful fourth wave fem-cat. I would also like to acknowledge my hedgehog, Raisin Sandwiches, who oftentimes hyperventilated and expressed his vastness of emotion through silence. I also owe many thanks to the always adorable and fluffy Coco, who gave me unconditional love and licks.


iii Table of Contents Acknowledgements Table of Contents Abstractiv Introduction: Revalorizing the Divine Feminine1 Chapter One: The Jewish Renewal movement & Shekhinah.12 Chapter Two: The Western Interpretations of Tibetan Tantric Buddhism & dakini....44 Conclusion: What!s Wrong with the Goddess?.71 Works Cited.82


iv THE DIVINE FEMININE: A FEMINIST STUDY OF GODDESS APPROPRIATION WITHIN THE JEWISH RENEWAL MOVEMENT AND WESTERN INTERPRETATIONS OF TIBETAN TANTRIC BUDDHISM Zo‘ Rayor New College of Florida, 2012 ABSTRACT Feminist spirituality is a contemporary religious movement created in order to abolish the harmful remnants of explicit and subtle patriarchal influence within various religious traditions. To counteract the ubiquitous androcentricity found within many religions, along with the pervasive masculine notions of God, practitioners of feminist spirituality integrate a feminine divine figure, or goddess, into their religious retinue. This thesis examines the religious phenomenon of feminine divine appropriation through two case studies. The first chapter explores the contemporary Jewish Renewal movement and its appropriation of the Kabbalistic divine feminine figure, Shekhinah. The second chapter analyzes Western feminists! and scholar-practitioners! use of the Tantric deity, the dakini, both for feminist ends and to justify the egalitarian nature of the Tibetan Tantric Buddhist tradition. The work of Cynthia Eller, prominent scholar of feminist spirituality, informs my model of interpretation for evaluating these two case


v studies. The goal of this thesis is to analyze these examples of feminine divine appropriation and to determine whether or not these models for creating a feminist interpretation of religion indeed dismantle the patriarchal structure of religion or unintentionally reinforce it. I ultimately critique both movements on the basis of the essentialist and dualistic ideology that informs their actions.


1 Introduction: Revalorizing the Divine Feminine "The symbol of the Goddess has much to offer women who are struggling to be rid of the !powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations" of devaluation of female power, denigration of the female body, distrust of female will, and denial of the women"s bonds and heritage that have been engendered by patriarchal religion." 1 Carol Christ Image credit: Venus of Willendorf: a goddess figure revered by the feminist spirituality movement; estimated to have been created between 24,000 and 22,000 B.C.E She is typically associated with female-centered goddess worship and "matriarchal prehistory." Eller, Cynthia. The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2000), 134 1 Carol P. Christ, "Why Women Need the Goddess: Phenomenological, Psychological, and Political Reflections," in Womanspirit Rising: A Feminist


2 Women & The Goddess Carol Christ, a leading thinker in the feminist spirituality movement, famously declared that women need the Goddess. This claim relies on the notion that feminists must engage religion and fight against the ubiquitous influence of the patriarchy, the oppressive social system that places women in an unequal relationship with men. Within the patriarchal system male-bodied individuals and masculinity reign supreme, and "man" represents a universal humanity. Feminist scholars assert that social, political, economic, cultural, and religious domination over the "other"anything not "male" or "masculine"characterizes the patriarchal social structure and permeates all aspects of life. Carol Christ and other like-minded individuals within the feminist spirituality movement have attempted to overthrow the patriarchy through one of its own powerful institutions: religion. They strived to accomplish this by invoking the Goddess, a figure of feminine divinity, to counteract the patriarchal conception of a masculine god or gods. Contemporary spiritual feminist practitioners present their beliefs, practices, and worldview as explicitly aimed at breaking down the patriarchy in order to pave the way for a more inclusive and egalitarian structure of society. This thesis examines the beliefs and ideologies of the feminist spirituality movement, and the criticisms waged against it. I analyze two case Reader in Religion ed. Carol P. Christ and Judith Plaskow (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1992), 286


3 studiestwo contemporary movements that appropriate a divine feminine figure for feminist ends: the Jewish Renewal movement"s utilization of the Shekhinah and Tibetan Tantric Buddhism"s use of the dakini. Ultimately, I question the legitimacy of these movements" appropriation, determine whether this act truly ventures to overthrow the patriarchal system, and if feminine divine figures actually liberate women. I also reconsider the way that these religious groups employ the term "feminism". Feminist Spirituality Movement The feminist spirituality movement emerged in the early seventies within radical and religious women"s rights circles. Many of these spiritual feminists arose from Christian and Jewish traditions, yet the movement as a whole remains "determinedly eclectic," appropriating rituals, deities, practices, and beliefs from a variety of cultures and religions that appeal to the spiritual feminist worldview. 2 Although the movement is syncretistic, the amalgamation of religious practices and beliefs share a fundamental commonality: they support the movement"s fight against the male-dominated system and claim to be a spiritual extension of feminism. Thealogian 3 Carol 2 Cynthia Eller, "Relativizing the Patriarchy: The Sacred History of the Feminist Spirituality Movement," History of Religions 30, no. 3 (1991): 280 3 Thealogy is the study of theism from a feminist perspective, particularly looking at women"s experiences of and beliefs about divine reality focusing on


4 Christ argues, "Because religion has such a compelling hold on the deep psyches of so many people, feminists cannot afford to leave it in the hands of the fathers." 4 Her statement speaks to the key issue at stake for the movement and practitioners. As institutions of great and influential power, religions cannot be left under the control of the patriarchy, which employs religion in a manner that reinforces the oppressive hierarchical system already in place. Spiritual feminists argue that those who control religion have the power to sustain or reform social structures. Religion, more than any other device utilized by the patriarchy, serves a potent function. It deems the imbalanced social hierarchyin which some dominate and others are dominatednot only a human phenomenon, but also one ordained by a higher or transcendent power. Therefore, patriarchal religion renders those who seek gender equality incapable of moving forward without being labeled heretics or unbelievers for going against the grain of that which has been divinely ordained. Spiritual feminists and the thealogians involved in the movement recognize the power religion possesses and desire to rectify the oppression and inequality brought on by religiously sanctioned patriarchy. Prominent radical feminist thealogian Mary Daly argues, along with Carol Christ, that male-dominated religionespecially traditions centered on a principal masculine god figurekeeps women in a state of dependence upon men and the figure of the Goddess or divine feminine: Patricia !Iolana and Angela Hope, "Editorial Introduction," Goddess Thealogy 1, no. 1 (2011): n.p. 4 Christ, 274


5 legitimates men"s political and social authority and superiority. Daly states, "Thus, for example, the image of the Father God, spawned in the human imagination and sustained as plausible by patriarchy, has in turn rendered service to this type of society by making its mechanisms for the oppression of women appear right and fitting." 5 Because patriarchy performs this function through religion, the symbol of the male or masculine god represents the symbol of the androcentric hierarchy both metaphysically and in the reality of day-to-day life, as religion ultimately seeks to model mortal life after the divine. Regarding this notion, Daly boldly claims, "If God is male, then the male is God." 6 As a symbol, Christ argues that the concept of a male god must be changed in order for society to change. She states, "Symbol systems cannot simply be rejected, they must be replaced." 7 The category of people receiving the brunt of the patriarchal religious and social system is women, as they represent the antithesis of the masculine standard. According to spiritual feminists, the best method for remedying this disparity is through the appropriation and introduction of the Goddess as a new symbol to counteract the old. 5 Mary Daly, "After the Death of God the Father: Women's Liberation and the Transformation of Christian Consciousness," in Womanspirit Rising: A Feminist Reader in Religion ed. Carol P. Christ and Judith Plaskow (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishing, 1992), 54 6 Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women's Liberation (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1973), 19 7 Christ, 275


6 The Goddess and Matriarchal Prehistory Many in the feminist spirituality movement question why patriarchy exists in so many places and why male domination appears to be the norm in nearly all cultures across time and space. To take action against the patriarchal system, it seemed necessary for these feminists to explain it. Yet, they needed to do so without validating it as a natural or sacred law in which men are inherently superior, which has been among the many hypotheses used to explain and support the longstanding history of patriarchal rule. To do soand to counteract patriarchy and create new symbol systemsmembers of the feminist spirituality movement have not only relied upon various deities and practices of contemporary cultures, but they also constructed (or reconstructed) a "revisionist history" of civilization. 8 This theory posits a worldwide history in which matriarchy and goddess worship once prospered before the establishment of written records or history. Even feminist leaders outside of religious scholarship, such as Gloria Steinem, spoke of a past "gynocratic age" that "the many cultures of this world were all a part of." 9 This "matriarchal prehistory," as religion scholar Cynthia Eller refers to it, positions the beginning of these female-ruled, goddess worshiping, and egalitarian societies in the Paleolithic era, 1.5 to 2 million 8 Eller, Relativizing the Patriarchy, 281 9 William Moulton Marston, Wonder Woman (New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1972), n.p.


7 years ago. 1 0 According to the movement, it was only between 4500 to 2500 B.C.E. when these societies were overthrown. 1 1 The conquerors of this matriarchal age were, of course, the patriarchalists. By uncovering possible histories of societies structured around matriarchal rule or gender equality, spiritual feminists have called into question the notion that the patriarchal social structure is the only viable or realistic model for society. Because feminist spirituality positions patriarchal rule within the bounds of time, spiritual feminists" "sacred history counters the psychological weight of thousands of years of cross-cultural male dominance with a virtually infinite number of years of female equality or superiority." 1 2 As such, the feminist spirituality movement aims to reclaim that ancient power and reinstate a society modeled after the characteristics of those present during matriarchal prehistory. Factions of spiritual feminists have differing ideas about what exactly constitute these characteristics, yet they generally envision women as powerful and authoritative figures, or as cooperative with men in egalitarian power structures. One of the most significant aspects of matriarchal prehistory is not only that women were afforded a great amount of power, but also that this power was ordained and continuously legitimized by the worship and invocation of a transcendental being, the Goddess. 1 0 Cynthia Eller, The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2000), 3 1 1 Eller, Relativizing the Patriarchy, 281 1 2 Eller, Relativizing the Patriarchy, 282


8 The culture existent during the prepatriarchal period is oftentimes referred to as matriarchal, matrifocal, matristic, or gynocentricall terms that signify and emphasize the principal role women held as human representations of the Goddess. Spiritual feminists revere the Goddess as their most significant religious icon, representing feminine power and wisdom. Goddess figures signify the female divine, the holiness that exists within the female body. Unlike the patriarchal God or gods, the Goddess resides both in all of reality and specifically within women"s bodies and nature, "suggesting the connectedness between women"s cycles of menstruation, birth, and menopause, and the life and death cycles of the universe." 1 3 Spiritual feminists claim that the matriarchal Goddess is not to be misconstrued as a directly oppositional character to the patriarchal God or gods. Instead, the Goddess highlights and emphasizes power-from-within, instead of the oppressive patriarchal notion of power-over. 1 4 Patriarchal power, powerover engenders dualistic thinking and categorization, in which there exists "one" and its antithetical counterpart, the "other." These two categories are then positioned hierarchically, resulting in the ability of one to rule over the other. Spiritual feminists assert that a matriarchy, or a goddess-centered society, could allow humanity to overcome these harmful dualities: "Changing cultural attitudes toward the female body could go a long way toward overcoming the spirit-flesh, mind-body dualisms of Western culture, 1 3 Christ, 278 1 4 Eller, Relativizing the Patriarchy, 287


9 since...the denigration of the female body is at the heart of these dualisms." 1 5 Thus, many spiritual feminists view themselves as activists, aiming to bring history into its next phaseone in which patriarchy will be eliminated and a new structure will take its place, one that is sensitive to female-bodied beings and the human race as a whole. Criticism and Cynthia Eller As one of the principle scholars of feminist spirituality, Cynthia Eller levies one of the heaviest critiques against the movement. In her book, aptly titled "The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory," Eller points to the lack of historical evidence supporting the theory that early human societies were matriarchal. She notes that historians generally agree that prehistory was most likely not matriarchal. 1 6 Another criticism put forth by Eller concerns the gender stereotypes upheld by the theory of matriarchal prehistory. The ideas of gender and sex that emerge from this movement are "neither original nor revolutionary," she claims. Instead, "the gendered stereotypes upon which the matriarchal myth rests persistently work to flatten out differences among women; to exaggerate differences between women and men; and to hand women an identity that is symbolic, timeless, and archetypal, instead of giving them the freedom to craft identities that suit their individual temperaments, 1 5 Christ, 282 1 6 Eller, Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory, 6


10 skills, preferences, and moral and political commitments." 1 7 Thus, the lack of evidence for a matriarchal prehistory and the negative portrayal of gender and sex speak to Eller"s key concerns. She claims that these gender stereotypes feed back into and reify the patriarchal culture in which they were created and now employed to deconstructan unhelpful and paradoxical method for social reformation. Eller notes that her criticism stems from a feminist perspective, and the feminism spoken of within spiritual feminist circles is her feminism, too. Thus, she claims it is important for feminists to speak out when they see other feminisms "going down a road, which, however inviting, looks like the wrong way." 1 8 Eller points to the fact that it is important for feminists and scholars to analyze other feminists" works and offer constructive criticism when they find themselves in disagreement. Thesis The case studies I investigate in this thesis represent two examples of the varied ways in which feminists have attempted to reclaim their religion from the clutches of patriarchy, redefine their religious identity, and transform their status within the religious institution. The first chapter of this thesis explores the contemporary Jewish Renewal movement and its appropriation of the Kabbalistic divine feminine figure, Shekhinah. The second chapter of this 1 7 Eller, Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory, 8 1 8 Eller, Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory, 7


11 thesis will analyze Western feminists" and scholar-practitioners" use of the Tantric deity, the dakini, both for feminist ends and to justify the egalitarian nature of the Tibetan Tantric Buddhist tradition. By investigating these two case studies, I intend to further the project that Cynthia Eller has begun. I hope to contribute to the field of religious studies with an eye toward the role that gender and feminism play within religion. Eller"s insights and critique are both appropriate and can be easily applied to these two movements. Yet, the two case studies" histories, content, and aims go beyond the scope of Eller"s work. She does not actually discuss Jewish mysticism or Kabbalah, nor does she examine Tantric Buddhism in Tibet. However, like the feminists and religious traditions Eller does examine, both of these movements assert a feminist standpoint, emerge from patriarchal religious and social institutions, engage the concept of embodiment with regard to a feminine divine figure, and deal with issues of duality and a dichotomously hierarchical system of sex and gender. Both movements I investigate differ from those of Eller in that some of the adherents disagree with the concept of a matriarchal prehistory (and yet there are some who fully agree), and these two movements ultimately desire to create a social system in which egalitarianism and equality reign, not necessarily a structure in which females or matriarchs take the place of the current patriarchs. For both the Jewish Renewal movement and the Western interpretation of the Tibetan Tantric Buddhist tradition, the valorization of the feminine divine represents a


12 step in the direction not toward a matriarchal overthrow of patriarchy, but a humanistic overthrow. The goal of both movements is to unite the two dual natures or qualities of male and female, supposedly representing all forms of dualitywhich do not speak to the actuality of a unified truth. Feminism envisions a world in which all humans are considered equalespecially women, who have been treated as second-class citizens under the inhumane and oppressive rule of patriarchy. To understand why the goddess appears necessary and applicable to feminists within various religious milieus, we must understand what she brings to the table, what kinds of hope and power she offers to women, and how she supports the fight against patriarchal dominance. The goal of this thesis is to analyze these two case studies of feminine divine appropriation and to determine whether or not these models for creating a feminist religion indeed dismantle the patriarchal structure of religion or unintentionally reinforce it.


