My job as a poet these days is to give voice to the Shekhinah, who, in Jewish tradition, is the female, immanent aspect of God, present in human lives and sharing our sufferings.
Conveying divine voices in human language is one of poetry’s most ancient functions. But though I’ve often written to or about God, before I embarked on this project I had never tried to write poems through which divinity would speak.
The Shekhinah isn’t just divinity; the Shekhinah is divinity in the key of she, divinity conceived as female. Like most people I know, I grew up in a world in which everyone, believers and non-believers alike, imagined God as male. In prayer books, Bibles, sermons, and conversations with Jehovah’s Witnesses who occasionally rang our ethnically-Jewish doorbell, God was always “He.” Even atheists referred to God as male: “What evidence do you have that He exists?” they would ask, or, if they were particularly pugnacious, “If God can do anything, can He create a weight that He cannot lift?”
I never thought of God as male, or gendered at all. As someone born male but who from early childhood identified as female, I knew that gender does a painfully poor job of relating bodies and souls. I couldn’t imagine why a divine being who had no body would bother with gender at all.
Even though I didn’t conceive of divinity in terms of gender, I was drawn to the idea of the Shekhinah from the moment I came across it, not as theology, but as an image of female identity independent of a female body. Everyone I knew assumed that gender identity (whether someone considers themselves male or female) was determined by physical sex, an assumption that made it inconceivable for someone like me to exist. But no one questions whether the Shekhinah is female. The most conservative religious authorities and the most trans-skeptical Jewish feminists—people who would never accept my female gender identification—embrace the Shekhinah as “She,” though she is no more physically or socially qualified for that pronoun than I am.
That was the way the Shekhinah first found her way into my poetry: not as a form of divinity but as a closeted code for transgender identity, a way to refer to my disembodied sense of femaleness without blowing my cover as a heterosexual man. One of the poems in my first collection presented the eponymous Shekhinah as an invisible female presence, whose most tangible manifestation was a perfume-scented breeze. In that poem, as in my life at the time, this presence had little power beyond persistence. The world she perfumed had no place for her, and was beyond her ability to change.
Ten years later, when I had realized I could no longer live as a man but hadn’t yet decided whether that meant suicide or gender transition, a much more active and disruptive version of this presence, referred to only as “she,” appeared in a poem called “Following the Script.” “She” had no interest in wafting invisibly through the world, or in perfuming my lifeless life; instead, “she” summons, prods, and pushes the reluctant second-person subject of the poem to embark on the family-shattering process of gender transition “you” keeps trying to avoid. “She” was successful. When I began the poem, I was living as a man; two years later, I was living as myself.
Even in this more potent form, my poetic Shekhinah was a secular figure, not a theological one—a metaphor for my no-longer-willing-to-be-repressed female gender identification rather than a manifestation of divinity. As Eric Murphy Selinger, in his delightful essay on “Shekhinah in America,” points out, Jewish American poets had long treated the Shekhinah in such a secularized way. Selinger traces the practice to Jerome Rothenberg, who included the Shekhinah among the materials from Jewish traditions that he repurposed for mid-twentieth century poetry, and cautioned those who might do the same that “the Shekhinah’s ‘reappearance among us is an event of contemporary poesis, not religion.’” As Selinger explains, other Jewish American poets followed “Rothenberg’s lead in linking the Shekhinah to poesis: the broad Latin term (from the Greek poiein) for the creation and shaping of poems.” He notes that Norman Finkelstein calls her the “mistress of presence and absence, immanence and transcendence”; while the poet Allen Grossman declares that “it is for knowledge of her that the people should look to the Jewish poet and the Jewish poet to his or her own nature.”
I wasn’t aware of this tradition; I absorbed it by osmosis. My modern American poetic upbringing trained me to think of poems as inherently secular, and to think of poesis as a process which, because it secularizes everything included in a poem, automatically turns the Shekhinah into a sign or symbol of something else, of “presence and absence,” or female gender identification—anything but divinity.
