Speaking of Goddess: Finding the Sacred Feminine in the Song of Songs

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July 18, 2011

The past forty years of Jewish feminist thought and theology have seen powerful analysis and fruitful conversations about the Divine, the feminine, and the power of the language we use to evoke and invoke the Holy in our lives. Yet to speak of Goddess in a Jewish context is still often to speak in a whisper. To speak of the Holy One Blessed be She is to risk nervous laughter or outright hostility. To name the Ultimate as feminine–to speak of Her as a whole and holy being–remains a radical act.

The provocative power of Goddess has the potential to shake up familiar forms and metaphors, to revitalize and startle us into new vision. Bringing Goddess once more into Jewish life–speaking Her anew through a Jewish tongue, in a Jewish idiom–calls us to embrace Her power: to startle familiar modes of religious thought and expression, to transform our images of holiness and crack open our ways of perceiving the Divine.

By forcing us to reexamine what we think we know, the powerful unexpectedness of Goddess can break though what Martin Buber calls “the leprosy of fluency,” the sense of deadening familiarity that avoids actual, transformative encounter with the Holy, the sacred text, or religious practice. Reflecting on Buber’s colorful phrase, Michael Fishbane writes that the biblical translator must strive to overcome this “disease of the spirit that can lead us to imagine that we already know what we are reading, causing us to blithely and triumphantly read past the text.” Dulled to the luminous potential of revelation by our own expectations of familiarity, we often lose the capacity to be affected by the text, to be engaged with the sacred, to be startled into awe.

Imagine then, a reading of the Song of Songs rooted in Goddess experience. In the classical rabbinic tradition, the Song of Songs serves as a powerful testament to God’s love for Israel–the nation that God chose from among all others to be the beloved. Overwhelmingly, the rabbis read God as male Lover, cherishing and delighting in a feminine k’nesset Israel, the community of Israel.

As a feminist theologian, I delight in these interwoven metaphors of divine masculinity, with their passionate, embodied sense of sacred eros, vibrant naturalism, and holy fecundity. But let us read this very same text through a different lens, inviting Goddess to express Herself through these same words. If we allow ourselves to retune the gendered metaphor, the Song of Songs can bespeak the feminine God turning toward Her beloved–whether an individual seeker or a holy community.

Hearing Her voice through the Song of Songs does not replace rabbinic or contemporary readings that find revelation and insight through God’s masculine voice. The Song of Songs has been subject to centuries of exegetical dispute by rabbis and scholars, arguing about its truest reading: literal, symbolic, allegorical, or otherwise. But why limit the Song to a single meaning? The Song’s particular power lies in the very interlacedness of these multiple meanings. By weaving together a celebration of two lovers with the drama of divine encounter with the people, the Song of Songs draws two oft-separated realms into close relation. It is a collection of earthy, passionate love poetry and it is an sublime testament to the encounter between God and Israel, between mystic and divine. Through nested metaphors and intertwined references, the Song bespeaks an earthy, passionate engagement between holy and human–as well as the sacred potential of human sexuality. So too, the Song can reveal God as He in passionate engagement with our people and God as She, yearning to embrace Her beloved.

Reading the feminine voice as the Divine partner in the Song of Songs opens up powerful theological and spiritual vistas. Consider the opening words of the Song:

1:1 The Song of Songs, which is for Solomon. 1:2 Kiss Me with the kisses of your mouth, for your love is better than wine. 1:3 Your oil has an excellent scent, but your name is the most exquisite oil – for this, all the maidens love you. 1:4 Draw Me after you. Let us run. The king has brought Me to his chambers. We will delight and take joy in you, savoring your love. Like new-pressed wine, they love you.

By inserting capital letters to identify the voice of the Divine with the female speaker, my translation evokes the call of a Holy presence through a different voice. The theological implications of the shift call our attention to the presence of Goddess who desires our love, forces us to reimagine the meaning of kingship, and evokes a profound relationality at the heart of the encounter with the Divine.

She Who Desires

When we read the feminine speaker in the Song as an expression of God’s voice, we meet Her as a God turned toward us. While classical theology has sometimes depicted God as without need or desire, a theology centered in the Song of Songs suggests that one of God’s most profound self-expressions comes through Her yearning. She reveals herself not as the God who has everything, but as the God who wants something from you and from me, from the grasses and the birds, from the wind and the wild doe. We hear Her voice in the voice of the waiting Lover, we hear Her desiring us. “Kiss Me,” She calls. “Draw Me,” She commands, and together, “Let us run.”

The idea that God desires is not foreign to rabbinic theology. The Talmud, for example, often speaks of God “desiring the heart” as a way of conceptualizing God’s desire for feeling, intention, and emotion in prayer and deed. This idea of divine desire runs through the very essence of classical Jewish theology. Though the halakhic system is often cast in terms of obedience to divine will, the concept that human beings have an obligation (hovah) to God bespeaks God’s abiding interest and investment in human action. Fulfilling one’s obligation is not simply a matter of accomplishing a set task, but also represents an opportunity to please (even delight) God. Yet the often punitive framework of halakhah in classical rabbinic thought mutes the idea of God’s pleasure and risks losing the rich interplay between the human and the Holy.

