The Power Within: The Feminine Principle in Chinese and Jewish Mystical Traditions


Rabbi Moshe Yehuda Bernstein


A perfunctory examination of Chinese and Jewish cultures reveals many features that are patriarchal. In the Confucian order a wife must abidingly obey her husband (Jinfen 2002, 4); Jewish law adopts a similar demand and further excludes a woman from acting as a legal witness and the performance of certain religious precepts. Both cultures display a significant bias towards the procreation of male progeny (Kaup 2007, 330; Rosner 2001, 168), while the Chinese veneration of ancestors and the lineage of Jewish rabbinic and priestly traditions are reserved exclusively for males. However, when one delves beneath the surface into the ancient, mystical traditions of China and Israel-- Daoism and kabbalah-- a different picture emerges. In both of these traditions, the feminine aspect plays a vital role not only in the celestial realm but also in the earthly relationships between men and women. Furthermore, in both of these traditions a surprising yet paradoxical element of feminine superiority comes to the fore.

The focus of this study will be of principles manifest in the earlier conventions of philosophical Daoism, dao jia (道家), and theoretical kabbalah, kabbalah ha-iyunit (קבלה העיונית). The former begins with Lao Zi in the 6th century BCE and extends roughly 500 years until the development of a more ritualised Daoist church, including ideas from this time period antedated to the legendary Yellow Emperor, Huang Di (黄帝) (Fowler 2005, 29-33). Theoretical kabbalah begins at a much later date with the appearance of Sefer Ha-Bahir, (The Book of Illumination) in the 12th century and stretches to its apex in the 16th century, the period of the renowned kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria of Safed in the Upper Galilee (Kaplan 1991, 5). Many of these kabbalistic views on the feminine principle were embellishments of earlier references in the Torah (i.e. the Pentateuch) and Talmud. Although subsequent religious Daoism, dao jiao (道教), and practical kabbalah, kabbalah ma-asit (קבלה המעשית), both exhibit certain feminine elements-- the former in its pantheon of deities (e.g. the goddess Dou-Mu, 斗母, the “Mother of Light”) and the latter in its demonology (e.g. Lilith, Queen of the Night)—these expressions had already degenerated into superstitions as opposed to purely philosophical doctrine.

The Supernal Feminine

Unlike Western religions, philosophical Daoism lacks the concept of a personal God. The Dao, the source of all creation, is ineffable. As described succinctly in the first chapter of the Dao De Jing (道德经):

“The way that can be spoken is not the real Way
The name that can be named is not the real name.”

A euphemism for the Dao is wu-ji (無極), a primordial state of Nothingness that is “without bounds and limits”. It is from this Nothingness that Taiji (太極), the Supreme Ultimate Source, manifesting as absolute Oneness, comes forth. From Taiji then proceed the dual, yet entwined forces of yin (阴) and yang (阳), which in turn become the components of the myriad forms that characterize creation:

“Dao gave birth to the One;
The One gave birth to two things,
Then to three things, then to ten thousand…” (ibid, 42)

Whereas the Dao is the ineffable and nameless void, its manifestation as Taiji represents its latent immanence in all existence. It has also been referred to as the “supreme mother of all things” (Fowler 2005, 108); as such, it may be conceived of as a womb of complete potentiality. From this womb the generation of masculine yang, literally “the sunny place” or “south slope”, and feminine yin, “the shady place” or “north slope”, encompasses a tripod of Heaven (the transcendent), Earth (the immanent) with Humanity poised between them. Through descent into the Four Realms and substantiation into the Wu Xing (五行), the five elements of Fire, Earth, Metal, Water and Wood, the physical world with all of its possibilities materialises. It should be emphasized that Daoism’s worldview is holistic rather than dualistic: its masculine and feminine elements are interdependent and dynamic. Moreover, as every quality is defined by the gradient of its opposite, the feminine yin is contained as potential within the masculine yang, and vice-versa (Fowler 2005, 81-84).

Readers of the Old Testament are familiar with the anthropomorphic imagery of the patriarchal “Jehovah”. In Jewish tradition this name, better known as the Tetragrammaton, or “four-lettered name” represented as Y-H-V-H (י-ה-ו-ה) is never pronounced but replaced with the euphemistic adonai (א-ד-נ-י), meaning “my Lord”. According to Jewish mysticism, however, neither of these names, nor the personalised, masculine deity they signify, is indicative of the intrinsic nature of God. Not unlike the Dao, the absolute nature of the Supreme Being is ineffable and completely unknowable; the kabbalists gave it the appellation Ayn Sof (אין םוף), literally “without bounds” or “Nothingness without limits” (Kaplan 1991, 23-24).

