The Jewish Goddess(es) (Justin Lewis)

From Biblical times until today, Jews have invoked the Divine in feminine terms--both “the Jewish God” and “other goddesses”. This is a selection of texts for study, mostly in chronological order, with a minimum of commentary. As always, comments and questions are welcome by e-mail ( Note: The Tetragrammaton, the four-letter Hebrew name of God, is given in transliteration as YHVH. For a brief discussion of the pronunciation and meaning of this name see

c. 750 BCE, Sinai Desert

An inscription on a piece of pottery, found in 1975/76 at Kuntillet Arjud in the Sinai desert, reads Berakhti et’khem l’YHVH Shomron ul’Asherato. “I have blessed you by YHVH of Samaria and His Asherah.”

(“Shomron” could also be read “shomrenu”, our Guardian; but note II Kings 13:6: “and the Asherah remained standing in Samaria”.)

A similar inscription on pottery from the same site—which scholars think was a resting place, of a religious nature, for travellers following trade routes through the Sinai—says “I bless you by YHVH of Teman and His Asherah.” There may be another reference to YHVH and His Asherah in an inscription on the building wall. And references to YHVH and His Asherah, from around the same time, have also been found in an inscription at Khirbet el-Qom, near Hebron in the Biblical heartland of the Land of Israel.

Scholars disagree as to whether Asherah in these inscriptions, and in several hostile Biblical references, is the Near Eastern goddess Asherah (known in Canaanite texts from Ugarit, Syria, as Athirat, a great mother goddess associated with the sea), or merely a ritual object that had an association with her. According to Biblical references, this would likely be a tree (see e.g. Deuteronomy 16:21)….

c. 586 BCE, Egypt

The Bible includes several hostile references to goddess worship by Israelites. One reference which gives the goddess worshippers a voice is in Jeremiah, chapter 44. The great prophet Jeremiah is among a group of Judeans who have taken refuge in Egypt after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians (586 BCE). He rebukes them dramatically for idolatry. Their reply follows.

Jeremiah 44:15: Then all the men who knew that their wives had burned incense to other gods, with all the women who stood by, a great multitude, and all the people who dwelt in the land of Egypt, in Pathros, answered Jeremiah, saying: 16"As for the word that you have spoken to us in the name of the LORD, we will not listen to you! 17But we will certainly do whatever has gone out of our own mouth, to burn incense to the queen of heaven and pour out drink offerings to her, as we have done, we and our fathers, our kings and our princes, in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem. For then we had plenty of food, were well-off, and saw no trouble. 18But since we stopped burning incense to the queen of heaven and pouring out drink offerings to her, we have lacked everything and have been consumed by the sword and by famine." 19The women also said, "And when we burned incense to the queen of heaven and poured out drink offerings to her, did we make cakes for her, to worship her, and pour out drink offerings to her without our husbands' permission!?"
{New King James translation}

(Note on the Hebrew text: in an interesting example of censorship, the Masoretes who added vowel points to the text around 800 C.E. have made the title of the goddess “,em>m’lekhet hashamayim”, which sounds like “the handiwork of heaven” – a way of saying “remember this is just an idol.” But all translators agree that the pronunciation should be “malkat hashamayim”, the Queen of Heaven.)

Some suggest that these cakes for the Queen of Heaven are direct ancestors of the hot cross buns of today. See

“Queen of Heaven” was adopted in Christianity as a title of Mary, the mother of Jesus. There is an interesting on-line shrine to her under this title at

Both Jeremiah and the worshippers of the Queen of Heaven are presented as sharing a theology of reward and punishment. To them, the destruction of Jerusalem was a punishment for the recent neglect of worship of the Queen of Heaven under the reign of reforming monotheistic kings. To Jeremiah, the destruction was a delayed punishment for the generations of idol worship that came before the monotheistic reforms – not necessarily a convincing argument.

Strikingly, elsewhere in the book of Jeremiah (chapter 31) the prophet creates, in a few poetic lines, an image of the ancestral mother Rachel as an intercessor who draws down God’s compassion for her people – a kind of alternative goddess image which has remained beloved among the Jewish people ever since:

31:15 Thus says the LORD:

A voice was heard in Ramah [or “in a high place”], Lamentation and bitter weeping, Rachel weeping for her children, Refusing to be comforted for her children, Because they are no more.

