Women of Spirit:
Women's Wisdom from Judaism

Timothy Conway (Compiler / Editor)

© Copyright 1992, 2017 by Timothy Conway



Miriam; Hannah; Glückel of Hameln; Nelly Sachs; Nehama Leibowitz; Rabbi Léah Novick.

Miriam (c.13th-12th century BCE; Egypt-Palestine):

Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously. (Exodus 15:21) [1]



Hannah (c.11th century BCE; Palestine):

[Without child, she prayed to the Lord:] O Lord of hosts, if thou will indeed look on the affliction of thine handmaid, and remember me, and not forget thine handmaid, but will give unto thine handmaid a male child, then I will give him unto the Lord all the days of his life...


[After she in fact conceived and gave birth to a son, Samuel the prophet:] My heart rejoices in the Lord, mine horn is exalted in the Lord, my mouth is enlarged over mine enemies; because I rejoice in my salvation. There is none holy as the Lord: for there is none beside thee: neither is there any rock like our God. Talk no more so exceeding proudly; let not arrogancy come out of your mouth: for the Lord is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed. The bows of the mighty men are broken, and they that stumbled are girded with strength. They that were full have hired out themselves for bread; and they that were hungry ceased: so that the barren has born seven; and she that has many children is waxed feeble. The Lord kills, and makes alive: he brings down to the grave, and brings up. The Lord makes poor, and makes rich: he brings low, and lifts up. He raises up the poor out of the dust, and lifts up the beggar from the dunghill, to set them among princes, and to make them inherit the throne of glory: for the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and he has set the world upon them. He will keep the feet of his saints, and the wicked shall be silent in darkness; for by strength shall no man prevail. The adversaries of the Lord shall be broken to pieces; out of heaven shall he thunder upon them; the Lord shall judge the ends of the earth; and he shall give strength unto his king, and exalt the horn of his annointed. (I Samuel 1:11 and 2:1-10) [2]




Glückel of Hameln (1646-1724; Germany):


The best thing for you, my children, is to serve God from your heart, without falsehood or sham, not giving out to people that you are one thing while, God forbid, in your heart you are another. Say your prayers with awe and devotion.


How ... can I thank and praise my Creator enough for all the goodness He has lavished on us...


Behold, my children, all a man will do to gain the favour of a king, flesh and blood that he is, here today and gone tomorrow in his grave, no one knowing how long may live he who asks or he who gives. And behold the gifts he receives from the transient hand of a king. Honours the king can grant him and put him too in the way of wealth; yet honours and money are but for a space and not for eternity. A man may hoard his honours and his gold until the very last, and then comes bitter Death to make all forgotten; and his honours and his gold are of no avail. Every man, he knows this well and yet he strives loyally to serve a mortal king to gain the passing reward. How much more, then, should we strive day and night, when we come to serve in duty bound the King of kings who lives and rules forever! For He it is whence come the favours we receive from human kings, and He it is who gives these kings their all and who puts it in their heart to honour whomsoever His holy will decrees... And the gifts of a human monarch stand as naught against the gift of the God of Glory upon those whom He delights to honour: eternity without stain, measure, or term. So, dear children of my heart, be comforted and patient in your sorrows and serve the Almighty God with all your hearts, in your evil days as in your good; for although we often feel we must sink beneath our heavy burdens, our great Lord and Master, we must know, never lays upon His servants more than they can bear. Happy the man who accepts in patience all that God ordains for him or for his children. Wherefore I, too, beg my Creator give me strength to bear without fret the contrarieties of the world, all of them... All of us suffer bitter losses, but far from helping us, grief and mourning only harm our body and weaken our soul. And no one depressed in body can worship God as he should. When the prophets of old invited the spirit of the Lord to come on them, they played the tabret, pipe and harp... [3]




Nelly Sachs (1891-1970; Orthodox Judaism; Germany-Sweden):


And Metatron the highest of all angels,

five hundred miles in height,

and spreads his wings

of feathered light and lets the music sound

on which the worlds depend,

embodiment of love! /

Thus deeply longing measures out

the sea of words, until the bright light

breaks—and with stigmata

life comes into sight- (S 207) [4]


[A reflection on the horrors of the Nazi holocaust:]

O the chimneys

On the ingeniously devised habitations of death

When Israel’s body drifted as smoke

Through the air—

Was welcomed by a star, a chimney sweep,

A star that turned black

Or was it a ray of sun? /

O the chimneys!

