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Seeking Sophia, Goddess of Israel

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Friends, how could I possibly describe the last month of my little life?

At the start of January I was a mess of thrill and despair, whirling around with each flip of the moon, terrified of the future and so hungry for it. And this past week has been as quiet and eerie as the dead sea, bleeding into the blue-gray horizon, reflecting everything around it with a ghostly, glassy clarity. And during the in-between I was nothing short of an adventurer, roaming the desert and climbing muddy mountains, getting lost in ancient cities and sinking my toes in the fine sand of new seas. This January I had the extraordinary opportunity to explore Israel, the home of the one god (which one? all of them!), and the land of milk and honey. (Israel is indeed clogged with cows, as well as bio-engineered non-stinging bees, so yeah, it’s not just propaganda.) I can’t really tell you what I learned from spending a fortnight in the holiest country in the world, because I’m sure I don’t know yet, but I have realized one thing. In the place where God was born, I was unwittingly looking just as hard—as always—for the Goddess.

On paper Judaism can be a difficult religion for feminists to grapple with. Not only is there no mother or wife or daughter figure connected to God, as there is in Christianity with Mary, but there’s very strictly no participation of the feminine at all in the divine. There are certainly important female biblical figures, but they are definitely not goddesses. So before my departure I was curious what I would feel in the country who had a woman prime minister as early as 1969, whose land truly is a mother to the Jewish people. Would I feel pinched at the lack of feminine divine around me, or would she be everywhere, in the air and rivers and rocks (so, so many rocks)?

The first morning I spent alone in Jerusalem I wandered through the narrow cobblestone streets, and I was awed and irked by the clash of the three monotheistic powerhouses in the space of a city a third of the size of Central Park. I saw a row of stars and crescents on shop signs, turned the corner to a giant blue Star of David over the gate of a school, and a block west found a wood-carved cross on a tall white stone church. I didn’t notice the lack of a female symbol until I left the Jaffa Gate and wandered up to the Sisters of St. Vincent de Paul, whose pristine monastery was watched over by a life-size statue of Mary inset in the building wall. Something jumped in me. I realized this whole time I had forgotten her totally, I had lost her in the winding streets and airborne tension of Jerusalem. And I thought, is this the true sin of patriarchal religion? That they don’t so much make us reject the feminine as make it so easy to forget her.

But she has not always been forgotten (although we’ve forgotten that, too). Back at the turn of the first millennium, when the biblical texts were being recorded, an interesting footnote appeared. Although she was not a full-fledged goddess, the divine Sophia appeared as a hypostasis of God, which divinity scholar Joan Engelsman describes as a “personification of an aspect of God.” And truly, Sophia is a fascinating figure. In the books of Proverbs and Wisdom, Sophia identifies herself as the “first principle of [God’s] sovereignty,” who is not God’s servant or subordinate but “beside him binding [all] together.” She is a purveyor of sacred wisdom who has the authority to “order all things well,” as well as act as the magnanimous intermediary between an often passive God and his people in need. Even more Sophia is the divine “fixer”, the Jewish Olivia Pope, receiving and responding to prayers on her own. Jungian scholar and anthropologist Erich Neumann even writes that unlike God, Sophia is “no abstract, disinterested knowledge, but a wisdom of loving participation.”

So where did Sophia come from, and where did she go? Some scholars think that she was inspired by the Egyptian cult of Isis to the west and the Mesopotamian cult of Astarte to the east. Others believe she appeared in her own right as an archetype forcing its way out of repression and into social consciousness. What is clear is that the Judaic tradition felt its lack of the feminine and reached out to reclaim her. But of course, this new impulse for reconciliation with divine femininity could not survive in a strictly patriarchal climate, and by the second century Sophia was banished back into repression. Philosopher Philo of Alexandria scolded people for buying into the idea of a goddess, and recorded some of the earliest misogynistic material, writing that femininity is passive, materialistic, malevolent, and overall less valuable than the masculine (which is active, attuned to spirit, and invested in reason of course). So Sophia quietly faded away, and other figures of salvation and love (Christ!) replaced her. But she did make a comeback, although 1500 years later in Christian mysticism. Anyway, another post for another day!

So back to me at the foot of Mary at a monastery in Jerusalem. (Omg I love that sentence). I looked up at the featureless face of the statue and wondered how she felt in this place of supreme maleness, whether she felt out of place or where she truly belonged. I decided then to make my little pilgrimage to her to ask, and the next morning I walked across the entire city, passing by her birthplace and arriving at her tomb at the foot of the Mount of Olives. It was a lackluster building, easily missable, but stepping out of the bright morning light into the tomb was moving. A long, wide staircase brought me deep underground, and above brightly colored lanterns lit my way. Armenian priests bickered in shallow alcoves, and silent nuns prayed over the rosary on each step. The sepulcher itself was again small, muted, and something I passed by twice before I realized that was it. I crawled into the space and there was her picture above an empty stone coffin protected by glass.

Of course, she was not there. Mary’s myth tells us she was assumed with her body attached, but her absence triggered something else in me. I had come to the tomb—the throne—of the divine feminine, buried deep underground, and she was not there. Her picture floated above to remind me who she was, and her empty coffin proved she had once existed, but she was not there. And so, too, is the divine feminine in most of the patriarchal monotheism today. Somewhere, deep in our unconsciousness, her throne waits peacefully although she is not yet able to sit in it. It was the perfect metaphor, and the answer I was looking for. The Feminine is never truly forgotten, only misplaced. Somewhere in the great expanse of the unconscious Sophia is alive, floating, body and soul, and waiting for us to welcome her back as Goddess and wisdom divine.

 

Engelsman, Joan Chamberlain. The Feminine Dimension of the Divine. Chiron Publications, 1987.

Neumann, Erich. The Great Mother: An Analysis of the Archetype. Translated by Ralph Manheim, 2nd ed., Princeton University Press, 1992.

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