The Divine Feminine: Lady Wisdom

Excerpt From: (Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Embracing the Divine Feminine)

In the beginning was Logos, and Logos was with God, and Logos was God. This one was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Logos, and apart from Logos not one thing came into being that has come into being. In Logos was life, and the life was the light of humanity. (John 1: 1–4)

Natura naturans informs natura naturata; Nirguna Brahman informs Saguna Brahman, the Unnamable Tao informs the nameable Tao, and God informs Logos. In the Hebrew Bible, the same dynamic exists between YHVH and Chochmah, the ultimate reality beyond name and form manifesting as the reality of name and form.

Most English translations of the Hebrew Bible render YHVH as “Lord.” While this translation is terribly misleading, it has its origins in ancient Rabbinic tradition. The early Rabbis prohibited the pronunciation of YHVH and substituted the Hebrew Adonai instead. Adonai does mean “Lord,” which explains the use of “Lord” in our English Bibles, but substituting Adonai for YHVH actually inverts the true meaning of YHVH. Adonai is a masculine noun suggesting and enforcing the patriarchal hierarchy of power and privilege enjoyed by the Rabbis themselves. Rabbis were men, and exclusively so; therefore YHVH was male, and exclusively so. Rabbis were the pinnacle of power in Rabbinic society; therefore God was the pinnacle of power in creation. The Rabbis literally created a God in their own image who would, not surprisingly, support their own status and power. No wonder they read the Song of Songs as a celebration of themselves. But YHVH has nothing to do with any of this.

YHVH isn’t a noun, but a verb: a form of the Hebrew verb “to be.” As a verb, YHVH supports no hierarchy or power structure. Indeed, when Moses asks for the meaning of YHVH in Exodus 3: 13–14, the Hebrew Bible defines YHVH as Ehyeh asher Ehyeh, not the static “I Am What I Am” of so many English translations of the Hebrew Bible, but the dynamic “I Am Becoming What I Am Becoming” of the Hebrew itself.

YHVH is an activity, be-ing itself rather than a being or even a supreme being. To borrow from Saint Paul in the book of Acts, “God is that in whom we live and move and have our being” (17: 28). YHVH is natura naturans, Nirguna Brahman, the Tao without a name, God. From YHVH comes natura naturata, Saguna Brahman, the Tao with a name, Logos, and Wisdom. And because Wisdom comes from YHVH, Wisdom can lead us back to YHVH or, more accurately still, awaken us to our ever-present unity in, with, and as YHVH.

Who Is Lady Wisdom?

I am the deep grain of creation, the subtle current of life. God fashioned me before all things: I am the blueprint of creation. I was there from the beginning, from before there was a beginning. I am independent of time and space, earth and sky. I was there before depth was conceived, before springs bubbled with water, before the shaping of mountains and hills, before God fashioned the earth and its bounty, before the first dust settled on the land. When God prepared the heavens, I was there. When the circle of the earth was etched into the face of the deep, I was there. When the stars and planets soared into their orbit, when the deepest oceans found their level and the dry land established the shores, I was there.I stood beside God as firstborn and friend. My nature is joy, and I gave God constant delight. Now that the world is inhabited, I rejoice in it. I will be your true delight if you will heed my teachings. Follow me and be happy. Practice my discipline and grow wise (Proverbs 8: 22–32)

     It is with this passage that we are introduced to Lady Wisdom. While the gender of the speaker cannot be discerned in the English translation, the Hebrew is clear: the speaker is Chochmah, Lady Wisdom, and hence all the pronouns and verbs referring to Wisdom in the passage are feminine. The grammar of this and every passage that speaks of, to, about, or for Wisdom always uses the feminine form.

     Wisdom is the firstborn of God, and from her comes the ten thousand things of creation. As Proverbs tells us, her way is the way of truth and justice (8: 7–8), qualities hitherto associated with God. Her essence is itself pure delight, and she delights in humanity (8: 30–31). One who finds her finds life (8: 35). Compare this to Jesus when he says, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (Gospel according to John 14: 6, NIV).

Saint Paul makes the connection between Jesus and Wisdom quite plain: “Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1: 24, NIV). What becomes the male Christ in the Christian Scriptures was originally the female Chochmah in the Hebrew Bible. Wisdom is the way God manifests in and as creation. Uniting with Wisdom, as the Song of Songs invites us to do, is a way of uniting with life and the Source from which life arises.

