two faces

The Holy One

Judaism holds a tension between the transcendent—the unknowable, the infinite, the separate, the “container” of the world—and the immanent—the tangible, the indwelling, the world itself. In Jewish thought, though physical images are discouraged, images of God may be drawn from human forms. The transcendent God is generally depicted as male (though God may have feminine qualities such as rachmanut, compassion, literally wombfulness). In later mystical tradition, the immanent qualities of God become feminized, but in the Bible these qualities too belong to God. The transcendent God is creator, father, judge, and warrior, but also healer and gardener. In later rabbinic thought, God is rabbi, scribe, and scholar. Other biblical images of the transcendent God are non-gendered and drawn from nature—the rock, the spring of water, the soaring eagle. In the Talmud God is sometimes simply called “makom” (the Place).
In kabbalah, the highest form of transcendence is literally formless—the ein sof or “without end.” We can know virtually nothing about this aspect of God. We can only imagine God through more finite metaphors–the wise creator, the good father, the tree of life, the Lady Wisdom, and so forth. The scholar Tikvah Frymer-Kensky and others have reminded us that we need multiple metaphors to fully describe our experience with God.

The “Holy One blessed be He” (Kadosh baruch hu) is a common rabbinic name for the transcendent God that humans can pray to and attempt to imitate. The Holy One is a wise teacher, an artist, a fighter, and sometimes a mysterious absence. The kabbalists identified the Holy One with the sefirah (Divine aspect) of tiferet, a masculine aspect of God that symbolizes the heart or sacred center, and also represents compassion and balance. Tiferet is the prince, the lover of Shekhinah, the tree of life, the sun, and the place where all opposites come together.

It would be a mistake to identify the masculine with the transcendent and the feminine with the immanent, just as it would be a mistake to associate the masculine divinity with light and the feminine divinity with darkness. It will require just as much work to reclaim and expand the male image of God—the Holy One, the father in heaven, the flowing spring, the sage of Torah—as it requires to reimagine the Divine feminine. Yet we may continue to find the diverse male images of Jewish tradition moving and edifying as we explore what the divine masculine can mean to us in a spiritual universe where neither gender dominates. Some of us may retain the Holy One as a masculine being with varied traits (not only traditional traits of power and strength), and some of us may view the Holy One as a non-gendered expression of the transcendent creativity of the Divine.

I am amazed by the giraffe, the Amazon river, the quasar, the human eye. It is at these moments of amazement that I experience the transcendent Holy One most deeply, whether as nourisher of the birds or kindler of the stars, whether as aged or ageless, as wild mother or soft, cloud-like father. Maimonides said that God “is the knower and also what is known, and also the knowledge itself.” Sometimes, for me, the Holy One is simply God as knower, and I feel the warmth of God’s knowing when I observe a lunar eclipse, a candle flame, or a cat leaping in the air.

And sometimes, the Holy One is a masculine being: a friend with curly black locks who walks beside me in the garden, a kind and generous father who backs off enough to let me make my own decisions, or a seed of light planted by the Shekhinah in the universe. He is not a definitive list of male traits, but an image that comes to me and comforts me. Then, too, I am drawing on the Jewish tradition of the Holy One to find God in the world, and in myself.

Jill Hammer



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