In order for this Nothingness to manifest as creation, a process of Divine Emanation occurs. This results in the model of the Ten Emanations, or Sefirot. The arrangement of these Divine Emanations in a tripartite alignment, with the right column representing masculine forces, the left side feminine and the centre their line of mutual confluence, is known as tikun, or rectification. Furthermore, the Sefirot combine in such a way to reflect the quality of the Four Worlds through which they descend in order to become manifest. These are: the World of Emanation (Atziltuh), the World of Creation (Beriyah), the World of Formation (Yetzirah) and the World of Action (Assiyah). A further ethereal quasi-realm of “Primordial Man”, Adam Kadmon, signifying the Divine Will to emerge from Nothingness, precedes these four (Kaplan 1991, 15-16).

These five sefirotic combinations are known in kabbalah as Partzufim, or Divine Expressions, and from the sublime to the more mundane, are known as Arich Anpin, “the Extended Face” (but also referred to as Ayin or Nothingness), Aba, Father, Ima, Mother, Zeir Anpin, “the Reduced Face” and, finally Nukva, the Female, comprised solely of the final Sefirah of Malchut, Kingdom (Kaplan 1991, 95-96).

The feminine aspects of Ima and Nukva are also referred to respectively as the Upper and Lower Shekhina. The term Shekhina, literally meaning “dwelling place”, is mentioned frequently in the Talmud as a referent to “the Divine Presence”. In this earlier usage, however, despite its grammatical feminine gender, the term had not yet developed into the female hypostases within the Godhead that later kabbalistic works like Sefer Ha-Bahir and, in particular, Sefer Ha-Zohar (The Book of Radiance) would boldly articulate (Scholem 1991, 150).

The Upper Shekhina, which is designated in Sefer Ha-Zohar as “the Palace” or “Celestial Womb “and reminiscent of Taiji, exemplifies the process whereby Nothingness transforms into infinite potentiality. The Upper Shekhina, while serving as a receptor of the supernal flow of Divine Life, simultaneously functions as a dynamic agent in which the ineffable becomes revealed through the emanations (i.e. the seven lower Sefirot) that it emits. Borrowing Indian terminology, Gershom Scholem describes the Upper Shekhina as “the Shakti of the latent God: it is entirely active energy, in which what is concealed within God is externalized.”

By contrast, the Lower Shekhina of Malchut (Kingdom) receives the influx of all the supernal emanations but what it transmits is no longer within the realm of the Godhead but rather Creation itself. Allegorized in Sefer Ha-Zohar as “the Moon” and “the Earth”, the Lower Shekhina possesses no light of its own. (This attribute resulted in its later development as the potential to at times infuse “darkness” and “evil” into the world.) Apart from the influx of the nine Sefirot preceding it, more significantly, the Lower Shekhina receives a reflux from below through human actions, which it then transmits upwards to the transcendent realms of being. Significantly, the kabbalists held that the sin of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from Eden had caused the Shekhina to likewise become exiled from her earthly domain and separated from her male counterpart Zeir Anpin, also known as “The Higher Man” from Ezekiel’s vision. The Zohar repeatedly emphasizes the fundamental role of human endeavour in restoring the immanent Shekhina in union with her transcendent partner, Zeir Anpin. In the kabbalah of R. Isaac Luria many meditative prayers known as yichudim (unities) were established to precede the performance of certain Torah precepts, expressing the conscious intent to restore the harmonious balance within the Divine (Scholem 1991, 186-187).

The Mundane Feminine

Daoism maintains that sexual relations between male and female are a microcosmic paradigm of the macrocosmic Yin and Yang. Works ascribed to the legendary Yellow Emperor, such as The Classic of the Plain Girl, viewed heterosexual relations as a natural function and discuss its various aspects with candour. Since the hormonal secretions of both male (yang) and female (yin) were considered storehouses of “life essences”, or jing (精), the goal of sexual relations was to achieve a healthy absorption of these essences. There was, however, a fundamental difference in the sexual nature of men and women. As expressed by the Daoist adept Wu Xian of the Han Dynasty (Reid 1989, 258):

“The male belongs to Yang. Yang’s nature is such that the male is easily aroused but also quick to retreat. The female belongs to Yin. Yin’s nature is such that the female is slow to be aroused and also slow to be satiated.”

Furthermore, male orgasm involved a depletion of jing, whereas female climax entailed its retention. In order to balance the inequity of nature in this arena, Daoists advocated a regimen of semen retention during coitus. This type of sexual practice was meant to enable the female to have more time to reach her climax, at which time her partner would reap the dual benefits of retaining his own jing, while simultaneously absorbing hers (Reid 1989, 263-264). Although younger adepts were allowed occasional ejaculations, these were viewed as progressively detrimental with age (Reid 1989, 261). According to Daoist principles, sexuality was not about satisfaction of desires but rather a means to nurture vital essence. As stated by the renowned Tang dynasty Daoist Dr. Sun Ssu-Mo, “a man must think of how this act will benefit his health and thus keep himself free from disease. This is a subtle secret of the art of the bed-chamber.”

A hedonistic stream of Daoism subsequently developed by the 3rd century, and its utilization of these sexual techniques in Daoist temples without regard to moral ramifications, at various junctures in Chinese history evoked a strong public reaction by the authorities against these practices (Reid 1989, 13).

