Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The goddess who never existed: a review of Raphael Patai’s The Hebrew Goddess


Jewish date:  23 ’Av 5770 (Parashath Re’eh).

Today’s holidays:  Tuesday of the Eighteenth Week of Ordinary Time (Roman Catholicism), Feast Day of St. Dympha (Church of the SubGenius).

Worthy cause of the day:  “Save BioGems: Take Action: Stop Shell Oil:  Send a message urging President Obama to impose a 7-year moratorium on Shell's offshore drilling in the Arctic that will give scientists enough time to best determine how to protect the polar bear's home.”

Today’s topic:  The goddess who never existed:  a review of Raphael Patai’s The Hebrew Goddess

I first saw The Hebrew Goddess in the library at Yeshiva University in 1989 when I was visiting the school in order to determine whether I wanted to attend college there.  (I did.)  The book promoted itself on the front cover as revealing that Jews have been secretly worshipping a goddess since ancient times.  Having been Jewish all my life and having had some Jewish education, I knew very well that Judaism has no goddess.  As such, I figured the book was (to be frank) cranky and thought nothing of it again until I started the Divine Misconceptions project.  Since the point of Divine Misconceptions is to study religious fallacies and misinformation, I quickly put The Hebrew Goddess on my list of books to acquire.  I finally acquired a copy on eBay recently, and having been waiting literally a few years to find out what Mr. Patai was thinking, I took the opportunity to actually read it.

It is well-established that Judaism recognizes the existence of and demands the worship of only one god, YHWH, Who is unique and beyond all other beings.  This system of beliefs comes directly from the Hebrew Bible (e.g., Exodus 20:2, Deuteronomy 4:39, Deuteronomy 5:6, Deuteronomy 6:4, Deuteronomy 32:39, Isaiah 43:10, Isaiah 45:6, Isaiah 45:21, Ezekiel 35:5, Proverbs 21:30) and has been considered a core belief in Judaism ever since.  There are also no records of Jewish heretical groups who worshipped a goddess.  The real question in this review is not whether there are any merits to Patai’s thesis of a Hebrew goddess; the real question is why he believes in one despite the case being hopeless.  Patai never explicitly states why, but some digging turned up some interesting information.

Raphael Patai collaborated with the poet Robert Graves on a book called The Hebrew Myths.  Graves is famous for his book The White Goddess, which presents the historically questionable hypothesis of an ancient goddess-based religion in Europe and the Middle East which was the ancestor of the religions practiced afterwards up to today.  Judaism is one of the two contenders for Earth’s oldest continually practiced religion (the other being Hinduism), and it never has had a goddess.  As such, it represents a serious challenge to the Graves hypothesis.  What Patai evidently tries to do is to find a Hebrew goddess anyway to save the hypothesis, and since he cannot possibly claim one was ever officially recognized, he has to claim She was recognized unofficially throughout history.  Let us examine the entities Patai presents as aspects of the Hebrew goddess:

1) ’Asherah (pp. 34-53) and ‘Ashtoreth/‘Anath (pp. 54-66).  In official Jewish theology, YHWH is neuter.  (Technically, He never reports what His sex is in the Hebrew Bible.  But being unique and not reproducing, biological sex is irrelevant to Him, so He is neuter for all practical purposes.)  However, during the period of the Judges and the First Temple Period this was not taken for granted.  Despite the repeated railing of the Prophets against idolatry and polytheism, many Jews worshipped idols and the Canaanite gods, including the goddesses ’Asherah and ‘Ashtoreth/‘Anath.  Some even had the audacity to syncretically pair up YHWH with ’Asherah, as if He were actually male.  However, by the start of the Second Temple Period, all trace of goddess-worship disappears.  Monotheism is the clear winner from henceforth.  How then does Patai make the claim of an undercurrent of the idea of a goddess in Judaism?  He fudges.

