עֵֽץ־חַיִּים הִיא לַמַּֽחֲזִיקִים בָּהּ וְֽתֹמְכֶיהָ מְאֻשָּֽׁר
Although excerpts from Proverbs do not appear often in our services or readings, there are some interesting exceptions. The beautiful “Woman of Valor” poem, which many people recite to honor their wives and mothers at Shabbat dinner, is from Proverbs. And another beautiful passage from Proverbs appears as part of the Torah service: the Aitz Chayim chant, the Tree of Life description of the Torah.
It is a tree of life to those who take hold of it;
those who hold it fast will be blessed.
Its ways are pleasant ways,
and all its paths are peace.
Now, I must confess that this prayer, chanted in a Hebrew simple enough for most to understand without translating, is one of my favorite moments in the Shabbat morning service. So, please forgive me if I raise an objection to how the prayer is understood.
There is a problem with its grammar. Of course, there is nothing wrong with the Hebrew grammar, but there is something amiss in the typical English translation. The passage from Proverbs used here is not about the Torah itself; it is about a Woman, called Chochmah, or Wisdom. The passage should be translated: SHE is a tree of life.
Gender and Pronouns
Learning the gender of nouns is one of the harder tasks for an English speaker learning Hebrew. The gender of the noun not only defines the pronoun, it also affects the way plurals are formed and adjectives are expressed. A good day is “yom (masculine) tov”; a good year is a “shanna (fem) tova.”
Those who have studied a language other than English already know this problem. Every language I have tried to learn has gender for every noun, and in some languages, like German and Latin, there are THREE genders (neuter added) not just two; when you add requirements of case and number, you end up with, for example, more than about a dozen German words for THE.
In contrast, English is so free of these gender, case, and number markers that most Americans are never sure when to say “whom” and half the people I know mix up “I” and “me.” Moreover, what little gender attaches itself to English nouns is in the process of being stripped away by those who wish to free our language from gender biases. Our prayer books and even some translations of the Torah are replacing words like Lord and King with gender-neutral alternatives. And I cannot remember the last time I heard God referred to among my associates as HE.
So, we have the paradox in which nearly every English translation of Proverbs (I checked a dozen of them) says SHE is a tree of life, while our prayer books, those that have English translations, all say IT is a tree of life. The one exceptional translation of Proverbs is the Kravitz/Olitzky (UAHC Press, 2002), which provides this grammatically confusing version:
Long life is in Wisdom’s right hand,
Wealth and honor in its left hand.
Her ways are pleasant, and all her paths are peace.
It is a tree of life ….
Be that as it may, I still wish to argue that, even though the word Torah is feminine in Hebrew, and even though “hee” is most often translated as “it,” nevertheless we should say: She is a tree of life…and all her paths are peace.
Who is Wisdom?
Chochmah, Wisdom, is a woman who appears several times in the Tanach Wisdom literature as well as making extended appearances in the pseudepigraphal books The Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach (Ecclesiasticus).
Her official debut is in Book 8 of Proverbs where she issues this breathtaking introduction to herself:
The Lord created me at the outset of His way, the very first of His works of old.
In remote eons I was shaped, at the start of the first things of earth.
When there were no deeps I was spawned, when there were no wellsprings, water sources.
Before mountains were anchored down, before hills I was spawned.
He had yet not made earth and open land, and the world’s first clods of soil.
When He founded the heavens, I was there, when He traced a circle on the face of the deep,
when He propped up the skies above, when He powered the springs of the deep,
when He set to the sea its limit, that the waters not flout His command,
when He strengthened the earth’s foundations.
And I was by Him, an intimate,
I was His delight day after day, playing before Him at all times,
playing in the world, His earth, and my delight with humankind.
Wisdom was there at the Beginning. Or before the Beginning. Some metaphysicians have said she was there before time existed, so that there were not yet beginnings and ends. She was the first of the creations, but, again, in the absence of ordinary time her existence may have been instantaneous.
Interestingly, several Bible scholars have commented on the similarity in tone and substance of this passage and the mighty poetry of the KJV Gospel of John: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God…
For an even closer parallel with John, consider how Wisdom characterizes herself in the non-canonical book of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus):
I am the word spoken by the Most High.
I covered the earth like a mist.
I made my home in highest heaven,
my throne on a pillar of cloud.
Alone I walked around the circle of the sky
and walked through the ocean beneath the earth.
I ruled over all the earth and the ocean waves,
over every nation, over every people…
He created me in eternity, before time began,
and I will exist for all eternity to come.
But what is problematical is that, while a Christian has no objection to an incarnation of God, the Jew has insisted throughout history that no being can be an incarnation of God—even though these passages suggest that Wisdom is a companion God, even a consort to God.
Nor would it be correct to suggest that Wisdom is somehow a female aspect of God. That job goes to the Shekinah, who is often characterized with very female characteristics and charms. She is the Sabbath Bride we call when we turn to the door and chant Boi, Kala. The Zohar tells us:
One must prepare a comfortable seat with several cushions and embroidered covers, from all that is found in the house, like one who prepares a canopy for a bride. For the Shekinah is a queen and a bride. This is why the masters of the Mishna used to go out on the eve of Sabbath to receive her on the road, and used to say: ‘Come, O bride, come, O bride!’
