Jewish Feminism: a Chassidic Vision

Rebbe Schneur Zalman of Liadi set a milestone for the development of authentic Jewish feminism by predicting the rise of female consciousness and the transformation of woman from a passive receiver to an active figure of influence.

By Naama and Nir Menussi

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Few people are aware of the fact that Rebbe Schneur Zalman of Liadi set a significant landmark in the development of authentic Jewish feminism. Based on the Kabbalistic teachings of the Arizal who preceded him, Rebbe Schneur Zalman presented a magnificent vision of the future status of the Jewish woman, and of femininity in general. His Torah-derived version of the feminist revolution aims at nurturing Jewish femininity in a way that does not dissolve the institutions of marriage and family, but rather grows out of them. It may be no coincidence that Rebbe Schneur Zalman lived in exactly the same period as the first feminist in England: “God made one in contrast to the other” (Ecclesiastes 7:14).

Two Blessings

Every Jewish wedding ceremony is completed by the officiators blessing the newlyweds with seven blessings. The final two blessings are as follows:

Grant eternal joy to these loving companions, as you did your creations in the Garden of Eden. Blessed are You, Hashem, who rejoices groom and bride.

שמח תשמח רעים האהובים, כשמחך יצירך בגן עדן מקדם. ברוך אתה ה’, משמח חתן וכלה.
Blessed are You, Hashem our God, sovereign of the universe, who created joy and gladness, groom and bride, mirth, song, delight and rejoicing, love and harmony, peace and companionship. Quickly, Hashem our God, may there be heard in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem the voice of joy and voice of gladness, voice of groom and voice of bride, the jubilant voices of those joined in marriage under the bridal canopy, and of young people feasting and singing. Blessed are You, Hashem, who rejoices groom with bride. ברוך אתה ה’ אלהינו מלך העולם, אשר ברא ששון ושמחה, חתן וכלה, גילה, רינה, דיצה וחדווה, אהבה ואחווה, שלום ורעות, מהרה ה’ אלקינו ישמע בערי יהודה ובחוצות ירושלים, קול ששון וקול שמחה, קול חתן וקול כלה, קול מצהלות חתנים מחופתם, ונערים ממשתה נגינתם. ברוך אתה ה’, משמח חתן עם הכלה.

Rebbe Schneur Zalman’s vision of Jewish femininity arises out of a seemingly simple question regarding these two blessings: Why does the sixth blessing conclude with the words “who rejoices groom and bride,” while the seventh blessing concludes with “who rejoices groom with bride”?

In response to this question, Rebbe Schneur Zalman explains that the sixth blessing—which includes the phrase, “As You rejoiced Your creation in the Garden of Eden”—deals with the past. In the past, as well as in (Rebbe Schneur Zalman’s) present, the general order was such that the man was the first to receive heavenly abundance, which he then shared with his wife. Under these circumstances, a woman does not receive spiritual sustenance directly from above, but depends entirely on her husband, looking to him to receive her share of Divine influx. This dynamic is expressed in the phrase, “who rejoices groom and bride” which alludes to the fact that abundance (in this case joy) flows first to the man and then to the woman. Indeed, in Kabbalah the word “and” is depicted by the letter vav (ו), which alludes to the male figure who sustains the female with abundance.

Ladies First

Yet, continues Rebbe Schneur Zalman to explain, this model of male-female relationships is not everlasting. By virtue of the couple’s mutual devotion, the woman (together with femininity in general, the female aspect of reality as a whole) grows in spiritual stature until she becomes her husband’s equal. She then attains the ability to receive spiritual abundance of her own, without the husband acting as intermediary. In fact, the journey she makes imbues the light she attains with a unique quality that the male light lacks: it contains the secret of growth and striving for perfection, of longing, of the Divine truth that sprouts up from below rather than that which rains down from above. While the male light is constant and has never been in contact with darkness, the female light shines out of the darkness and transforms it. The final state of equality between masculinity and femininity therefore carries an advantage for the woman as she connects the man to a whole facet of Divinity that he has no direct access to.