As Hebrew Bible scholar Gerhard von Rad explains: It is correct to say that wisdom is the form in which Jahweh’s will and his accompanying of man (i.e., his salvation) approaches man. Wisdom is the essence of what man needs for a proper life, and of what God grants him. Still, the most important thing is that wisdom does not turn towards man in the shape of an “It,” teaching, guidance, salvation or the life, but of a person, a summoning “I.” So wisdom is truly the form in which Jahweh makes himself present and in which he wishes to be sought by man. “Whoso finds me, finds life” (Prov. 8: 35). Only Jahweh can speak in this way.

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of this observation by von Rad that we are not talking about an abstract principle—wisdom with a lowercase “w”—but about a person—Wisdom with an uppercase “W.” The personification of Lady Wisdom allows us to become intimate with her in ways we could not if she were merely a set of principles or ethical guidelines for right living. We personify Wisdom because on a deep and subconscious level we know her to be the “Other” with whom we long to unite. She is not an abstraction but our Beloved. She is not to be thought about but physically embraced in a manner that reveals YHVH to us.

     Just as the Logos is both with God and God in John’s Prologue, over time Chochmah shifts from being a separate entity who exists with God to being an expression of God: God as we experience God here on earth. The presence of God is called Shekhinah, and she, no less than Chochmah, is feminine. It may be their shared gender that led the two to be understood as one.

The essence of the Kabbalistic idea of God … lies in its resolutely dynamic conception of the Godhead: God’s creative power and vitality develop in an unending movement of His nature, which flows not only outward into Creation but also back into itself.

God is YHVH, the be-ing of all being. God is intrinsically creative, indeed is creativity itself. Yet, God is more than observable reality. God is also the source of that reality. The metaphor I find most helpful is that of the relationship between an ocean, the waving of the ocean, and the waves that arise from that waving. Speaking metaphorically and not scientifically, God as Source is the ocean, God as Wisdom is the waving of the ocean, and God as Shekhinah is the wave that arises from that waving. The Kabbalists resorted to the expedient of differentiating between two strata of the Godhead: one, its hidden being-in-itself, its immanence in the depths of its own being; and another, that of its creative and active nature, thrusting outward toward expression…. The former stratum is designated in the language of the Kabbalists as Ein-Sof, the undifferentiated unity, the self-contained Root of Roots in which all contradictions merge and dissolve. The latter substratum is the structure of the ten Sefiroth, which are the sacred names—i.e., the various aspects of God—or the ten words of Creation (logoi) by which everything was created.


Let’s begin with the creation of woman in Genesis 2. God sees that “it is not good that adam [“ earthling,” from adamah, “earth”] is alone; I will make for adam an eizer k’nego, a helper of equal worth” (Genesis 2: 18). This phrase “a helper of equal worth” is a bit awkward in English, but not so in Hebrew. Eizer means “helper.” K’negdo means something like the loyal opposition [JaPW1]. The role of the woman is to stand in loving opposition to the man and in this way overcome the aloneness God seeks to avoid. It is this aloneness, this sense of separation, that will prove pivotal in the exile of the man (but not the woman) from the Garden. Prior to the creation of woman, God fashions all the animals of the earth and brings each to adam to see if any of them can overcome adam’s aloneness. Sexual union was the means by which aloneness was to be overcome, but according to the Rabbis, no animal completed the human. Only after the failure of the animals to overcome adam’s aloneness does God put adam to sleep, and from adam’s side (the Hebrew is tzeila, “side,” not “rib”) God draws out woman (ishah) (Genesis 2: 21–22). When adam awakes (from having slept with this new creation?) things prove different: “This time it is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh. This shall be called ishah [woman] for from ish [man] was she taken” (Genesis 2: 23). Despite the claim that ishah came from ish, that woman came from man, the Hebrew text actually reveals that both ish and ishah came from adam, the singular human. The words ish and ishah are used here for the first time; neither comes before the other. Man and woman both come from adam and are aspects of adam, and only when they unite with one another can they achieve the unity from which they originally derived.