Or consider this translated excerpt from Bialik’s poem, Alone, in which a man describes his regular rendezvous with the Shekinah:
Driven from every ridge –
one desolate corner left –
in the House of Study she hides in shadow,
and I alone share her pain.
Imprisoned beneath her wing
my heart longed for the light.
She buried her face on my shoulder
and a tear fell on my page
Wisdom as Torah
The sages tend to treat Wisdom less as a woman and more as a plan. The Saadia Gaon tells us:
If we consider, as logic dictates and the verses clarify, that the Creator made everything with wisdom and considering that [creation is] complete and perfect, we can accept as true the prophet’s declaration that she [wisdom], must have preceded all creation… Although wisdom itself does not really exist independently, it is however a necessary component of every creation that God created.
Or consider this remark from Midrash Rabah:
…Everything was created thanks to wisdom and she was there at the first instant of time when it came into existence, for time itself was created through wisdom.
This kind of reasoning leads directly to the traditional view that Wisdom is realized in the Torah, changing the pronoun from she to it. Again, a quote from Sirach:
Wisdom is the Law, the Law which Moses commanded us to keep, the covenant of God Most High, the inheritance of the synagogues of Israel… The Law overflows with Wisdom like the Pishon River, like the Tigris at fruit-picking time.
Most traditional commentaries find support for this idea in the line that follows the tree-of-life verse:
The Lord by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding He established the heavens.
This is also a source of the widespread image of God looking into the Torah (the distillation of all wisdom) and using it as a blueprint for creation.
Wisdom vs. Other Kinds of Woman
Despite these rabbinical attempts to defeminize Wisdom, to turn her into another name for Torah, it is still fascinating to note how Proverbs extolls wisdom by contrasting her with another kind of woman: Folly Woman. Wisdom is chaste, undefiled, observant, modest, loving, generous, motherly and loyal.
Here she addresses her “sons”:
[1:20] Wisdom crieth without; she uttereth her voice in the streets:
[1:21] She crieth in the chief place of concourse, in the openings of
the gates: in the city she uttereth her words, saying, [1:22] How long,
ye simple ones, will ye love simplicity? and the scorners delight in
their scorning, and fools hate knowledge? [1:23] Turn you at my
reproof: behold, I will pour out my spirit unto you, I will make known
my words unto you.
[1:24] Because I have called, and ye refused; I have stretched out my
hand, and no man regarded; [1:25] But ye have set at nought all my
counsel, and would none of my reproof: [1:26] I also will laugh at your
calamity; I will mock when your fear cometh; [1:27] When your fear
cometh as desolation, and your destruction cometh as a whirlwind; when
distress and anguish cometh upon you.
[2:10] When wisdom entereth into thine heart, and knowledge is pleasant
unto thy soul; [2:11] Discretion shall preserve thee, understanding
shall keep thee.
And like any virtuous woman, she knows that men will be drawn to the woman of folly and easy virtue. Wisdom will:
Deliver thee from the way of the evil man, from the man that speaketh froward things; [2:13] Who leave the paths of uprightness, to walk in the ways of darkness; [2:14] Who rejoice to do evil, and delight in the frowardness of the wicked; [2:15] Whose ways are crooked, and they froward in their paths:
[2:18] For her house inclineth unto death, and her paths unto the dead.
[2:19] None that go unto her return again, neither take they hold of the paths of life.
[2:20] That thou mayest walk in the way of good men, and keep the paths of the righteous.
Thus, if you absorb the lessons of Wisdom, you will marry the right kind of woman: The Woman of Valor, also described in Proverbs.
Rabbi Rami’s Divine Feminine
I have heard Rabbi Rami Shapiro speak on what he calls “the second Axial Age.” According to Karl Jaspers, an Axial Age is “an interregnum between two ages of great empire, a pause for liberty, a deep breath bringing the most lucid consciousness.” The first Axial Age was from about 900 BCE to 300 BCE, a period of intellectual and religious ferment, that led to a 2,500-year era of — as Shapiro sees it — male-dominated religions and institutions.
For about the last 50 years or so, however, Shapiro believes humankind has entered a second Axial Age, a period in which there will be many eruptions signaling the end of violent, male-dominated religions and societies, and out of which will emerge a new era of the Divine Feminine. Shapiro’s prophecy is built less on historical analysis than on intuitions and insights mainly drawn from Jewish wisdom literature, including the Song of Songs.
While Jews allegorize the lovers in the Song of Songs as God and Israel, and Christians as Jesus and the Church, Shapiro allegorizes it as the love of humankind for Woman Wisdom! Quoting the Tree of Life passage, Shapiro says that we must “take hold of her (not it)” and to “know her” in the Biblical sense. Indeed, one of his recent books is called Embracing the Divine Feminine.
These views are, of course, at considerable variance with the Jewish tradition. In fact, when I sit down from time to time to join in conversation with the sages of the Talmud, I get the sense that they are extremely uncomfortable with sexuality and with women in general. If they thought of the Torah as a woman, they’d be reluctant to hold it for the hakafa.
Not I, though. I may not be as ecstatic as Rabbi Rami, but when I experience the pleasant paths of Wisdom, it often feels like a leisurely walk with a beautiful woman at my side. She is a tree of life.