Freedomway for Jeremiah and Job’s dust—

Who devised you and laid stone upon stone

The road for refugees of smoke? /

O the habitations of death,

Invitingly appointed

For the host who used to be a guest—

O you fingers

Laying the threshold

Like a knife between life and death- /

O you chimneys,

O you fingers

And Israel’s body as smoke through the air! (O 3)

Even the old men’s last breath

That had already grazed death

You snatched away. ... /

O you thieves of genuine hours of death,

Last breaths and the eyelids’ Good Night

Of one thing be sure: /

The angel, it gathers

What you discarded,

From the old men’s premature midnight

A wind of last breaths shall arise

And drive this unloosed star

Into its Lord’s hands! (O 11)


[“Chorus of the Dead”—a similar reflection on the holocaust:]

We from the black sun of fear

Holed like sieves—

We dripped from the sweat of death’s minute.

Withered on our bodies are the deaths done unto us

Like flowers of the field withered on a hill of sand.

O you who still greet the dust as friend

You who talking sand say to the sand:

I love you. /

We say to you:

Torn are the cloaks of the mysteries of dust

The air in which we were suffocated,

The fires in which we were burned,

The earth into which our remains were cast.

The water which was beaded with our sweat of fear

Has broken forth with us and begins to gleam.

We dead of Israel say to you:

We are moving past one more star

Into our hidden God. (S 51)


Like beings of mist

we walk through dreams and dreams

we sink through walls

of seven-colored light- /

But colorless at last, wordless

the element of death

in the crystal vessel of eternity

stripped off the nightwings of all mysteries... (S 137)


How long have we forgotten how to listen!

He planted us once to listen

Planted us like lyme grass by the eternal sea,

We wanted to grow on fat pastures,

To stand like lettuce in the kitchen-garden.

Although we have business

That leads us far

From his light ...

Although we walk down a street

Beneath which earth has been silenced

By a pavement,

We must not sell our ears...

Press, oh press on the day of destruction

The listening ear to the earth,

And you will hear, through your sleep

You will hear

How in death

Life begins. (S 17)


[“The Voice of the Holy Land”:]

O my children,

Death has run through your hearts

As through a vineyard—

Painted Israel red on all the walls of the world. /

What shall be the end of the little holiness

Which still dwells in my sand?

The voices of the dead

Speak through reed pipes of seclusion. ... /

the child murdered in sleep

Arises; bends down the tree of ages

And pins the white breathing star

That was once called Israel

To its topmost bough.

Spring upright again, says the child,

To where tears mean eternity. (O 45)


[“Chorus of the Stars”:]

We stars, we stars

We wandering, glistening, singing dust—

Earth, our sister, has gone blind

Among the constellations of heaven—

A scream she has become

Among the singers—

She, richest in longing

Who began her task—to form angels—in dust,

She whose secret contains bliss

Like streams bearing gold—

Poured out into the night she lies

Like wine in the streets—

Evil’s yellow sulfur lights flicker over her body. /

O earth, earth

Star of stars

Veined by the spoors of homesickness

Begun by God Himself—

Have you no one who remembers your youth?

No one who will surrender himself as the swimmer

To the oceans of death?

Has no one’s longing ripened

So it will rise like the angelically flying seed

Of the dandelion blossom? /

Earth, earth, have you gone blind

Before the sister eyes of the Pleiades

Or Libra’s examining gaze?

Murder hands gave Israel a mirror

In which it recognized its death while dying- /

Earth, O earth

Star of stars

One day a constellation will be called mirror.