Like the Daoists, kabbalists also saw the sexual act as the primary earthly paradigm of the Union between the Bride (Shekhina) and her Spouse, the Higher Man (Zeir Anpin). Kabbalah, however, imbued the sexual act with a sanctity and moral quality which naturalistic Daoism did not. This meant that the sexual act could only be performed within the sanctity of marriage and after the woman’s ritual purification following her menses.

Though both the Talmud and the medieval Jewish physician Maimonides call attention to the deleterious mental and physical effects of excess depletion of semen, Judaism still championed the procreative effects of sexuality as fulfilment of the first Torah precept “Be fruitful and multiply…” The Talmud, however, recommends that during intercourse a husband delay his ejaculation in order that his wife may climax first. (Ironically, the stated purpose of this practice is to engender male offspring!). Furthermore, according to the laws of onah (Exodus 21:11), in which a husband is obliged to provide his spouse with food, clothing and sexual relations, it is not merely the frequency of the latter for which the male is responsible but also its qualitative aspect.

The unio mystica advocated by the kabbalists was reinforced with the Zohar’s interpretation of the creation myth. Mentioned several centuries years earlier in both Midrash and Rashi commentaries, Adam was said to have been created du-partzufim (דו-פרצופים), or androgynous. The taking of Adam’s rib (Genesis 2:21) in order to create Eve was the forceful Divine act of separating this heretofore unified androgynous being. The human process of finding a mate and binding that relationship within the sanctity of marriage was deemed a restoration of the pristine unity that had existed prior to this rupture. This restoration was in itself paradigmatic of the rectification inside the Godhead which occurred during performance of the sexual act within the parameters of sanctity and morality set by the Torah (Green 2006, 39).

As with the licentious tendencies that developed in the Daoist tradition, the Sabbatian and Frankist heresies which emerged in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries respectively were perversions of this kabbalistic notion that human coupling could affect the restitution of unity within the Godhead. These heresies similarly affected a reactionary backlash against the promulgation of kabbalah.


Excepting the enhanced stamina of the female in sexual matters, Lao Zi makes several references in the Dao De Jing to an intrinsic superiority of the Yin aspect:

“The female by quiescence conquers the male;
By quiescence she gets underneath.” (61)

“Truly, the hard and strong are cast down,
While the soft and weak rise to the top.” (76)

“When you know the male, yet hold on to the female,
You’ll be the ravine of the country.” (28)

In the psychological, political and spiritual matters referred to in these verses, the Dao De Jing regarded the yielding Yin as more capable of attaining results than the more abrasive Yang. Likewise, the practice of Wu-Wei, or effortless achievement, involved a passive Yin approach that enabled all human artifice to acquiesce to the greater flow of Dao.

It is in the eschatological teleology of kabbalah, where aspects of feminine superiority become visible. In the world of time and space, the six masculine emanations of Zeir Anpin symbolized by the 6th masculine letter vav, “ו”, representing the phallus, encapsulate the six directions of space (N, S, E, W, up, down) and the six days of the week. By contrast, the feminine letter heh “ה” corresponding to the (Lower) Shekhina represents a singular, internal spatial point and the temporal Sabbath day (Kaplan 1991, 11). Though the Sabbath is the seventh and final day of the week, the Talmudic sages classified it as “the last in Creation; the first in Thought.” In this context, in the same way that in the Jewish religious tradition the Sabbath day has a greater sanctity than weekdays, likewise the revelation of Divinity in the immanent natural order of the Shekhina appears as the primary motif of Creation itself (Green 2006, 8-9).

Furthermore, according to Jewish tradition, with the dawn of the Messianic era, predicted to occur after 6000 years of the Jewish calendar (currently at 5769) at the threshold of the Sabbatical millennium, Adam’s sin will be removed. This will have a profound effect on the status of women. Isaiah’s prophecy that “…the light of the Moon will be like the light of the Sun” (Isaiah 30:26) is said to reflect this transformation in the eminence of women. So too, according to the Zohar, does the prophecy of Jeremiah: “For God will create a new thing, a woman shall court a man” (Kaplan 1993, 62).

With the socio-cultural advancement of women in the postmodern era, more people are questioning the mythology of the masculine God portrayed in exoteric Jewish scriptures and other religious narratives. Furthermore, men and women alike are rejecting patriarchal structures as enshrined in Confucian thought and still operative in numerous societies around the world. The exploration of mystical traditions such as Daoism and kabbalah reveal a worldview where the feminine principle plays a dominant role both in the supernal and earthly domains. A greater understanding and implementation of these ideas could ultimately facilitate a more sophisticated notion of the Divine. More importantly, the respective practices associated with each of these traditions radically transform our view of Ultimate Reality from a transcendent concept beyond our grasp to a simple experience which, if we can only surrender to the power within, we all have the capacity to access in every moment of our lives.


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1 留言:

paulsin 說...

Bravo! Bravo to serious research!