Unbeknownst to me, some Jewish American poets—particularly those reimagining Jewish tradition from feminist perspectives—rejected both the Shekhinah’s secularization and the binary cleavage between poesis and religion. In their works, the Shekhinah is not just poetic material; she is a vital, divine female presence who, as we see in Alicia Ostriker’s well-known “A Prayer to the Shekhinah,” counters the spiritually stunting and socially marginalizing effects of identifying God with maleness:
Come be our mother we are your young ones
Come be our bride we are your lover
Come be our dwelling we are your inhabitants
Come be our victory we are your army
Come be our laughter we are your story
Come be our Shekhinah we are your glory
We believe that you live
though you delay we believe you will certainly come….
When the transformation happens as it must
When we remember
When she wakes from her long repose in us
When she wipes the nightmare
of history from her eyes
When she returns from exile
When she utters her voice in the streets
In the opening of the gates
When she crosses the land
Shaking her breasts and hips
With timbrels and with dances.
By treating the Shekhinah and her divine femaleness as a living part of Jewish religious tradition, the designs of this poem go beyond poesis. Its language is meant not just as poetry but as prayer, summoning the Shekhinah to action, and summoning readers to identify themselves with a religious community in which she is recognized as a viable, vital form of divinity. In contrast to the patriarchal tradition that so often treats the female body with suspicion, disdain, and disgust, this poem treats it as a revelation of divine presence; by imagining a Shekhinah who will be as compassionate as a mother and as committed to intimacy as a bride, the poem affirms the spiritual value of women’s lives. As the indefinite article in the title makes clear, the poem is also intended to be exemplary, to show how easy it would be to re-gender patriarchal tradition, to make femaleness the default mode of conceiving divinity and write liturgy strewn with She s rather than He s.
But as radical as this glimpse of Shekhinah-centered worship may seem, in important ways the Shekhinah invoked by this poem reflects rather than disrupts patriarchal tradition. Though the speakers of the poem imagine that in the future the Shekhinah will wield a world- and history-changing power comparable to that of the Biblical God, in the here-and-now of the poem’s invocation, she, like the Shekhinah of tradition, is passive, hidden, locked away in a future the speakers are sure will come but which neither they nor the Shekhinah have managed to bring about. And like the traditional Shekhinah, Ostriker’s Shekhinah is spoken of and to rather than speaking for herself. It is Ostriker and the speakers, not the Shekhinah, who recenter patriarchal tradition and regender its sacred language. The Shekhinah herself remains silent and still, a Sleeping Beauty the speakers of the poem call on but do not awaken.
As this critique suggests, even feminist evocations of the Shekhinah may inadvertently extend the patriarchal assumptions they challenge. That is why, even as some Jewish feminists were working to give the Shekhinah a larger role in Jewish religious and cultural practice, others, like Marcia Falk, were arguing that these efforts were self-defeating, because the Shekhinah is bound to reflect the patriarchal ideas of the tradition in which she emerged:
I cannot help but feel that, far from redeeming women, the image of the Shekhinah has, until now, only supported the male-centered vision. In Jewish tradition, the Shekhinah has never been on equal footing with the mighty Kadosh Barukh Hu, “the Holy-One-Blessed-Be-He,” her creator, her master, her groom, the ultimate reality of which she was only an emanation. And while I like the name itself—Shekhinah, from the Hebrew root meaning “I dwell”—I would like to see in-dwelling, or immanence, portrayed in ways that are not secondary to transcendence. So too I would like to see autonomous female images, not ones that imply the essential otherness of women.
As Falk points out, tradition defines the Shekhinah’s divine femaleness not only in opposition but in subordination to God’s divine maleness. God is in the heavens; the Shekhinah is on earth. God acts; the Shekhinah is passive. God sends the people of Israel into exile; the Shekhinah goes with them. God splits seas, thunders, overthrows and lifts up nations, rules history but is not subject to it; the Shekhinah suffers with the human beings she dwells among. God decrees, instructs, comforts, foretells, talks and talks and talks; the Shekhinah holds her tongue.
Ostriker’s poem pushes against the traditional Shekhinah’s gender-binary limitations not only by making her the center of liturgical attention, but by identifying her in ways that are not gendered at all, as when “we” call her to be “our dwelling,” “our victory,” and so on. However, the Shekhinah’s passivity and silence in the poem show why Falk is skeptical of efforts to use the Shekhinah as an antidote to patriarchy. Unlike the male-identified God we see in Jewish tradition, the Shekhinah in this poem doesn’t make her own choices, express her own views, identify herself in her own terms (she doesn’t even get to say “I am”), or otherwise demonstrate her power and presence—and as a result, she inadvertently reflects and remains constrained by patriarchal ideas about women.
