In: The Feminine Messiah
Ruth Kara-Ivanov Kaniel
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King David is one of the most colorful, and controversial, figures in Jewish lore. He is variously depicted as a warrior, poet, sinner, penitent, conqueror, musician, and adulterer. And perhaps most significantly, he is depicted as the Messiah. The many facets of his character are rooted in biblical narratives and continue to develop in rabbinic midrash and the various phases of Jewish Kabbalah. Each phase in this tradition has added new and unique features to the picture, thus creating the complex portrait of his persona. Indeed, “David” reflects the cumulative visions and hopes of those who followed in his footsteps throughout the ages. In short, what we realize in the writings that are at the center of discussion here is a substantial transformation of “King David” from a figure dynamically active in the historical realms of Scripture to a multifaceted figure operating in meta-historical realms. As we are going to see, these realms consist of entities and concepts that are made to play a significant role in the mystical realization of the Godhead.

This book focuses on the figure of King David as he appears in Jewish mystical, and particularly kabbalistic, literature. Most important in this connection are the gender-oriented issues in which the feminine configuration of “King David” plays a major role. I intend to examine the interplay of continuity and transformation in the rabbinic and kabbalistic depictions of King David, thus giving full attention to the dialectic characteristics of the sinner and repentant King-Messiah as they unfold in kabbalistic writings. I shall follow processes of shaping paradigms of imagining and thinking that are typical of archetypical modes of realization. In this context, doors are opened wide to modes of discussion that are relevant to several domains of study, not least among them being the psychoanalytic ones.

While numerous studies have focused on David’s centrality to biblical and rabbinic literature, no comprehensive scholarly attempt has been made to investigate his image in kabbalistic literature—a lacuna that this book aims to fill. The question at the heart of this study is this: why does almost every zoharic homily that refers to King David do so in terms of the female divine presence, the Shekhinah? I will explore images of the “feminine David” as they appear in the Zohar in comparison to how they appear in Castilian kabbalistic texts, and the impact that these images had on later sources such as Lurianic Kabbalah and Sabbatean texts, and even Hasidic readings, though this last group is beyond the scope of this book. I will show that this new, gendered perception of King David indicates a crucial turning point in Jewish thought, one whose influence was not limited to the mystical realm.

This study will address a dialectic issue, namely, why the “masculine David”—warrior and conqueror—was “converted” in the Zohar into a representation of the Shekhinah, the major feminine configuration of the Godhead. To answer this question, this study will combine different fields of research: literary theories of myth and mysticism, methods of gender studies, psychoanalysis, and theories of masculinity and sexuality. In addition, it will discuss topics pertinent to the study of comparative religion, such as the figure of David in medieval Jewish and Christian entanglement. It will here be argued that this tendency to identify David with a feminine figure may be rooted in Judeo-Christian discourse, interfaith polemics, and interfaith dialogues. In addition, it will suggest that notions of the feminized Messiah reflect issues of national identity and political authority. For example, in the course of the book I will claim that the figure of the Shekhinah, or the feminine sefirah of Malkhut, may represent the fragility of the Jews, who, though deprived of sovereignty, derived from the noetic realm of the divine sefirot the invigorating power of endurance. The belief in a spiritual kingdom enhanced these feelings. While malkhut (kingdom) does not equate to melekh (king), the term holds a dual meaning, which enables the consideration of the gender factor to function on both the mystical and the political level. Thus, by adhering to “David” and his mystical representation in Malkhut (i.e., the Shekhinah), the Kabbalists transformed their national vulnerability into a virtue.

David is viewed throughout the ages as a historical and epic figure, while at the same time he is presented as a symbol of a mythical entity, one diversely “reincarnated” in various phases of Jewish religious experience. The plethora of homilies about him and their richness in the rabbinic, kabbalistic, and Sabbatean corpora alike highlight the centrality of the figure of David in literature and mythology. In this body of writings, David reflects the faces of the homilists observing him and thus serves as an ideal case study for the gender-oriented and psychoanalytic components of Jewish mysticism.