16Thus says the LORD:

"Refrain your voice from weeping, And your eyes from tears; For your work shall be rewarded, says the LORD, And they shall come back from the land of the enemy. 17There is hope in your future, says the LORD, And your children shall come back to their own border.”
{New King James translation, slightly modified}

Biblical Passages

(The dates of all Biblical writings are disputed; the compilation and editing is seen by many scholars as happening not long after Jeremiah’s time, in Babylonia.)

Grammatically, references to (the Jewish) God in our classical texts are almost always masculine. Since Hebrew uses the grammatical masculine also as the inclusive and neuter, this does not necessarily mean that God was usually imagined as “a god”, a male being. Most references to God in the Bible, and in the teachings of our Sages, even when they are anthropomorphic, are not gender-specific. Some references that do use gendered imagery include the feminine.

Feminine Images of God

Behold: like the eyes of menservants toward the hand of their lord, like the eyes of maidservants toward the hand of their lady, so our eyes look toward YHVH our God, waiting for Him to be gracious to us {Psalm 123:2}.

You neglected the Rock who gave birth to you, forgot the God who writhed in labour with you {Deuteronomy 32:18}.

Food for thought:

The frequently invoked divine attribute “rachamim”, mercy/compassion, may come from -- and certainly may recall -- the word “womb”, “rechem”.

The divine name “Shaddai”, often used in stories of our early ancestors, can be translated as “breasts”. Consider Jacob’s blessing for Joseph, Genesis 49:25:

[A blessing] from the God of your father, who will help you, from Shaddai, who will bless you: blessings of the sky above, blessings of the deep lying below, blessings of breasts (shaddaim) and womb.

A Divine Feminine Figure: Wisdom

When abstract qualities are personified, distinctions between allegory and mythology sometimes become unclear. In the Biblical book of Proverbs, which draws on traditions of “wisdom literature” common to the Near Eastern and Mediterranean regions, Wisdom (Chokhmah) is dramatically personified and becomes a kind of divine figure -- rather like the Egyptian goddess Maat (Truth), the daughter of Ra, and like Sophia (Wisdom) in later Hellenistic traditions:

YHVH obtained me at the beginning of His course, the first of His works of old.
From ages past I was fashioned, from the beginning, from the origins of the earth.
There was no deep when I was born, no springs rich in water.
Before the mountains were founded, before the hills, I was born.
He had not yet made earth and fields, or the world’s first clumps of clay.
When He set the sky in place, I was there, when He fixed the horizon upon the deep.
When He made the heavens above firm, when the fountains of the deep gushed forth.
When He set limits for the sea, whose waters do not transgress His command,
when He fixed the foundations of the earth.
I was with Him as a foster-child, a source of delight day by day,
playing in His presence all the time,
playing in His earthly world,
finding delight with human beings.
And now, children, listen to me! Happy are those who keep my ways...
{Proverbs 8:22-32, based on JPS translation}

c. 50 CE, Hellenic Egypt

Developing this image of divine wisdom further, the Jewish philosopher/Torah commentator, Philo of Alexandria, wrote (in Greek):

Now “father and mother” is a phrase that can bear different meanings. For instance, we should rightly say, and without further question, that the Architect who made this universe was at the same time father of what was thus born, while its mother was the knowledge possessed by its Maker.

With this knowledge, God had union, though not as human beings have it, and begot created being. And knowledge, having received the divine seed, and when her labour was completed, bore the only beloved son who is apprehended by the senses, namely the world which we see.

Thus, in the pages of one of the inspired company [the authors of Scripture], Wisdom (Sophia) is represented as speaking of herself in this manner: “God obtained me first of all His works and founded me before the ages.” True; for it was necessary that all that came to birth in creation should be younger than the mother and nurse of the All.
(Philo, On Drunkenness, commenting on the phrase “father and mother” in Deuteronomy 21:18-21; translation slightly modified from Peter Schäfer, Mirror of His Beauty, 40.}

c. 225 CE, Land of Israel

The earliest canonical text of the Sages (“the Rabbis”), who shaped Judaism as we know it, is the Mishnah (“material to be learned by repetition”). It is a compilation of halakhic (legal) traditions, put together in the Land of Israel early in the third century CE. In the Mishnah, we first find the most famous Jewish feminine name for God, Shekhinah.

