The Breasted God

Rabbi Arthur Waskow

The Breasted God

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow*

ONE OF THE DEEP ISSUES that today bedevils the Jewish people, and the human race, is how to understand God.

For many people, some of the old concepts — King of the Universe, Lord, Judge, for example — no longer seem adequate or honest. In a generation when human beings can destroy life on this planet, can create new species, can overthrow Pharaohs — all the powers we once located in a ruler far beyond us — it no longer seems truthful to invoke such metaphors. And many women, with some men, have pointed out that the old metaphors for God are overwhelmingly and pointedly masculine, bespeaking men's spiritual experience but rarely women's.

What then? Some people have poured scorn on the whole enterprise, at best identifying "biological evolution" or "the historical process" as the only sources of creativity and justice. Others have renamed God as the "Eternal Thou" (Buber), "the Power that draws us toward salvation" (Kaplan), perhaps "the Web of Relationship" (some feminists).

This is not a new problem. The Torah shows us that transformations in the life of the people required transformations in how to understand and name God. At the burning bush, Moses insists that he needs a new name of God if he is to be able to liberate the Hebrews — and God responds with a new name, specifically noting that in a new situation an old name — Shaddai — is not sufficient (Exodus 6:3.)

But what was that old name, and what did it signify? To understand it, we might turn to a climactic moment in the life of Jacob. He is blessing his son Joseph after all the turmoil of their lives has been resolved (Genisis 49: 25): "May your father's God on high become your help, and may Shaddai become your blessing — Blessings of the heavens, from above; blessings of the deep, crouching below — blessings of the breasts [Hebrew: shadai'im] and of the womb."

There are more clues: God uses this name in Genesis 17:1, speaking to Avram when he is on the verge of becoming Avraham, "the father of a throng of nations," the initiator of the covenant of circumcision. It is Shaddai, therefore, who foretells the birth of Isaac. Isaac invokes the same name to bless Jacob (28:1): "May God Shaddai bless you, make you bear fruit and make you many, so that you become a host of peoples." And God bears this name when Jacob, returning from a foreign land, rediscovers his own transformation from "Heel" (Jacob) to "Godwrestler" (Israel). God says to him (35:11): "I am God Shaddai. Bear fruit and be many! A nation — a host of nations! — shall come forth from your loins."

Most English translations of Torah have used "Almighty" for "Shaddai." This goes back to the Septuagint and Vulgate, which used the Greek and Latin words for "All-Powerful." Perhaps they drew on an ancient rabbinic midrash by Resh Lakish (Hagigah 12a) that the name means "Sheh-dai {Who/ Enough!]," the One who had enough power to say to the ocean "Enough!" when it was about to swallow up the world.

But if we look back at the blessing Jacob gives to Joseph, it is inescapable that the poet who wrote those lines meant: Shaddai is the Breasted One. Why else would the quatrain of this blessing so connect Shaddai with shadai'im?

And if we look back at all the blessings in which Shaddai is over and over invoked, they are about fruitfulness and fertility. God is seen as Infinite Mother, pouring forth blessings from the Breasts Above and the Womb Below, from the heavens that pour forth nourishing rain, from the ocean deeps that birth new life.

Just as Shaddai came first to open up the thickened cover of the foreskin, uncovering this ancient metaphor may open up for us some blocked-off, thickened coverings on our minds and hearts — "circumcise the foreskins of our hearts," as Torah has it (Deut. 10:16 and 30: 6 ). We Jews have prided ourselves on avoiding the "pagan" celebrations of the earthiness of earth, but the metaphor of Shaddai could recall for us what we have repressed.

The ancient dichotomy between Jacob's God, Shaddai, who blesses with earthy fruitfulness and Moses' God, YHWH, who liberates from Pharaoh — that dichotomy needs to be transcended. For today it is Pharaonic global corporations that are pouring poison into the heavens and the earth, forgetting that it is one aspect of God's Self — the Breasted One — that we are poisoning, and so condemn ourselves to drink a milk that is laced with poison.

In the Aleinu prayer, we envision a glorious future by chanting the phrase, "Letakken olam bemalkhut Shaddai." In the past we have understood this as: "To heal the world in the Kingship of the Almighty." But now we can draw on "Shaddai" as the Breasted One, and hear ourselves call out: "To heal the world through the Majesty of Nurture."

Since 1969, Rabbi Arthur Waskow has been one of the leading creators of theory, practice, and institutions for the movement for Jewish renewal. He is a Pathfinder of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, and has been a Shabbaton leader around the world.

In 1983 he founded and continues to direct The Shalom Center, a division of ALEPH that focuses on Jewish thought and practice to protect and heal the earth and society. To join it, send $49 or more to The Shalom Center, 6711 Lincoln Drive, Philadelphia PA 19119.

Among his seminal works in Jewish renewal are The Freedom Seder; Godwrestling; Seasons of Our Joy; Down-to-Earth Judaism: Food, Money, Sex, and the Rest of Life; and Godwrestling, Round Two (recipient of the Benjamin Franklin Award in 1996).

With his wife Phyllis Ocean Berman, he is the co-author of Tales of Tikkun: New Jewish Stories to Heal the Wounded World. He is the co-editor of Trees, Earth, & Torah: A Tu B'Shvat Anthology, a major new volume in the classic series of Festival Anthologies from the Jewish Publication Society and the editor of Torah of the Earth: Exploring 4,000 Years of Ecology in Jewish Thought (Jewish Lights, 2000).

In 1996, Rabbi Waskow was named by the United Nations one of forty "Wisdom Keepers" — forty religious and intellectual leaders from all over the world who met in connection with the Habitat II conference in Istanbul.

During this past year, The Shalom Center has initiated a multi-religious project called FREE TIME/ FREE PEOPLE, on issues of overwork and disemployment in American society. See Freeing Our Time.


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