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The evolving feminine: an enlightened view from Kabbalah.


In an extraordinary essay, "The Seven Stages of Feminine Development," (1) the master kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria (known as the Holy Ari), details a path of growth that moves in steps from diminishment toward fullness of stature, which he presents as the universal pattern of feminine development. (2) Each step does not proceed smoothly from the one before. Rather, archetypal woman first develops a kind of false equality, collapses again suddenly, and starts a new push toward growth and full stature which she eventually attains at the end of her effort. These seven stages comprise a single lunar cycle. They apply on all scales, from the span of an individual woman's life to the history of creation (because the entire period of existence from the beginning of time to its end is but a single circuit of the kabbalistic "moon") .

The conventions of gender in Kabbalah echo the physical differences between men and women. To bestow is masculine, to receive is feminine. And yet, our current phase of history, referred to in Kabbalah as the Rectified World, is distinguished by its holographic structure--which means that every detail contains aspects of all the details of the whole. (3) Every good contains a trace of evil; and every evil, a trace of good. Every Jew contains aspects of non-Jews, and every non-Jew contains a spark of a Jew. So, too, every man contains a measure of woman inside himself; and every woman, a measure of man. This is called the Principle of Interinclusion, according to which each individual reflects the combination of traits that is his or her soul's unique truth.

Focusing on the gender scale, a whole continuum of possibilities exists for combining male and female elements. There are men and women who have all the stereotyped traits of their gender, and others who display many features that are more typical of the opposite sex. Wherever a person falls on this continuum, there is no man who does not include feminine elements and no woman who does not include masculine elements.

This is also true, but to a much lesser degree, regarding kabbalistic archetypes (called partsufim). In the kabbalistic model, the interincluded aspects of the opposite sex are projected outward as a separate individual, and become a personality unto themselves. Then, in a kabbalistic odyssey, these two partsufim (who had originally been one) rediscover each other and unite in marital union.

It follows that when Kabbalah discusses the partsuf (archetype) woman, its list of descriptors does not simply generalize to individual women, for the partsuf is a pure archetype and women are complex entities. (4) The kabbalistic portrait of archetypal woman refers equally to the feminine parts of real women and the feminine parts of men. This is an extremely important qualification, for many popular writings irresponsibly assert that women should think, feel, and behave in one way or another based on kabbalistic "proofs." Furthermore, since everything and everyone is masculine in relation to what is below and feminine in relation to what is above, the term archetypal woman applies to the entirety of creation in relation to G-d the Creator.

The writings of Rabbi Isaac Luria are among the most complex and technical teachings in the entire Oral Tradition. There are universes of implication to each sentence. Here we shall focus on four points that provide a meaningful introduction to his ideas about the feminine archetype.

1. Always in Motion

The first Lurianic premise is that the "feminine," wherever she be found (see Figure 1, opposite the title page of this article)--whether as male in relation to female, archetypal woman in relation to archetypal man, creation in relation to G-d--is always in motion. That means that statements that seemed obviously true at one stage of her development will simply not apply and might even be false at other stages of her development. The feminine, according to Luria's definition, is always changing, growing, evolving. There is no escaping that fact, and, according to Rabbi Luria, this is how things are supposed to be. So, while in some aspects of life it might be possible to understand what it means to be a good Jewish woman by looking at previous generations, in other respects this simply doesn't work. Women of previous generations embodied one stage of the feminine life cycle, while this generation embodies another.

2. Face to Face

The second idea is that the perfected ideal, the messianic achievement, of archetypal woman is to stand opposite archetypal man--in the words of the Ari, "face to face with him and completely equal." The Lurianic vision of archetypal woman written in the sixteenth century sounds astoundingly unconventional even today.

3. Wane, then Wax

And yet, though equality is the goal, archetypal woman's path is not direct. This is by design, and not by accident. (See Figure 3.) Her true and consummate equality can only be achieved by a previous act of diminishment. The moon must wane before it waxes. Like a spring coil compressed and released, the diminishment of the feminine sets in motion a chain of events that culminates in her joyful shared equality.