[In the main body of the Mishnah, “Shekhinah” appears in only one passage, quoted below. Even there, the word Shekhinah is missing in some early manuscripts. However, Peter Schäfer in Mirror of His Beauty, 2002 (p. 94) argues that the reading with Shekhinah, though censored out by some scribes, is authentic and original. Our standard editions of the Mishnah do include it.]

Shekhinah is a feminine noun derived from the verb shakhan, “to dwell”. The verb is found in many verses in the Bible where God promises to dwell among us:

And I will dwell (v’shakhanti) in the midst of the Children of Israel, and I will not forsake My people Israel {I Kings 6:13}.

In the Mishnah, and often in later Rabbinic texts, Shekhinah is used as a synonym for God, particularly when the emphasis is on God’s closeness to and empathy with the Jewish people. The context of the Mishnah is the execution of criminals:

Rabbi Meir said: When a person is suffering, what does the Shekhinah say? As it were: “My aching head! My aching arm!” If, then, The Place [HaMakom, another Rabbinic name for God] suffers so over the spilled blood of criminals, how much more so over the blood of the innocent! {Mishnah Sanhedrin 6:5}

c. 250 CE, Syria

The Sages placed many restrictions on visual art, but many Jews did not follow their teachings. An ancient synagogue at Dura Europos, in present-day Syria, is filled with frescoes of Biblical scenes and other Jewish and Greco-Roman motifs, in a style which foreshadows Byzantine Christian art.

In an image recognizable from its visual context as the finding of baby Moses, Moses is being lifted out of the water by a nude figure. Though we would expect her to be Pharaoh’s daughter or her maidservant, scholars note that her depiction corresponds to the iconography of a Near Eastern goddess, Anahita (see Erwin R. Goodenough, Jewish Symbols of the Graeco-Roman Period, 1964). Historian Raphael Patai (in The Hebrew Goddess) argues that this figure is the Shekhinah, the Divine Presence. The Jewish artist, aware of traditions that the Shekhinah was present with the baby Moses, made use of the conventions of the surrounding culture to depict the divine in female form.

From our Sages

The Midrashic literature of our Sages comes from the long period c. 300 - c. 900 CE. The dates and geographical provenance of any given work are often unclear.

“I am with him in pain” {Psalm 91:15}.

Rabbi Yudan told a parable of a pregnant woman who was angry at her mother.
When she was giving birth, her mother went upstairs, and she was downstairs, screaming. Her mother, upstairs, heard her voice, and she too, upstairs, was screaming. The neighbour-women said to her, “Why are you crying out? Are you giving birth with her?” She said, “Is my daughter not in pain? How can I bear her crying out? I am screaming along with her, because my daughter’s pain is my own.”

So, when the Temple was destroyed, there was a sound of crying and wailing all through the world. So it is said, “On that day the Lord YHVH called for crying and mourning” {Isaiah 22:12}. The ministering angels said to Him: “Can such things be in Your presence? Is it not written, ‘Splendour and beauty are in His presence, strength and joy in His place’ {I Chronicles 16:27}?”

He said to them, “Has not my House been destroyed, and My children captured, in chains? Shall I not suffer? Is it not written, ‘I am with him in pain’?”
{Midrash on Psalms, Solomon Buber edition, 20}

Late Thirteenth Century, Spain

In the Kabbalah (medieval Jewish mysticism), especially in the Zohar, the Shekhinah is a specific aspect of the Divine, the presence of God in the world, almost always depicted in feminine imagery. This imagery often emphasizes Her motherliness and compassion -- but at other times it accentuates Her harsh fierceness.