In my previous book, Holiness and Transgression: Mothers of the Messiah in the Jewish Myth (2017), I analyzed the dominant role of the motherly figure in Davidic dynastic genealogy. Based on that study, I argue here that David became a messianic figure not only because of his superior maternal line but, rather, because his “feminization” alludes to the feminine plots in his lineage that include narratives of incest, seduction, and harlotry. As I have shown, these factors are unique to the mystical perception of the messianic dynasty. The sexual transgression that allegedly leaves an imprint on David’s character and biography mirrors the history of seductions of his ancestral mothers. It enables a significant breakthrough in the presentation of David and his personality. The unique aspect of this appearance is the merging of the feminine and masculine aspects of David’s messianic image, as underlined in the Zohar. Redemption is thus characterized in the Zohar as a process leading from sin to repentance and finally to the restoration of the self. Furthermore, in its motherly configuration, redemption can be likened to giving birth or to the rebirth of the soul.

The Zohar’s identification of the last sefirah, Malkhut, with that of King David and other male figures raises the issue of the unique dynamics of the discourse on gender within the mystical literature in general. Using current gender theories, I will compare ubiquitous zoharic models to the multifaceted figure of the Shekhinah found in other contemporary thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Jewish mystical writings. The aim of this book is to expand upon existing research in order to enable a new understanding of the nexus between gender and Kabbalah. I propose an examination of David’s kaleidoscopic portrayal in the Zohar—as a sinning and repenting messiah, a poet and warrior, believer and sufferer, persecuted slave, and imposing king—through the prism of gender reversal. This will enable an expansion of existing research in new theoretical directions.

By asking theological and theosophical questions and by utilizing gender theory and psychoanalytic discourse, I will analyze the cultural function of the “feminized Messiah” in the medieval and modern eras. Themes such as the sinner’s soul, the process of teshuvah (repentance), gender and sexuality, identity, and the redemptive power of sexual transgression will highlight both conceptual and structural continuities in the transition from early to later generations of homilists. In addition, I will follow the evolution of gender and the body in characterizations of David in the mystical literature of the Middle Ages as well as in later kabbalistic sources. Of course, a complete exploration of the Lurianic and Sabbatean messianic theology in such sources would be a well-nigh impossible project. Thus, I will focus on mythical readings of the figure of King David and the transformation, over the centuries, of his image as a feminized redeemer.1

Accordingly, the chapters of this book will chronologically examine the feminized figure of King David through the analysis of the rhythms of sin and redemption within the retelling of his biographical narrative—beginning with the biblical story of his birth, through various medieval mystical sources, and culminating with sixteenth- and seventeenth-century kabbalistic texts. Simultaneously, I will thematically analyze terms such as bediḥa de-malka (the king’s jester) and the concept of David as “the fourth leg of the Divine Chariot,” through the utilization of psychoanalytic tools and concepts, such as repression, projection, and denial, and through the employment of gender theories concerning performance, lack, and agency.

The figure of King David will be compared with the figures of Sabbatai Ṣevi and of R. Haim Vital, through themes such as reincarnation, the suffering soul, and the notion of the Messiah as bar nafle (a non-viable infant). Through the prism of biblical texts and zoharic late spectacles, I will examine David as a poet, a musician, and the writer of Psalms, and then I will explore his identification with the female persona of the city of Jerusalem as well as other feminine symbols such as the moon, the gazelle, and the dawn.


I will not treat in detail the figure of King David in rabbinic literature, since there has been extensive research on this subject. Yet, many of the zoharic and other kabbalistic derashot are based on his rabbinic image, and in such cases I will turn to the readings of the Sages and analyze the transformation of the homilies. To date, little attempt has been made by scholars to reconstruct a thematic continuum of rabbinic homilies in order to examine the way in which the very same homilies appear in a new, daring form in the kabbalistic literature. In order to further explore the ways in which the ancient homilies are transformed in medieval and modern literature, I will focus on the feminized David, a figure who reflects the feminine aspects of the kabbalists themselves.

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