4. Coming into Her Brains

The fourth aspect of Rabbi Luria's teaching is that in archetypal woman's later stages of growth (which would likely translate into the current era) she comes into her mohin, a kabbalistic term meaning brains and intellectual maturity. Thus, in the Holy Ari's model, part of what is supposed to happen as one stage in the evolving relationship of archetypal man and archetypal woman is that their disparities of intellect begin to diminish and eventually disappear altogether. Not that they come to think exactly alike, but that their strength and sophistication of intellect begin to equalize.

An example of how this can be seen is the fact that today in the United States, as well as in many countries around the world, there are more women entering undergraduate and graduate university programs than men,5 and in certain fields such as medicine and law, the numbers of women are beginning to dominate. In addition, women are often extremely successful because they bring a different type of intellect to the job. Women lawyers, for example, have an approach to legal questions that is often different from, and at times more effective than, the traditional 'male' approach. It seems clear that within the Jewish world, the virtual revolution in women's education and learning opportunities reflects this same trend.


The Diminishment of the Moon: Why Don't We Know about This?

The above four points of Rabbi Isaac Luria present a perspective on women and Judaism that generally is not known because it draws from the most esoteric layer of Jewish wisdom. His text provides a frame that can hold the myriad teachings about women in Judaism, both the traditional and the radical, the status quo and the feminist critique. Just as his vision predicted the current shifts of gender roles, so it predicted the more classic roles with their disparities of stature that characterize the other stages of archetypal woman's developmental journey.

What are the roots of the Lurianic model, and how were his teachings developed through time by other rabbinic writings? The section of the Holy Ari's writings where this text appears is called Miut Ha'Yareah (Diminishment of the Moon). This term has become the code word for the whole body of teachings on the feminine persona and her evolving journey through time.

The earliest source of the idea of the Diminishment of the Moon is the Torah. Genesis 1:16 states:

G-d created two great lights

And yet, the same verse goes on to describe an apparently contradictory situation:

The great light to rule by day and the small light to rule by night. First there are two great lights, then suddenly, only one remains great, while the other has become small.

An explanation of this contradiction appears in the Talmud Hulin 60b, in a midrash told by Rabbi Shimon ben Pazi. Rabbi Luria based his view on this midrash, which has become the channel for all the profound (and quite revolutionary) teachings about women in kabbalistic and hasidic texts. The parable goes like this:
      Originally the sun [always equated with man] and the moon [always
   equated with woman] were created equal in size. The moon complains
   to the Holy One that it is not possible for two kings to rule under
   one crown. The Holy One agrees and commands her to diminish
   herself. The moon protests, and a negotiation ensues. She is not
   convinced. The Holy One finally commands the moon to be diminished,
   but asks that a sin-offering be brought to atone for having forced
   the moon to diminish herself.

There is much to say about this midrash with its perplexing end, but I shall focus on one small point. (6) The midrash presents a two-stage process: 1. The sun and moon are equal; 2. The moon diminishes in size. According to Rabbi Isaac Luria, there is a third, final step: The moon returns to her original greatness, and two monarchs successfully share a single crown. From where does the Holy Ari derive his idea about the reattained equality of the moon?

One of the possible sources for the reinstatement of the large moon is the verse from Isaiah 30:16 recited in Kiddush Ha'Levanah, the monthly sanctification of the moon. (7) This verse prophesies that the light of the moon will become like the light of the sun. It is inserted into the end of the prayer in this formulation:
   May it be Your will, L-rd my G-d ... that You fill the flaw of the
   moon that there be no diminution in it. May the light of the moon
   be like the light of the sun and like the light of the seven days
   of Creation, as it was before it was diminished, as the Torah says:
   "The two great luminaries ..."

This prayer, said under the open sky every month at some point during the waxing phase of the moon, provides a basis for the Lurianic interpretation of Rabbi Shimon ben Pazi's midrash. It expresses the desire and vision that the moon (woman) will rise from diminishment to full stature with the sun.

The equality of the Holy Ari's final stage of feminine development is a win-win transformation. Archetypal man seeks union with archetypal woman and will not be fully satisfied until that union is consummated on every level, which can only happen when they meet from the crown of their heads to the soles of their feet. This can happen only when their statures are equal. Short of that, there are always aspects of each side that remain separate, and their union is incomplete.

