Prior to mystical Kabbalah, Judaism was a somewhat legalistic faith based on the Torah (the Hebrew Bible that Christians refer to as the Old Testament) and post-Biblical literature, comprising the Mishnah (the earliest codification of the Jewish oral law, redacted during the third century) and the Talmud (a compendium of discussions on the Mishnah by generations of scholars and jurists compiled in several academies during the period from the third to the sixth centuries). The Talmud includes the Gamara (traditions, discussions, and rulings by rabbis and learned scholars commenting on and supplementing the Mishnah) that concentrate on specific meanings of words and individual letters in order to ensure exact compliance with G-d’s Holy Law as contained in the Pentateuch (the five books of Moses that comprise the first part of the Torah).
Kabbalah, or the Kabbalah, is the mystical aspect of Judaism that came to the fore in the period from the eleventh to the thirteenth century as the resurgence of a divine mystical tradition in the form of a vast and highly complex theosophy that has enlivened Judaism. It derives mainly from two books, namely the Bahir (the oldest classical work of Kabbalistic literature that was known in Provence in the eleventh century and is generally considered to have been authored by several persons in Palestine or Syria) and the Zohar (the primary source of Kabbalistic thought, which Professor Moshe Idel has convincingly demonstrated to have been written in Aramaic by a single author, Moses de Leon, who reduced more than a century of intense Kabbalistic development into one book in the thirteenth century; although Kabbalists contend that it was written by Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai in the much earlier mishnaic period and is a compilation of previously existing materials constituting a tradition ‘received’ from Adam). The Zohar is a mystical commentary on the Torah, and is named after the Hebrew word for brightness, as bright light is a frequent element of mystical experience.
The mystical theosophy of Kabbalah expressed in the Bahir and the Zohar developed over many centuries and is based on numerous Biblical and other ancient texts. The Zohar contains an entire constantly evolving Kabbalistic cosmological system that is centred on Ein-Sof, the infinite or unending G-d prior to his self-manifestation at the time of the creation, the primal unconscious that is completely beyond the conscious awareness of any individual, of which nothing (“Ein“) can be grasped (“Sof“-limitation) or known or said. Ein-Sof is the totality of both being (Yesh) and of complete nothingness (Ayin or the abyss).
According to the Zohar, at the time of creation Ein- Sof created the lower earthly world as a reflection of a higher spiritual divine or upper world. The ‘upper universe’ and the ‘lower universe’ are regarded as resembling one another; both find their unity in G-d; earth is a copy of heaven and heaven is a copy of earth. They do not compose a duality but an absolute unity, hence the term ‘unity in duality’ captures the essence of the Kabbalistic cosmic system. The Zohar explains this as follows:
Now G-d has made the lower world after the pattern of the upper world, and all the arrangements laid down by David and Solomon, and by all the true prophets were after the supernal [heavenly] pattern. Observe that in the same manner as there are watches of the night on earth, so are there in heaven relays on angels who sing praises to their Master and intone hymns continually, they all stand ranged in rows, facing each other, and producing one harmony of song and praise.
At the time of creation G-d created everything in the lower world or realm through the ten sefirot (emanations, aspects or qualities of G-d) that form the second stratum of the Kabbalistic structure of the G-dhead. The ten Sefirot are the primary bearers of G-d’s active and creative force, the ten stages of His revelation to Humankind and the ten aspects of His nature through which He manifests Himself. Not only is the lower world modeled after the upper world, but both worlds interrelate and impinge on each other. Thus the Zohar states that every human action on earth has a reaction in heaven: “Thus if a man does kindness on earth, he awakens [G-d’s] loving kindness above”. The concept of ‘unity in duality’ in the G-dhead is thus at the core of the Kabbalistic understanding of the cosmos. The Zohar views Ein-Sof as the totality of the union of everything in the world and its opposite, and therefore of all basic oppositions, such as male and female, good and evil, and the like.
The dualism in Ein Sof gave rise to the Kabbalistic assertion that there is an aspect of duality inherent in all aspects of the cosmos, including within the unity of the G-dhead and, consequently, became the source or rationale for the existence of a feminine aspect within the G-dhead itself, namely the Shekhinah. The term the Shekhinah was first used in ancient texts as simply denoting a ‘presence’ of G-d in this lower world that dwells over Israel, and slowly developed in Kabbalistic thinking over time until eventually, in the yhirteenth century, it took on a new significance in the Zohar.
The Shekhinah plays a very important role in the detailed Kabbalistic cosmic system explained in the Zohar. She appears with an endless variety of names in an enormous number of passages that all deal with Her symbolism and reiterate her role as G-d’s female partner. She is the exemplification of all women. She is G-d’s feminine form, the divine female equivalent of His masculine form in the upper realm, the Matronita, Queen and Bride of G-d. Zohar, 1: 228b in fact states that that “[a]ll women in the world are contained in Her mystery”, and uses the phrase ‘the world of the female’ to denote Her feminine aspects.