Shekhinah Speaks, my collection-in-progress, comes late to feminist arguments over the Shekhinah—so late that the Shekhinah is no longer a bone of contention, freeing me to embrace her contradictions without taking sides or trying to resolve them. Shekhinah Speaks follows Ostriker’s poem and rabbinic tradition in identifying the Shekhinah in ways that are traditionally gendered female; it follows Ostriker in also identifying her in non-gendered ways as well. But unlike Ostriker’s Shekhinah, who remains silent as she is identified by others, these poems aim to present an “autonomous female” Shekhinah by, among other things, letting the Shekhinah identify herself:
I married you young,
before you were conceived,
waiting inside you like a frozen egg,
building your foundations,
crowning your head….
I stretch out your curtains, strengthen your pegs,
make room inside you for the world
I created you to share. You
are my embryo and I am your womb;
you are my labor pains
and I’m the mother pushing you
to cry, to talk, to stand for something,
to stop being ashamed
of the joy you feel
rising like waters in the days of Noah.
—From Sing Out O Barren One
Though the Shekhinah here embraces roles, such as mother, and qualities, such as unconditional love, that are traditionally gendered female, her femaleness is not defined in opposition or subordination to maleness. Like male versions of divinity, she presents herself as active, articulate, and powerful, as well as in terms, like “frozen egg,” that don’t fit gender categories at all.
Conveying divine voices in human language is one of poetry’s most ancient functions.
Though my reasons are different, like Falk I want the Shekhinah to model what it might mean to be autonomously female. I grew up with the idea that people like me were “women trapped in men’s bodies,” an idea that led me to think of gender transition as the process of tailoring myself to fit binary ideas of what it means to be a woman. When I began to live as myself, I thought that I had to act in conventionally feminine ways to show that my female gender identity was real. But the longer I lived as a woman, the clearer it became that I would never be female in the way the gender binary defines it. I had been born male, socialized as a male, had fathered children, published and taught as a male. The only way I can be female is in an autonomous sense, female in a way that is independent of binary definitions and so can include the aspects of my life that were shaped by or bound up with maleness.
The Shekhinah who speaks in these poems has never been defined by binary gender categories, has never concealed or amputated or denied aspects of herself to fit human ideas of femaleness. Her voice is showing me what it sounds like to embrace, without shame or apology, a female identity untethered to biology and unimaginable in terms of the gender binary.
Of course, the Shekhinah is not a perfect role model. As a divine being, the Shekhinah would never waste a moment worrying about her gender identity or expression, any more than the God we see in the Bible would waste a moment worrying whether this or that behavior, word choice, or tone of voice would be considered masculine. But if the Shekhinah doesn’t care about fitting human ideas of gender, why bother to identify as female?
Gender categories are not very good at defining what humanity and divinity are, but they are powerful means of defining our relationships with one another. Gender, among many other things, is a language of kinship, belonging, connection. It may make theological sense to refer to God as a genderless “It,” but many religious people, including me, would feel alienated if we did. Though contemporary liturgies often address divinity in gender-neutral terms such as “parent,” which don’t have the objectifying impact of “It,” as every poet knows, such words are more abstract than their gendered equivalents. Stripped of the connotations of shared experience, suffering, and longing that freight our mothers and fathers, shes and hes, such terms can’t conjure the same sense of connection with divinity.
The Shekhinah identifies as female not because she is what human beings mean by female, but because presenting herself as female enables her to relate to us with an intimacy that would otherwise be impossible for a disembodied being, an effect we see at the end of Rachel Adler’s “Second Hymn to the Shekhinah”:
I am your daughter, Lady,
And pregnant with you.
The speaker’s Escher-like relationship with the Shekhinah, in which each brings forth the other, is expressed in terms of the female identification they share, which enables them to relate to one another simultaneously as mothers and daughters. That is how the poetics of binary gender work: by associating femaleness (and, of course, maleness) with bodies, physical experiences, and social roles—even when the individuals who we identify as female, like the Shekhinah, don’t completely fit those associations. But the Shekhinah’s divinity transfigures gender, freeing the roles of mother and daughter from time, causality, and biology, so that Adler’s speaker can be born out of the female divinity, the “Lady,” she herself is carrying in her womb.