13 Chapter 1: The Jewish Renewal movement & Shekhinah "Each time a woman takes courage and reads from Torah, Shekhinah rises up from the dust, brushes off her ashes, weaves a rainbow tefillin like a wreath of flowers through her hair, displays her glorious wings of fire and ululates for a minyan of women." -Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb


14 In 1981 Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb became the first female rabbi ordained within the Jewish Renewal movement. 1 9 This North American, transdenominational organization is comprised of self-described feminist and egalitarian Jews committed to abolishing patriarchal influences within their religious tradition. The Shekhinah symbolizes the new face of an emerging feminism within Jewish Renewal circles. She is a feminine divine figure, emanating from a long and ambiguous history within Kabbalah, a form of Jewish mysticism, and has recently been recovered from obscurity and positioned as the feminine manifestation of the Jewish God within the Renewal movement. Feminist and egalitarian rabbis and practitioners within a variety of Jewish denominations have engaged the Shekhinah in an attempt to overturn the widespread influence of male power in the Jewish tradition. Through the Jewish Renewal movement, these like-minded practitioners join together in the fight against rampant androcentrism within Judaism. Jewish Renewal is a contemporary movement that extends into multiple denominations and seeks to reinvigorate contemporary, traditional, and often uninspiring Judaism. The Renewal movement fuses the mystical practices and myths of medieval Kabbalah with contemporary ideologies centered on social justice and inclusion, such as feminism and egalitarianismtrends that many Renewal practitioners find lacking in Image credit: The Kabbalist "Tree of Life," or sefirot : "Kabbalistic Tree of Life," Accessed April 25, 2012, 1 9 Seymour Brody, Jewish Virtual Library, "Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb," Last modified 1996, Accessed April 30, 2012,


15 traditional Jewish circles. The movement defines itself as "a worldwide, transdenominational movement grounded in Judaism"s prophetic and mystical traditions." 2 0 For practitioners of Judaism, the Torah is truth. 2 1 Yet throughout the Torah, God is consistently imagined and referred to as male. Renewal Jews claim that human language cannot adequately describe God, and thus the divine "must be addressed in multiple images." 2 2 Therefore, Renewal Jews have searched for alternative images and found the Shekhinah within the retinue of Kabbalistic mystic divine imagery. Renewal Jews believe the Shekhinah to represent the valorized feminine divine aspect of God, the equal and powerful counterpart to the masculine form of God. By incorporating a feminine divine figure, Renewal Jews try to make the values of egalitarianismacceptance, equality, and respectfundamental to the structure of their lives. This chapter evaluates the validity and usefulness of the Renewal solution to Jewish androcentricity by examining the history and contemporary appropriation of the Shekhinah. I first examine the Shekhinah and the fundamentals of Kabbalah, the mystic tradition that gave life to the figure herself. To demonstrate the powerful position of the Shekhinah within both the metaphysical and material world, the Kabbalistic theory of cosmogony, 2 0 Aleph, "Aleph: Alliance for Jewish Renewal," Last modified 2007, Accessed November 28, 2012, 2 1 The Torah consists of the first five books in the Hebrew Bible. 2 2 Chava Weissler, "Meanings of Shekhinah in the !Jewish Renewal" Movement," Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women's Studies & Gender Issues no. 10 (2006): 54


16 (the creation of the universe), will be briefly explained. I will then look at the beginnings and history of the Jewish Renewal movement and its appropriation of the Shekhinah as representative of mystic egalitarianism, which appears to correspond to a contemporary feminist perspective. This portion of the chapter is divided into two sections, the first analyzing mainstream understandings of the divine feminine and the second looking at the radical sector of the movement. This segment will utilize the statements of scholars, rabbis, and practitioners within the movementboth mainstream and radicalto fully elucidate the role of the Shekhinah and the implications of her appropriation and valorization. I will then offer relevant criticism from Jewish feminist scholars and Cynthia Eller, and critically evaluate the movement"s strategy of eradicating patriarchal influence through the application of essentialism. Introduction to Kabbalah & Shekhinah The term Shekhinah, which is grammatically feminine, derives from the Hebrew root Sh-Kh-N, which means "to dwell" or "to abide." 2 3 The mention of the God"s abiding essence first appeared in early rabbinic texts around 200 C.E., denoting his divine presence in the Jerusalem Temple. 2 4 The first noun 2 3 Lynn Gottlieb, She Who Dwells Within: A Feminist Vision of a Renewed Judaism (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1995), 20 2 4 Lynn Gottlieb, "Reviving Shekhinah," Fellowship 62, no. 11 (1996): 17


17 derivative of the word was introduced approximately between the first and fourth centuries C.E. in the Targum Onkelos an Aramaic transcription of the Hebrew Bible, as an indication of God and his presence on earth. 2 5 According to Kabbalah, the Shekhinah represents one of the ten aspects of the manifest form of God, the dwelling presence of God in the world, and a counterpart to the masculine notion of God. She is believed to designate the feminine articulation of God, an ever-present source of divine existence that resides among the Jewish people, even in exile. The tradition of Kabbalah lends the Shekhinah a feminine embodied identity. In the Kabbalistic understanding, the Shekhinah symbolizes the "Queen," "Mother Wisdom," and other forms of bride, spouse, mother, and daughter. Another Kabbalistic trend identifies the Shekhinah as the moon and asserts that she has no light of her own, but reflects that of the sunwhich is synonymous with Tif"eret, the principal masculine aspect of the Godhead. In a similar manner, Kabbalistic lore likens the Shekhinah to a mirror, with no substance of her own, instead containing merely a reflection of the masculine divine. The Shekhinah is also associated with passivity and receptivity; she cannot generate light of her own and must borrow or reflect it from other divine sources. Yet, as Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb points out, not all descriptions of the Shekhinah depict her as passive or submissive. "Waxing and waning moon, evening and morning star, well of waters, primordial sea, 2 5 Mircea Eliade, ed. Encyclopedia of Religion (New York, NW: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1987. s.v. "Shekhinah."), 236


18 rose amid the thorns, lily of the valley, Mother Wisdom, the oral tradition of the Torah, Womb of Emanations, gateway and door, house and sacred shrine, doe, dove, mother eagle, serpent, the soul of women ancestors, the community of Israel, Sabbath Queen and Bride, the Tree of Life, the menorah, and the earth itself all belong to the poetic constellation of the Shekhinah." 2 6 She eludes an exact definition, but almost all interpretations present the Shekhinah as feminine in some form or another. The Shekhinah is also perceived as a necessary divine being. Kabbalah understands the world as broken, in need of repair. The tradition dictates that the possibility for reparation lies with the union of the divine feminine and masculineShekhinah and her masculine counterpart, Tif"eret. This sexualized union is imperative to fix the brokenness of the world tikkun olam which translates as "repair of the world." 2 7 The world also needs the Shekhinah, who acts as a connection to the divine realm. As both a metaphysical entity and an earthly inhabitant, the Shekhinah stands as the bridge between the earth and the cosmos, a fundamental component for the connection between sacred and mundane. Thus, she is said to both maintain power and a certain "quasi-independence," as a necessary part of the universe, yet she also relies upon other aspects of the Godhead for the power 2 6 Gottlieb, Receiving Shekhinah, 17 2 7 Drorah Setel, Catherine Keller, Marcia Falk, Anne M. Solomon, and Rita M. Gross, "Roundtable Discussion: Feminist Reflections on Separation and Unity in Jewish Theology," Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 2, no. 1 (1986): 116


19 that she bears. 2 8 Renewal rabbi Tirzah Firestone states, "Over the centuries, the Shechinah 2 9 came to personify the feminine, loving aspect of God. From biblical times, when She was merely the dwelling place of the Divine on earth, the Shechinah evolved into a powerful and real experience of God"s presence, a personal and loving face of God who is deeply devoted to people and to whom people, especially women, have been deeply devoted." 3 0 Scholars, practitioners, and mystic writings describe the Shekhinah in variety of ways, and a myriad of attributes have been associated with her character. Because such a wide scope of qualities is attributed to the Shekhinah, some of which even contradict one another, the notion of an essential definition of this character remains untenable. The Shekhinah is passive and powerful, timid and fierce, holy and profane. The Shekhinah became popularized with the emergence of the Kabbalistic tradition. Kabbalah which literally translates as "receiving," is a strand of Jewish mysticism that interprets the Torah through the lens of esotericism. In the Jewish tradition, this esoteric interpretation is considered the fourth and deepest level of meaning; it is called sod ," which translates as "secret" or "mystery." 3 1 The distinguished French scholar of esotericism, 2 8 Gershom Scholem, On the Kabbalah and It!s Symbolism (New York, NY: Schocken Books Inc., 1965), 105 2 9 There are many ways the term has been transliterated. I"ve chosen to use "Shekhinah," as this form is the most consistently used. 3 0 Tirzah Firestone, The Receiving: Reclaiming Jewish Women's Wisdom (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2003), 34 3 1 Fred Skolnik and Michael Berenbaum, ed. Encylopaedia Judaica (Jerusalem Israel: Keter Publishing House Ltd., 2007. s.v. "Kabbalah."), 587


20 Antoine Faivre, defines esotericism as the seen and unseen correspondences that occur within the universe, both real and symbolic. He claims that these correspondences appear "veiled" when first encountered, and therefore must be deciphered. In the case of Kabbalah, "there are correspondences between nature (the cosmos), or even history, and revealed texts." 3 2 These correlations between the ultimate universe of reality and the Torah are elucidated in Kabbalistic texts, which dismantle the worldly, or exoteric, aspects of mundane existence and explanation in order to reveal divine truths. Kabbalists attempt to apprehend God, to understand "creation whose intrinsic elements are beyond the grasp of the intellect." 3 3 In this sense, Kabbalah is both mystic and esoteric. Mystically speaking, Kabbalists believe that only symbols and metaphors can express truth and reality; on the other hand, esoteric knowledge can be expressed in other ways, but those who hold this specialized knowledge rarely pass it along or transmit it only to others initiated within the tradition. 3 4 Kabbalah possesses a rich and complicated history, and many scholars dispute the origin of the tradition. In its most wide and general sense, it represents the successive esoteric developments from the end of the Second Temple period, around 70 C.E., to the present. Yet, the term typically denotes Jewish mysticism practiced from the twelfth century 3 2 Antoine Faivre, Access to Western Esotericism (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1934), 10 3 3 Skolnik, Kabbalah, 587 3 4 Skolnik, Kabbalah, 587


21 onward. 3 5 By the thirteenth century in Spain, Kabbalah had become a significant phenomenon in Jewish mystic circles. Between 1280 and 1286 C.E., Spanish Kabbalist Moshe de Leon authored the most significant work, the magnum opus of Kabbalah, the Sefer ha-Zohar which translates as the "Book of Splendor," "Radiance," or "Enlightenment." 3 6 Practitioners of Kabbalah, both those living during time in which it was written and those presently practicing, often attribute the writings of the Zohar to the famous first century rabbi and sage Shimon bar Yochai. 3 7 During his life, de Leon did not claim authorship; instead, he maintained scribehood, pseudepigraphically 3 8 attributing the work to bar Yochai. 3 9 De Leon claimed that he discovered the original first century text and proceeded to generate copies, which he then distributed to other Kabbalists and mystics throughout Spain. Many within the Kabbalistic community accepted his claim to antiquity, and the Zohar became the key text that inspired and intrigued Kabbalists for centuries to come. The text of the Zohar provides the foundational revelatory writing upon which the Kabbalistic tradition rests. The principal motifs center on the "interplay of human and divine realities." 4 0 In accordance with its mystic nature, the text is rife with symbol and contradictory metaphors. As an 3 5 Skolnik, Kabbalah, 587 3 6 Daniel Chanan Matt, Zohar: The Book of Enlightenment (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1983.), xv 3 7 Matt, Zohar: The Book of Enlightenment, 3 3 8 The adverbial form of pseudepigrapha, which are works falsely attributed to figures of the past. 3 9 Skolnik, Kabbalah, 609 4 0 Matt, Zohar: The Book of Enlightenment, xv