It is to this future reality—into which we are advancing from day to day—that the seventh marriage blessing is referring. This blessing deals with the future rather than the past: “May there be heard in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem…” Rebbe Schneur Zalman interprets that “who rejoices groom with bride,” describes a state in which the Divine blessing flows first of all to the woman, and then through her (“with” in the sense of via) issues forth to her husband. In this era, female consciousness will no longer stand at the receiving end, “below” male consciousness, but will actually become an active influence situated “above” it. This model is hinted at by the verse, “A woman of valor is the crown of her husband.” There is a level of female consciousness that serves as spiritual crown to the male, infusing him with Divine light that is currently beyond his scope. This marks a state of genuine equality between the couple, with each of them giving to and receiving from the other in a never-ending cycle of mutual love.

This messianic vision, explains Rebbe Schneur Zalman, will be the realization of the verse, “For God has created something new on the earth: female encircles man.” The literal meaning of this verse is that the Jewish People, likened to a woman, will eventually return to God out of love; instead of God courting her, as it were, she will seek Him out (the Hebrew word for encircle, tesovev, also means “to woo”). However, according to Rebbe Schneur Zalman’s interpretation, this idea also includes a prophecy that through her constant advance the woman will eventually overtake her husband, who remains static, until she surpasses him. From this new, exalted position she will begin to share her own insights with him and affect him (tesovev also means “to influence”). So, after years of having the last word, the husband will suddenly discover that his wife is waiting for him at the roundabout with a completely new light that will help him grow spiritually, as he has helped her grow until now.

The Bride’s Voice

One of the most prominent concepts in feminist thought is that of a “feminine voice.” Feminism defines itself as a movement to re-sound the voice of woman, silenced, as it were, by generations of an exclusively male culture. Demonstrating prophetic wisdom, Rebbe Schneur Zalman focuses on yet another expression from the seventh blessing: “voice of groom and voice of bride.” Why, he asks, does it not state more simply, “the groom’s and bride’s voices,” rather than explicitly referring to two voices?

He answers that in the era of “groom with bride”, the lost feminine voice with its unique sound will be heard for the first time in its own right. Let us note, however, that the term used is not that of a general “feminine voice,” but rather of “voice of groom and voice of the bride”—i.e., the voices of both man and woman together, and more particularly as a groom and bride who publicly declare their need for each other and their dependence on each other.

When Rebbe Schneur Zalman expressed these ideas he was obviously referring to the future. Meanwhile, the future he perceived has gradually become the present. Many Jewish women today are Torah scholars, teachers and shlichot (emissaries) who are discovering their voice and revealing new aspects in the Torah in their special feminine style. An attentive husband should note that hidden in his wife’s Torah innovations are mysteries higher than he could ever achieve on his own, and just as he can spiritually influence her so can he benefit from her insights.

From Engagement to Marriage

For Rebbe Schneur Zalman, this feminine revolution is an inseparable part of a much more profound transformation that is to take place in our service of God in general.

The classic “groom and bride” model reflects a state of engagement to God, so to speak, when our bond to Him is as yet incomplete. The engagement ceremony between God and the Jewish People took place at Mt. Sinai, when God, “overturned the mountain upon them like a tub”—i.e. compelled us to accept it without fully identifying with it. Under these circumstances, it is explained, we could only contain the Torah’s revealed aspect, while its hidden mysteries remained as “surrounding” lights that rest above and around our consciousness, like a spiritual engagement ring.

But, engagement is only a preliminary step that heralds an imminent marriage. Marriage signifies a complete and satisfying bond with God, in which we unite with Him in fruitful union. During the marital stage of our relationship the secrets of the Torah gradually seep into our consciousness and from “surrounding” lights turn to “contained” lights completely permeate and vitalize our being. This is the “groom with bride” stage of our relationship with God, in which we rise from our status as passive receivers of the Torah to active participants in it, who feel it flowing through their veins and are able to be truly innovative in it.

The realization of this vision is precisely the goal of Chassidut, which translates the mysteries of Kabbalah into the language of the psyche to form a more inward mode of serving God. The festival of Yat Kislev—also referred to as the Chassidic New Year—therefore celebrates simultaneously the rise of inwardness and the elevation of femininity, which for Chassidut are indivisible.

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