Tirzah Firestone's first book, "With Roots in Heaven," recounts her rejection of her Orthodox Jewish upbringing in search--through ashrams, Sufi mysticism, and New Age philosophies--of her own personal spirituality. Now returned to Judaism and an ordained Jewish Renewal rabbi, Firestone explores, and attempts to reclaim, women's spiritual roles in the tradition of her birth. In "The Receiving," (HarperSanfrancisco 2003), she profiles seven mystical but mostly unknown Jewish women who span centuries, from the second-century Beruriah to a modern-day "Jewish Mother Teresa." In a recent interview, Firestone explained why women's spirituality is unique, why the Jewish women in her book are largely obscure, and what she thinks of the popular kabbalah craze.

What do you mean by 'The Receiving'?
The art of receiving, opening to the divine spirit, is one of women's natural modes of spirituality. The word kabbalah means receiving. It's a very feminine word, and part of the message of the book is about the irony that the body of Jewish mysiticsm, or kabbalah, has been passed down from men to men for centuries.

So does your title refer to receiving the tradition or to receiving inspiration from a holy spirit?
It's both. The kabbalah is an oral transmission that is about direct experience with the divine. For men, that has been traditionally through the written word and through oral teachings. There's been less about the here and now.

Is the difference between female spirituality and male spirituality more in how we express it, or is it in our natural inclinations?
Women's spirituality, because we have the capacity to create new life and nurture life, is innately relational. It's all about relationship and nurturance and has to do with an immanent experience of the divine, which is the here and now experience. It tends to be more earthy. That's not to say it's true for all women, but in general, women's spirituality seems to be more about the here and now.

In Judaism, that was compounded by the fact that women were, until the modern era, kept out of houses of study in large measure. There were certainly exceptions--wealthy families who trained their daughters in the religious scriptures. But by and large, Jewish women were not literate in the holy scriptures. They were not taught Hebrew and Aramaic, and they were not allowed to perform sacred practices, such as reading from the Torah or blowing the shofar or leading prayer services. Their religious lives were necessarily very private and had to do with their own intimate experience of the divine, rather than the collective aspect. Many women never went to synagogue, and if they did, they didn't really know how to read or what was going on. That Jewish sociological fact created a situation where women were developing over centuries their own unique brand of spirituality, which wasn't so much contingent on the written word, but more upon the direct spiritual experience with the divine.

What's the connection between that 'here and now' spirituality and what we think of as Jewish mysticism?
At the very core of Jewish mysticism, there is this principle of the masculine and feminine needing to be in perfect balance in order for God to be present. In kabbalah, there are all kinds of teachings about the unification of the masculine and the feminine, the unification of heaven with earth, and the necessity for a person to be not only cognizant of the higher cosmic realms but also very present in the here and now on earth, walking one's talk, walking one's beliefs.

One of our mystical images in Judaism, which has become a national symbol, is the emblem of the seal of Solomon or the Star of David. My understanding is that women carry the triangle that points downard. That's very much the earthy mysticism, which has to do with God being everywhere, right in this moment. God is in this next chore I'm about to do, and in this baby I'm about to diaper, and in the food I'm serving a sick friend--God is immanent. You also need the upward pointing triangle, which is the more transcendent form of mysticism and the God that comes through in mysterious and unknowable ways. This teaching is all through the Zohar and the mystical texts--that unless you have the masculine and the feminine, there cannot be wholeness. God needs to be united, and we have to do that uniting.

You write a lot about this idea of unification, yichud, in the book. The seven women you profile all achieve it. What else do they have in common?
Each one of them struggled within a more masculine dominant ethic to be themselves and to bring forth their brand of spirituality. They're all very different. One is the mistress of the home and another is a mistress of wisdom. Others are women of action, others are natural mediums and clairvoyants. They're all down-to-earth, they take care of business.

Which woman in the book do you connect with most?
The sixth woman is Leah Shar'abi, who I actually knew personally. She was an incredible Jewish Mother Teresa, but nobody has written about her. I had a very deep and personal relationship with her.

The last chapter [about Francesca Sarah and the sixteenth-century female visionaries of Safed] is about an era that gives us some hints about what life might be like if the masculine and the feminine and women and men were really in balance. This is the time period of the 1600s in the Galilee, in Safed. Most people know about this time period because the men made it famous--it was a renaissance of Jewish mysticism and there were so many of the male greats of Jewish history. Much less known is that there was an enclave of women there who were incredible holy women and had amazing powers. They were mediums and dream interpreters, who the men looked up to and came to for their prophecies. It's a fascinating time period because the men were so respectful of the women. There didn't seem to be competition or denigration.

The best-known early text by a Jewish woman might the 'Memoirs of Gluckel of Hameln.' But that's more a rundown of her daily life. Why don't we hear more about historical Jewish women's spirituality?
Often times when I say Jewish women were illiterate, people get very angry and say, 'What about Gluckel of Hameln?' She was a wealthy woman and she was much more educated than many. She kept diaries that have become very famous. It's not a spiritual diary, but she was a very spiritual woman. Her spirituality was based on family and doing what was right in the community. She was prototypical because she lets us know what women were doing. They were supporting the families and in many instances the women were minding the shops and keeping the businesses. The men were able to immerse themselves in the heavenly occupation of study. In many cases they didn't have much to do with family or business or these worldly things. A woman's job was to free them from their worldly preoccupations.

This is an old paradigm and it has changed radically, but we have to be clear that in our own time, we all need to soar and we all need to mind the shop. We need to balance, within ourselves, the division of labor that worked for so many centuries, of the women holding down the earth and the men soaring to heaven.

You've written that you were turned off by your own early childhood Jewish education because it didn't allow you to explore spirituality. What's different now?
Things have changed a lot. There's so much more freedom--women can become rabbis and community leaders and authors and cantors now. For the sake of women who came before us who didn't have this freedom, we have a sacred obligation to learn and study and become what we can become.

What do you mean when you say you received a calling to become a rabbi?
My first book is about having been brought up in a very doctrinaire, Orthodox Jewish background, feeling somewhat that my wings were clipped, and knowing that I needed to explore many other traditions and world views. I left Judaism for about 15 years. Then I came back around full circle. Through an intermarriage to a devout Christian, I got interested in Jewish mysticism. I wanted to revisit my Jewish heritage and relearn it in a different way. I felt a calling that I was meant to go farther with my studies. That it wasn't only for personal enlightenment, but so that I could touch all those people who were not being served in synagogues.

What do you think about the current commercialization of kabbalah?
On the one hand, it's a wonderful thing to know that kabbalah is so universal and so relevant to our modern spiritual search. Sometimes it has gotten commercial and watered-down. Nevertheless I think it's really important for people to go where they can go, to get the learning they can find. I think people have to search and see that there's a lot out there.

It's good to gravitate toward books and it's good to find a real teacher. It's really important to have personal transmission--that's what the kabbalah has been based on for centuries. It wasn't written down. One of the peculiarities of our time is that all these oral texts are being written down and published for mass consumption. It can be very confusing unless you have a teacher to explain them.

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