- Mirror of His Beauty: Feminine Images of God from the Bible to the Early Kabbalah
Peter Schäfer’s latest book significantly engages the Christian veneration of the Virgin Mary in an effort to account for the sudden appearance of feminine imagery for the divine in the early Kabbalah. More specifically, he finds a likely inspiration for the Sefer ha-Bahir’s sudden emphasis on God’s feminine aspect, the shekhinah, in the flourishing cult of the Virgin Mary in the High Middle Ages. Schäfer focuses on the link through Sophianic traditions, which are well known in the Jewish tradition but are an often overlooked and underdeveloped aspect of the Christian tradition and particularly its veneration of the Virgin Mary. On the whole, Schäfer’s hypothesis is persuasive, even if certain questions will no doubt still remain. Moreover, his concluding thoughts about Religious Studies’ often misguided obsession with “origins” are very thought provoking. His suggestion that we should rethink our understanding of the nature of cultural influence according to a more dynamic, interactive model is quite compelling. [End Page 163]
Schäfer’s book consists of two parts. In the first part he traces the history of God’s feminine aspect from its beginnings as Wisdom in the Hebrew Scriptures up to its reemergence in the Bahir’s shekhinah. Chapter 1 rehearses the primary wisdom traditions from biblical and para-biblical literature, and chapter 2 considers Philo’s combination of Sophia with the Logos of Greco-Roman philosophy. The third chapter presents a very sensitive reading of the ancient gnostic traditions, and the Apocryphon of John particularly. Here Schäfer deftly exegetes the gnostic Sophianic traditions in the light of the Jewish traditions. Chapter 4 treats the rabbis and their elimination of any feminine aspect from God: Wisdom becomes identified with the Torah, and the shekhinah is male. The fifth chapter surveys the Jewish philosophers of the middle ages, and here Schäfer notes that as a part of their persistent emphasis on God’s absolute transcendence and their rejection of biblical anthropomorphism, the philosophers add to the rabbis’ suppression of God’s feminine aspect, pushing it even further by eliminating gender altogether from the divine. Finally, this first section concludes with a brief chapter on the shekhinah in the Bahir, which describes her role among the sefirot and emphasizes her role as a mediator between heaven and earth. I must confess that I am not an expert on most of this material, but much of what Schäfer presents in this first part of the book seems pretty routine and does not offer much that is radically new. One does wish, however, that he had dealt more (at all in fact) with Wisdom as she appears in the Qumran literature.
Part two treats “The Quest for Origins,” beginning with a brief presentation of Scholem’s classic view that the ideas of Kabbalah derive somehow from the ancient gnostic traditions. Noting some of the problems with this view, he sets up his new proposal. In Chapter 8 Schäfer very hastily covers the history of Marian veneration, beginning with the Eastern church and taking as a focus the traditions of Mary’s Dormition and Assumption, which have been the focus of my own studies. This was an unfortunate choice, since these traditions are much too complex and understudied for anyone to attempt the brief summary of them that Schäfer has. Schäfer should have read a bit more broadly here, and if he had, he certainly would have realized just how problematic this corpus of traditions is. In particular, bringing some of the more recent works of Michel van Esbroeck or even Simon Mimouni into his discussion would have saved him some errors and enabled him to discuss the traditions more effectively.
From this all-too-brief summary of early Marian devotion, Schäfer abruptly transports the reader suddenly to Western Europe in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, glossing over quite a lot in...