In this reading of the Song of Songs, Her voice evokes an unabashed desire and delight. Imagine a God who desires our kiss, who yearns for fire-bright connection with a wanting human body. The phrase evokes a sacred eros in the human and holy relationship, suggesting that She wakes and wants the best of our bodily yearning and spiritual need. The verses also resonate with a verse from the psalms that understands the Divine promise in these terms: “Kindness and truth will meet; justice and peace will kiss.” (Psalm 85:11) Intertwining the two verses, the cry of Goddess calling out for the kiss of humanity also speaks of a profound ethical desire: for righteous justice and the wholeness of complete peace to be united. To kiss Goddess, then, calls us to realize and manifest the promise of world where kindness, truth, justice, and peace are as interwoven as lovers’ lips.

Revisioning the King

At several moments in the Song, the female speaker envisions Her partner as king. “The king has brought Me to his chambers,” She says. In a Goddess reading, this verse forces us to radically revision the king metaphor. Classically, the ‘king’ speaks of God, a metaphor that has been extensively critiqued by feminist theologians and liturgists. If we take the female voice to be the Divine speaker, then the verse has Goddess call her human partner king.

This reading resolves some of the objections feminists have posed to divine kingship–for example, the idea that God has supreme, sovereign power and the implication that God dominates or operates as a tyrant. When melekh (king) applies to the human partner, we instinctively know that it should not (or cannot) mean ‘he who dominates.’ In the Song, kingship is a lover’s epithet. By naming him king, Goddess imagines Her beloved as one centered in his own power, brimming with vitality and passionate concern. “Be king to me,” the verse suggests, “not tyrant, but brilliant steward of every blade of grass, attentive lover of this world I’ve made.”

Given the prominence of kingship imagery in traditional Jewish liturgy, this conception of the king has the potential to lift up new possibilities within the familiar metaphors of the classical blessing formula. Goddess crowns Her lover king in a moment of delight, as they come together in his chambers, savoring the kiss.

The same energy of sacred eros, reciprocity, and mutuality can infuse the act of blessing–which is, in its traditional framework, an act that calls upon the Jewish community to bless God. “Blessed be You,” the traditional formula begins, “God our God, King of the World.” This kingship often strikes contemporary Jews as a hierarchical arrangement, with a deity whose role invites tyranny and dominance. But the use of kingship in a feminist reading of the Song of Songs emphasizes that kingship is granted to a king, that this act of “crowning a king” through desire and delight acknowledges not the power of the king himself, but the power of relationship.

Goddess crowns Her lover king, modeling for the human community how the act of investing kingship in the Divine can be an expression of profound love and trust. Our king is the one we meet in love’s chamber, the one who tastes of integrity, who fills our senses with the scent of a righteous, honorable name.

Reclaiming Relationality: To Be Known and to Love

Why look to love as a model for theology? The passionate encounters of the Song of Songs suggest love as a vehicle for profound revelation, in which the human partners also reveal themselves before God. “Your oil has an excellent scent,” the Song says, “but your name is the most exquisite oil.” While the verse presents Goddess delighting in the fragrant oil the lover uses to adorn himself, it acknowledges the lover’s name–the very essence of his self–as the most savored element of the encounter. She may enjoy the adorning oil, but it is the name itself that evokes Her greatest praise.

Read this way, the verses suggest that Goddess asks us to bring the true essence and fragrance of our name into passionate encounter with the Divine. Be known to God, not simply through the physical form of the body (beautiful as that is) or the fragrance of its scent (luscious as that may be), but through a revelation of our deepest selves. In the lover’s chamber, the Song suggests, we have an opportunity to reveal ourselves to the Divine.

This revelation bespeaks a profound reciprocity at the heart of love. We invite Her into our chambers, where the touch of our lips and souls brings Her joy. But it is not enough to take take love. We must also give it. She reaches out not only as One who loves us, but as One who wants us to love in return. The implications of this loving go beyond our relations with the Divine. The reciprocal love suggested in the Song–the love desired by She who awaits us–is a love sourced equally in the joy of self and beloved. The act of bringing joy, the celebration of love awakening love, unites us with the Other. When we truly enjoy–we infuse joy into another; our own delight kindles the delight of another.

This model of loving suggests another dimension to one of Judaism’s fundamental ethical obligations. V’ahavta l’reiecha kamocha “love your neighbor as yourself,” can also be read: Let your love be for your neighbor and your self. Instead of simply implying that we should care for another as we care for ourselves, this reading implies that our love should affect another, even as it affects us. It calls us to relax the distinctions between ‘for me’ and ‘for others’ so that we can experience a reciprocal, empathic joy from being loving–as well as from being loved. When we allow ourselves to be changed by our loving, perhaps we taste the radiance She yearns for when She calls for our kiss.

Why We Need Goddess

This brief reading from the Song of Songs offers glimpses of Goddess at the heart of Jewish text. When we open ourselves to images and encounters with the feminine sacred, we open to a powerful source of religious insight that has long gone denied. We open ourselves to experiences and revelations that challenge conventional categories and startle us out of our own preconceived sensibilities.