22 esoteric work, the Zohar pierces the literal core of the Torah, delving into a mystical interpretation of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. Fundamentally, the Zohar is an interpretative commentary on the Torah; it presents a uniquely mystic interpretation of Genesis and the Jewish cosmogonythe creation of the universe. At the center of the Kabbalistic cosmogony lies the conception of the ten sefirot or, as they are often described, the "Tree of Life." Sefirot originally meant "numbers," yet Kabbalists employ the term to denote "stages of God"s being, aspects of the divine personality." 4 1 Each emanation of the ten sefirot reveals a new phase in the divine process of creation. Before the emanation of the sefirot and the creation of the universe, Kabbalists claim that God was unmanifest, absolute, and formlessat this point God "existed" as the potentiality of creation, but was not yet existent. According to Kabbalists, all things arise from this potentiality. Kabbalists call God in the form of the unmanifest potentiality Ein Sof which literally translates as "endless" or "no end," yet signifies God as the "Infinite." The notion of "God as Infinity cannot be described or comprehended," because as an unmanifest entity, the application of manifestly realistic terms is paradoxical. The negative-theological basis for the unmanifest term Ein Sof emerged from the Kabbalistic tradition by no accident. Kabbalists understand the unmanifest form of God to be an 4 1 Matt, Zohar: The Book of Enlightenment, 33


23 "undifferentiated being, neither this nor that, no-thingness." 4 2 At this point, God as Ein Sof has no form and cannot be conveyed through language. On the other hand, the emanations derived from the Ein Sof the sefirot possess a form and can be expressed through both images and metaphors. The sefirot represent the realized potentials that emerge from the Ein Sof Kabbalists understand this manifestation of God through the sefirot in Neoplatonic terms, "as a dynamic complex of ten energies or spheres that emanate from a hidden and unknowable Source." 4 3 Gershom Scholem, the founder of the academic study of Jewish mysticism, lends insight into the meaning of the ten sefirot in his seminal book On the Mystical Shape of the Godhead He states, "In His active manifestations, the Godhead appears as a dynamic unity of the Sefiroth, portrayed as the !tree of Sefiroth," of the mystical human form (!Adam Kadmon), who is none other than the concealed shape of the Godhead itself." Scholem positions the sefirot as divine "potencies" that compose the manifest Godhead. The potencies are understood to both conceal and reveal GodGod is manifest through the actions of the sefirot "on the various levels of divine emanation." These emanations represent dissimilar features of the Godhead, yet they "constitute a unity (the unity of God revealing Himself); together they are the shape of the Godhead." 4 4 4 2 Daniel Chanan Matt, The Essential Kabbalah: The Heart of Jewish Mysticism (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1995.), 8 4 3 Gottlieb, Receiving Shekhinah, 17 4 4 Scholem, 29


24 Scholem expresses the paradoxical characteristics of the sefirot : they differ, as various parts of a whole, yet exist in unityone in ten, ten in one. The sefirot resemble both a tree, thus the designation as "Tree of Life," and also the mystical human form, the image of the "Primal Man" (a translation of !Adam Kadmon). The conception of the sefirotic realm as the form of Primal Man illustrates the parallel between divine and mundane realities. The Zohar states, "The form of man is the image of everything that is above [in heaven] and below [upon earth]; therefore did the Holy Ancient [God] select it for His own form." 4 5 Genesis, the first book of the Torah, supports this notion with the passage, "Let us make man in our image." 4 6 Yet what are the sefirot that make up this primordial beingthe image of both the manifest god and man on earth? One of the most intriguing and controversial details of the sefirotic system revolves around the issue of gender. When examined individually, each sefirah embodies an aspect of the divine, and these aspects are gendered. As mentioned previously, God as the Ein Sof represents the cause of all causes. Daniel C. Matt, Judaic studies scholar and translator of the Zohar, maintains, "Ein Sof is present in all things in actuality, while all things are present in potentiality. It is the beginning cause of everythingnothing can be added to this oneness or subtracted from it." 4 7 4 5 Daniel Chanan Matt, The Zohar: Pritzker Edition (Stanford, CACA: Stanford University Press, 2007), Idra Rabba 141b 4 6 Matt, The Zohar: Pritzker Edition, Genesis 1:26 4 7 Matt, The Essential Kabbalah, 39


25 Kabbalists claim that before the "beginning" in Genesis, nothing existed. 4 8 The Ein Sof issued forth a spark of light that radiated outward in the shape of a circlethe first emanation. In short, ten such emanations proceeded to emerge, the sefirot The first sefirah to emanate from the Ein Sof is Keter which translates as "crown" and is generally considered gender-neutral, most akin to the unified Ein Sof The next emanation is Hokmah "wisdom." The third is Binah "understanding," which represents the mother, or divine womb, and is notably feminine. The rest of the emanations include Hesed ("love"), Gevurah ("power"), Tif!eret ("beauty"), Hod ("splendor"), Netsah ("eternity"), Yesod ("foundation"), and lastly Malkhut or Shekhinah ("kingdom/presence"). 4 9 The Shekhinah significantly exists as the second expressly feminine aspect of God. As the lowest sefirah the Shekhinah receives emanation from above, but also gives and creates life below, in the material world. She represents the bridge between the sefirotic and earthly realms, the link between the sacred and mundane. Renewal rabbi Lynn Gottlieb states, "The divine spheres represent the hidden and inner life of God, which becomes manifest in the material world of existence through the medium of the Shekhinah." 5 0 Only after the sefirotic realm was created, with the Shekhinah constructed as the channel between divine and mundane, did the "beginning" in Genesis take place. 4 8 Scherman, Nosson. The Chumash (New York, NY: Mesorah Publications, Ltd., 2000), Genesis 1:1, "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth." 4 9 Matt, Zohar: The Book of Enlightenment, 35 5 0 Gottlieb, Receiving Shekhinah, 17


26 As mentioned previously, the term Shekhinah literally means one who "dwells" or "abides." 5 1 The Shekhinah is said to have acted as the link between the sefirotic realm and earth during creation, yet she dwelled with the Jewish people after she, as God"s presence, was brought down with Moses from Mount Sinai. 5 2 The Mishkan which has the same root at Shekhinah, is believed to be the Israelite tent, which housed the altar (the menorah, the stone tablets, and twelve loaves of bread)the offering to God while the Israelites traveled through the wilderness after their escape from Egypt. God instructed the Israelites to create the structure, which became the Temple, "So I can dwell among you." 5 3 Kabbalists claim that after the Temple was built, the Shekhinah resided within its walls. In 586 B.C.E., the Babylonians destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, causing the first exile of the Jews from their homeland. 5 4 During this time, the Israelites questioned whether God"s Presence, Shekhinah, could remain with them, as she had previously dwelled in the Temple. The answer was affirmative. Since that time, the Shekhinah has symbolized the ever-present essence of God on earth. From the destruction of the Temple onward, the themes of exile and redemption became commonplace within Jewish narratives. The conception of the Shekhinah as the redeemer of exiled Jews became more and more influential, and the Shekhinah was especially defined as a feminine character 5 1 Gottlieb, She Who Dwells Within, 20 5 2 Some Kabbalists believe that the Shekhinah represents the Oral Torah, the counterpart to the written Torah: Skolnik, Kabbalah, 587 5 3 Gottlieb, She Who Dwells Within, 21 5 4 Skolnik, Jerusalem, 147


27 by the Kabbalists. 5 5 Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb states, "Women"s role as professional mourners and the midrashic image of Israel as God"s marriage partner were particularly influential in the evolution of Shekhinah into a feminine aspect of God." She continues, "By 1000 C.E., the very mythologies so suppressed in the Bible erupted in the heart of Jewish mysticism, known as the kabbala, and Shekhinah became YHVH"s 5 6 wife, lover, and daughter." 5 7 In the sixteenth century C.E., Rabbi Issac Luria reexamined and contemporized both the Zohar and the Kabbalistic cosmogony. He revolutionized the way in which Kabbalists understood, and understand, the nature of the sefirot. He appropriated the notion of Jewish exile and applied it to the divine realm through the phenomenon of brokenness. Luria conceptualized the sefirot as divine vessels, which, at one point, contained the emanative light of the Ein Sof. He called this theory Shevieret HaKelim ," or the "Shattering of the Vessels." 5 8 This notion revolves around the "accident" of creation, tzimtzum ("contracting" or "concealment"), which resulted in the existing universe. According to Luria, creation began when Ein Sof withdrew or contracted itself, creating a khalal a "vacuum," which was filled with divine light; a ray of light seeped into the empty space, which was 5 5 Gottlieb, She Who Dwells Within, 21 5 6 YHVH is the transliteration for the ineffable name of God in the Hebrew Bible. 5 7 Gottlieb, Receiving Shekhinah, 17 5 8 Yakov Leib haKohain, "Sabbatianism, Tikkun and the Big Bang Theory," Last modified 2004, Accessed November 13, 2012,, para. 1


28 then absorbed by the ten vessels, or sefirot Yet, Luria claims the vessels could not withstand the powerful light; the first three were damaged and the last seven shattered and fell. Thus, the worldly realm was created from the shattered vessels. With the shattering of the lower vessels, evil and suffering came into existence. The Kabbalistic goal is to unify the once-perfected sefirotic realm through good deeds, mitzvot in the worldly realm. Kabbalists attempt to rid the world and divine realm of evil, and to restore the universe to its original perfection and unified existence by bringing together the Shekhinah and Tif"eret in sexual union. These two sefirot are seen as the ultimate masculine and feminine divine counterparts, also known as wife and husband. Until they are reunited, the world will continue to suffer and exist in chaos. Only through their holy marriage, hierogamy can the world be restored to its original perfection. The unification of the feminine and masculine divine entities is tikkun olam "repairing the world"the ultimate Kabbalistic objective. The Shekhinah figures prominently within the Kabbalistic tradition. She represents the divinity of God in a specifically feminine mannerthe Shekhinah is grammatically, sexually, and characteristically female. She is portrayed as an independent entity with a type of agency, an actor that engages with and is related to other aspects of God, and as a necessary component for the reparation of the world. Because she both embodies the divine and is explicitly feminine, the members of the Jewish Renewal


29 movement have claimed her as their feminist counterpoint to the patriarchally masculine identity of God. The Jewish Renewal movement Daniel Siegel, the rabbinical director for Aleph: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, describes Jewish Renewal as a movement born out of "a very conscious rebellion against the Jewish establishment." 5 9 The movement presents itself as decidedly feminist and egalitarian; it purposefully revolted against the strong convention of patriarchy so often found, whether explicitly or subtly, within Judaism. The movement defines itself as "a worldwide, transdenominational movement grounded in Judaism"s prophetic and mystical traditions." 6 0 The Jewish Renewal movement employs the Kabbalistic tradition, specifically the divine feminine symbol Shekhinah, as part of their strategy to rectify patriarchal Judaism and bring about the reparation of the world. Practitioners believe that the ideal, repaired world can only emerge from the unity of two opposing, yet compatible, forcesthe divine feminine and masculine. Practitioners claim that the contemporary utilization of the Shekhinah grants women a certain power that was not previously accessible 5 9 Debra Nussbaum Cohen, "An introduction to the Jewish Renewal movement," My Jewish Learning Accessed December 29, 2011, s/Renewal_Movement.shtml 6 0 Aleph, n.p.


30 in modern Judaism. They see the Shekhinah as the deliverer of women who are repressed and alienated by the patriarchy of contemporary Judaism. As an aspect of the neutral, androgynous, unified Godhead, the Shekhinah symbolizes a god-like being equal to that of any other masculine aspect of the Godhead, and is thus situated as the symbol of the egalitarian theology so often associated with the Jewish Renewal uprising against patriarchy. Jewish Renewal aims to restore forgotten aspects of Judaism, such as Kabbalistic mysticism, in order to bring modern Jews back to the faith of their fathersa faith that both accepts liberal and progressive ideology, yet claims a long history of tradition. So as to justify the movement, as well as to acknowledge the rich and consistently renewed phenomenon of the Jewish tradition, Jewish Renewal traces its distant history back to the era in which the destruction of the Second Temple occurred in Israel, around 70 C.E. 6 1 Institutional expressions of Jewish Renewal, however, are far more recent. The modern Jewish Renewal movement emerged from, and centers on, the counter-cultural currents surfacing in the 1960s and 1970s: the feminist movement, egalitarian ideology, and liberal politics. It was influenced specifically by the work of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, both of whom came out of the Lubavitch Hassidic movement to found their own, more inclusive communities. 6 2 6 1 Hersh Goldwurm, The History of the Jewish People: The Second Temple Era (New York, NY: Mesorah Publications, Ltd., 1982.), 213 6 2 Aleph, n.p.


