Archived from The Magdalene Review on Monday 30 January 2006

My weekend in New York with the scholars I mentioned in a post from last week went very well. We all (except Margaret Starbird, who was not present) contributed to a documentary film, which I will be happy to post about once some details are settled about what it will be called, etc. In the meantime, the experience has provided enough blogging material to keep me busy for months. I’d like to start by sharing a point that Elaine Pagels and I discussed briefly, but were unfortunately unable to flesh out because the moderator moved the topic to another area.

The discussion was about Kabbalah, the prevailing form of Jewish mysticism through the Middle Ages and beyond. It has origins that date back to the first century (probably not all the way back to the Patriarchs though as some would claim), but it really came into its own as a movement around the 11th century in the Jewish communities of Spain. Much could be said about Kabbalah, particularly because it has become a popular form of mysticism today, being liberally adapted by and for members of American society like every other religious system you can think of. The Kabbalistic concept in question is that of the Shekinah. I believe that what follows will show that one could spend a great deal of time exploring how the relationships between Gnosticism, Judaism, and orthodox Christianity affected the outcome of Mary Magdalene’s legends. In addition, I believe it speaks to the heart of the phenomenon we are currently observing in popular culture in which Mary Magdalene has become Jesus’ wife.

My primary source for this understanding is Gershom Scholem, who has written much on the history of Kabbalah. Of particular value is his book, On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism.

In Rabbinic Judaism, the Shekinah is the “presence of God,” rather like his face, or his aspect. In the Middle Ages, however, the Shekinah was adapted by Kabbalists into a fully-fledged female hypostasis of God; she became a bride, a princess, a daughter. The traditional belief of the Shekinah was that it lived in exile with the people, that a part of God was always present with his people. When the Shekinah was personified, the part of God that lived in exile was believed to also be in exile; so we now have God’s bride, living in exile from himself, seeking reunion with him just as his people did. For as long as his people wandered, the bride wandered as well.

The next portion of this point is best said by Scholem himself. [Note: a sefirah is an individual unit in the Kabbalistic model of the Tree of Life, which represents the principles of creation. There are ten sefiroth, with the tenth sefira, Malkuth, being the lowest, and representing the physical world. This is a grossly simple explanation just to get to my main point.]

The tenth sefirah, however, no longer represents a particular part of man, but, as complement to the universally human and masculine principle, the feminine, seen at once as mother, as wife, and as daughter, though manifested in different ways in these different aspects. This discovery of a feminine element in God, which the Kabbalists tried to justify by gnostic exegesis, is of course one of the most significant steps they took. Often regarded with the utmost misgiving by strictly Rabbinical, non-Kabbalistic Jews, often distorted into inoffensiveness by embarrassed Kabbalistic apologists, this mythical conception of the feminine principle of the Shekhinah as providential guide of Creation achieved enormous popularity among the masses of the Jewish people, so showing that here the Kabbalists had uncovered one of the primordial religious impulses still latent in Judaism.

Two other symbolic representations among many are of particular importance for an understanding of the Kabbalistic Shekhinah: its identification on the one hand with the mystical Ecclesia of Israel and on the other hand with the soul (neshamah). Both these ideas make their appearance in the Bahir. In the Talmud and Midrash we find the concept of the “Community of Israel” (from which the Christian concept of the Ecclesia is derived), but only in the sense of a personification of the real, historical Israel and as such definitely differentiated from God. Since time immemorial the allegorical interpretation of the Song of Songs as referring tot he relationship between God and the Jewish Ecclesia had enjoyed general acceptance in Judaism; but there was nothing in this interpretation to suggest the elevation of the Ecclesia to the rank of a divine potency or hypostasis. Nowhere does the Talmudic literature identify the Shekhinah with the Ecclesia. In the Kabbalah, however, it is precisely this identification that introduces the symbolism of the feminine into the sphere of the divine. Through this identification, everything that is said in the Talmudic interpretations of the Song of Songs about the Community of Israel as daughter and bride was transferred to the Shekhinah.

