God is My Mistress
By Karen Erlichman.
There are so many ways to be, do and feel Jewish. I can attest to this over the course of my lifetime, as a young girl who felt called to become a rabbi before women were being ordained as rabbis, as a nascent feminist in high school and college, then coming out as a lesbian in my early 20’s.
At each developmental stage, I felt a strong sense of Jewish identity, but as I became more politically active, it was quickly apparent that religion was almost unequivocally rejected because of misogyny, homophobia and institutional sexism. While I participated in feminist Passover seders, “feminist Shabbat” gatherings, Jewish contingents in pride parades, and other politically progressive feminist activism, there was a consistent flinch response to religiosity or traditional spiritual practice. Jewish women were visible feminist leaders, but primarily expressed their Judaism in cultural, intellectual and secular ways.
Decades later, Jewish organizations and communities have become more inclusive of women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people, including rabbinic ordination in nearly every denomination. Jews of color, Jews with disabilities and working-class Jews are challenging these same organizations to engage in the important and necessary work of dismantling institutional oppression. These challenges are not only rooted in feminism, anti-racism and anti-oppression analysis; they are also deeply connected to Jewish ethics, values and sacred texts which support radical inclusion and what Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism has called “audacious hospitality.”
While celebrating these inclusive changes along with the strong welcoming stances of other Jewish denominations, I also feel compelled to make an observation. What I have noticed and experienced recently in liberal and progressive Jewish congregations in the U.S. is an emphasis on “God-optional” over God-centric. In what follows, I will explain this observation and offer my own personal and feminist-informed method of re-centering God as “my mistress.”
First, it is important to address the issue of how language and gender influences one’s relationship to God, which I do by personal example in relation to feminist theology. Liturgical poet and Judaic scholar Marcia Falk wrote a groundbreaking gender-neutral interpretive translation of Jewish liturgy called The Book of Blessings: New Jewish Prayers for Daily Life, the Sabbath, and the New Moon Festival. It was/is indeed radical to replace the gendered language that reinforced patriarchal theology with beautifully crafted inclusive liturgy. However, when subsequently reading Anglican priest Lucy Reid’s book, She Changes Everything: Seeking the Divine on a Feminist Path. I began to feel discomfort, frustration and grief about the empty feeling of praying to a Spiritual Source that has been utterly stripped of the Divine Feminine and the Divine Masculine, as well as the Trans and Genderqueer Divine. While I appreciate the way Falk and other feminists have created a more universal theology and liturgy, I long for the passion, grandeur and granularity of a gender-inclusive God. Shechinah. Ima Rabah (Divine Mother), El Shaddai (the Breast), Shabbat Queen, Goddess and God. I yearn for the evocative depth of majestic language and the erotic tension of prayer. I need the layers and textures of devotion, supplication and petitionary prayer to both a transcendent and in-dwelling God.
Having had a lifelong passion for social justice activism AND a deep love affair with a multi-gendered God, and as somebody who is both politically and spiritually progressive, I needed a place to pray and pour my heart out to God, to seek guidance from and speak truth to the ultimate power. I needed another paradigm. This need was coupled with my recent observation about “God-optional” perspectives in congregations. I have spent decades working to foster greater welcoming, diversity and inclusion in the Jewish community, especially for people of all genders, races and ethnicities, and LGBTQ people. Now I find that there is greater social inclusion, but God is not invited. Moreover, God-language and perhaps even prayer itself is sometimes viewed with skepticism at best, if not full blown contempt by feminists and progressives who seem inclined to deride religiosity as a betrayal, a capitulation of patriarchy, or even a sanctioning of institutional sexism or religious wounding.
For example, there are several Jewish communities who literally promote themselves as “God-optional,” or whose translations of Hebrew liturgy and sacred texts avoid the potent sensuality and majesty of God-language. Intellectualism and social justice are often prized over mysticism, ritual and prayer, even in places that call themselves synagogues. At the same time, there is a feminist reclaiming of liturgy, ritual and prayer; for example, feminist and progressive mikva’ot (ritual baths) like ImmerseNYC and Mayyim Chayyim in Boston. Yet this reclaiming and redefining traditions in new radical ways sometimes moves exceedingly slowly to dismantle the often rigid institutional barriers in congregations.
Consequently, I often feel that God is my mistress. I have to keep my love for God hidden except in certain places, mostly non-Jewish places. My mistress is passionate, loyal, luscious and sensual. My mistress will split the ocean open and breathe life into being with a single word. In this way, God remains central to me and in language so personal that subverts patriarchal readings of the Divine as distant and aloof. Rather than a monochromatic, one dimensional spirituality, how about a feminist, spiritual polyamory as a paradigm that invites many different relationships with a multi-faceted, multi-gendered Divine?
This reframing is important for me because it allows me to keep attentive to the fact that the words of praise, petition and gratitude that are woven throughout the liturgy reflect a deep devotional, covenanted relationship to God. As Barbara Breitman has written, prayer is an expression of “divine-human love” and as such, the act of declaring such “love” is central for Jewish spiritual devotion. However, this means, more often than not, when I am in synagogue praying with my community, I feel the urge to stand up on my chair and shout at the top of my lungs,
“Are you listening to the words that are coming out of your mouth?!“
As a result, it’s been easier to be more open and celebrate God‘s love in other spiritual homes outside of Judaism, rather than keeping our relationship a secret. In other faith traditions, I am not only free to share this deep love— it is invited, encouraged, and celebrated.
As is written in the piyyut (liturgical poem) Yedid Nefesh: “Nafshi cholat ahavatecha: My soul aches for Your Love.” My feminist soul also aches for sacred Jewish spaces in which I can freely praise and celebrate my love of God with my whole heart, soul, might AND body.
I’m not saying everybody has to be a believer. I’m just saying I’d like to openly hold hands with my mistress in synagogue.
 Barbara Breitman, “Reclaiming ‘Love’ and the Song of Songs as a Center of Jewish Theology: Implications for Spiritual Direction with Jews,” Presence: The Journal of Spiritual Directors International, Vol. 10, No. 3.
Karen Lee Erlichman, D.Min, LCSW provides psychotherapy, spiritual direction, supervision and mentoring in San Francisco, integrating spiritual practices and body-centered resources to support healing. She is a senior consultant for Ethics of Care and Resource Development with The Dinner Party and the People’s Supper, as well as a faculty member in the Jewish Spirituality D.Min program at the Graduate Theological Foundation. To find out more about Karen, visit her website: www.karenerlichman.com.