31 Both Schachter-Shalomi and Carlebach originally engaged with Judaism as outreach emissaries in the Hasidic movement Chabad, the largest branch of ultra-orthodox Judaism. When Chabad objected to Schachter-Shalomi and Carlebach"s practice of speaking to both men and women collectively, the two left the movement. They viewed American Judaism in the mid-twentieth century as lacking and "unable to offer its adherents a sense of joy and comfort." 6 3 The two believed that a renewed Hasidic Judaism could fill the void of this uninspiring religious era, "especially to those for whom the promise of modernity had miserably failed and who were searching for a new core of meaning in their lives." 6 4 Carlebach and Schachter-Shalomi created the House of Love and Prayer in the 1960s, which soon evolved into a hotbed of Hasidism and hippie culture. When the House of Love and Prayer closed in the mid-seventies, Schachter-Shalomi decided to take the egalitarian path of Jewish Renewal, as Carlebach maintained a closer connection to traditional Hasidism. Schachter-Shalomi then formed the community B !nai Or which promoted his Renewal teachings. He then promptly changed the name to P !nai Or "faces of light"a more inclusive version of B !nai Or "sons of light"to communicate the egalitarian bent of the organization. 6 5 In 1993, 6 3 Yaakov Ariel, "From Neo-Hasidism to Outreach Yeshivot: The Origins of the Movements of Renewal and Return to Tradition," Kabbalah and Contemporary Spiritual Revival ed. Boaz Huss (Beer-Sheva, Israel: BenGurion University of the Negev Press, 2011.), 23 6 4 Ariel, 22 6 5 Ariel, 30-31


32 P !nai O r became Alepha term now used to designate various strands of Renewal practices in Judaism. Shekhinah in Jewish Renewal Practitioners and rabbis within the movement appropriate the Shekhinah as a feminist divine figure, one that can rectify the patriarchally sanctioned debasement that has kept the broken world from reparation for so long. All members of the Jewish Renewal movement share a belief in this basic tenet, although the methods of employing the Shekhinah, or drawing her out from exile, differ among members. The first position, which I will refer to as "mainstream," is that of more traditional members and rabbis. In accordance with the conventional Jewish taboo of anthropomorphization, mainstream members adhere to the notion that God ultimately transcends gender and cannot be comprehended in an embodied manner, regardless of terminology or iconography. For these practitioners, the Shekhinah reveals women as counterparts to male authority on earth. The second position includes the more "radical" members of the Jewish Renewal movement. These practitioners and rabbis carry the conception of the Shekhinah to a more polarized level, valorizing her as the embodiment of the feminineworshipping the feminine body and using the Shekhinah as an affirmative tool for the overthrow of patriarchy. To the radical members, the


33 Shekhinah is equally as necessary for the reparation of the world as the masculine aspect of God, yet should be accepted as an embodied counterpart or goddess. Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi aimed to reexamine the Jewish tradition through the perspective of women, their experiences, and religious awareness. According to Schachter-Shalomi, the inclusion of women within Renewal Judaism is imperative, as egalitarianism produced the motivation for the creation of the movement. Emerging from a legacy of patriarchal Jewish tradition within the Hasidic community, Schachter-Shalomi asserted that Judaism "needed to discover how feminine awareness had been stunted" within the institution, as this paradigm shift required women"s involvement. 6 6 As such, part of the Renewal movement"s commitment to tikkun olam includes healing the wounds inflicted upon Jewish women by patriarchal Judaism and the unjust hierarchical social dynamic supported by the tradition for millennia. Because Jewish patriarchy purposefully excluded women"s voices in the past, Jewish Renewal purposefully includes women as an integral part of the community. The Kabbalistic myth of brokenness and separation informs the reasoning behind women"s inclusion and points toward the need to overcome androcentric oppression. According to the Renewal myth of divine union, the pious women on earth must draw the Shekhinah out of hiding in order for she and the masculine God-aspect (Tif"eret) to join 6 6 Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, "Paradigm Shift." Accessed November 27, 2011, n.p.


34 together in the reparation of the world. This myth affords women an important and necessary role within the movement that values their thoughts, actions, and experiencesthe reparation of the world relies upon women"s redemption of the Shekhinah from exile. Because women are presented as necessary to the Kabbalistic cosmogony and the renewal of the broken state of perfection, many members describe the inclusion of women, human counterparts to the Shekhinah, as explicitly feminist. Renewal author Michael Lerner argues that, "Jewish Renewal is fundamentally and essentially feministit is the contemporary attempt to reshape Judaism using the insights and understandings that women have brought into the modern world." 6 7 In this sense, practitioners believe that the need for women, for both the reparation of the world and the elimination of the hierarchical aspects of Judaism, lends the movement a feminist aura. Mainstream Perspective According to mainstream practitioners, gender inclusion involves more than simply allowing women to do what men have been able to do for centuries; more than giving women permission to engage in "valued," or "masculine" activities. Inclusion means valorizing, or revalorizing, those traits and activities typically associated with the female or feminine. Participant6 7 Michael Lerner, Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1995), 310


35 observer and scholar Chava Weissler provides excellent examples of Renewal members" views on egalitarianism and feminism. In her article "Meanings of the Shekhinah in the !Jewish Renewal" Movement," she quotes Renewal Rabbi Andrea Cohen-Kiener, "We didn"t want to just dress up in suits and go to shul like men." 6 8 Another Renewal Rabbi, Phyllis Berman, stated the difference between what she understood as "egalitarianism, in which women get to do what men always did," and feminism, which she claims "chang[es] the map." 6 9 In noting that there exists a difference between egalitarianism and feminism, these rabbis indicated the underlying issue of the patriarchy in which masculine standards are cloaked as "neutrality," "objectivity," and "rationale." Jewish feminist thealogian Rachel Adler also explains the influence of "Enlightenment universalism," which she claims, "made women invisible by regarding them as !honorary men," but did not, in fact, give them the religious opportunities afforded men." 7 0 This concept of pseudo-equality indicates that through "neutral" universalism, or an inclusion of women within the public sphere, there still exists an underlying hierarchy that prevents women from acquiring an equal status and meaningful religious experience within the realm of Judaism. Instead, a different and subtler type of patriarchy is instituteda version that still favors men and masculinity yet boasts an aura of authentic equality simply because it allows women to 6 8 Weissler, 58 6 9 Weissler, 58 7 0 Rachel Adler, Engendering Judaism: An Inclusive Theology and Ethics (Beacon Press: Boston, MA, 1998), xvii


36 participate, albeit in a limited manner. This occurrence seems to point to the complexity of gender roles and the notion of equality. What does it mean to go beyond egalitarianism, which appears to be, as has been quoted, a polite term for disguised patriarchy? Mainstream members claim that false egalitarianism can be transcended within the sphere of language. The Renewal movement focuses on language as a territory in which women can assert autonomy and status. Within the mainstream facet of the movement, the Shekhinah is most prominently evoked through the linguistic medium. Many members agree upon the necessity of language; they believe God"s revelation warranted translation into a human language. One Renewal member notes, "Whatever messages were sent to us had to be processed through our existing language and conceptual tools." 7 1 Because one must access God"s revelation in Hebrew, a highly gendered language, Renewal Jews are faced with the issue of gender preference and patriarchal influence that permeate the text of the Tenakh, the Hebrew Bible. This presents a problem for Jews who desire a truly egalitarian textual theology, yet desire to remain faithful to their sacred, and linguistic, roots. Within the Hebrew Bible, even God is presented as a gendered entity, typically denoted with a masculine term. It appears evident to many Renewal Jews that "God language and social structure are intimately intertwined." 7 2 In 7 1 Lerner, 307 7 2 Weissler, 64


37 this conception, the heavenly hierarchy translates to a worldly hierarchywith men situated as the most powerful entities, dominating the female "other." A gendered God created hierarchical assumptions, which "often corresponded to social arrangements in which some men had power over most other men, and all men had power over women." 7 3 Many mainstream Renewal members recognize that the anthropomorphization of God often presents itself when employing gendered language. The mainstream facet disagrees with anthropomorphizing God in general, as icons are forbidden in Judaism, but also accepts that conceptualizing God as masculinethrough using masculine God languageis problematic for female members. Many female Renewal practitioners claim that invoking a masculine God does not satisfy their understanding of Judaism, nor the egalitarian and feminist theology they feel truly informs their values. There is a multitude of masculine names for God within the Hebrew canon, including Adonai Elohim Shaddai El and the ineffable tetragrammaton YHVH To combat the typically male-centered God language, Renewal Jews often invoke the (only) feminine name for God or God"s PresenceShekhinah. As the feminine antithesis of the patriarchally instituted masculine aspect of God, the Shekhinah appeals to Renewal Jews seeking equality between women and menboth in the worldly and sefirotic realms. Members sometimes refer to the Shekhinah as "Mother Wisdom," "Sabbath Queen," and "Tree of Life." They often conceptualize the 7 3 Lerner, 308


38 Shekhinah as the metaphorical mother, bride, spouse, or daughter; she is associated with those attributes identified as "stereotypically female," such as nurturance, compassion, caring, and emotionality. 7 4 By using the term Shekhinah, as opposed to a grammatically masculine term, members believe that false egalitarianism cannot override their attempt to topple the patriarchal grasp on god-language. They claim there is something distinctly feminist about female god-language, which both asserts equalitarianism, as it still refers to a unified and transcendent God, and explicitly invokes the feminine divine. In order to remedy the disparity in language, some Renewal Jews exclusively use female-centered God language. One Renewal member states, "If language is a gateway to the Ineffable, then women need a linguistic passage to that realm. Speaking the Word as Shekhinah allows us to traverse that way." 7 5 Another member and editor of the Renewal Tikkun magazine, Michael Lerner, agrees that female God language should be instituted; "We are told that we can"t refer to God as She because God does not have a sex, that God cannot be contained by gender. Fine. But since Hebrew always seems to construe reality in female or male language, why not render God in female language for a few thousand years to make up for the past few thousand years of male language?" 7 6 The desire to turn the tables on patriarchy seems logical; these members ask why not allow 7 4 Lerner, 313 7 5 Gottlieb, She Who Dwells Within, 23 7 6 Lerner, 311


39 femininity to share in the limelight of God language? Some feel that by introducing female-oriented God language into the male-centered retinue, members will be able to view God as neither male nor female, but a metaphorically neutral, dual-sexed characteremploying "God as a female to complement the image of God as male." 7 7 Radical Perspective In the Zohar it says, "!Thou shalt have no other gods before me." Said R. Isaac, !This prohibition of other gods does not include the Shekhinah."" 7 8 The more radical sector of the Jewish Renewal movement generally agree with the basic precepts that mainstream movement espouses, yet the radical members take the conception of the Shekhinah to a more extreme level. Similar to the majority of Renewal members, radical Jews in the movement also employ the Shekhinah in the fight against patriarchy in Judaism, but these members go beyond merely changing the gender of the language applied to the Godhead. They assert that god-language is not merely metaphorical, but it also implies that God retains a gender. If God is gendered, then the conception of God becomes anthropomorphized and embodied. The Shekhinah no longer represents a simple feminine aspect of 7 7 Rita M Gross, "Steps toward Feminine Imagery of Deity in Jewish Theology," On Being a Jewish Feminist ed. Susannah Heschel. (New York, NY: Schocken Books Inc., 1983.), 168 7 8 Matt, The Zohar: Pritzker Edition, 86a


40 God. Instead, she is God, or the Goddess. As God/Goddess, she created humanity in her image. As in the patriarchal conception, in which God created man in his image (as he is masculine and so are men), women were particularly created in the Shekhinah"s imageshe is feminine and so are human women. As adherents to Kabbalistic thought, the Zohar plays a huge role in the way that radical members conceive of the Shekhinahas the female form of God. Radical members take the Zoharic notion that women "have an inherent connection with the Shekhinah" to heart. 7 9 Radical Renewal members see themselves as the embodiment of, and human counterpart to, the Shekhinah. For these practitioners, the Shekhinah exists as a goddessthe feminine divine composed of those physical attributes associated with the "typical" feminine woman. Like the mainstream population of the movement, radical members agree that women must call the Shekhinah back from exile in order to facilitate redemption. The presence of Shekhinah is thus evidenced by the presence, inclusion, and influence of women within Renewal Judaism. Rabbi Leah Novick, a radical and spiritual leader in Jewish Renewal, states, "In effect, the presence of women in leadership of Jewish communal life suggests that our access to Shekhinah, formerly connected with spiritual teachings and literature, has become apparent through women and girls 7 9 Novick, Leah. On the Wings of the Shekhinah: Rediscovering Judaism!s Divine Feminine (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 2008.) 87


41 calling the Divine Feminine back to earth." 8 0 She and other radicals believe that through female human action, the divine feminine returns; the Shekhinah"s embodiment relies upon the actions of embodied Jewish women. Radical members claim that when a woman takes charge and participates in Jewish religious life, the Shekhinah is empowered. The Shekhinah awakens when her daughters call her out of hiding; for radical members, women draw the Shekhinah out through their reclamation of power as religious entities. As an embodied figure, the Shekhinah represents women, womanhood, and femininity. She lends legitimacy to female-bodied beings and their lived experiences: experiences of motherhood and creation, natureloving and caregiving, desire and sensuality. In one of her many prayers that center on the worship of the feminine divine, Renewal rabbi Lynn Gottlieb expresses the nature of the Shekhinah. She created this prayer for Jews to use as part of the Sabbath-welcoming literature: "Shekhinah is She Who Dwells Within, The force that binds and patterns creation. She is Mother of the Spiritworld, Morning and Evening Star She is Mistress of the Seas, Tree of Life, Shekhinah is Changing Woman, Nature herself, Her own Law and Mystery. Shekhinah is the eros of life, limitless desire, Cosmic orgasm, wave upon wave of arousal, hungry and tireless, explosive and seductive, 8 0 Novick, 129


42 the kiss of life and death, never dying. We live here, in Her body." 8 1 Not only do radical Renewal members believe that they "livein Her body," but some also assert that the Shekhinah lives within the bodies of women. Another prominent Renewal rabbi, Tirzah Firestone, claims that Malkhut another name for Shekhinah, "is located in a woman"s feet, which serve as her roots to earth, or alternatively in her vagina, the root of her physical trunk. Like the lips of the vagina, Malkhut is the gate between inner and outer, self and other." 8 2 Not only is Malkhut the bridge between self and other, she is also considered embodied wisdomfeminine wisdom, which is characterized as such because of the female body (and her vagina). "The food we eat, the milk that swells in our breasts, our blood cycles, and our bodies" encoded wisdom that tells us how to live on the earthall this is Malkhut." 8 3 Shekhinah, or Malkhut, legitimizes the embodied sense of femininity. She valorizes and confers power upon the notion of woman as mother and creator, spouse and partner, daughter and redeemer, whore and powerful sexual entity. The Shekhinah also gives women the chance to revitalize and reconstruct their religion. Jewish feminist author Hava Tirosh-Samuelson argues that because of the Shekhinah, "Jewish feminists could create their 8 1 Gottlieb, She Who Dwells Within, 27 8 2 Firestone, 97 8 3 Firestone, 96-97


43 own distinctive egalitarian religion that was rooted not in the command of the oppressive Father God but in the rhythm of nature and its mysteries as practiced by women." 8 4 This radical faction of Renewal is arguably creating a new religion, one centered on the maternal, natural, and feminine goddess, who frees women from the ties of patriarchy. In this conception, patriarchy is left behind as the Shekhinah takes the place of the masculine godhead. She is not simply co-equal with the masculine godhead; she is the godhead. The radical sector of Renewal Judaism shares many similarities with the trans-religious goddess movement. Like other extensions of the female divine, the Shekhinah gives women a "model of empowered selfhood." 8 5 Whether metaphorical or metaphysical (or both), images of the divine feminine as a powerful entity provide agency to female bodies in the hereand-now, on earth as women. In Eller"s terms, "These images are much in keeping with spiritual feminists" emphasis on female bodiliness and the qualities they say this type of bodiliness imparts: nurturance, intuition, compassion, a comfortableness with sexuality, and a strong connection to nature. Rather than placing divinity in a transcendent, invisible realm, spiritual feminists image the Goddess residing on planet Earth, sometimes 8 4 Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, Gender in Jewish Mysticism Jewish Mysticism and Kabbalah: New Insights and Scholarship Edited by Frederick Greenspahn. (New York, NY: New York University Press, 2011.), 199-200 8 5 Cynthia Eller, "Divine Objectification: The Representation of Goddesses and Women in Feminist Spirituality," Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 16. no. 1 (2000): 27