Unity Lost

In Genesis 1: 27 we learn that adam, though grammatically masculine and singular, is both masculine and feminine. While the simple reading of this text, reinforced in Genesis 5: 2, is that God created two sexes from the very beginning, this reading becomes problematic in light of Genesis 2: 7, when God forms a single earthling (adam) from the dust of the earth. To harmonize the two stories, the ancient Rabbis imagined adam as androgynous or as conjoined twins: “You have formed me front and back” (Psalm 139: 5). Rabbi Jeremiah ben Eleazar said, “When the Holy One, blessed be He, created the first adam, He created it with both male and female sex organs, as it is written, Male and female He created them, and He called their name adam (Genesis 5: 2).” Rabbi Samuel ben Nahmani then said, “When the Holy One, blessed be He, created the first adam, He created him with two faces, then slit him and made him two backs—a back for each side.” The unity of adam was lost with the splitting of adam (earthling) into ish (man) and ishah (woman). The result of that lost unity is portrayed in the Garden of Eden story. The Relationship of Ish and Ishah To understand the relationship between ish and ishah, we must unpack the meaning of the two words. As taught to me decades ago, the word ish (aleph-yud-shin), “man,” is derived from eish (aleph-shin), “fire.” What differentiates “man” from “fire,” ish from eish, is the letter yud, which is the first letter of the divine name YHVH (Yud-Hei-Vav-Hei) and which stands for yada, “unitive knowing.” As long as a man is informed by the unity of God, woman, man, and nature, he is an ish, a holy fire if you like, bringing light and warmth wherever he goes. Awakening the yud is part of a man’s spiritual practice, and since yada is also a euphemism for sexual intercourse, one way of achieving unity consciousness is through sexual union. As we shall see, the Song of Song speaks directly to this practice. In Hebrew, ishah (woman) is also composed of three letters: aleph-shin-hei. Ishah lacks the letter yud and instead ends with the letter hei. Does the absence of the yud in ishah mean that woman lacks this intimate knowing? In a way it does: woman doesn’t have wisdom; woman is wisdom. The vowel sound ee, made by the presence of the letter yud between the aleph and the shin in ish (man) is not absent in ishah but internalized and integrated to the point of not needing to be marked by a separate letter at all. This point will have great importance as our story progresses. Because ishah has internalized the yud of YHVH and yada (knowing), ishah contains the letter hei, the second and fourth letters in the divine name YHVH, and the second letter of the divine name Yah, yud-hei (as in hallelu-Yah, “praise Yah, praise God”). When ish (with the yud) is united with ishah (with the hei), the fully realized divine, Yah, manifests. The union of the woman and her lover in the Song of Songs is the union of hei and yud. The union of Wisdom (the feminine principle) and the seeker of Wisdom (the masculine principle) in our spiritual practice is the same. In both cases we have the possibility of realizing God through ecstasy. Furthermore, when the letter hei appears at the end of a word as it does in ishah, it often denotes direction. While ish (man) is a holy fire, he lacks direction. Ishah, on the other hand, includes both the holy fire of yud and the directional activity of hei. So ishah implies not only that the woman has internalized unitive knowing and the wisdom that comes with it, but also that she uses that knowing to offer direction to ish, who lacks it. It is in doing so that she becomes eizer k’negdo, the helper of equal worth. Both man and woman have the potential for unitive knowing, but only the woman knows how to use it, which may explain why it is that the man leaves “his father and his mother and clings to his woman in the way of becoming one flesh” (Genesis 2: 24) and why it is that the woman in both the Garden of Eden and the Song of Songs directs the man to Wisdom. To fully understand what the Bible is saying, we have to make a shift from “male” and “female” to “masculine” and “feminine”—from physical sexes to psycho-spiritual archetypes. Adam, the original human of Genesis 1: 27, is both masculine and feminine[JaPW2] . The parable of the Garden of Eden speaks to the separation these two forces. The parable of the Song of Songs speaks to their reunification. Both texts use the image of a woman and a man to tell their story, and both should be read more deeply if their spiritual meaning is to be revealed. With this in mind, let’s go more deeply into the Genesis story.

The Naked Truth

Chapter 2 of Genesis closes with the observation that both the man and the woman were naked (arumim), and neither was ashamed (2: 25). Chapter 3 opens with a description of the serpent as the most arum of any creature God had made (3: 1). While it is common for English translations to render the Hebrew arum as “naked” when referring to the humans (arumim is the plural of arum) and as “cunning” or “devious” when referring to the snake in the very next verse, doing so is arbitrary and blinds us to the true meaning of the story.

The humans and the serpent, alone among all creatures, are naked. What can this mean? How is a serpent naked in a way that corresponds to how humans are naked[JaPW3] ? I suggest we read “naked” in the sense of “innocent.” The serpent was innocent and not devious.