Rabbi Abba said: It is written, "The wisdom of Solomon”... {I Kings 5:10} What really is the "wisdom of Solomon"...?
(Rabbi Shim'on) said to him: Come and see!
We have explained, in many contexts, this name of the Moon [the Shekhinah] when she is blessed by all. It is written that she "grew" in the days of Solomon, because she increased and was blessed and remained full.
We have been taught: A thousand mighty mountains, in front of her, are just one bite for her. She has a thousand great rivers -- she swallows them in one gulp. Her fingernails clutch a thousand and seventy shores, her hands grasp twenty-four thousand shores. Nothing can get away from her to this side, nothing can get away from her to another side. Thousands and thousands of shields are tangled in her hair... The hairs of the Moon are tangled with each other. They are called shooting stars -- they do indeed shoot. Lords of strife, lords of weighing in the balance, lords of harshness, lords of arrogance; all of them are called hairs of royal purple. Her hands and her feet seize hold, like a powerful lion that seizes its prey. About this it is written, "he tears and none can rescue" {Micah 5:7}. All her fingernails call to mind the debts of human beings, writing and inscribing their debts with the authority of harsh judgement. About this, it is written, "The sin of Judah is written with an iron pen, with a fingernail of shamir" {Jeremiah 17:1}. What is shamir? {Cf. Tosefta Sotah 15:1 and parallels.} That which inscribes and pierces stone -- splitting it in all directions. The clippings of her fingernails are all those who do not cling to the body of the King, and suckle from the domain of uncleanness, when the Moon is waning. And because King Solomon inherited the full Moon, he wanted to also receive her in her waning, and so he set to work acquiring knowledge of spirits and demons, to receive the Moon in all her aspects. {Zohar I (Vayechi) 223a-b}

(A fuller translation of this text, with commentary, can be found in my course on the Zohar at

Food for thought:

The divine names YHVH and Adonai (found as a name in its own right and used as a substitute for YHVH) are both often translated “Lord” and seen as masculine. To the Kabbalists, however, the name YHVH invokes masculine and feminine aspects of the Divine: the Yud and Vav are masculine, the two letters Hei are feminine. And the name Adonai specifically refers to the Shekhinah, who is the underlying structure of all reality, like the “adnei hamishkan” {see
Exodus 34:31 etc.}, the sockets that held together the structure of the Sanctuary [“adnei” has identical letters with Adonai].

Many Kabbalistic teachings present the Shekhinah as the feminine presence of God among us, “in exile”, who is presently estranged from her masculine counterpart, the transcendent Divine “in heaven”. It is our spiritual task to restore the intimate unity of these two aspects of divinity. Therefore, in prayerbooks and Passover Haggadot influenced by Kabbalah, including several editions very commonly used today, various prayers and rituals are preceded by the formula “l’shem yichud Kudsha brikh hu uSh’khinteh” – “for the sake of the union of the Holy One Blessed Be He and His Shekhinah”.

Note the similarity of this formula with the ancient one we began with –
“for the sake of the union of the Holy One Blessed Be He and His Shekhinah”
“I bless you in the name of YHVH and His Asherah”

The Zohar in fact teaches that Asherah is a name of the Shekhinah; see Zohar I (Bereshith) 49a.

Fifteenth Century, Germany

In Christian Germany, in the high Middle Ages, pre-Christian beliefs still made themselves felt. Myths about the Germanic goddess Holda (Frau Holle), associated with birth, love, death, the earth, and winter, mingled with memories of the Greco-Roman Venus. The wandering 13th-century minnesinger (troubadour) Tannhäuser was said to have been ensnared by Venus and lived with her inside her mountain in Germany, the Venusberg; this was the subject of a 16th century ballad (and, much later, one of Wagner’s operas.) The power of Venus was felt by Jews as well as Christians, as this love spell, from a manuscript in Hebrew and German/Yiddish, shows:

Take an egg from a hen that is all black and has never laid an egg before. Take the egg she laid on a Thursday. Take the egg on Thursday night after sunset, and bury it at the crossroads. And on Tuesday, take the egg from there after sunset. And buy a mirror for the egg, and bury the mirror at the same crossroads after sunset in Frau Venus’ Namen [in the name of Lady Venus] and say, “allhie begrab ich diesen Spiegel in der Liebe, die Frau Venus zu dem Tannhäuser hat” [here I bury this mirror in the love that Lady Venus has for Tannhäuser]. And let it lie there for three days, and take it out; and whoever looks into it will love you.
From Munich Hebrew manuscript 235, 13a, c. 15th century; text in Josef Perles, “Holda, Venus, Tannhäuserlied, Hollekreisch…” Jubelschrift zum siebzigsten geburstage des Prof. Dr. H. Graetz (Breslau, 1887), p. 25. Thanks to Rabbi Jill Hammer.

In other magical or healing texts, medieval German Jews called on Frau Holda, and on Mother Earth.