44 being planet Earth." 8 6 Radical Renewal members thus embrace the essentialized notion of femaleness and apply it to religious life in a positive manner. These radical members seek to revalorize the feminine by incorporating the Shekhinah into their prayers, rituals, and even their bodies. Critique Members of the Jewish Renewal movement claim to challenge the patriarchal influence in Judaism through the implementation of the divine feminine Shekhinah. As they understand their endeavor, it is an explicitly feminist project. However, I think there are reasons for feminists, both within and without this tradition, to be concerned with this spiritual project. The use of the feminine divine figure, I argue, can also be problematic and ultimately antithetical to feminist goals. The movement"s appropriation of the Shekhinah reinforces and reifies the social structure and hierarchy administered by the patriarchy by highlighting the supposed differences between men and women and presenting these as natural, necessary, and as a viable way of categorizing the supposed dual nature of humanity. The rampant essentializing of humans and the divine, stemming from a biologically deterministic standpoint in which one"s anatomy determines one"s character, counters and challenges the movement"s claim to feminism. The basic 8 6 Eller, Divine Objectification, 29


45 critique of essentialism paves the way for more nuanced critiques of the Shekhinah appropriation, including male authorship, characterizations of the female and Shekhinah, and the notion of embodiment. Essentialism is a philosophical doctrine which maintains, "that there are necessary properties of things, that these are logically prior to the existence of individuals which instantiate them, and that their classification depends upon their satisfaction of sets of necessary conditions." 8 7 With regard to feminism, an essentialist viewpoint entails the belief that femaleand male-bodied individuals" social or gender identities correspond with their biological sex, both of which supposedly retain some fundamental or essential "feminine" or "masculine" traits. This interpretation of identity and the body limits both maleand female-bodied beings to certain "necessary conditions," or characteristics that are either "masculine" or "feminine," respectively. The essentialist position is ultimately patriarchal in nature; it distinguishes between two types of humans and places them in both oppositional and hierarchical positions. Essentialism does not challenge patriarchy, but instead represents part of the very foundation of the patriarchal social system and one strategy employed for upholding the patriarchal structure. Thus, to claim that there exists some overarching "feminine" identity that all female-bodies participate in and define themselves by is ultimately antifeminist. Jewish feminist Rachel 8 7 Essentialism, "Collins English Dictionary Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition," HarperCollins Publishers (accessed: March 30, 2012).


46 Adler argues that, "because essentialist imagery reinforces gender stereotypes, it confines rather than throws open the significations of what it means to be a woman." She continues, "This is true for depictions of women, and also for imagery of the feminine aspects of God." 8 8 Therefore, femalebodied individuals are limited by the conception of the Shekhinah and merely thrown back into the cycle of patriarchal oppression that the Shekhinah promises to save them from. Another reason to be skeptical of the Shekhinah"s power to transform patriarchy concerns the unashamedly patriarchal history of this spiritual figure. Renewal rabbi Lynn Gottlieb admits that, "everything written about the Shekhinah appears to be authored by men." 8 9 The movement attempts to reclaim the Shekhinah, yet her history is problematic because men ultimately created her character, and, until recently, only the patriarchs of Kabbalah have defined her as a divine figure. Adler questions if it is possible to "extricate the Shekhinah from the essentialist meanings with which it was endowed in Jewish mysticism?" 9 0 The Renewal movement, rather than undermining this essentialized identity, has instead valorized or "revalorized," it. Male Kabbalist leaders created the Shekhinah and lent her character typically "feminine" aspects and associations in ways that both upheld and legitimized a patriarchal religious and social standpoint. The roles they gave hermother, daughter, bride, and queenare all positions associated with 8 8 Adler, 99-100 8 9 Gottlieb, Receiving Shekhinah, 16 9 0 Adler, 99-100


47 circumscribed and stereotypically "feminine" identities. Even as Renewal Jews claim to overthrow this system of religiously sanctioned patriarchy, they arguably perpetuate it. Instead of criticizing the patriarchal creation of Shekhinah, "womanness," the "feminine," and the prescribed associations with nature, sexuality, caregiving, birthing, and nurturing, Renewal Jews reify and revalorize narrow conceptions of women.


48 Chapter 2: The Western Interpretations of Tibetan Tantric Buddhism & dakini 9 1 "The dakinis leap and fly, unfettered by clothing, encircled by billowing hair, their bodies curved in sinuous dance poses. Their eyes Image credit: Vajrayogini, wisdom dakini: Ang Tsherin Sherpa, "Vajrayogini," Accessed April 14, 2012.


49 blaze with passion, ecstasy, and ferocious intensitythese unrestrained damsels appear to revel in freedom of every kind." -Miranda Shaw The dakini, a Tantric Buddhist spiritual figure, is another goddess-like entity recently appropriated by feminists. Unlike Jewish Renewal"s reclamation of the Shekhinah, there is no self-designated "movement" of feminists who utilize the dakini figure. Instead, those who engage with the dakini, a central Tantric goddess figure, represent themselves as dharma teachers, Tantric Buddhist practitioners, and feminist scholars of Buddhism. Most of them were born in the United States and many are academically trained primarily in the U.S. 9 2 The scholars I include engage in both academic forums and discussions for practitioners. However, they do not necessarily practice together, nor do they agree upon what or who the dakini is or represents. Still, like Renewal feminists, these scholar-practitioners do present the argument that the dakini, generalized as the divine essence of the female and feminine, can be understood as a feminist or egalitarian icon. Some of my sources claim not to speak for a feminist cause, but for a metaphysical reality that transcends the notion of masculine and feminine, in which both of these characters/characteristics are considered equal and outside of the social realm in which "feminism" lives. Yet, I suggest that the position of these 9 2 I use the term "Western" in the most general sense, with the acknowledgement that the "West" is a contested notion; here the term signifies the United States and European countries.


50 scholar-practitioners still presents what many would call a "feminist" defense of Tantric Buddhism. These scholars and practitioners implement the feminine divine figure to support their interpretation of the female as a powerful and significant part of the tradition and metaphysics of Tibetan Tantric Buddhism, as well as to valorize the feminine within the (patriarchal) tradition itself. Supporters of this notion believe that the inclusion, embodiment, and the necessity of the female or feminine principle within Vajrayana Buddhism challenge the androcentric nature of the tradition and Western interpretations of it, which typically understand Tantric Buddhism as a patriarchal religion that exploits the female "other." Tibetan Tantric Buddhism, dakini, & Western Interpretations There is a caveat regarding the ways in which I compare the Jewish Renewal movement and the Western interpretations of Tantric Buddhism. Not only do the Tantric Buddhist scholar-practitioners support the utilization of the goddess figure, they also claim that the framework through which Western feminists interpret religion and religious appropriation is radically different from the perspectives of other, non-Western, practitioners. Thus, this phenomenon is multilayered and complex, and it is imperative to keep in mind the weight of these claims while evaluating the appropriation of the feminine divine dakini. As a Westerner trained in the topics of religion, gender studies,


51 and feminism within an American academic institution, I cannot attest to the validity of this assertion. Yet, because all sources I will cite have explicitly stated that Tibet and India are patriarchal societies, (either during the appearance of Tantric Buddhism, presently, or both), and that the lived reality of women often contradicts the religious claim to equality, I will analyze and critique this appropriation in a manner similar to my previous chapterwith the understanding that not all cultures and religions are the same and that notions of feminism cannot be universalized. Another reason I choose to work within this framework is due to the scholar-practitioners" claims that Westerners such as themselves can also appropriate the dakini, as well as practitioners native to Tibet or India. Also, although the Western feminist interpretation of Tantric Buddhism and the Jewish Renewal movement differ in many ways, both evaluations of gender and duality parallel one another. This chapter will first explore the evolution of the dakini figure and her position within the history of India and Tibet. A brief history and explanation of the Indian and Tibetan Tantric Buddhist tradition will follow, elucidating the significance of the dakini as a feminine deity. I will then examine the ways in which scholar-practitioners have appropriated the dakini figure in both defense of the Tibetan Tantric Buddhist tradition, as well as to remove patriarchal aspects of the tradition through the valorization of the feminine. This section of the chapter will analyze the claim to feminism represented by the dakini, including the existence of the feminine divine, the female-positive


52 aspect of her character, and the necessity of the dakini for liberation and enlightenment. Lastly, I will present critiques of the dakini by other scholarpractitioners of Tantric Buddhism, Cynthia Eller, and criticisms of my own. The critique will mainly focus on the conception of duality, which will draw upon my previous evaluation of essentialism. History of Tantric Buddhism & dakini The dakini represents one of the most important feminine figures in Tantric Buddhism. Yet, there is not one interpretation that can definitively answer the question of who or what the dakini is. Janet Gyatso, a Buddhist scholar of Harvard Divinity School, argues that people use the term dakini "inconsistently and looselyfor real, imagined, and mythical females in a variety of roles as goddess, yogini, 9 3 consort, wife, mess-bearing epiphany, or simply woman, not to mention the !inner" and !secret" dakinis who are not anthropomorphic at all." 9 4 Anne C. Klein, scholar and Tibetan Buddhist teacher, claims that dakinis are "Skyborne Ladies," female figures associated with wisdom. Miranda Shaw, an academic and Tantric Buddhist practitioner, asserts that the dakini "eludes precise definition," but within the Buddhist 9 3 A yogini is a female practitioner and also represents the category of female Buddhist teachers; yoginis can also be dakinis: Reiko Ohnuma, Gender Encyclopedia of Buddhism Edited by Robert E. Buswell, Jr., (New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Company, 2004.), 305 9 4 Gyatso, Janet. Apparitions of the Self: The Secret Autobiographies of a Tibetan Visionary (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998), 246


53 Tantric tradition, "highlight[s] the flights of spiritual insight, ecstasy, and freedom from worldliness granted by the realization of emptiness." 9 5 There are a variety of definitions for the dakini and associations with her character, including wildness, mystery, and the female principle or essence of femininity. She takes many shapes, and Tantric literature depicts the dakini as capable of materializing the form of a virgin, an old hag, a wrathful woman, or an otherworldly goddess. The earliest known usage of the term dakini appears during the fourth century B.C.E., first mentioned in the work of Panini, a Sanskrit grammarian. He defined the dakini as "a type of flesh-eating female deity that appears in the retinue of the goddess, Kali." 9 6 Kali emerged from the Hindu tradition as a goddess of death and power, yet over the next few centuries dakinis were incorporated into various Indian traditions, but only as minor characters. These figures were then appropriated during the formation of Tantric Buddhism and given a much more significant role. Author and scholar Jacob P. Dalton suggests that the Buddhist definition of dakini originally denoted human women from lower classes, such as prostitutes and washerwomen, who operated as sexual consorts for male Tantric practitioners. They were considered "socially liminal," and thought to hold "mysterious and dangerous 9 5 Miranda Shaw, Passionate Enlightenment: Women in Tantric Buddhism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994.), 38 9 6 Jacob P. Dalton, Dakini Encyclopedia of Buddhism Edited by Robert E. Buswell, Jr.. (New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Company, 2004.), 192


54 power." 9 7 As liminal entities, dakinis possessed the ability to move or fly between the human realm and the province of the buddhas, rendering them both human and divine, and they were eventually considered enlightened beings, liberated of their own accord. Tibetans translated the term dakini as mkha! "gro or "sky dancer," thought to be derived from the Sanskrit root dai which means "to fly," and connected with ability to move limitlessly through the space of reality. 9 8 The dakini is most significantly associated with Tibetan Tantric Buddhism. Around the seventh century C.E., the tantras appearedthe final wave of Indian Buddhist literature, which promoted "radical forms of practice, including rituals and meditation techniques for accelerating spiritual progress." 9 9 The type of Buddhism advocated in the tantras became known as Vajrayana, which translates as the "Diamond Vehicle." 1 0 0 Vajrayana, or Tantric Buddhism, rose out of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, (known as the "Greater Vehicle")a form of Buddhism focused on compassion, emptiness, the laity, the nature of the Buddha, and the possibility for all sentient beings to attain enlightenment. 1 0 1 The Buddhist concept of enlightenment entails the freedom from the suffering of samsara the continuous cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Liberation, nirvana is the "release from the cycle altogether," and 9 7 Dalton, 192 9 8 Dalton, 192 9 9 Charles Prebish and Damien Keown. Buddhismthe eBook: An Online Introduction (State College, PA: Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, 2010.), 94 1 0 0 Prebish & Keown, 94 1 0 1 Prebish & Keown, 101


55 is only achieved by practitioners who "gain correct insight and realization of the truth of the Buddha"s teachings." 1 0 2 Tantric Buddhism emerged as a reform movement within Mahayana Buddhism in India in the seventh or eighth century C.E., during a period when Mahayana was experiencing intellectual and philosophical growth and productivity. The movement arose from outside of the great Buddhist monasteries of the time and support for the movement originated with the lay people, not monks and nuns. Tantric Buddhists decidedly protested against the privileges afforded those living a monastic life and the dry scholasticism so pervasive within other forms of Buddhism in India. Tantric Buddhists sought change in the Mahayana tradition. Vajrayanists believed that Tantric passion, desire, and ecstasy should be an integral part of the path toward liberation, as opposed to the Mahayanist tradition and ritual, (which were not Tantric or esoteric in any significant manner). 1 0 3 Still, Mahanayist philosophy and "the ideals of altruistic motivation and dedication to compassionate service form the theoretical core of Tantric practice." 1 0 4 Thus, Tantric Buddhist philosophy originated in the Mahayana tradition, yet the method employed to reach enlightenment deviates from the established Mahayana practice. Tantric Buddhists champion desire by immersing themselves in 1 0 2 Bryan J. Cuevas, Samsara Encyclopedia of Buddhism Edited by Robert E. Buswell, Jr.,(New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Company, 2004.), 739 1 0 3 Ronald M. Davidson and Charles D. Orzech. Tantra Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Edited by Robert E. Buswell, Jr.. (New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Company, 2004), 820 1 0 4 Shaw, Passionate Enlightenment, 21


