Reclaiming Women’s Wisdom

“The time has come for Jewish tradition to receive the gifts that women’s wisdom contributes in order to regain its wholeness…”

With these words, Rabbi Tirzah Firestone takes up the call for women’s spirituality in Judaism. The title of her new book, The Receiving: Reclaiming Jewish Women’s Wisdom (Harper San Francisco, $24.95) comes from the literal translation of the word “kabbalah,” and her exploration of the subject moves from the daily trials of seven women’s lives to the esoteric nature of the soul in Jewish mysticism. Her earlier volume. With Roots in Heaven, followed her own journey of spiritual evolution. The Receiving uses the biographies of seven wise women, all mystics, healers or sages, to illustrate the various sephirot (circles or chakras) of the kabbalistic Tree of Life.

The journey begins with Hannah Rachel of Ludomir, a scholar who lived and taught as a rabbi in a 19th-century Ukrainian village. Firestone also celebrates such under-sung heroines as Beruriah of the Talmud, who balanced the dual characteristics of textual expertise with earthy sensuality. According to Firestone, Beruriah embodied the Jewish paradox of striving for spiritual enlightenment while remaining grounded in everyday living, as well as the divide between traditional male and female values. Firestone then introduces us to Malkah of Belz, matriarch of a Hasidic dynasty; Asnat Barzani, a Kurdish healer and sage; and Dulcie of Worms, a scholar in 12th-century Germany who was brutally murdered during the Crusades.

Rabbi Firestone uses the life stories of these women, interwoven with examples from her own psychotherapeutic practice, to reveal the workings of kabbalistic energy and how they apply to women’s lives today.

The Receiving is an introduction to kabbalah for any woman just beginning her mystical journey. The concepts are lucidly explained and presented in comprehensible fashion, even to someone without a strong Jewish background. For those further along in their pursuit of kabbalah, this volume provides a fascinating glimpse into the lives of female sages and mystics whom even the more educated may never have met.

Rebecca Schwartz is the editor of All the Women Followed Her: A Collection of Writings on Miriam the Prophet and the Women of Exodus (2001).  She teaches in the San Francisco Bay Area.