For most of my life, I relied on the poetics of binary gender to maintain the illusion that, despite identifying as female, I really was the man others took me for. When I began my transition, I turned to those poetics for the opposite purpose: to express my sense of being female through clothing, gestures, and so on. But ironically, the poetics of binary gender told me nothing about how to write poetry as a woman. In an effort to learn to do so, I started writing poems composed solely of language sampled from women’s magazines—language written by, for, and about women.
Shekhinah Speaks has challenged me to learn a different kind of poetics, a poetics of divinity, that is, ways of using language that signify divine voice and presence. I approached learning these poetics the way I approached learning to write as a woman: by composing poems from language sampled from texts traditionally accepted as signifying divinity—in this case, language from God’s monologues in Isaiah, which, unlike many other Biblical examples of divine speech, are also magnificent poems:
For a long time I have kept silent,
I have been quiet and held myself back.
But now, like a woman in childbirth,
I cry out, I gasp and pant.
I will lay waste the mountains and hills
and dry up all their vegetation; I will turn rivers into islands
and dry up the pools.
I will lead the blind by ways they have not known,
along unfamiliar paths I will guide them;
I will turn the darkness into light before them
and make the rough places smooth.
Each poem in Shekhinah Speaks is partly composed of diction like this, diction charged with divine authority. Isaiah’s monologues offer more than evocative nouns and verbs, such as “childbirth,” “pools,” “gasp” and “waste,” and suggestive phrases, like “turn the darkness” and “dry up all.” They also model divine tone, manner, and rhetoric. Isaiah’s God brags, consoles, threatens, promises, and laments, often in the same utterance, a characteristic that is even more prominent in Biblical Hebrew, which is far less punctuated than English translations.
Such rapid-fire shifts in mood and manner are often combined, as they are here, with a torrent of first-person declarations through which God explicitly identifies in multiple, often contradictory ways: as someone who “kept silent” and someone who cries out; as “like a woman in childbirth,” an image of suffering and vulnerability, and as a disembodied force who devastates the landscape, and, in yet another turn, as a tender caretaker who guides those who can’t see.
These shifting self-identifications produce a kind of cognitive overload, telling us too much too fast to make any stable sense of God. This is the most important thing Isaiah has taught me about the poetics of divinity. By implicitly and explicitly identifying God in different ways, so that any glimpse of divinity a given phrase offers is complicated by the phrases that follow, Isaiah shows that God can never be more than momentarily understood in human terms. But even as they show that God doesn’t fit into identity-defining categories, God’s use of these inadequate terms also shows God’s determination to be known, however provisionally, by the human beings God addresses, to be recognized as a living presence in the human world of irrigation and vegetation and childbirth that reveals the divinity it cannot contain.
But Isaiah’s poetics of divinity always emphasize God’s transcendence: though God comes close to human lives (close enough to guide the blind), God never identifies in ways that suggest God understands what human circumstances such as blindness or drought or earthquake feel like to human beings. Isaiah’s God may cry out like a woman in childbirth, but we are never given to think that God shares the pain of labor.
Unlike Isaiah’s God, the Shekhinah identifies herself in ways that show not only her transcendence of human categories but her immanence, her intimate engagement with and understanding of the human “you” she addresses. Immanence is one of the Shekhinah’s defining traits (as Falk notes, her name derives from the Hebrew word “to dwell”), and that trait is traditionally understood as the female counterpart—complementary but also, as Falk says, “secondary”—to the male-identified God’s transcendence. But as we see in Adler’s hymn, the Shekhinah’s immanence isn’t secondary to transcendence; it is a form of transcendence. The Shekhinah is no more bound by human time and space than Isaiah’s God; borne within those she bears, conceiving those who conceive her, she knows humanity inside and out.