56 their sensual yearnings, rather than dismissing and fleeing from them, as their Mahanayist counterparts prescribed. One of the most important features of Tantric Buddhism, one that differentiates it from Mahayana, is the particular focus on the attainment of enlightenment within one"s lifetime. Both the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions teach that the world and all things are "intrinsically pure and innately perfect." 1 0 5 They believe that the world we inhabit is a Buddha-land or realm of enlightened, yet it is just one of many. In order to reach liberation, the Mahayana tradition advocates a process of purification that must be developed over a period of many lifetimes, during which practitioners hone the skills of wisdom, compassion, and patience. On the other hand, Tantric Buddhism claims that enlightenment is attainable within a single lifetimethrough Tantric Buddhist means the process toward liberation can advance more quickly than through the method of the Mahayana tradition. These technical practices expedite the process of becoming enlightened. Buddhist Tantra asserts that the possibility of advanced attainment of enlightenment exists "because of the very powerful techniques associated with the use of mantras, that the activity of the yogin"s entire body, speech, and mind are employed in the process." 1 0 6 The practitioner employs the visualization of buddhas, bodhisattvas, or other esoteric deities, breathing 1 0 5 Shaw, Passionate Enlightenment, 24 1 0 6 Ronald M. Davidson, Vajrayana Encyclopedia of Buddhism Edited by Robert E. Buswell, Jr.. (New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Company, 2004.), 875


57 techniques, and forms of physical yoga to quicken the procedure. Tantric Buddhist practitioners also view their possibility for acceleration as warranted by their attitude toward defilement and desire. They do not believe one should completely eliminate defilement, but transform it "into forms of the gnosis of awakening." 1 0 7 Its adherents consider Vajrayana an advanced practice, one superior even to its predecessor, Mahayana. "Accordingly, one of the more important of the tantric scriptures, the Guhyasamaja Tantra proclaims that the reason it had not been revealed before was that there were no beings sufficiently advanced to hear it," and was only presented when their were bodhisattvas ready to accept Vajrayana Buddhism. 1 0 8 After its establishment, Tantric Buddhism rapidly gained popularity and spread throughout the areas north of India and into Central Asia and China. But Tibet became the most important place for the development of Buddhist Tantra. 1 0 9 After it was introduced to Tibet, Tantric Buddhism continued to dominate the religious sphere until the annexation of Tibet by China in 1950. It ultimately ended after the anti-Chinese revolt and fleeing of Tibetan refugees in 1959. 1 1 0 When Tantric Buddhism first spread to Tibet, one of the four prominent Tibetan orders, the Rnying ma ( Nyingma)-pa order, furthered the Indian Buddhist endeavor of formulating scripture, as opposed to the other three existing orders, which took a more conservative approach to 1 0 7 Davidson, 875 1 0 8 Davidson, 876 1 0 9 Davidson & Orzech, 822 1 1 0 Robert E. Buswell Jr., ed. Encyclopedia of Buddhism (New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Company, 2004.), 944


58 writing. Because of the Rnying ma activity, "the production of tantras in Buddhist Tibet equaled or exceeded the number and volume produced in Buddhist India." 1 1 1 In the beginning of the eleventh century, these Tibetan tantras were compiled, along with a few significant remaining Indian tantras, into the Rnying ma rgyud "bum (Old Tantric Canon). This canon includes a variety of tantras on philosophy, ritual, psychology, and meditation. 1 1 2 Gender in Tantric Buddhism Reiko Ohnuma, a specialist in the Buddhist traditions of South Asia, argues that the category of gender is central to Tantric Buddhism, which places a much greater emphasis on distinct roles of gender than does the Mahayana tradition and other mainstream varieties of Buddhism. "Whereas other forms of Buddhism may have certain attitudes about gender, Tantric thought is inseparable from its gender ideology," Ohnuma claims. 1 1 3 She states that the union of masculine and feminine principles, which "produce[s] the ultimate goal of enlightenment," becomes sexualized in Tantric Buddhismboth physically and metaphysically. 1 1 4 In the Vajrayana tradition, the female or feminine represents the concept of wisdom, prajna while the 1 1 1 Davison & Orzech, 822 1 1 2 Davidson & Orzech, 822-823 1 1 3 Ohnuma, 305 1 1 4 Ohnuma, 305


59 male or masculine represents skillful means, upaya. 1 1 5 Sexual union between the two, female and male (which symbolize wisdom and skillful means), results in enlightenment. This union is illustrated through Tantric art, which often depicts (male) buddhas and bodhisattvas with female consorts engaging in sexual activity. The symbol of sexual union is also practiced physically, as Ohnuma explains, "through a highly esoteric form of yoga involving ritualized sexual intercourse between male and female lay tantric practitioners." 1 1 6 Even celibate monks experience this sexual union, though psychologically, through meditation. The process of becoming an enlightened being is expressed as the fusion of male and female, "which join together seamlessly yet retain their distinctive natures." 1 1 7 Though this may appear to construct a kind of sacred gender duality, Ohnuma emphasizes that attaining enlightenment is a realization of emptiness, which is philosophically conceptualized as the overcoming of dualism. Thus, the emphasis on male and female entities and qualities serves to highlight nirvana or enlightenment as a state of non-duality. Many Buddhist feminists and scholars have recently begun to turn their focus to the divine feminine within the Vajrayana tradition, specifically the dakini. The scholar-practitioners who engage the dakini claim that she symbolizes an unambiguously feminist divine figure. She survives the patriarchal nature of the Tantric Buddhist tradition while simultaneously 1 1 5 Ohnuma, 305 1 1 6 Ohnuma, 305 1 1 7 Ohnuma, 305


60 defending it as an equalitarian institution. Adherents believe she exemplifies the power and divinity inherent within all women, and allows women to realize their potential for liberation through their own experience of embodiment. The Tantric Buddhist tradition indeed valorizes the female character, the feminine principle or essence, wisdom, and the female body. The dakini is a perfect example of this glorification of the female. One of the most outspoken feminist Buddhist scholars and proponent of the utilization of the dakini is Miranda Shaw, author of "Passionate Enlightenment: Women in Tantric Buddhism." Shaw, along with other contemporary feminist scholars, argues that women need to reclaim their feminine counterparts within history. In the case of Tantric Buddhism, she asserts, "this involves recognizing that women"s views about the Tantric movement and their participation in it are found not only in texts by women but also in the literature produced by the communities of which they were a part." 1 1 8 Shaw has worked to translate and to reinterpret Buddhist Tantric texts authored by men using a feminist model. Her reading of these texts is deliberately female-centered and looks at women and how they either express themselves or can be understood as beings of agency within androcentric texts. The interpretive strategy counters a textual tradition produced largely by men, and it recovers the perspective of women from androcentric authors. 1 1 8 Shaw, Passionate Enlightenment, 12


61 The need to reinterpret these texts from a female-centered lens mainly stems from the inconsistencies between religious precepts and lived reality. Buddhist scholar-practitioner Judith Simmer-Brown indicates that Tantric Buddhism has been formulated and thrives within a system of institutionalized patriarchy and androcentrism, "accompanied by a contrasting doctrinal promise of the inherent spiritual capabilities of women." 1 1 9 She states that in Tibet women were (and are) controlled by patriarchal rule. Simmer-Brown explains that in the past, "women were subject to their fathers and husbands. Their spiritual potential was generally valued, but, as in the Indian context, women were generally denied full monastic ordination, education, ritual training, teaching roles, and financial support for their dharma practice." 1 2 0 Although hagiographic literature on yoginis and extraordinary female teachers of Buddhism in Tibet exists, Simmer-Brown notes that these were "rare exceptions in a tradition dominated by an androcentric and patriarchal monastic structure and system of selection of reincarnated lamas." 1 2 1 Yet, she stresses that the most significant teachings of Buddhism don"t reflect androcentricity, but rather reinforce women"s potential for wisdom and ability to attain enlightenment. Because of the patriarchy into which Tibetan Tantric Buddhism was born, and continued to thrive, the presence of the powerful dakini within this tradition suggests that this system of religion is complex and 1 1 9 Judith Simmer-Brown, Dakini's Warm Breath: The Feminine Principle in Tibetan Buddhism (Boston, MA: Shambala Publications, Inc., 2001.), 21 1 2 0 Simmer-Brown, 34 1 2 1 Simmer-Brown, 34


62 employs gender in unusual waysways that some scholars and practitioners would call feminist or gender egalitarian. Given this history, the dakini"s position within Tantric Buddhism is double-edged. Simmer-Brown explains that Western feminist spiritualities, especially those emerging out of the sixties and seventies, have naturally turned toward Tibet (and India) due to the its history of valorizing the feminine and religious context in which "the ultimate reality is not gendered." 1 2 2 Simmer-Brown states that feminists have generally taken up two distinct positions on the subject of dakinieither as an erotic fantasy of the patriarchal mind or as a type of goddess figure who exists "as a remnant of some prepatriarchal past" that champions women living under androcentric rule. 1 2 3 The dakini!s Inclusion & Existence Feminist Tantric Buddhist scholar-practitioners have chosen the latter of these two positions. They maintain that the dakini breaks down barriers of gender inequality both in metaphysical and lived realities. Shaw claims that feminine buddhas, yoginis, goddesses, and dakinis represent women"s equality and inclusion within the realm of Tantric Buddhist symbolism. "It seemed to me the yoginis who grace the Tantric literaturemay provide 1 2 2 Simmer-Brown, 17 1 2 3 Simmer-Brown, 5


63 evidence of the women of Tantric Buddhismtheir historical existence, spiritual liberation, and religious insights," she writes. 1 2 4 Shaw maintains that the female presence in Buddhist Tantric thought corresponds to an acquisition of power not typically found in patriarchally influenced and created religions, including other forms of Buddhism. Shaw adheres to the notion that female metaphysical existence, historical existence, possibility of liberation, and wisdom within Buddhist Tantra lends the tradition and aura of gender equality and egalitarianism. 1 2 5 Tantric works, she argues, "depict spiritually independent and powerful women who inspired awe and dependence and demanded respect and obeisance." 1 2 6 Similarly, she claims that Tantric texts, "do not seek to legitimize or justify male authority or superiority." 1 2 7 In order to strengthen her position, Shaw relies upon Buddhist tantras and her theory of inclusion within those texts to justify the feminist nature of Vajrayana Buddhism. She acknowledges that most tantras discuss women, but from a masculine perspective. Yet, she deems these texts "gynocentric," because although "women are often the subjects of the discussion, it does not follow that women were the impassive objects of male observation or subjugation." 1 2 8 Instead, she claims that these texts were written from the perspectives of both women and men, since they emerged from "communal 1 2 4 Shaw, Passionate Enlightenment, 3 1 2 5 Shaw, Passionate Enlightenment, 3 1 2 6 Shaw, Passionate Enlightenment, 35 1 2 7 Shaw, Passionate Enlightenment, 35 1 2 8 Shaw, Passionate Enlightenment, 36


64 exploration and practice." 1 2 9 To bolster her argument, Shaw points to Tantric texts such as those written by Laksminkara, "one of the founding mothers of Tantric Buddhism," who ostensibly authored the tantra "Realization of Nonduality," in which she connects female deities with human women. 1 3 0 Laksminkara writes, One must not denigrate women, In whatever social class they are born, For they are Lady Perfection of Wisdom, Embodied in the phenomenal realm. 1 3 1 Shaw claims that tantras such as this affirm femininity and the female, which was apparently "not one of the dualisms Laksminkara wanted to deemphasize or eliminate." Instead, Laksminkara wanted to leave "gender dualism firmly in place and taught the appropriate relationship between the sexes, which is to be enacted concretely as ritual worship of women." 1 3 2 In a tradition devoted to overcoming dualisms, it"s important that this statement emphasizes worshipping femininity, as opposed to abolishing notions of gendered duality. Because this tantra speaks of worshiping or respecting women, Shaw believes this points to a communal understanding of femaleness as divine. This notion of human women as forms of the divine feminine is a key part of Tantric Buddhism. The embodied nature of the dakini reflects the power and enlightenment available to human women, or yoginis, just as it is to the dakini. 1 2 9 Shaw, Passionate Enlightenment, 36 1 3 0 Shaw, Passionate Enlightenment, 38 1 3 1 Shaw, Passionate Enlightenment, 39 1 3 2 Shaw, Passionate Enlightenment, 40


65 The dakini!s Positive Embodiment Shaw, and the scholar-practitioners she is in conversation with, has done important work to recover the valorization of the female in Tantric Buddhism. Yet, the way in which femaleness is defined within Tantric Buddhism still resonates with nurturance, sexuality, and birth"female" characteristics that have been associated with women for millennia and repeatedly used to differentiate women from men within a patriarchal social order. Shaw, however, sees these descriptions as a mark of honor and respect for women. She demonstrates the parallels between women, mothering, and nature through the Cakrasamvara-tantra, which compares women to the earthincluding the description of women as "the metaphorical meaning of earth as a source and foundation," that "generates new life and then supports everything that lives upon it." 1 3 3 She claims that texts such as these "honor" women as "sources of life, energy, and physical and spiritual well-being." 1 3 4 These embodied notions of divinity, Shaw maintains, allow women to see themselves in the divine and thus realize their potential for liberation. Shaw is not the only scholar-practitioner who emphasizes that images of feminine embodiment are marks of respect, honor, and egalitarianism in 1 3 3 Shaw, Passionate Enlightenment, 44 1 3 4 Shaw, Passionate Enlightenment, 44