2) The Keruvim (Cherubs) (pp. 67-95).  Keruvim are a kind of angel which manifest as mammals with birdlike wings.  They are depicted not only in the Hebrew Bible, but also in other ancient Middle Eastern media as well.  Images of keruvim featured in the Tabernacle, the Temple, and on the Ark of the Covenant.  Patai thinks he can squeeze a goddess out of a keruv due to a Jewish legend that the images of the keruvim reflected how YHWH felt about the Jewish people.  If He was happy with them, the keruvim faced each other; if He was angry with them, they faced away from each other.  When Titus came to destroy the Temple, he went into the Holy of Holies and found the keruvim having a beautiful moment (to put it euphemistically).  Patai assumes that if one keruv represents YHWH, the other must represent a goddess; who else would a god be so intimate with?  The problem is that this interpretation flatly contradicts an extended metaphor which runs throughout the Hebrew Bible in which YHWH and the Jewish people are married, including that the worship of other gods is metaphorically adultery and fornication (Exodus 7:17, Exodus 34:15-16, Leviticus 17:7, Leviticus 20:5-6, Numbers 15:39, Deuteronomy 31:16, Judges 8:33, Ezekiel 16, Ezekiel 23, Ezekiel 24:15-24, Isaiah 1:21, Isaiah 5:1, Isaiah 50:1, Isaiah 62:4-5, Hosea 1-3, Hosea 4:13-19, Hosea 5:3-4, Hosea 9:1, Song of Songs, 1 Chronicles 5:25).  The much more likely explanation for what Titus saw is that despite the immanent destruction of the Temple, YHWH had in no way rejected His people.

3) Wisdom (pp. 97-98).  King Shelomoh (Solomon) poetically personifies wisdom in Proverbs 8.  Treating personified wisdom as a real being only happens among Gnostics, not Jews.

4) The Shekhinah (pp. 96-111).  The Shekhinah (“dwelling”) is the presence of YHWH, often manifesting as a cloud.  Patai takes the Shekhinah as female because shekhinah is a feminine noun in Hebrew.  This is a specious argument since masculine nouns (e.g., ben-’adham = “human”) can refer to female beings and feminine nouns (e.g., nefesh, neshamah = “soul”) can refer to male beings.  The Shekhinah can only be considered a deity by a very loose definition of the term; it is not really clear whether the Shekhinah is an independent being or is sentient.  At best the Shekhinah may be something in the way of an angel, but not a genuine goddess.  Patai tries to claim that the Shekhinah is depicted in the form of a nude human female form in a fresco in the Hellenistic era Dura-Europos synagogue (pp. 282-294), but this figure, depicted standing in the Nile River with a basket in the river at her feet and holding the baby Mosheh (Moses), no matter how much it resembles depictions of Aphrodite or Anahita, is much more plausibly from its context the daughter of Pharaoh.

5) The Maṭronith (pp. 112-220).  The Maṭronith (“lady”) or (more commonly) Malkhuth (“kingdom”) is the interpretation of the Shekhinah according to the esoteric doctrine of the Qabbalah.  At this point it is necessary to take a step back and describe something of how to Qabbalah works before describing the Maṭronith, so please bear with me.  The Qabbalah aims to be the equivalent of a theory of everything for Judaism, tying together halakhah (Jewish law) and ’aggadhah (non-legal material) by claiming that everything we do has effects on higher levels of reality.  Everything we do, according to the Qabbalah, is actually a reflection of what happens on higher levels.  Now, the Qabbalah divides YHWH up into a number of discrete sub-entities.  Above all else (so to speak) is ’En Sof (“endless”, “infinite”), YHWH as He is completely beyond human understanding.  Below ’En Sof are a structure of ten reified attributes or potencies of YHWH known as the Sefiroth:  Kether (“crown”), Ḥokhmah (“wisdom”), Binah (“understanding”), Ḥesedh (“kindness”), Gevurah (“valor”), Tif’ereth (“beauty”), Neṣaḥ (“victory”), Hodh (“glory”), Yesodh (“foundation”), and Malkhuth.  Malkhuth, the lowest Sefirah, connects with our own world.  (Actually, this is a simplification of the system, arguably an oversimplification, but one that will suffice for our purposes.)  The system of the Sefiroth may be broken down into a number of configurations known as Parṣufim (“faces”), one of which, Ze‘er ’Anpin (“impatient”) (under the collective label of “Tif’ereth” and consisting of Ḥesedh, Gevurah, Tif’ereth, Neṣah, Hodh, and Yesodh) is significant to Patai because it interacts with Malkhuth/the Maṭronith in what is metaphorically a sexual relationship.  Actually “metaphorically” is not quite the right word; since what happens here is a reflection of what happens above, arguably sexual relationships here are a metaphor for the relationship between Ze‘er ’Anpin and Malkhuth/the Maṭronith.  This relationship in described in lurid reverse-metaphorical detail in the Zohar.  Patai emphasizes a biased selection of the sexual imagery and appeals to the subconscious rather than deal with the reality the imagery is meant to convey, claiming Malkhuth/the Maṭronith as the mate of YHWH.  This is not correct; the Maṭronith is just as much YHWH as Ze‘er ’Anpin, and their sexes are only reverse-metaphorical.  Neither even really merits being termed a god or goddess, as both are really just organs of the Godhead.  No one disputes that the imagery of the Zohar is shockingly mythological, but once one gets past the imagery to its actual meaning, Patai’s claims about the Maṭronith being a goddess collapse completely.  It must be noted that the Zohar is a very elite document, being composed in artificial Aramaic and rarely read by ordinary people, even in translation.  The people who can read it are for the most part intelligent enough to see beyond the reverse-metaphor.  Patai tries to get around this by claiming that yiḥudhim, mystical declarations recited before fulfilling certain commandments printed in many Jewish prayerbooks which claim that the commandments are done with the goal of “unifying” the Holy One, Blessed be He, with His Shekhinah, have been misinterpreted by the uneducated as actual Divine sexual intercourse, thus leading to belief in the Shekhinah as a full-fledged goddess.  This attempt is unconvincing because it assumes that a) the uneducated actually said the yiḥudhim—by no means a given, as anything printed in small type is likely to be ignored, especially by people trying to get through their prayers quickly—b) the yiḥudhim were understood, which is not a given, since not every Jew in the old days knew Hebrew and Aramaic, and c) the yiḥudhim were understood sexually.  This last item is highly unlikely, as it would require an actual mention of sexual intercourse.  Indeed, no reports of anyone taking the Shekhinah for a goddess are produced.  There is no question that the Qabbalah uses sexual imagery, but for the most part those who know are discreet about it.

