Folklorist looks at soul of Judaism through story

Diane Wolkstein’s “Treasures of the Heart,” subtitled “Holiday Stories that Reveal the Soul of Judaism,” is an original and perceptive interpretation of Jewish holidays and the biblical stories that reveal their deepest meanings. It is also an argument for the Shechinah as “God’s feminine presence on earth.”

According to Wolkstein’s research, ” … the need for the feminine in God was so strong … that from the time of the First Temple (1000 BCE) to the destruction of the Second Temple (70 C.E.), the masses of Jews worshiped not only Yahweh, but also Asherah and Astarte, as is evident from the statues of these goddesses that were found in the Temples side by side with statues of Yahweh.”

Her aim to restore God’s feminine presence modernizes her commentaries on the biblical narratives. Yet it also makes of Judaism less the story of the Jewish people’s struggle to live out God’s commandments and too much an evening of scores — a turning of the gender tables.

Thus in Wolkstein’s Exodus retelling, only the men worship the Golden Calf.

And Jeremiah’s contact with God is not with a God who is beyond male or female but with an explicitly feminine presence.

If the feminine principle has too often been overlooked in traditional Judaism, then Wolkstein’s emphasis is a corrective. But it is, in a book of great intelligence and insight, an overcorrective. It feminizes what is beyond gender.

“No man sees my face and lives” (Exodus 33: 20) does not easily include a god or goddess that can be represented physically.

That said, “Treasures of the Heart” is a book of real power by a noted folklorist whose impressive scholarship will bring the reader back to the Bible, to read or reread, debate and ponder. A teacher of mythology at New York University, Wolkstein is co-founder of the New York Storytelling Center and the author of 21 books on folklore.

Her latest, a work she believed would take her two years to complete, took eight. It is a book that was well worth the wait.

Her explication of the courage of Miriam and Moses, Sarah and Abraham, Hannah and Samuel, Esther and Mordecai is intelligent and moving. Thankfully, Judaism is not a religion without debate or commentary. In this religion, one gains respect through insight, not rote memorization. And Wolkstein, a former disciple and friend of the late Rabbi Schlomo Carlebach, said that she did not always agree with him. A feminist and rebel, she “categorically refused to refer to God as he.”

But that is not where the book’s strength lies. Wolkstein’s power is in the short essays after each chapter, which personalize her commentaries.

In “About Tisha B’Av,” she recounts her own suffering and relates her own pain to that of the Jewish people.

“Grief and loss bring emptiness … what is important is to hold on to our faith. When I realized that I could not presume to know what was meant for me, I let go of fear. I had lost my home and nearly all my material possessions, but I hadn’t lost my belief that I was a part of something grander: … a force … that brings about life and death and is beyond life and death. …”

Discussing Lamentations and referring to herself as well, Wolkstein adds that “as we mourn, we can choose to remember that by turning to Spirit and by believing in the oneness and connectedness of all living beings, we can move from isolation … Lamentations ends, ‘Turn us around, O God. Turn us to you and you will return.'”

Thus, in an essential way, Wolkstein writes about a God that is aware of our suffering and hears our prayers. This God is truly mystical and beyond, it seems to me, human gender. This God, that Wolkstein so eloquently affirms, is the invisible God of the Jewish people.

“Treasures of the Heart: Holiday Stories that Reveal the Soul of Judaism” by Diane Wolkstein (400 pages, Schocken Books, $27).