Torah – Shabbas Queen, the Shekinah

6 June 2002, San Ramon-Continued from ‘Torah – Observant Devotees

But what about this kneeling business – granted, on one level it is simply the physical position necessary if you’re going to nestle into the lap of a seated person. (In fact, in India where the immense crowds necessitate a much faster pace, Mother often sits on the edge of a stage and people come, standing, for Her embrace. So kneeling itself is not the point.) Still, one would think that a Torah-observant Jew would have some anxiety about this part of the process.

Evan Israel responded to this question, explaining that the resistance to kneeling is because of the commandment against idolatry: one should not worship graven images, idols: “I don’t see Her as an idol, but as a living embodiment of the Divine, so kneeling in front of Her I’m kneeling to receive the blessings that she’s pouring upon me, which I would do in front of any Jewish master as well.”

Joy agreed, and added: “I am sensitive to any statues or photos or paintings of different idols in Hindu tradition, and I specifically don’t kneel down in front of those.” She was asked, “Is that difficult? Is it a problem that those images are here? Her reply was quick: “No, I just don’t tune into them, and when I go up for darshan, I’m praying to the Hebrew God as I’m receiving the blessings from her.”

“THE Hebrew God,” Joy said. The ONE Hebrew God. And in Hinduism there are myriad gods. Never mind that Amma doesn’t identify Herself as specifically Hindu (when asked by the press, “What is your religion?” She answers in one word: “Love”), the fact is She comes from a cultural context that is Hindu, the artwork in the program halls is largely Hindu, images of gods and goddesses abound, the songs are usually naming Hindu deities. So how can this monotheistic couple tolerate this environment when they come to see Amma?

Evan Israel emphasized that “In Judaism there’s a real focus on the oneness of Divinity and not getting caught up in the manifold multiplicity by which God reveals himself in the world, recognizing that there is a source behind all that,” and Joy provided the resolution of the potential conflict: “The essence of Hinduism is one God, Brahman, and all these different facets of God are different faces of the one Godhead.” Amma’s teaching in a Jewish couple’s words. The usefulness of images of the divine, as a concrete way to keep the mind and heart focused on God, is stressed in Hindu practice; the risk of mistaking the image for what it is meant to point you toward is emphasized in Judaism. At this deeper level of meaning, there is no conflict.

Yet still a question nags: why come to Amma, if your own tradition is so fulfilling? You can tell from their radiance that Joy and Evan Israel do find their own tradition deeply satisfying, so why come here?

Joy explained carefully: “There aren’t so many living masters in the world, in all the different religions, Judaism included, so it’s really special when a living master is in this world, in the body, and I think both of us really feel honoured to take advantage of that, to be in that person’s presence.”

Evan Israel has gone further than basking in the presence of a living Master. He has taken mantra initiation from Amma. Now, that’s a big step! Repeating a formula of words, reciting a mantra, is a spiritual practice common to all religions, so it’s not surprising that Evan Israel had already “been following ancient Jewish practices, one comparable to mantra practice. I’m very connected with the Baal Shem Tov, and have studied a lot of his teachings. He prescribed a certain mantra to many of his students.” Then why involve Amma? Joy explained the motivation: “It’s special because it’s really powerful to have a teacher give the transmission of the mantra to the student, so here is a living teacher, a living guru, so he really wanted that experience.”

There’s the possibility of uneasiness: aren’t mantras about various deities, like Kali and Krishna and Ganesh? How could Evan Israel take a mantra from Amma? Simple: She wants to deepen and strengthen whatever spiritual practice has already been fruitful. So She initiates people with mantras from all different traditions. It was no problem at all when Evan asked if Amma would bless his Hebrew mantra. The sounds of the words were transliterated to Malayalam script, and, according to the ancient Vedic tradition of mantra initiation, Mother whispered them into his ear: “She gave me the mantra that I’ve been using, that’s through this (Hasidic) lineage.”

Hugs are one thing; even receiving a mantra from Amma seems fine as explained by Evan Israel and Joy. But there is still the question of the emphasis on the presence of the Divine in Amma. Can sincere adherents of Judaism feel comfortable where someone is felt to “embody” divinity? Can they, for example, feel at ease at Devi Bhava?

“Yes,” Joy said without hesitation. “She’s a living embodiment of – it was Krishna and now, the Divine Mother, that’s coming through Her. And it’s all coming back to that source, that aspect of Godliness that She’s bringing down. So I feel comfortable being with this Divine Presence embodying that energy.”

Jewish couple

Evan added to the explanation, quoting a saying “from one of the Psalms ‘Gods are you, children of the most High are you all.’ And so, this recognition that we all are divine in our essential nature, that’s something that Judaism acknowledges. (…) In Judaism there’s a notion of different levels of soul. The highest level is said to be the oneness with the Divine, oneness with God.”

One last potential stumbling block needed to be examined before we could be confident that these Jewish children of Amma were not coming to Her at the expense of their own religious training. They were asked: “You said, ‘Divine Mother.’ Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are spoken of as patriarchal religions and their characterizations of God refer to ‘Father’, and ‘Judge’, and so forth. Is there any precedent within Judaism for an openness to the Divine as expressing itself in the feminine?”

Joy’s reply was swift: “Yes Shekinah. There’s one Face of the Jewish God, which is the Shekinah, it is the queen that comes in, the immanent form of godliness, so it’s here, so tangible, that you can touch. And on Shabbas (Sabbath, Jewish holy day of the week), which begins on Friday night and goes through Saturday when three stars come out (…) the facet of God that we are most being with is the Shabbas Queen, the Shekinah, and we welcome Her in on Friday night, and we dance and sing in Her praises, and with that aspect of godliness on Shabbas.

And then her face lit up as she shared a precious reminiscence from her own wedding day: “The day that a bride and groom are getting married is the day that it’s said that the bride and groom are the most connected to God. So on that day, instead of just hoarding all those blessings, it’s very important in Judaism to open yourself up as a vessel, and give those blessings to other people. So at traditional weddings you see the bride sitting in this beautiful throne, called the chair, and lines of women coming up to her, bowing in front of her, and asking for her blessings.

So it’s much like being Amma for the day.”

An interview by Janani Noia