In fact, playing with gematria, Hebrew numerology, a common tool of Rabbinic interpretation of the Hebrew Bible, we discover that the Hebrew word for “serpent” (nachash in Hebrew: nun [50] + chet [8] + shin [300] = 358) has the same numerological value as that for “messiah” (mashiach: mem [40] + shin [300] + yud [10] + chet [8] = 358). The rules of gematria allow the reader to substitute words sharing the same numerical value: the snake is the messiah disguised as a serpent!

But the messiah wouldn’t seek to trick the humans into sinning, so some other goal must lie behind the serpent’s efforts to get the woman to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The goal, I suggest, is to open the eyes of the man and the woman and to move them beyond their childlike state into adulthood[JaPW4] . To achieve this goal, the messiah takes on the shape of a serpent, the most innocent and thus trustworthy creature in the Garden, and seeks out the woman to carry out his plan. Again we have to wonder why, in what is usually considered a patriarchal myth, does the serpent seek out ishah rather than ish, the woman rather than the man?

Traditionally the answer has been that the woman’s will is weaker than that of the man, and itis this reading that has become foundational to so much misogyny over the past thousands of years. But this isn’t the only reading of the text. The messiah/ serpent sought out the woman rather than the man because the woman—ishah—is the one with the potential to realize the internalized yud, the unitive knowing that is at the heart of Wisdom, and then take action (the externalized hei) to move humanity in the direction of Wisdom. The serpent seeks out not the person most vulnerable to sin, but rather the person most capable of realizing Wisdom—the woman.

To Eat or Not to Eat, That Is the Question

The serpent urges the woman to eat from the Tree of Knowledge and to become like God, but she refuses (Genesis 3: 5). She will not be cajoled into doing what she believes is forbidden. Then the Hebrew Bible tells us, “The woman perceived that the tree was good for eating and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable as a means to Wisdom, and she took of its fruit and ate” (Genesis 3: 6).

We tend to read this dawning realization as a single happening: the woman sees that the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge appears delicious, beautiful, and eye-opening. But this is not the only way to read the verse. Think of these as three clauses representing three distinct encounters with the Tree of Knowledge.

First, the woman is attracted by the lusciousness of the fruit and the desire to consume it, but that isn’t enough to make her do so. She masters her hunger and moves on without eating the fruit. Sometime later she passes by the Tree again and this time perceives that the fruit is beautiful, and she desires to possess it. But beauty also fails to move her, so she again masters her passion and moves on without plucking the fruit. Only on a third encounter with the Tree does she sees that the Tree will make her wise, and only then does she consciously and deliberately eat of the Tree of Knowledge.

It isn’t that she has rationalized away the commandment to not eat of the Tree, but that she is willing to risk her very existence for the sake of Wisdom. In other words, her innate capacity for internalizing Wisdom is realized in her act of eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.

Now think in terms of the woman in the Song of Songs. Just as the woman in the Garden broke the sole rule for living there, the woman in the Song breaks the customs of her day and makes love to her lover outside the boundaries of marriage. Just as the woman in the Garden eats the fruit of the Tree, the woman in the Song eats the fruit of her lover (Song of Songs 2: 3). And just as the woman of the Garden offers the fruit of Wisdom to her man, so the woman of the Song offers the fruit of her body to her man.

The difference between these women isn’t their desire to feed their men, but the ability of their respective partners to properly accept what is offered. While the woman in Genesis eats only after mastering her passions, her man acts very differently: “And she gave also to her man who was with her and he ate” (Genesis 3: 6). The man eats without thinking. He blindly consumes; he acts from eish—fire, passion, and compulsivity—rather than from the yud of ish, the yud of yada, unitive knowing. The mistake the woman makes is to assume that the man, who, after all, was right there with her, had reached the same level of consciousness that she had. She offers him Wisdom before he has mastered his baser instincts to consume and possess.

Unlike in the Song of Songs where Wisdom and her lover are equally eizer k’negdo each to the other, working with each other to bring each other to the fully embodied ecstasy of awakening, the ish in Genesis is incapable of fully realizing the gift offered him by the ishah. This is why there is no fear, punishment, or exile in the Song of Songs as there is in the Genesis story.