Only when woman regains her fullness of stature do man and woman finally meet in full and joyous union. Only as equals do man and woman form a true match. This perfect marriage has been the universal (though perhaps unconscious) yearning of humanity for six thousand years. From its consummation flow all the promised blessings of the world to come.

According to Rabbi Luria, the shifting of gender relations is not intended to be a war, but rather a mutually desired and shared project. Archetypal man's role is to build archetypal woman up by generously providing her with the resources of light and strength that she needs to develop herself (and particularly in our generation, her intellect). The whole point, according to the Ari, is for her to become independent from man in this regard. In woman's unperfected state, the male-female relationship is mediated by need. This is one of the major glues that binds them together. While this is appropriate and essential at certain phases of their relationship, in the final stage, woman no longer needs man to bring down her lights for her. She has her own independent access to the flow of consciousness and bounty. The fear is that she will go her own separate way, leaving him behind if she no longer needs him. The Holy Ari says that the opposite is true. Only without need are man and woman finally free to unite from a place of pure love and mutual desire, to attain a love that is not contaminated by ulterior motives. From their holy and reconsecrated union will flow all the promised sweetness of messianic redemption.

Appendix: An Adapted Excerpt from

Kabbalistic Writings on the Nature of Masculine and Feminine

Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Ha'Levi Epstein, in his book Me'or V'Shemesh, discusses how the women sang and danced after the Children of Israel emerged from the Red Sea.
      And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took the timbrel
   in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines
   and with circle dances. And Miriam answered them: "Sing to the L-rd,
   for He has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider has He
   thrown into the sea." (8)

It is known that creation passed through several eras before settling into the stable and familiar form of our world. The stage immediately preceding ours is called the Circle Universe, (9) while ours is the Linear World of straight lines and hierarchy. (10) These terms are both technical and metaphorical. They describe the arrangement of sfirot (Divine Emanations). In the Circle Universe, the sfirot are arranged in concentric circles, and in the Linear World, the sfirot are arranged in parallel lines. (See Figure 4.)


Kabbalah explains that just as Creation emerged from the depths of Divinity, so will it return there in a single cycle of extension and retraction. (See Figure 5.) Its worlds will unfold downward till their endpoint of emanation and then begin a reverse course back toward their roots (and beyond), undergoing profound transformations at each stage. The creation that returns has been metamorphosed through its experience. It has been fixed, actualized, cleansed, and transfigured along the way.

Nevertheless, its return route is the exact reverse of its original emanation. We are still approaching the maximum point of extension, which will be unmistakably marked by the Messianic Age, and then we will begin our journey back up to our roots. (11) The first stop will be the World of Circles, the stage that immediately preceded ours on the way down. (12)

Looking toward the future, the Circle World is a more evolved and rectified state of consciousness than our present linear reality.

In the Circle World, it will be gloriously clear that every soul is equally precious and singularly beautiful in a way that cannot be ranked. Similarly, it will not anymore be possible to look to one's neighbors for guidance in serving G-d, for each person has a unique soul with a speciality in which he or she is the world's foremost expert. There is nowhere to look for instruction except straight from G-d, Who metaphorically sits at the circle's center, equidistant from all its holy points.

Rabbi Epstein explains that the conventions of gender in Kabbala echo the physical differences between man and women. Bestowal is a masculine role; receiving is a feminine one. Consequently, in the linear scheme, the teacher is masculine in relation to the student who is influenced by him. In the Circular World these hierarchical rankings between human beings will end, for no one will receive spiritual guidance from neighbors, spouses, or even teachers. All will turn straight to the Holy One for inspiration, and on that day, says Rabbi Epstein, all power disparities will cease, including the archetypal source of them all, the hierarchy of gender, with its asymmetrical distribution of authority and dependency.

All this Miriam knew and intended when she led the women in the circle dance. Miriam drew the future into the present, initiating the Jewish nation into the secret truth, promise, and yearning of the Circle World. The day will come, blessed and welcomed by all, when power disparities will cease and perfect equality will reign, when every soul will shine with its glory, and all will become the most dearly beloved of their Creator ...