66 Buddhist Tantra. Simmer-Brown similarly argues that the mind of the dakini "is the expression of the essence of pristine wisdom, the fundamental wakefulness is inherent but undiscovered in all beings. Her female body is vibrant with vitality, uniquely bearing and birthing that pristine wisdom." (emphasis mine) 1 3 5 Simmer-Brown claims that the dakini can exist either as a human woman or in other divine forms. In her human form, "She may appear in humble or ordinary form as a shopkeeper, a wife or sister, or a decrepit and diseased hag." 1 3 6 The dakini thus represents the myriad forms human women can take. According to many scholar-practitioners, the benefit of these various representations is that they allow women to see themselves reflected in the divine. In this sense, Simmer-Brown argues, "Feminine symbols provide a paradigm for the objectified female, and women may subjectively experience their own gendered bodies in this abstracted way." 1 3 7 The female body is no longer an entity described by men nor presented for the consumption of men, but represents the divine in a way that allows women to experience it for themselvesas gendered beings. Shaw concludes that Buddhist Tantric thought is good for women because the divine feminine symbols of power are positive, embodied, and pro-feminine. The symbol of the divine feminine as the dakini represents the equal counterpart to the masculine divine and points towards the Buddhist Tantric belief in equality between human women and men. 1 3 5 Simmer-Brown, 2 1 3 6 Simmer-Brown, 4 1 3 7 Simmer-Brown, 23


67 The dakini as a Necessity One piece of evidence used by scholar-practitioners to support their egalitarian perspective on Tantric Buddhism is the notion of necessity. The dakini is an essential element for the practitioner on the path toward enlightenment. Simmer-Brown claims that dakinis lead to a more intimate experience of meaning on an inner reflective level at the same time that one is exploring the dynamics of the evident world. Symbols bridge these two worlds and as such awaken individual experience into realization and action." 1 3 8 Simmer-Brown asserts that symbols do not merely reflect the world in which we live, they are not "mirrors of the self or of a socially constructed reality; rather they are windows to realms beyond thought or meaning." 1 3 9 T hus, according to Simmer-Brown, the dakini"s ability to transcend the reality of dualism and the gender dichotomy exemplifies the feminist nature of the figure herself. In this conception, the dakini is not tied to either pole of the sacred-mudane division, but inhabits both realms, freely moves between them, and acts a portal through which practitioners can also experience this transcendence. Shaw also points to the necessity of women within the tradition as part of her justification for the egalitarian nature of Buddhist Tantra. "Having a 1 3 8 Simmer-Brown, 25 1 3 9 Simmer-Brown, 26


68 divine counterpart is essential for Tantric practice, so this metaphysical position effectively kept the doors of Tantra open to women." (emphasis mine) 1 4 0 The feminine principle is a key component of the practitioner"s path toward enlightenment. Thus, because they are necessary, women are effectively welcomed into the traditionthis quote does not state that women are welcome because they are considered equally adept or the have the same spiritual capability as men. Simmer-Brown asserts that because the dakini is essential the practitionerpresumably maleneeds her divine representation. Shaw draws on the Pearl Rosary a Tibetan Cakrasamvara commentary from the eleventh century. "According to the Pearl Rosary a yogini possesses the spiritual qualities herself and thus can offer spiritual sustenanceA man"s attainment of enlightened qualities is dependent upon his association with a female companion who possesses them." 1 4 1 This appears to be a general view held by most Tantric Buddhistsenlightenment cannot be attained without a dakini or female consort. Shaw claims that women do, in fact, "possess spiritual qualities," but also restates that the association with a female is a necessity for male practitioners" enlightenment. Critique 1 4 0 Shaw, Passionate Enlightenment, 42 1 4 1 Shaw, Passionate Enlightenment, 45


69 Scholar-practitioners claim that the importance of the dakini gives women a uniquely egalitarian role within Tantric Buddhism. However, the images above do not seem to grant women participation or power equal to that of men within the Tantric Buddhist tradition. Buddhist teacher and translator Keith Dowman explains the position of the feminine; he asserts that within the Vajrayana tradition, "woman is the Dakini and is to be worshipped as such." 1 4 2 Worship may seem to grant women a special type of respect, but it also places them in a dualistic system in which men and women are oppositionally different. Regardless of non-dual unity when male and female come together sexually, a hierarchy is presented in which women"s difference is firstly biological, and casts women in the light of the passively receptive other. In this case, the definition of "woman" fundamentally derives from anatomy. Dowman claims that women and the divine feminine are representative of emptiness, yet "emptiness is not separate from form, nor form from emptiness." 1 4 3 Because they are biologically oppositional, the masculine form and feminine emptiness must join in an "inseparable union," which is ultimate reality. The concept of union is not necessarily problematic. Tantric Buddhists claim that non-duality is ideal, as it mirrors the unity of true reality. SimmerBrown claims that gendered symbols represent the "world of duality," which is painful and alienating because dualism does not express the truth of unity. 1 4 2 Keith Dowman, Sky Dancer: The Secret Life and Songs of the Lady Yeshe Tsogyel (Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 1996.), 253 1 4 3 Dowman, 253


70 She says of unity, "Properly understood, it can be seen as a wisdom display in which all the enlightened qualities are present, symbolized by the feminine and masculine joined in ecstatic union." 1 4 4 Thus, unity represents both an ideal gender order and a perfected relationship of dualities existing within the mind. Yet, I believe the notion that woman and feminine are inherent principles that refer both to the mind and embodied entities illustrates the essentialist manner within which the categories of men and women, masculine and feminine, are understood in Tantric Buddhism. Dowman"s interpretation of the feminine principle demonstrates the essentialist leanings of the tradition. He argues, "According to the metaphysical systems that frame the psychological insights of numerous ancient cultures, the physiological-sexual and psychological nature of a woman is receptivity. The quality of receptivity, !an enveloping openness," is evident in Tantric symbols of the goddess: the lake, the well, the empty vase, and most graphically and ubiquitously, the yoni (vagina)." 1 4 5 To conflate the concept of the "feminine" with particular aspects of female anatomy, such as the vagina, is representative of the underlying current of essentialism within Tantric Buddhism. I argue that the conception of the vagina as a vessel or receptacle, seen as the essence of womanhood, both limits and essentializes female-bodied individuals, or on a metaphysical level, female divine beings. The type of embodiment Dowman speaks of, which many feminist scholars 1 4 4 Simmer-Brown, xx 1 4 5 Dowman, 253


71 do not discuss, contradicts this statement by Judith Simmer-Brown: "When we identify too fully with our gender, it may be impossible to discover the transformative effect of symbols." 1 4 6 The transformation spoken of by Dowman involves the indulgence in the patriarchally sanctioned forms of embodiment for both men and womenhe notes a prescription for identifying very fully with one"s gender, which he conflates with biological sex. Another potential problem with this notion of essentialism is that it also situates women"s lives and bodies around the male principlethe masculine as the creative actor employing emptiness, or receptivity, for his own means. Gyatso states "the dakini appears for the practitioner at key junctures in his course of development, when he most needs her." 1 4 7 Thus, the dakini is a tool for the practitioner, a device centered on the practitioner"s religious endeavors. Religion scholar Natalie D. Gummer agrees that the feminine or female is primarily "construed as the symbolic !other" of the male," which serves a "potent function in Buddhist literature and practice." 1 4 8 While the Vajrayana tradition valorizes women more than any other form of Buddhism, Gummer claims that the texts illustrating these notions were written by and for male practitioners. "The texts of tantric Buddhism indicate that the glorification of the female most often presumes the perspective of the male 1 4 6 Simmer-Brown, 29 1 4 7 Gyatso, 243 1 4 8 Natalie D. Gummer, Women Encyclopedia of Buddhism Ed. Robert E. Buswell, Jr. (New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Company, 2004.), 901


72 practitioner and functions for his benefit." 1 4 9 Not only do these views contradict the arguments of previously mentioned scholar-practitioners, but also specifically challenge Shaw"s reinterpretation of history. She believes that the "gynocentrism" of the tantras can be understood to reflect the lived experiences of women in the Tibetan Buddhist Tantric tradition. Yet Gummer interprets these texts in a different manner; "For instance, in the Vajrayana vows, the practitioner is exhorted not to disparage women; such an injunction indicates not only that women were likely disparaged, but also that the vows assume a male audience." 1 5 0 Reiko Ohnuma echoes Gummer"s critique, stating, Female gender is indeed valorized in tantric literature, but perhaps this valorization is largely for the benefit of men. One could argue, in fact, that the constant attention paid to women merely demonstrates that the vast majority of tantric texts assume the perspective of a male subject." 1 5 1 She also notes that Tantric biographies include women, but are "overwhelmingly about men," and many of the females in these biographies are ahistorical, "ethereal dakinis encountered in dreams and visions." 1 5 2 Another interpretation of the valorization of female bodies and divinities proves equally problematic. Some scholars, such as Gummer and Ohnuma, argue that the glorification of the dakini within the Buddhist Tantric tradition could actually reflect the subversive nature of the tradition. As mentioned 1 4 9 Gummer, 901 1 5 0 Gummer, 901 1 5 1 Ohnuma, 306 1 5 2 Ohnuma, 306


73 earlier, the Vajrayana tradition was born out of reform, subverting the method of the Mahayana tradition in order to reach liberation more quickly by immersing oneself in desire. Ohnuma asks that we also consider the "larger context for tantric Buddhism"s use of transgressive sacrality" when looking at the valorization of the feminine. She notes, "One of the basic principles of higher tantric practice is to overcome all dualistic thinking through the intentional violation of societal taboos and the breaking of social conventions." 1 5 3 Thus, the valorization of women may retain such a symbolic power because this in fact overturns the normthe notion that women are inferior to men or do not warrant valorization. Ohnuma claims that women in the Buddhist Tantric tradition may "function more as a symbolic resource for men than as independent agents and subjects." 1 5 4 Gummer also presents the possibility that "the valorization of the female may gain much of its potential symbolic power precisely from its transgression of historical realities." 1 5 5 Thus, the valorization of the dakini may have become a symbolic norm, situated in opposition to the lived experiences of women. Others, such as Shaw, disagree with these views of power and hierarchy in relationship to the dakini. Shaw calls attention to some valid concerns regarding the Western study of Tantric Buddhism. In an article 1 5 3 Ohnuma 306 1 5 4 Ohnuma, 306 1 5 5 Gummer, 901


74 titled "Is Vajrayogini 1 5 6 a Feminist? A Tantric Buddhist Case Study," Shaw notes, "The prevailing Western view has been that the women of Tantric Buddhism were dominated, marginalized, and exploited by their male cohorts." 1 5 7 She claims that Westerns scholars have drawn these conclusions within the androcentric structure of their methodology; that they interpret Tantric Buddhism through the lens of the West and the cultural norms associated with it, including those of gender and hierarchy. She points to the colonialist perspective coming out of the West that exoticizes and demonizes practices that allow women power or access to the divine. She claims that previous Western scholars" notion of yoginis and dakinis as mere devices for the liberation of men does not accurately represent the true nature of Tantric Buddhism. She notes that these interpretations arise out of fear or unfamiliarity with the differing types of dualisms in Eastern traditions, particularly Buddhist Tantra. "These women, who are artists, scholars, and performers of ritual dance and worship, presented an unfamiliar and apparently disquieting sight to the colonial gaze." 1 5 8 Because Westerners were disturbed by the representation and actions of Buddhist women, they labeled them "sluts" and "harlots," and described them as "lewd" and "depraved and 1 5 6 Vajrayogini is considered the most revered wisdom dakini within the Tibetan Tantric Buddhist tradition. 1 5 7 Shaw, Passionate Enlightenment, 167 1 5 8 Shaw, Passionate Enlightenment, 8


75 debauched." 1 5 9 Shaw"s critique insists that Western interpretations of the dakini place these perspectives in the context of post-colonial relationships, as well as a gendered hierarchy. Shaw"s criticisms are warranted and significant for the study of religion. I do not attempt to deny the colonialist and Orientalist influence on some factions of Western scholarship on Buddhism, nor do I intend to argue that women are passive objects within the religious sphere of Buddhist Tantra. I agree that not all social constructs are the same or that it is possible to universalize in an extreme waythese configured positions do shift and change. Yet, I don"t fully agree with Shaw"s statement, "Dominance, exploitation, and power are highly nuanced cultural constructs that rarely correspond directly to gender categories" (emphasis mine) 1 6 0 In fact, I believe that social constructs of power often correspond to gender ( along with other intersecting categories, such as class and race)in a great variety of ways depending on time, place, culture, political and economic situation, etc.and that the prevalence of these gendered correspondences is supported by the vastness of scholarship on gender and gendered relations with regard to power and hierarchy in a range of cultures, religions, and institutions. Keeping in mind that it is possible that Indian or Tibetan Buddhists "do not share the prevalent Western dualisms of nature and culture, matter and 1 5 9 Shaw, Passionate Enlightenment, 8 1 6 0 Shaw, Passionate Enlightenment, 10


76 spirit, and humanity and divinity. The association of women with !nature," !matter," and !humanity"particularly as devalued halves of these dualities." 1 6 1 Yet, when appropriated by Western feminist scholars and practitioners, the question arises as to the validity of the claim that using Buddhist divine feminine figures is helpful for the struggle toward women"s equality. As mentioned earlier, Shaw states that the Buddhist worldview is different from a typically Western worldview, "but includes a profound respect and veneration for the magical potencies and divine powers inherent in womanhood." 1 6 2 The issue here is with the notion of "womanhood" and how this concept is employed within the realm of Western appropriation of Buddhist Tantra. Shaw argues, "Tantric theory advances an ideal of cooperative, mutually liberative relationships between women and men." 1 6 3 Yet, I am not satisfied with statement. Shaw"s argument rests on the notion that "other cultures have very different understandings of gender, power, status, and religious advancement. There is no cross-cultural uniformity of gender relations that allows one to speak in global, ahistorical, universalizing terms without reference to specific cultural constructions of status and power." 1 6 4 It is also based on the assumption that women within Tantric Buddhism did and do wield power in some way that does not rely upon a hierarchy and is ultimately egalitarian, and thus a liberating influence for people who claim this tradition 1 6 1 Shaw, Passionate Enlightenment, 9 1 6 2 Shaw, Passionate Enlightenment, 8 1 6 3 Shaw, Passionate Enlightenment, 4 1 6 4 Shaw, Passionate Enlightenment, 10


77 today. This makes the question even more complicated: is it possible for Western feminists to appropriate part of the Buddhist Tantra tradition, specifically the valorization of feminine divine figures, to further a feminist agendaone based in Western conceptions of gender and hierarchy?