The Shekhinah finally emerged in the Zohar, from Her original role as a manifestation of the presence of G-d dwelling over Israel, in a new and transformed role as the feminine aspect of the G-dhead in a sacred union with G-d in which the unity of the divine life is realised. She is portrayed there in two roles, firstly as G-d’s Bride and Queen in the upper realm and, secondly, as Knesseth Israel – the active representative and presence of G-d in His ongoing daily relationship with the Community of Israel in the lower realm and, as such, as the ‘mother’ of every individual in Israel, a heavenly addition to the people of Israel in the material world.
The gradual transformation and evolution of the concept of the Shekhinah came to fruition as part of the development of the detailed, mystical, Kabbalistic cosmological system set out in the Zohar, in which the Shekhinah plays the leading role as G-d’s Bride and as the link between the upper divine and the lower human realms. This innovation was the point at where Kabbalah markedly departed from prior Jewish theology, and was strongly resisted by traditionalists as being inconsistent with the concept of an all male G-d. It should be noted, however, that the Zohar remained true to the basic monotheistic nature of Judaism and has never sought to elevate the Shekhinah to the status of a separate G-ddess. The entire Zoharic cosmological system, including the Shekhinah’s role in Her relationship with G-d, is based upon the sacred union between the masculine and feminine elements of a single unified G-dhead that is portrayed in vivid sacred-sexual terms, that is, at a sacred level beyond the purely sexual. Kabbalah also developed a rich body of myth and ritual that expressed a new image of the weekly Sabbath day ritual observance as a crucial ritual leading to the mystical marriage ceremony between G-d and the Shekhinah. At this juncture the divine lovers re-unite and the human participants are spiritually restored and graced with an additional pneuma, the Sabbath-soul, enabling them to participate more fully in the mysteries of the divine world. As above, so below.
Kabbalah culminated in the present day Hasidic movement, a popular religious and social movement of mystics founded in the eighteenth century by the Baal Shem Tov (1700-1760) among the Jewish communities of present-day Poland and Ukraine. These communities had been crushed by persecution and disillusionment, resulting in a decline in traditional Talmudic learning and scholarship. Hasidism, in which the Shekhinah plays a central role as the divine feminine aspect of G-d in the world, provided these communities with new scholarly and philosophical stimulation through profound and easily understood interpretations of Kabbalah that made the intricate mystical Zoharic doctrines accessible to the majority for the first time.
Like Music and Poetry, it is through Art that a deeper reality can be perceived in the form of mystical visions. This is made possible because the human being has a soul. It is the soul that enables the artist to rise above the ordinary and the mundane and have a vision. The immortal soul is thus the very essence that enables the human to imagine, to think and to dream. For me, the realm of the spirit is every bit as tangible as the material world, and the main focus of my art is to show the viewer mysteries that are hidden in mystical Judaism, that is, to portray the spirit and not the doctrines of Judaism. It is my belief that it is mostly through artistic intuition that the deeper reality can be perceived. The feminine soul figure in my work is rooted in Judaism, a religion that is generally regarded as patriarchal. I am concerned to reveal the existence of a matriarchal form of consciousness within Jewish mysticism that is apparent from the sacred-erotic and spiritual feminine imagery in my works, which signal an unseen spiritual universe.
I experience the mystical cosmology of Kabbalah as a fertile field for my artistic expression of deeper realities that become apparent when studying Kabbalah, particularly as the cosmological system of the Zohar itself is deeply involved with issues of the soul. In this regard, the Zohar expounds that the souls of humankind have an unquenchable yearning to be united with their divine source and consciously seek to enter into the presence of G-d. The Zohar describes this quest of the soul for ultimate reunion with G-d in terms of a sacred union between male and female that employs sexual references, at a sacred level beyond the purely sexual, to describe a cosmic union or coming together, a fusion of all the manifold universes ‘above’ and ‘below’.
Additionally, the faculty of the imagination allows the absent to become present to the artist. Thus, while that which is absent is usually invisible, as an artist I am able, by using the imaginative faculty, to render the incorporeal visible in the human consciousness. My spiritual inspiration, Rabbi Kook (the first chief Rabbi of Israel) is a human example of the Jewish mystical tradition in its pure form. He, in turn, was inspired by the 16th century Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague, who saw Kabbalah as a way to the immediacy of G-d, and helped to free it from many of the superstitions that had accrued around it. Rabbi Loew is another of my inspirational teachers and I have portrayed him in many of my works. Rabbi Kook pointed out that art in Hebrew is ‘omonut’, whose root comes from ‘emet’, meaning truth. Therefore, the root ‘AMN’ (alef, mem, nun) forms the following words: ‘aman’ (artist), ‘omonut’ (art), ‘neeman’ (faithful) and ‘emunah’ (faith or faithfulness). The common meaning of all the above words is the revealing of that which is hidden in the soul. Art is therefore considered as coming from the soul, and is therefore holy. When I, as an artist, create images I am making manifest that which is kept hidden in my soul.