German and French Jews have a longstanding folk tradition of baby-naming called Hollekreisch -- probably meaning “Holle’s cry” and related to the ancient belief that babies are with Frau Holda/Holle under the earth before coming into our world. In the Hollekreisch ceremony the baby is lifted up in its cradle, as if out of the earth.

The classic scholarly work on Jewish magic, by Julius Trachtenberg, mentions “that women worshipped Perchta (one of the goddesses identified with Holle) by offering her their hair, and that German braided bread was called perchisbrod. Trachtenberg discards the idea that this is the origin of challah, the Jewish braided bread, which was also called perchisbrod” -- but there would certainly appear to be a connection.

Paraphrased and quoted from a forthcoming article, “Holle’s Cry” by Rabbi Jill Hammer. The information from Trachtenberg is in Jewish Magic and Superstition p. 40-43.

1845, Eastern Europe
From the private journal of the Hasidic Rebbe R’ Isaac Safrin of Komarno

In 1845, on the twenty-first day of the Omer, I was in the town of Dukla. I arrived there late at night, and it was dark and there was no one to take me home, except for a tanner who came and took me into his house. I wanted to pray the evening prayer and count the Omer, but I was unable to do so there [because of the bad smell], so I went to the synagogue alone, and there I prayed until midnight had passed.

And I understood from this situation the plight of the Shekhinah in exile, and her suffering when she is standing in the market of tanners {Zohar III:115b}. And I wept many times before the Master of the world, out of the depth of my heart, for the suffering of the Shekhinah.

And through my suffering and weeping, I fainted and I fell asleep for a while, and I saw a vision of light, splendour and great brightness, in the image of a young woman adorned with twenty-fouradornments. And she said, “Be strong, my son”, and so on. And I was suffering that I could only see the vision of her back and I was not worthy to greet her face. But I was told that I was alive, and it is written, “for no man shall see Me and live” {Exodus 33:20}.

Translation (slightly modified) from Moshe Idel, Kabbalah: New Perspectives, p. 83. Idel has combined the private account in the Komarno Rebbe’s secret journal, Megilat S’tarim, with a more circumspect public version (in N’tiv Mitsvotekha).

A similar vision of the Shekhinah was experienced in the mid-1500s in Jerusalem by Rabbi Abraham Berukhim, a disciple of the great Kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria (the Ari).

Twentieth Century, Eastern Europe

Dov Sadan, an Israeli author who grew up in Brody, wrote in 1952:

Jewish children... had a whole proverb about snow. As I remember it (in Yiddish) from my childhood in the town where I was born, it went:

Got hot zikh tserkrigt mit der Gotekhe un zey hobn tserisn dos iberbet un tseshit di federn.

“God has quarreled with the Goddess and they’ve torn up the featherbed and scattered the feathers.”

What power there is in the traces of a legend [in this case, legends of snow coming from Frau Holle’s featherbed] -- Jewish children speaking, even if it was only in a joking way, about God’s wife.

Incidentally, in the region where I grew up we pronounced the word Gotekhe [“goddess”] with the accent on the first syllable; but Shimshon Meltsar has informed me that in Tlust, where he was born, the accent was on the second syllable; someone should research the boundaries of this difference in pronunciation.

Translated from Dov Sadan, “Marat Holle, gilgulo shel motiv,” Yeda Am, 9 (1952), 15-17. Thanks to Rabbi Jill Hammer.

Today, North America

Jewish feminists and others today have been struggling to transform the Jewish imagination and sense of reality to fully include women, respect for women, and recognition of and connection with feminine dimensions of the Divine. Whether this takes the forms of polytheism, non-faith-based work with image and language, or an expanded, deepened monotheism, it is holy work, and it is not as unprecedented as it sometimes seems.

Di suke iz iber undzere kep vi di Shkhine shvebt iber undz, vi a mame iber di kinderlekh...
“The sukkah is over our heads as the Shekhinah hovers over us like a mother over her dear children...”
-- heard in the community sukkah of the Bobov Hasidim from the late Bobover Rebbe, R’ Shlomo Halberstam, 1999

From a Torah Study, Congregation Iyr HaMelech, Rosh Chodesh Adar 5764/2004. Originally published at Used with permission of the author. Rabbi Justin Lewis is leader of Congergation Iyr haMelekh and head of the Jewish Studies department of Queens University, as well as a scholar of Chassidic storytelling.

more fire wisdom

back to top