Her as holy

If we read Her in the all-night Torah learning on Shavuot, could we learn to think and act in a different way?

Masculine and Feminine521 (photo credit: Pepe Fainberg)
Masculine and Feminine521
(photo credit: Pepe Fainberg)
The rabbis of the Talmudic period could no longer celebrate Shavuot by bringing sheaves of newly sprouted wheat and two loaves of leavened bread to the Temple after its destruction by the Romans. Indeed as the Jewish community became more and more dispersed, the food-offering connection with any piece of earth grew weaker.
To replace food and land, the rabbis sought to make words of prayer, words of Torah, words of reinterpretive midrash as new ways of connecting with God. So they sought to create a festival when all Israel in every generation could stand at Sinai to receive the words of the Torah and speak new words of Torah, as on Passover all Israel in every generation could walk away from Egypt’s Tight and Narrow Space (a literal translation of the Hebrew word for Egypt, mitzrayim).
So they transformed the Torah’s agro-meaning of Shavuot into the Festival of Revelation.
Who spoke at Sinai? Anokhi – a heightened form of the usual word for “I,” ani. When the universe calls out to us, the “I” who calls is anokhi. Some say it was not only the first word at Sinai, but perhaps embodies in itself the entire Revelation. If the universe calls out “I” to us, everything else follows. “Take time to rest and reflect,” “Don’t murder,” all the rest.
“I, YHWH, YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh, Breath of Life and Hurricane of Change, who brought you forth from the house of slavery…” While the rabbis were working out this transformation of Shavuot, an unknown writer in the Semitic language Coptic was giving a different valence to that great anokhi. The text, called “The Thunder: Perfect Mind,” was stored away in the Nag Hammadi collection of religious texts written during the first two centuries of the Common Era. That library – a collection of mostly Christian texts that the early Church refused to name as part of the sacred canon and known popularly as the ‘Gnostic Gospels’ – was unearthed in Egypt, in 1945.
But “The Thunder” is not Christian, and its whole text is built around anokhi, whose divine voice was/ is feminine. Its title, “The Thunder,” did not describe any specific part of its content – but the whole text feels like The Thunder that spoke at Sinai.
Here are excerpts from “The Thunder” as translated by Rev. Hal Taussig and published in his anthology, “A New New Testament.”
I [in Coptic, Anokhi] am the first and the last I am she who is honored and she who is mocked I am the whore and the holy woman I am the wife and the virgin I am the mother and the daughter I am the bride and the bridegroom And it is my husband who gave birth to me I am my father’s mother, My husband’s sister, and he is my child I am what everyone can hear and no one can say I am the name of the sound and the sound of the name
The lines of text continue in an ever more mold-breaking, paradoxical, boundary-crossing way. Experience those last two lines above as what the “I” of Sinai spoke to us all.
Perhaps, if at Sinai men were gathered on one side of the mountain and women on the other (as the Torah text hints), this is the “I” who spoke to us all but was best received in the women’s hearing. Perhaps today we will find Her as holy, as awe-inspiring, as the “I” of the other Sinai text, the one that the men heard and recorded in what we know as the Torah.
If we read Her in the all-night Torah learning that the mystics bequeathed us for Shavuot, could we learn to think, to feel, to commune, to be silent, to act in a different way?  Rabbi Arthur Waskow, PhD, is director, The Shalom Center, Philadelphia; his latest book is a new edition of “Seasons of Our Joy”