Presented at the Sixth Miami International Conference on Torah and Science, 13-15 December 2005


(1) Isaac Luria, Ayts Hayyim (Tree of Life), heikhal nukvah, shaar miut ha'yareah, chap. 1. For the exact Hebrew text as well as the author's annotated translation, see Kabbalistic Writings on the Nature of Masculine and Feminine by Sarah Yehudit Schneider, pp. 53-98. (This book is available from

(2) Kabbalah and this paper use the terms "masculine" and "feminine" as well as "man" and "woman" in ways that are by no means meant to be understood as equivalent with literal men and women. Man and woman are kabbalistic archetypes of male and female; -man and masculine refer to the persona that gives, whereas woman and feminine refer to the persona that receives. See chap. 1, "Preliminaries" in Kabbalistic Writings on the Nature of Masculine and Feminine, especially pp. 17-35, for a more in-depth discussion.

(3) A holographic system is one where every sub-part contains information about the whole and every other sub-part within itself. Consequently, in a holographic system, it is possible to reconstruct the entire structure from any isolated component.

(4) The composite sum total of women is a kind of archetype unto itself (called Eve), and on this scale, meaningful parallels do hold.

(5) The New York Times on 9 Jul 2006 reported: "... the college landscape is changing. Women now make up fifty-eight percent of those enrolled in two- and four-year colleges and are, over all, the majority in graduate schools and professional schools too.

"Most institutions of higher learning, except engineering schools, now have a female edge, with many small liberal arts colleges and huge public universities alike hovering near the 60-40 ratio. Even Harvard, long a male bastion, has begun to tilt toward women. 'The class we just admitted will be 52 percent female,' said William Fitzsimmons, Harvard's dean of admissions."

(6) See chapter 9 of Kabbalistic Writings on the Nature of Masculine and Feminine for an in-depth explanation.

(7) This version of the sanctification of the moon is found in Ashkenazic prayer books.

(8) Exodus 15:20-21.

(9) Also called the World of Points.

(10) Also called the Rectified World.

(11) Shlomo Elyashiv (Leshem), Leshem SheVo V'Ahlamah: Ha'Drush Olam Ha'Tohu II:4:17:5 (first word: v'ahor).

(12) Leshem explains that although this is technically called the World of Points, it is also correct to refer to it as the Circle World because relative to the worlds that follow, its organization is circular. "Treatise Addressing Confusions Surrounding the Circular and Linear Worlds," 3:6. This treatise appears as an appendix to Ha'Drush Olam Ha'Tohu.

The five figures in this article were taken from Kabbalistic Writings on the Nature of Masculine and Feminine by Sarah Yehudit Schneider with the consent of the author.

Sarah Yehudit (Susan) Schneider is the founding director of A Still Small Voice, a correspondence school that provides weekly teachings in classic Jewish wisdom to subscribers around the world. Her published works include the book Kabbalistic Writings on the Nature of Masculine and Feminine. In addition she has produced three pocket books: Eating as Tikun, Purim Bursts, and Evolutionary Creationism--Torah Solves the Riddle of Missing Links. She has also produced three journal articles for B'Or Ha'Torah: "Evolution, Form and Consciousness," "The Underside of Creative Expression," and "Women's Rights in the Torah: The Daughters of Tslofhad." An expanded version of the latter article appears in an anthology, Torah of the Mothers: Contemporary Jewish Women Read Classical Jewish Texts.

Schneider has a bachelor's degree in molecular, cellular, and developmental biology from the University of Colorado in Boulder. Before immigrating to Israel she worked as laboratory researcher for Celestial Seasonings' Herb Tea Company.

She can be contacted through her Still Small Voice website: or by email:
Figure 2. The kabbalistic concepts of feminine and
masculine, as represented by the moon and sun.

Moon                     Sun

feminine                 masculine
archetype of woman       archetype of man
creation                 G-d
females                  males
emotions                 intellect
anima (inner feminine)   animus (inner masculine)
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Author:Schneider, Sarah Yehudit
Publication:B'Or Ha'Torah
Geographic Code:7ISRA
Date:Jan 1, 2008
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