Kabala scholar to explain God’s female side
In the mystical world of Kabala, the divine romance taking place between the female and male sides of God can be accomplished only with the help of the Jewish people.
This “radical” vision of the Shechina, or feminine side of God, said Dr. Daniel Matt, is prominently featured in the Zohar — meaning radiance or splendor — the Aramaic-language book on which Kabala’s mystical teachings are based
One of the world’s leading authorities on Kabala, Matt will come to Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth to speak about the Shechina and its connection to the kind and compassionate aspects of God on Sunday, June 7.
“The role of the Shechina in Kabala is fascinating,” said Matt in a phone interview with NJJN from his Berkeley, Calif., home. “She is the female half of God standing in contrast to God as our father, our king. She is as our mother, kind and nurturing. There is even the divine romance between the feminine half of God and the masculine half of God, the Holy One blessed be he.”
Matt said he chose the topic because it also honors the 90th birthday on June 5 of his mother, Gustine Matt, a longtime temple member and widow of Rabbi Hershel Matt, a renowned religious leader and author who, during the last years of his life, taught and helped lead High Holy Day services at the temple.
Rabbi Matt previously served at Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen from 1959 to 1970 and at the Jewish Center in Princeton, 1970-75.
Daniel Matt, who attended the former Hillel Academy Day School in Perth Amboy, has gained international fame for his work over the last 18 years translating and annotating the Zohar. The ninth and final volume of the Zohar commentary on the Torah is nearing completion, said Matt. Three other volumes by two other scholars will complete the 12-volume collection, The Zohar: Pritzker Edition, published by Stanford University Press.
Matt, who also served for 20 years as a professor of Jewish mysticism at the Center for Jewish Studies of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, has authored more than 10 other books, including The Essential Kabbalah — which has been translated into seven languages — The Zohar: Annotated and Explained, and God and the Big Bang: Discovering Harmony between Science and Spirituality.
Cleansing of theology
While the Shechina appears in the Talmud, Matt noted that there it simply refers to God’s presence in the world, but is not overtly feminine.
“You never find a statement that the Shechina is married to the Holy One blessed be he,” said Matt. “However, that type of statement is very prominent in the Zohar and is one of its most radical images. But, that divine romance can only happen with the help of the people of Israel. If we enact the mitzvot we stimulate the divine union. You could actually say that every mitzva serves as an aphrodisiac. In a way, the divine is not complete and full unless we lead a holy life.”
Calling the Zohar’s view of the Shechina “a mystical version of the covenant,” he explained everything in Kabala is “simultaneously traditional and very creative.”
“What it is saying is that God needs our help, which is also a radical statement,” said Matt. “Usually God is seen as complete and we need his help, but in Kabala God is not complete without our help.”
The Shechina is also identified with the Sabbath, which is traditionally welcomed as “the Shabbat queen” or “Shabbat bride,” and is often viewed as being married to the Jewish people for the duration of the holiday, an image steeped in Kabala.
The famous prayer L’cha Dodi, recited to welcome Shabbat, means “Come, my beloved,” and was composed by a 16th-century kabbalist in Safed based on the idea of a divine wedding.
“The last verse, with the line, ‘Come in peace, the crown of her husband,’ is really being addressed to the Shechina and welcoming her to the wedding canopy,” said Matt.
Kabala, which developed in the 13th century, grew in prominence largely due to the mystics of Safed in the 16th century. It was widely studied until the Enlightenment of the 19th century, when, Matt said, “Jews became a little embarrassed by practicing mysticism or anything that looked strange or superstitious, so a cleansing of Jewish theology took place.”
However, in the last 10-20 years, Matt said, as interest in spirituality grew in the Western world and a search for the deeper meaning of life has accompanied dissatisfaction with materialism, both Jews and non-Jews have discovered Kabala.
“It’s part of mainstream culture now,” he said. “There are positive and negative aspects to this popularization, but on the positive side people at least know it exists and it’s now being taught in rabbinical seminaries where for a long time it was ignored.”