6) Lilith (pp. 221-254).  Lilith is an evil demon who kills babies in Jewish legend.  The Zohar may magnify her into having an affair with Ze‘er ’Anpin(!), but that affair, like the rest of the relevant imagery in the Zohar, is reverse-metaphorical.  Claiming she is a goddess is something akin to Christians claiming that Satan is a god.

7) Shabbath (the Sabbath) (pp. 255-276).  The Talmudh recounts that in the Galilee that they would actually go out into the fields to greet Shabbath as if the day itself were a queen (Shabbath 119a).  The Qabbalah takes this poetic metaphor further and mystically identifies Malkhuth with Shabbath.  This led Rav Yiṣḥaq Lureyah to expand on the old custom by instituting the recitation of the hymn Lekha Dodhi and Proverbs 31:10-31, the first of which poetically discusses Shabbath and in the latter of which he reads Malkhuth mystically into the text.  Patai also cites an Ethiopian Jewish document in which Shabbath is personified as the daughter of YHWH.  In no case is any evidence brought that Jews have ever taken the personification beyond mere metaphor.

In no case does Patai demonstrate the Jews ever had what they would consider a goddess after the First Temple Period.  His book is a complete failure at its stated objective.

But, one may object, what if we put aside definitions of “goddess” that Jews would use?  Not every religion and culture denotes the boundaries of godhood (or goddesshood) the same way.  But if we do that and lower the threshold to admit entities to goddesshood that otherwise would not pass muster and read YHWH as male as Patai insists, something disturbing becomes apparent:  implicit sexism.  YHWH, Creator and Manager of the Universe, is still above and beyond all other beings, including these goddesses.  The Keruvim are the beasts He hitches His chariot to.  The Shekhinah is just His presence.  The Maṭronith is just one of his organs.  Wisdom and Shabbath are still just personifications.  And Lilith is still a psychopathic murderer of innocents.  Even ’Asherah and ‘Ashtoreth/‘Anath are below Him, created beings and not the Creator.  Not to mention that the symbolism of ’Asherah’s sacred tree is an obscenity if one knows what it really stands for, and ‘Ashtoreth/‘Anath’s morals (promiscuity, nudity, and bloodthirstiness) are abominable.  Patai also leaves out Qabbalistic entities which are just as deserving as any of these to be considered goddesses.  It is not just the Sefirah of Malkhuth/the Maṭronith which is reverse-metaphorically female; Binah, Gevurah, and Hodh are as well.  Belonging to the left side of the Tree of Life, they all embody the less-pleasant attributes of YHWH.  And collectively they constitute the Siṭra’ ’Aḥra’ (“the other side”), which when let loose without being counterbalanced by the right side of the Tree can cause terrible things to happen.  Patai writes as if a goddess is a wonderful thing.  One might want to think about whether an inferior, immoral, or unpleasant goddess is really so wonderful.

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