Before going on, a word from Susan Haskins, from her book, Mary Magdalen: Myth and Metaphor:

It is perhaps no coincidence that this first pictorial representation of Mary Magdalen as one of the holy women should have as its literary counterpart the near-contemporary celebration of her as a myrrhophore by Hippolytus of Rome (c. 170-235), a bishop of Rome, heresiologist and a staunch defender of the faith for which he ultimately died. The description appeared in his commentary — the first such Christian exposition to come down to us — on the Canticle of Canticles, the ancient allegory ascribed to Solomon and his beloved, the Shulamite. To Hippolytus, the Bride, or Shulamite, as she sought the Bridegroom, was Mary Magdalen, the myrrhophore, seeking Christ in the garden to anoint him…

…Hippolytus’ association of teh Bride of the Canticles with Mary Magdalen, forged in the third century, has lasted until today: a verse from the Canticles forms part of the liturgy which commemorates the saint’s feast-day on 22 July…

…Hippolytus’ commentary established ideas about Mary Magdalen which were to become tradition. Perhaps the most important of these were to see her as the Bride of Christ and symbol of the Church, titles which became more usually associated with the Virgin Mary. The commentary’s effect has endured, however, leaving its trace in the erotic element which has always been part of the mystical relationship attributed to Christ and Mary Magdalen.

I hope I’m not the only one who is able to see the similarities here. Very early in Christian history, Mary Magdalene, like the Shekinah, was associated with the Ecclesia via the Song of Songs. This placed her in the position of “Bride of Christ,” throughout history interpreted in an allegorical way. In the later Middle Ages, Mary Magdalene came to be associated by Christian mystics with the individual in his or her search for union with God, bringing her into even closer association with the Shekinah. The parallels don’t stop there, but for now, my comparison does.

Today, the world is searching for reasons why Dan Brown’s book is such a literary phenomenon, but the popularity of the idea that Mary Magdalene is the lost bride of Jesus was gaining momentum even before DVC. In the early 1980’s, Holy Blood, Holy Grail caused quite a stir in suggesting that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had been married and started a bloodline. Although it was exposed as bunk, the idea sank into popular culture and spawned a number of related titles, most of which focused on the importance of a royal dynastic, and godly, bloodline.

One book was different, however. Margaret Starbird’s book, Woman With the Alabaster Jar presented a case for Mary Magdalene not only as the wife of Jesus, but as a co-founder of Christianity, the “true” message of which was the restoration of the feminine and balance between sexes. Jesus and Mary Magdalene lived a life that expressed the “divine couple” archetype on every level of existence, Starbird writes; literal, spiritual, and archetypal. When Jesus was crucified, Mary Magdalene was in great danger, so she was spirited away. She traveled to France and gave birth, and from there, the rest of the French legends are taken pretty much at face value. The crucial thing about Starbird’s vision of history isn’t that Jesus and Mary Magdalene started a bloodline, however, it is on Mary Magdalene’s role as the feminine face of God. Jesus and Mary Magdalene together made a balanced and whole unit, masculine and feminine, “imaging God as partners.” That Mary Magdalene and the “true” Christian message were suppressed by the orthodox Church was to leave a deep scar on Christianity as it survived, and it touched every part of the Christian legacy. Thus the problems that Christianity and Western civilization in general face today are somehow the result of the imbalance caused by Mary Magdalene’s loss.

The language Starbird uses to describe her vision is quite potent and emotionally compelling for many people. The crux of DVC rests on concepts forged by Starbird; that the divine feminine lived in Mary Magdalene, and that her absence is the greatest conspiracy and tragedy ever to befall mankind. These ideas, I believe, are at the heart of what makes DVC such a revelation for some people. Not only because they are wondering, “could it be true?” but also because, I believe, Margaret Starbird happens to have stumbled across “one of the primordial religious impulses still latent,” only this time, in Christianity. In 2002, I delivered a talk to a local Seattle group called “Brides in Exile: A Primordial Religious Impulse Latent in Western Civilization,” which argued this very point. Four years later, the reaction to DVC has driven home for me the reality of Starbird’s intuition, whether I agree with her history or not.

What we are seeing today with the fascination in Mary Magdalene as Jesus’ bride is much deeper than I think most people are willing to entertain. It reflects, in a major way, what occurred in the Middle Ages when the Kabbalists began to imagine the Shekinah as God’s bride. It is embarrassing and ridiculous to scholars and theologians, but the idea has tremendous popularity with regular people. Margaret Starbird’s mystical Christianity, poor historical scholarship aside, has touched a nerve. A failure to explore why that stimulus is so powerful would be not only spiritually negligent, but a bit like burying one’s head in the sand.

