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Mirror of His Beauty: Feminine Images of God from the Bible to the Early Kabbalah.

Mirror of His Beauty: Feminine Images of God from the Bible to the Early Kabbalah. By Peter Schafer. Jews, Christians, and Muslims from the Ancient to the Modern World. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002. xviii + 306 pp. $29.95 cloth.

The central interest of this highly readable and provocative study lies in the feminine dimension of God found in the twelfth-century Provencal Jewish book of mysticism, the Bahir. Like Gershom Sholem in the first half of the twentieth century, Peter Schafer attempts to find the origins of the Bahir's understanding of God as both masculine and feminine; to this end, the first half of the book traces the Wisdom tradition in the Hebrew Bible, apocryphal literature, Philo, Gnostic mythologies, the rabbinic literature, and medieval Jewish philosophers. The primary thesis of this first half is that the particular image of the Shekhinah in the Bahir--a sexualized mediator between heaven and earth--cannot be adequately accounted for in the biblical and rabbinic precedents. Thus, in the second half, Schafer takes on the question of origins; here his claims will be most interesting to readers of Church History, for he locates the closest parallel to the bahiric concept of the Shekhinah in the "veneration of the Virgin Mary, which grows in Western Christendom during the tenth and eleventh centuries and almost explodes in the twelfth century" (147). Lest some doubt that Jews would "borrow" from Marian traditions, Schafer devotes the longest and richest chapter of the book (chapter 9) to exploring how the Marian traditions, which became sharply anti-Jewish, could have been transformed "into a bold Jewish counternarrative" (216). Most persuasive is the underlying argument that "the constant interaction between Judaism and Christianity" (242) contributed to the bahiric concept of God's femininity.

Any volume with such a wide range of materials (from Job to Gnostic traditions, the Kabbalah to Mariology, and Jewish philosophers to artistic representations of Mary) necessarily opens itself to criticisms by experts in specific subfields. Moreover, in its attempt to treat such diverse texts the book at times reads somewhat like a catalog (for example, in chapter 8 where Schafer rehearses the development of Marian traditions in the Eastern and Western Churches, Peter Damian, Herman of Tournay, Bernard of Clairvaux, Godfrey of Admont, Hildegard of Bingen, and Peter of Blois). And yet Mirror of His Beauty remains a compelling and important work: Schafer has identified-at least to my mind--one manifestation of the dynamic interconnectedness of Judaism and Christianity.

Kim Haines-Eitzen

Cornell University
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Author:Haines-Eitzen, Kim
Publication:Church History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 2004
Words:413
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