An Interview with Rabbi Tirzah Firestone
author of THE RECEIVING: Reclaiming Jewish Women’s Wisdom
by Andrew Young November 11, 2002
Andrew Young: How does The Receiving depart from your first book,
With Roots in Heaven?
Tirzah Firestone: With Roots in Heaven was a personal memoir. The
Receiving brings what I’ve learned in my return to Judaism – its deep root
truths – out into the public domain so that women and men who have been
disaffected or disenfranchised from the Jewish tradition can hear and apply these
The book also serves another intention of mine. Jewish history and
scholarship for thousands of years has been pronouncedly absent of women. The holy
women, the female sages and miracle workers…they’re almost completely
absent from our history. I wanted to correct this terrible omission.
AY: Why is this subject so important today?
TF: We’re in an unprecedented time in history when women are
going to rabbinic seminaries, cantorial schools, and adult education in large numbers.
For the first time, all the doors are now opening for women to learn everything from
the Talmud to Kabbalah to Jewish history and the arts. And because women have become
leaders of communities – rabbis, cantors, Jewish educators – there is no
stopping our urge to correct this long history of being unheard.
But the work has only begun. It’s critical that there be a tikkun,
a “repair,” to make known to the public that, yes, indeed, there were
remarkable women spiritual leaders, scholars, and mystics in the past, too. In this
way, we’ll have something to share with our daughters and the upcoming generations who
would otherwise find an enormous absence in the history books.
AY: These stories are by no means idyllic accounts; in fact, many
are poignant and even heartbreaking. How are the struggles and even failures of these
women sages of value to us?
TF: It might sound sentimental, but I believe that we have a
sacred obligation to these women, to bring their stories forward into the light of day,
to teach our daughters and women friends about them so they are not lost to history.
Many of these women’s struggles happened because they were so disempowered within
The Virgin of the Green Hut for example, was literally excommunicated and
banished from the Jewish community of Ukraine. There are other examples here too of
women who struggled within the male-dominant society that they lived in and succeeded
in maintaining their spiritual connection to the Divine. To me these are very powerful
teaching stories about persevering amidst the outer forces in the world.
These stories also teach us that women had their own way of doing things.
They did not let anger deter their lives – because they had too much to
accomplish! That is an important lesson for us.
AY: Tell us more about the spiritual teachings in The
TF: My deeper purpose for writing The Receiving was to begin to
put forth the Jewish mystical legacy for women – the woman’s Kabbalah. I
wanted to convey the beauty and innately balanced principles of Kabbalah in a way that
could be applied in a practical, down to earth way.
AY: What is the Kabbalah?
TF: The Kabbalah is the large and evolving body of Jewish mystical
work, not just a single book. It was originally an oral tradition that comes to us
through several different volumes that were written beginning in the 1100s with the
Bahir and then in the 1200s with the Zohar. The Kabbalah has been transmitted largely
from men to men for hundreds of years. Now, this is beginning to change.
AY: What does the Kabbalah offer to women?
TF: The essential principles of the Kabbalah are deeply balanced and are
all about healing. They teach the necessity and responsibility of healing the opposites
in life, particularly between the masculine and feminine approaches to life. But
because these teachings have been transmitted exclusively by men and for men for so
long, they have taken on a very masculine garb. That’s to say, the language and
terminology of the Kabbalah is often layered in stiff, formal , abstract, and often
masculine clothing. This is not the Kabbalah’s intrinsic nature, though! Its true
wisdom is very much about the masculine-feminine balance.
AY: Today, Jewish women can choose from many spiritual lineages
that embrace the feminine dimensions of spirituality. Why would someone want to return
to a tradition that has been largely preserved and practiced by men for 3,000
TF: I hope that this book will be a homecoming for so many of us
who have turned away from our tradition to seek wisdom elsewhere, who have thought that
Judaism is intrinsically out of balance. The book comes to teach that Judaism’s
most powerful teachings are about what is universal. Ultimately, they are about
achieving wholeness, and opening ourselves to receive a direct spiritual
AY: Before you wrote this book, what resources were available for
someone looking for teachings on the Kabbalah taught by women and for women? TF: For
women and by women? Well, that’s just it; there really has been nothing available.
Until now, if a woman wanted to study Kabbalah in a serious way, she would go to a
teacher or author such as Gershom Sholom, Moshe Idel, Eliot Wolfson. These are
wonderful male scholars, but the writing can be impenetrable even to a dedicated
student. And rarely is there any allusion to how the teachings relate to a woman’s
perspective, her daily life, her feminine rhythms.
In The Receiving, I have attempted to present the clear essence of the
Jewish mystical vision, stripping each teaching of its masculine and hierarchical outer
garments, to reveal its innately balanced perspective. The seven stories I tell each
serve as a springboard into a particular aspect of Judaism’s mystical wisdom,
such as the ten centers on the Tree of Life, the journey of the soul, reincarnation,
and the Kabbalah’s mystical practices.
AY: This emerging face of the feminine in Jewish spirituality: how
do you see it influencing the course of events in our world today?
TF: That’s an important question. I don’t want to be
grandiose, but I will say that the imbalances that we are suffering from now in the
world have so much to do with this ripping, this tear, between opposites. And the power
of mending and healing these rifts has everything to do with how we might heal the
conflicts we are witnessing today. Clearly, the feminine principle, which has
everything to do with relating to those around us heart to heart – is very much
what we need right now.