God, Our Mother
By Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi
In Biblical texts written during the age of the Patriarchs, God was seen in masculine terms. Since the Bible refers to us as “children of God” it was easy at that time to project the sense of “Father” on the Deity. In the beginning of the Genesis story, there is the statement that “the Spirit of God hovered over the waters”. The image it evokes is of a mothering spirit warming, brooding and caring for the new earth-egg and hatching life on Earth.
In digging deeper, especially in the writings of the mystics, we find traces of the feminine peeking out from underneath conventional theologies. For example, one of the Hebrew divine names, Shaddai, can be read as “the one with the nurturing breasts.” In the Kabbalah, the divine in-dwelling presence was seen as the Shechinah here, too, seen as “the mother.” So, too, has the corpus of divine revelation been seen in feminine terms as the Torah and the manifestation of the divine in time as the Queen Sabbath.
In Christianity, the third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, has often been depicted as a dove. The Hebrew word for holy spirit, Ru’ach Hakodesh, takes its verbs and adjectives in the feminine since Ru’ach Hakodesh is a feminine word.
In Catholicism, the image of Mary as the one to whom one can come with any prayer and request has been celebrated. There is even a prayer called the Memorari which contains words that say no petition addressed to her will go unanswered. In the Far East, in India, the feminine aspects of God have many names: Lakshmi, Durga and Kali. And, in China and Japan, one looks to Kwan Yin or Kanzeon as the source of compassion.
While each tradition seeks to find ways of accommodating the feminine into its theology, there seems to be a warm and loving quality of compassion, Rachamin or “womb-feeling”, that we experience when we think of the divine feminine. The blues expression, “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child” points to the times when we do feel like a mothered child. It makes such a difference when one begins to pray, especially out of the awareness of one’s diminishments, to address God as Mother.
As adults, and children before that time, we are sometimes in need of the help that we got as children. Our pride of self-sufficiency and “can-do” attitudes we experienced as young adults needs to be set aside when we are in need of help with medicines, incontinence, preparing our food, etc. This can be difficult for us, especially if we have to rely on our own children, who we parented, to help us. However, if we could see our caregivers as compassionate hands of our Divine Mother, we could let go of shame and embrace the blessings of Her loving angels.
I think also of the differences we experience when talking to God as Father versus God as Mother. When we go to God, the Father, we often take on the habit of offering something in return for His help. We offer charity, social service, some form of giving from ourselves that somehow is meant to even the score of what we are about to receive. Not so when we talk to God, the Mother. She asks nothing of us — but to let us be embraced by Her.
No wonder Catholics say in their prayer, “Holy Mary, Mother of God, be with us sinners now and at the hour of our death.” In Judaism, we speak of people who have had the glorious death of dying by the Mother Shechinah’s kiss. As elders, it would serve us well to shift the root metaphor by which we address God, from Father to Mother. It is much easier in this way to affirm that underneath it all are the “Everlasting Arms” (see Deuteronomy 33:27).