Acknowledging Her does not mean denying masculine God. Goddess does not erase or eclipse Jewish teachings rooted in a sense of a gender-neutral or masculine God. We need not pit Goddess language against God language, setting the feminine in competition with masculine metaphors and images. When Goddess language expresses itself as one of many modes of bespeaking our human encounter with the Ineffable, it opens our horizons to an oft-ignored revelation of Divine nature and elevates our capacity to perceive the Holy. As we learn to let masculine and feminine God language live beside each other, listening for the particular insights of each tongue, we develop an ear for deeper possibilities–for more resonant metaphors, for a meaningful evocation of the transformative presence of the Holy in our midst.

In 1978, Carol Christ wrote a landmark article entitled “Why Women Need the Goddess.” In it, she describes Goddess as a means of honoring and legitimizing benevolent female power, of affirming women’s bodies and the cycles of women’s lives, of valuing women’s will and women’s initiative, and of validating a sense of women’s heritage that cherishes bonds between women. Christ’s assessment bespeaks the powerful implications of Goddess symbol and presence. Goddess metaphor can transform us in large part because it centers women in the realm of the sacred. But Goddess is not simply a metaphor. She is not simply the product of a political agenda, no matter how valuable. Goddess is a Presence. A presence that calls us, yearns for us, and transforms us.

For this, Jews need Goddess. We need Her as a catalyst, as we strive to unfold a tradition that knows women to be vital, central, and whole. We need Her as One who unfolds Torah through women’s lives and allegiances. We need Her as a witness to our own testimony, as a source and call to courage. Taking Her seriously forces us to read Torah anew–calling forth our daring, our capacity to wrestle with our texts and with our history. She invites us to find Her in the seams and cracks of tradition–and to find the courage to make fresh what we cannot discover in our past. Her presence draws us toward a Torah that has never been written, a Torah still waiting to be revealed. But She also pulls us past the words and into the gritty work of human loving. She dares us to find Her in the crumpled blankets of a man on the streets. She expects us to meet Her in the silent touch of a lover or a friend. She forces us to remember that life and spirit are more than text, however sacred. Her presence draws us past the page and into wildness. Like the rapscabble weeds that burst up through sidewalk cracks to bloom in the midst of city concrete, Goddess is a tenacious and persistent presence in this world.

For this, Jews need Goddess. We need to hear Her weep. We who often wrestle with giving up on God, we might find ourselves anew in the sound of Her grief, in the depth of Her loss. Over the course of our history, Jews have made lovesong out of exile, turning what was deepest tragedy into a source of fierce, tenacious strength. We have learned to protect the Holy. We have learned, over the centuries and at bitter cost, how to guard what we love with our lives and souls. That fierce love of God–that fierce commitment to the sacred that will not be denied–has run like a bright thread through our people’s days. Sometimes God has sheltered us. More often, we have sheltered God. We have cradled the Presence we love, guarded it as best we could from the murderers and architects of chaos. It is time we gift this courage back to Goddess–She whose very Presence has been denied, demonized, and scorned. We need Her because She needs us, because She cries out for guardians and witnesses who will speak of Her amidst a world gone wild. As we witness, we find in Her a symbol that holiness endures, that the sacred can never be destroyed.

For this, Jews need Goddess. We need to know Her joy, to find Her delight. If we acknowledge Her presence in between each atom and in the pulse of the universe, we also find Her presence in the tangle of scrub grass and Acacia trees, in the lines etched into the palms of our hands. When we claim our own bodies as a site of sacred ground, we make sacred the place where infinite Goddess meets finite skin and blood and bone. Through Her, we find a way toward hallowing immanence, embodiment and a connection with the earth. These qualities are not the province of the feminine to the exclusion of the masculine. But She who was once symbolized by the sacred tree offers us a powerful symbol of rooted Goddess. She is anchored in the world, and She anchors the world within Her. “She is a tree of life to those who grasp Her,” we say, “Etz haim hi, l’makhazikim ba.” On the tongues of those who love Her, they are a prayer and promise to Goddess: to this luminous unfurling of sacred leaf and limb, this root drawn from the depths of earth, this blossoming toward the sky.


Michael Fishbane, “A Note on the Spirituality of Texts,” in Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary, eds. The Rabbinical Assembly and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (New York: Jewish Publication Society, 2001), 1504.

While the opening verses are usually translated “The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s,” in accordance with the rabbinic tradition that Solomon authored the text, the Hebrew can also mean that the text is dedicated to Solomon.

The phrase literally reads ‘his mouth,’ though English cannot conveniently capture the gender in translation.

Carol Christ. “Why Women Need the Goddess: Phenomenological, Psychological, and Political Reflections,” in Womanspirit Rising: A Feminist Reader in Religion, eds. Carol Christ and Judith Plaskow (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979) First delivered as a keynote address at the University of California at Santa Cruz Extension Conference “The Great Goddess Re-Emerging” in Spring 1978, her essay was then published in Heresies, Spring 1978.

Proverbs 3:18. The verse, used in the liturgy to describe Torah, refers to Hochmah (Lady Wisdom) in the Bible.

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