It has been said in Christianity, many times, that the emptiness we humans feel in our existence is a “God-shaped hole,” that ultimately, only God can satisfy the search for meaning. Can it not be asked if, in fact, half of that void might actually be Goddess-shaped?

When I started this blog, I said that I like to plant myself firmly between the two branches of the Magdalene movement, the historians and the mystics. I tend to lean more toward the historians, but perhaps spending a weekend with six historians gave me a reason to sympathize again with the mystics. Although I can appreciate their position entirely (the mystics are making up history as they go), I think it’s important to respect the authenticity of spiritual experience as well as a methodical pursuit of history. I’m sure I’ll have more to say on this as I have time to commit it to writing.

4 Archived Comments for ‘A primordial religious impulse’

    January 31, 2006 | 9:23 am

    I was delighted to see that you singled out “On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism,” as it is probably the only book by Scholem entirely on Jewish mysticism that is also readily intelligible to most readers. Well, to those interested in religions in general; it is mainly a set of Eranos lectures introducing key topics.

    His great “Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism” was originally a series of lectures to Rabbinic students, and assumed a high level of Jewish literacy. “Kabbalah” is a collection of “Encyclopedia Judaica” articles and seems to take for granted the reader will look up anything unfamiliar from the rest of Jewish history and culture. “Origins of the Kabbalah” is just very hard going as it dissects some really (even for mystical works) obscurely-written texts, and tries to establish an historical sequence culminating in the emergence of Kabbalah, as a distinct stage in Jewish mysticism, in the south of France in the thirteenth century.

    However, it may be of use to point out that Scholem’s most thorough treatments of male and female imagery in post-Biblical Judaism, and the Kabbalistic transformations of their applications to God, are found in “On the Mystical Shape of the Godhead: Basic Concepts in the Kabbalah,” especially the “Tsaddik: The Righteous One” and “Shekinah: The Feminine Element in Divinity.” The volume, also based on Eranos lectures, was intended as a companion to “On the Kabbalah and its Symbolism,” but is much more technical and detailed.

    Scholem’s synthesis has since been critiqued by Moshe Idel, who tends to see mystical meanings for, e.g., “Shekinah,” in older works where Scholem found mainly metaphors, literary personifications, and allegories, which were subsequently re-used by mystics in a more literal fashion. Joseph Dan has mounted a defence of Scholem’s views which I find largely convincing — not that I claim to be a reliable judge.

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    January 31, 2006 | 11:11 am

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    February 4, 2006 | 5:07 pm

    Thanks for the tips about Moshe Idel and Joseph Dan. I’ve read some of Idel’s work, but haven’t discovered Joseph Dan; I appreciate you mentioning both of them.

    February 11, 2006 | 12:15 pm

    I’ve been looking through Dan’s growing bibliography in English (some important works are still only in Hebrew), and I suspect that your best place to start may still be the 1998-1999 four-volume collection of papers and addresses, with new material, under the general title of “Jewish Mysticism.”

    This some poor editing, including extremely garbled Acknowledgments pages (I wound up doing my own, with articles assigned to the correct volumes!), and, more obviously, very confusing volume titles. I assume that the titles were chosen by the publisher, Jason Aronson, and in fact Dan cites them in different forms in End Notes to some of the pieces (see below).

    For an example of confusing labelling, “Volume III: “The Modern Period” should be “From The High Middle Ages to the Seventeenth Century.” It includes several important pieces on, e.g., Samael and Lilith in pre-Zoharic literature, including their roles as in sort of “anti-Sefirah” configuration of evil powers. (Dualism is a major theme, too!)

    “Volume II: The Middle Ages” is really on the early Middle Ages and pre-Kabbalistic mystical movements.

    “Volume IV: General Characteristic and Comparative Studies” has several pieces on Scholem, and post-Scholem trends in scholarship. Other articles there discuss mystical themes cropping up in non-mystical writings, the relations between Messianism, Utopianism, and Marxism, etc. In Volume III, page 61 (where he explicitly mentions Idel as adopting untenable arguments from others), Dan had already referred to the Scholem pieces as being collected in “Jewish Mysticism in Modern Times,” which would have been the intended title for Volume IV.

    The volumes by Dan published since then in English have been, so far as I can see, somewhat popularized reworkings of this material.

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