At the moment the woman and her man eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, their eyes are opened and they realize they are naked (Genesis 3: 7). Notice that their nakedness evokes nothing but a desire to cover themselves. No shame is mentioned. But all that changes when God confronts the man in the Garden. Hearing God approach, the two of them hide. God then calls to the man alone. Why? Because only the man poses a problem for God. The woman has fulfilled her nature as the embodiment of Wisdom; she has internalized the yud of unitive knowing and manifested the hei of holy action: she partook of the fruit of awakening to Wisdom, and she offered it (albeit prematurely) to her man. She is ready to lead. The man, on the other hand, is in a very different state. Put bluntly by the fifth-century church father Saint Augustine,

where the woman is guided by Wisdom, the man is now ruled by his penis: These members [the penis] being moved and restrained not at our will, but by a certain independent autocracy, so to speak, are called “shameful.” Their condition was different before sin … because not yet did lust move those members without the will’s consent…. But when [Adam] was stripped of grace … there began to be in the movement of their bodily members a shameless novelty which made nakedness indecent.

     Saint Augustine imagined that before eating from the Tree of Knowledge, the man could have impregnated the woman “without the seductive stimulus of passion, with calmness of mind, and with no corruption of the innocence of the body…. It would have been possible to inject the semen into the womb through the female genitalia as innocently as the menstrual flow is now ejected.”

 And while tradition has blamed all of this on the woman, it is important to note that the Hebrew Bible does not.

     God calls to the man, who blames his hiding on the fact of his nakedness (Genesis 3:10). The man doesn’t confess to eating the fruit, only to feeling fear over being naked. When challenged, the man blames the woman for his situation, and the woman blames the serpent. God punishes all three: the serpent must crawl on its belly, the woman must endure the pain of childbirth, and the man must toil mightily to bring forth the bounty of the earth (Genesis 3:14–19).

Immediately after this, Genesis 3:20 says, “The man called his woman Chavah [Eve], because she had become the mother of all the living” (Chavah means “living “one” in Hebrew). This is an odd verse, and there is no reason for it. It doesn’t move the story forward or even make sense. What it does is link Chavah to Chochmah, Eve to Wisdom, for the way Chavah, the helpmate, is the mother of all the living isn’t that she births them into life but that she births them into Wisdom—the wisdom her man could not internalize.

The story resumes, and God worries aloud, “Now that the man has become k’achad mimennu, knowing good and evil, he might reach out and take also of the Tree of Life, and eat and live forever!” (Genesis 3:22). In standard English translations of the Bible, the Hebrew phrase k’achad mimennu is rendered “like one of us”—in other words, “like a god.” But if this were the case, the Hebrew would be k’echad mimennu. Achad means “unique,” and a better reading of the Hebrew would be this: “The man—and not the woman—has become unique, no longer one with us, but separate from us, alienated from us, and hence fearful of us, and a danger to himself. If the man were now to eat of the Tree “of Life and attain immortality, he would be locked into this state of psycho-spiritual exile forever.”

The fact that God is concerned only with the man and not with the woman suggests that God recognizes that she has internalized Wisdom and reached her potential as ishah, while the man is dangerously close to being permanently condemned to eish, a consuming fire. It is for this reason that God exiles the man, but again not the woman. The Hebrew and the English are equally clear: “So God banished him from the Garden of Eden” (Genesis 3:23). Him and not her. Eve is not exiled at all.

Following the man’s exile from the Garden, God places fierce cherubim with an ever-turning sword of fire “to guard” (lishmor) the way to the Tree of Life (Genesis 3:24). While it is customary to understand the cherubim as defenders of the Tree, empowered to keep the man from returning to it, the text itself is far less clear on this matter. The Hebrew lishmor simply means “to protect.” One could read the Hebrew Bible as saying that the role of the cherubim with the flaming sword is to protect the “way back to the Tree so that when the man is ready to return the way will be lighted and cleared for him. When will the man be ready to return? When he has achieved what the woman has achieved: the internalization of Wisdom.”

“Remember, according to Proverbs 8:22 Wisdom isn’t a late addition to creation, but the way creation is created. Wisdom is intrinsic to all reality. What Lady Wisdom of Proverbs, the mother of all the living of Genesis, and the Woman of Wholeness and Peace of the Song of Songs offer is the awakening of this innate Wisdom.”

     “Union with Wisdom is presented to us in the Song of Songs as sexual union because it is through sexual intimacy (yada) that one achieves unitive knowing (again, yada).

The full splendor of sexual experience does not reveal itself with a new mode of attention to the world in general. On the other hand, the sexual relationship is a setting in which the full opening of attention may rather easily be realized because it is so immediately rewarding. It is the most common and dramatic instance of union between oneself and the other. But to serve as a means of initiation to the “one body” of the universe, it requires what we have called a contemplative approach. This is not love “without desire” in the sense of love without delight, but love which is not contrived or willfully provoked as an escape from the habitual empty feeling of the isolated ego.”