78 Conclusion: What!s Wrong with the Goddess? The Jewish Renewal movement and the Western interpretation of Tibetan Tantric Buddhism claim to have discovered a solution to the ubiquitous and oppressive patriarchal influence found in their respective religions. To counteract


79 the systematic patriarchy from which their religious institutions both developed and continue to thrive, these practitioners offer models of spiritual feminism packaged as the valorization or revalorization of a divine feminine figure found within those same traditions. In their own terms, these movements challenge androcentric tradition, and thus society, by providing alternative spiritual icons that are more sensitive to, and better suited for, the needs of women. The Jewish Renewal movement delves into Judaism"s mystical past to recover the Kabbalistic divine feminine Shekhinah. The movement positions the Shekhinah as a substitute for and equivalent of the typically masculine conception of the Jewish God. The movement employs the Shekhinah as both a metaphorical device and an embodied female figure, described as stereotypically female and associated with those feminine characteristics. In accordance with the movement"s endorsement of the Kabbalistic conception, the Shekhinah is depicted as the sexual counterpart to the masculine aspect of the godhead, Tif"eret. As such, the Shekhinah is essential for the reparation of the world, which transpires through the (sexual) union between the divine male and female. Like the appropriation of the Shekhinah, Western feminist interpretations of the Buddhist Tantric tradition also prescribe a divine feminine figure, the dakini. These scholar-practitioners situate the dakini as the signifier of the egalitarian nature of the Tantric Buddhist tradition, and also as a redemptive symbol for contemporary female practitioners. As a multiplex feminine divinity, she assumes a human, metaphorical, transcendental, and philosophical form.


80 These articulations position the dakini as half of the dualistic system that informs mundane understandings of reality, in which she is considered equal to the other half of this dualityher masculine counterpart. Similarly to the role of the Shekhinah, the dakini is also a necessary element for divine (sexual) union with her masculine counterpart, which results in enlightenment. Some Issues for Feminists The Jewish Renewal movement and the Western interpretation of Tibetan Tantric Buddhism are feminist movements in that they both draw on feminist ideologies to reform their patriarchal religious traditions. They rightly point toward the serious problem of patriarchy and attempt to overcome this structure through the implementation and valorization of the divine feminine. However, feminists may (and should) be troubled by the strategies these two movements employ to achieve their goal of eliminating patriarchy from their particular traditions. In noting that it is incredibly tempting to accept these feminine divine figures in order rectify the injustices inflicted upon women, Eller argues that, "it is dangerous not to refuse it. The practical effect of clinging to a single concept of femalenesswhatever its contentis that it becomes not an ideal type that you naturally express, but one that you must live up to, whether or not it fits with your interests and inclinations." 1 6 5 The essentialization of the feminine does not 1 6 5 Eller, Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory, 67-68


81 necessarily correspond with the lives of women, nor does it lend them the freedom these movements seek to gain. Although these figures afford women powerful positions within religious institutions, "their power does not undermine or seriously challenge an overall system of male dominance." 1 6 6 Rather than implementing religious reforms that are beneficial for women, I assert that the Jewish Renewal movement and the Western interpretation of Tantric Buddhism ultimately contribute to the power that further binds women to the patriarchal social order. Instead of overthrowing the male-dominated structure, both trends reinforce patriarchally instituted gender norms, and thus the hierarchy of gender that they claim to separate themselves from. These movements bolster the patriarchal norms through the creation of a "naturally" informed archetypal femalesustained through implications of divinity, the reinforcement of ideas that position women as the sexually necessary and oppositional "other," and the consequent legitimization of a mundane reality that is fundamentally dualistic. In doing so, they reify the oppressive system that originally sparked their creation. Archetypes of Essentialism I argue that the variety of ways in which the Shekhinah has been described by Kabbalists and the dakini by Buddhist Tantric texts in the past, and 1 6 6 Eller, Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory, 181


82 the contemporary movements" parallel depictions of these figures compromise the integrity of the movements" ostensibly feminist endeavors. The valorization, or supposed revalorization, of the characteristics used to describe both the Shekhinah and dakini does more to harm than to help the feminist cause. Limiting the conception of the "feminine" to qualities associated with patriarchally defined stereotypes is not liberatingneither for female practitioners nor for the notion of the divine feminine in the cosmos. The creation of an archetype, especially when infused with a notion of the transcendent, inherently places limitations on the involved individuals themselves. The validation of a figure that supposedly expresses the "essential" qualities of femaleness and femininity can lead to reification of the same stereotypes that are supposedly being fought against within both movements. Eller notes that "something important may be lost in consenting to one"s own representation, to one"s own reduction to an image on a piece of canvas or in stonea problem that extends to the representation of deities." 1 6 7 Part of what can be lost by consenting to the representation of the feminine by the Shekhinah and the dakini is individuality and autonomy. The female subject inherently loses her subjectivitythe agency and power derived from personal identitythrough the essentialization of the female body, identity, principle, or idea. In both traditions, the feminine personal identity is no longer personal. It is instead created for her, and this model is understood as true and natural, corresponding to a divine feminine that expresses this same 1 6 7 Eller, Divine Objectification, 30-31


83 type of feminine identity. The identity religiously prescribed for women outlines the "correct" way of performing femininity while obscuring the androcentric power that originally created it from essentialized notions of womanhood based in biological determinism. Reinforcing these patriarchally normative models of femininity simply bolsters the male-dominated system itself. The Jewish Renewal movement and the Western interpretation of Tantric Buddhism have rightly pointed out the gender imbalances of power and authority within their traditions, yet their method of action does not overthrow, nor truly challenge, the patriarchy. The Divine Feminine as Necessary The identities of both the Shekhinah and the dakini rely heavily on their sexuality, which is supposedly illustrative of both their autonomy, as acknowledged sexual beings, and their necessity as heteronormative sexual devices. Within the patriarchy, masculinity is considered the normman is the subject and woman is the "Other," lacking subjectivity. The movements" two divine figures are explicitly female and, as Simone De Beauvoir also notes, "she is the Other in a totality of which the two components are necessary to one another" 1 6 8 The two divine feminine figures are necessary not only to combat the patriarchal power sustained by their respective masculine counterparts, but, as 1 6 8 Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1952), xxv


84 de Beauvoir notes, are also essential for upholding the identities of their masculine counterparts as distinct from their own. As signifiers of the "Other," the Shekhinah and dakini symbolize that which is not masculine. Because the masculine must be defined against that which it is not, the feminine is necessary. This theory is illustrated within both movements" claims of divine feminine necessity. Both movements require sexual union between masculine and feminine divinities. According to the Jewish Renewal movement, the Shekhinah must sexually unite with the divine masculine Tif"eret for the world to become whole, for the oppositional states of mundane reality to come together in a realization of divine unity. Similarly, the dakini assumes the position of the imperative, nonmasculine vehicle for the attainment of enlightenment. As the "Other," the dakini is essential for the normative figure, the masculine divine or male practitioner, in order to realize the unity of seemingly dual existence. Man, the character in a position of authority and the author of feminine subjectivity, automatically renders women objects to be described and experienced, tools to be employed for the goal of an enlightened state or reparation of the world. On the question of "is the goddess a feminist?" Miranda Shaw states "unambiguously in the affirmative." 1 6 9 Yet, I don"t agree that the simple need for the non-masculinist "Other" proves feminist. In fact, this understanding of necessity centers both movements around 1 6 9 Miranda Shaw, Is Vajrayogini a Feminist? A Tantric Buddhist Case Study Is the Goddess a Feminist?: The Politics of South Asian Goddesses Ed. Alf Hiltebeitel and Kathleen M. Erndl. (New York, NY: New York University Press, 2000), 170


85 the masculine idea, yet again reinforcing the patriarchal notion of man as the paradigm of humanity, and in this case, divinity. This also furthers the patriarchal essentialist agenda by excluding those female-bodied practitioners who may not express heteronormative sexual preferences or gender identities. As Eller mentions, not all female-bodied individuals fit neatly into dualistic stereotyped categories. For example, some Jewish Renewal practitioners may not adhere to a heterosexual identitythe movement is explicitly open to LGBTQ members, as well as heteronormative feminists. 1 7 0 Yet, the notion of the Shekhinah as a bride or sexual counterpart to the masculine aspect of God is central to the identity of the figure, yet simultaneously alienates sexual identities and preferences outside of heterosexuality. This argument also applies to the dakini figure and nonheteronormative Tantric Buddhist practitioners. While these religious figures aim to uphold a feminist agenda by attacking androcentric institutions that oppress women, they ultimately undermine their own feminist cause by excluding other feminists from their endeavors based on non-heteronormative sexual or gender identities/preferences. Problem of Dualism 1 7 0 Aleph, n.p.


86 Both the Jewish Renewal movement and the Western interpretation of Tantric Buddhism bring to the forefront the phenomenon of duality. However, they both cast this system in a feminist and pro-female lightthey claim that the two dualistic categories of male and female must come together in an equally balanced sexual union that paves the way for the truth of unity, which transcends gender. Yet these movements" attempt to overcome duality through the use of dual categorizations, of both practitioners and divine figures, is ultimately paradoxical. Again, de Beauvoir explains the patriarchal structure, which promotes dualistic thinking and categorization. "Thus humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him." 1 7 1 This perceived duality instates a hierarchy in which onethe masculinehas power over and is defined against the otherthe feminine. Jewish and Buddhist feminist Rita Gross claims, "When sameness is not desired, possible, or allowed, hierarchal dualism is the only remaining solution." 1 7 2 I argue that the construction and reification of duality is part of the patriarchal method for retaining power. Jewish feminist Drorah Setel notes, "One thread of contemporary feminist theory has been deeply critical of separative thought in the form of oppositional dualism." 1 7 3 If feminists understand the ways in which women have been socially constructed as second-class citizens, through the social conference of a "feminine identity" with "female" characteristics, and recognize this as part of the manipulation by the patriarchy to oppress the female "Other," then it is obvious 1 7 1 de Beauvoir, xxii 1 7 2 Setel, 128 1 7 3 Setel, 113


87 that using those same notions of femininity simply strengthens the patriarchal system. Eller argues, "It is hard to believe that staying within a patriarchal culture"s lexicon of femininity can provide a hardy alternative to the present order." 1 7 4 We cannot continually use the same notions of femininity placed upon women by the patriarchy to concurrently undermine this male-dominated system. Thus, the appropriation of the Shekhinah as the divine feminine, even when considered equal to the masculine divine, reinforces the systematic patriarchal othering and essentializing of women. Jewish feminist Perle Besserman warns, "Let"s not cling to a !feminine path" that identifies women with nature, nurture, and domesticity in an attempt to turn our !inferior" status to our advantage." 1 7 5 Women do not need to recycle the conceptions of femininity fed to us by patriarchy, which ultimately bolster the system itself. Feminism & The Future One of the most dangerous aspects of these endeavors is the fact that both movements consider themselves feminist. The practitioners and scholars who defend these positions claim do to so in the name of feminism, meanwhile reinforcing a reality that ventures to eliminate it. Therefore, these movements actually present the patriarchy as a pro-feminine and equalitarian arrangement, 1 7 4 Eller, Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory, 65 1 7 5 Perle Besserman, A New Kabbalah for Women (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 23


88 while in reality this situation is merely an example of the way in which patriarchal influence has secured feminine support while simultaneously undermining female-identified individuals. The way in which we choose to portray feminism and the actions we deem feminist will inevitably inform the future actions and ideologies of both religious groups and feminists. As Cynthia Eller reminds us in her discussion on the application of the goddess within feminist spiritualist movements, "Simply put, it is my feminist movement too, and when I see it going down a road which, however inviting, looks like the wrong way to me, I feel an obligation to speak up." 1 7 6 Thus, feminists must speak out and critique the actions of others who assume the same political stance, yet whose movements don"t necessarily further that collective project. Although my criticism is harsh, I must acknowledge that my perspective is theoretical and examines these religious phenomena through the interpretation of feminism as a tool for deconstructing the patriarchal system. In my work, the contemporary religious movements I have researched represent one form that the patriarchal institution assumesthe basis for my research is founded on this notion. This thesis may look very different if I were coming from a particularly contrasting perspective, framework for interpretation, or methodology. For instance, if this were an ethnographic work, my conclusions may have been significantly different because I would have taken a more individual-based approach and explored the ways in which practitioners personally understand these divine feminine figures. 1 7 6 Eller, Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory, 7


89 If I understood feminism in the same way spiritual feminists do in the Jewish Renewal movement and the Western interpretation of Tantric Buddhism, this thesis may center on the goddess figure as a positive image for women. I may have argued that the association of women with stereotypically defined characteristics merely reflects the natural and transcendent state of reality, and that men and women are biologically and sexually different, and thus our gender identities are inherently based on some essence associated with anatomical difference. However, this argument has already been stated in a million different ways, both by patriarchal adherents and feminists alike, yet it does not contribute to what I see as a truly feminist agenda. My definition of feminism does not support the use of difference to lend some power and others powerless, as this dualistic categorization of difference creates a hierarchy. The brand of femininity that I ascribe to upholds the idea that differenceswhether physical, mental, religious, political, economic, cultural, etc.are a means of understanding and recognizing the humanity that we all share. It is truly important to analyze and critique the actions of all people working toward the goals of feminism. All feminists have a stake in any endeavor labeled as such. The examples I have researched and presented do not withstand intense scrutiny, and therefore I must be openly skeptical about the techniques employed for instituting feminism within those respective traditions. The question now is how to achieve this goal, the feminist project of eliminating patriarchy from all social institutions, including religion. My answer is I don"t know. If I had no hope for the future of feminism, I


90 would not have written this thesis. It is now up to other feminists to learn from one another, and I hope that others can draw on my arguments, analyze, and critique them in order to further the feminist cause through the abolition of the patriarchy and the construction a truly egalitarian and equalitarian society in its place.


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