The Shekhinah’s binary-defying combination of immanence and transcendence has less in common with Isaiah’s poetics of divinity than with those of Walt Whitman who, in “Song of Myself,” also presents a speaker who demonstrates both his transcendence of human categories and his intimate engagement with them:
I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise,
Regardless of others, ever regardful of others,
Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man,
Stuffed with the stuff that is coarse, and stuffed with the stuff that is fine,
A southerner soon as a northerner, a planter nonchalant and hospitable,
A Yankee bound my own way….ready for trade.
Like Isaiah’s God, Whitman’s speaker demonstrates his transcendence by identifying himself in shifting and often contradictory terms. A speaker who can be “a southerner soon as a northerner” clearly transcends both categories. But unlike those of Isaiah’s God, these self-identifications also show that while he is not only a southerner or a northerner, old or young, maternal or paternal, he identifies with and shares the ways of being these terms name. Even when Whitman’s speaker comes close to transcending human circumstance completely, as when he says, “I pass death with the dying, and birth with the new-washed babe….and am not contained between my hat and boots,” he always includes signs of his immanence, as he does when he reminds us that though he transcends birth and death, he still wears “hat and boots.” Like the Shekhinah’s, the transcendence Whitman’s speaker demonstrates through his shifting self-definitions is inseparable from his immanence: they identify him so closely with the humanity he addresses that at one point he declares that “It is you talking just as much as myself…..I act as the tongue of you.”
Whitman’s speaker demonstrates his combination of transcendence and immanence by identifying himself with and through contradictory human categories, a form of the poetics of divinity that paradoxically affirms the humanity he shares with the “you” he addresses. Though the Shekhinah is divine rather than human, like Whitman’s speaker, she wants us to hear her speaking not only to us but in us, as though she is the tongue of us, identifying us in ways that summon us to become what she, who created us, knows we are meant to be. But no matter how intimate the Shekhinah is with humanity, she is not one of us: she is as different from the humanity to whom she speaks as a womb is from the embryo it surrounds and sustains.
This difference means that the Shekhinah requires a different poetics of divinity than that of Whitman’s speaker. Though she too identifies herself in terms of multiple, conflicting categories, throughout Shekhinah Speaks, she spends much more time identifying herself by demonstrating her understanding of “you,” naming “you” in multiple ways and from multiple perspectives, a barrage of shifting identifications that summon us to recog- nize that we, like her, overflow the terms that seem to define us:
You’re no one’s plaything, not even mine. You
are a vigil I keep, a flock I pasture,
a grape on the vine still bursting with blessing
even at the end of harvest,
and I’m the light
you’re afraid of losing,
the light in which you can see
that you and I are singing,
me through you and you through me,
a new song
about what it means to be human.
Not an indecipherable mess;
not a pot
of meat and feeling,
or a headstone covered with body paint,
or burning garden, or irony sweating. Not
a creature starving for love. Love
I am revealing.
Here and elsewhere, the Shekhinah insists that we can only recognize our kinship with her by expanding our understanding of our own humanity. But for me, it’s easier to identify with the nonhuman Shekhinah than to see myself as part of humanity. That’s the way I grew up, believing that my inability to fit binary gender categories in a world where everyone had to be simply male or female meant I wasn’t human. Perhaps that is why, when I read “Song of Myself,” the speaker’s innumerable self-identifications don’t convince me that I am included in either the “you” he addresses or the vast self he proclaims. Nowadays, I admire more than ever Whitman’s effort to use poetry to hold the United States together by showing his readers that those we see as categorically different are, in fact, integral to our multitude-containing selves. But like many others readers, I am not ready to allow Whitman’s speaker to act as the tongue of me.
When the Shekhinah addresses “you,” she doesn’t claim to identify with each and every kind of person, nor does she to try convince us to do so. She simply ignores the distinctions human beings make between one another. Black people and white people, heteronormative and queer, progressive and conservative, immigrant and native, disabled and able-bodied, believer and atheist—no matter how different we seem to one another, to the Shekhinah, all human beings are comprehended by the same second-person pronoun.
For me, that is the hardest part of the Shekhinah’s poetics of divinity, the part that makes me want to close my ears and run away, and, by unsettling me so profoundly, convinces me of her divinity: her demand that I recognize in myself the humanity she sees, and she summons us to see, as her offspring and her dwelling place. As love she is revealing.
— © Poetry magazine, April 1st, 2020, by Joy Ladin