The, O blind one, you will see again. (O 40-1)

Your origin

is set

between your eyebrows

a cipher

out of the sand’s oblivion. /

You have bent

the sign of the sea


in the vise of longing. /

You sow yourself with the grain of each second

into the undreamed-of. /

The resurrections

of your invisible springs

are bathed in tears. /

On you the sky practices

its breaking. /

You are in grace. (S 267)


Stoned by night,

sleep lifted me

far away into exile /


which birth

once drew on my skin

death obliterated

with a hand of music /

Love redeemed

inscribed its constellation

into freedom- (S 251)


Long has flying been

an intimate of the inner body

which knows the star streets

like the dust at home (O 227)


If now you desperately call the one name

out of the darkness- /

Wait a moment longer—

and you walk upon the sea

Already the element transfuses your pore

you are lowered with it and lifted

and found again soon in the sand

and on the stars an awaited guest arriving by air

and consumed in the fire of reunion

be still—be still- (O 251)


You have misplaced your name

but the world comes running

to offer you a good selection

You shake your head

but your lover

once found your needle for you in a haystack

Listen—he’s calling already- (O 253)



Nehama Leibowitz (contemporary; Orthodox Judaism; Jerusalem):

(Commenting on the passage in Genesis 30: 1-2, wherein Rachel complains to Jacob about his taking a second wife when she fails to bear him a son, and he gets angry at her:)

The two names [for] “woman” (ishah and “Eve”) indicate two purposes. The first teaches that woman was taken from man (ish), stressing that like him you may understand and advance in the intellectual and moral field just as did the matriarchs and many righteous women and prophetesses and as the literal meaning of Proverbs 31 about “the woman of worth” (eshet hayil) indicates. The second [purpose] alludes to the power of childbearing and rearing children, as is indicated by the name Eve—the mother of all living. A woman deprived of the power of childbearing will be deprived of the secondary purpose... [This explains why Jacob became angry with Rachel.] She in her yearnings for a child saw her whole world circumscribed by the second purpose of existence... to become a mother. Without it her life was not worth living. “Or else I die.” This was a treasonable repudiation of her function, a flight from her destiny and purpose, a shirking from the duties imposed upon her, not in virtue of her being a woman, but in virtue of her being a human being. ... Jacob’s anger was not caused by her words or her adopting the pose of spoilt wives... He was concerned with the misleading approach to prayer evident in her words, her incomprehension of the real relation between man and God. Herein surely lay the differences between superstition, idolatrous media of intercession, and the pure undefiled prayer of man to his Maker! [5]




Rabbi Léah Novick (contemporary; Reform Judaism; United States):


I find that men and women, Jews and non-Jews, carry concepts, feelings, and images of the Shechinah within them. Again, in most people experience precedes naming the energy or having a knowledge of her characteristics as presented or expressed in the Jewish sacred literature. ... When we share these experiences, we find that individuals “know” or uncover most of the traditional characteristics of Shechinah on their own. The most common experiences are of light and radiance, which is consistent with the writings of many Jewish scholars who described her as a great light which shines upon all God’s creatures. Many writers considered her the light of creation itself or the place of the primordial light.


Some people’s experience of Shechinah involves hearing a voice or feeling a great warmth. For myself she is most present on Friday nights after I light the Shabbat candles, that is when I hear her speaking to me. At other times I feel she is present when I begin composing songs with words that address issues or people I care about. During these times, usually in the forest or at the ocean, a great sense of joy overcomes me, and all ordinary problems fade alongside the bliss I feel. On other occasions I have experienced myself falling into a great soft whiteness that is her embrace, as if all the down feathers in the world were in a single pile waiting for me to fall into them. My favorite image came on a Friday night when I saw her “dressed” in stars and the planets. Her size was beyond imagination, and her celestial “diadem” was made up of the heavens. I was overwhelmed.

To our desert ancestors she was the Divine Presence

who they carried in the sacred ark,

the clouds of glory that guided them

and the manna that nourished them.

To the Talmudic sages she was the Divine Presence

who dwelled in the holy temple in Jerusalem,

the spirit that surrounds us when we pursue justice

and leaves when there is pollution and violence.

To the Medieval Pietists, she was the Divine Presence

who sat at the celestial throne of glory,

receiving our prayers

and radiating back the light to all beings.

To the authors of the Zohar, she was the Divine Presence

moving through the tree of life as Binah, Great Ocean Mother,

Gevurah, the Destroyer; Hod, the Glory;

and Malchuth, the Earth.

To the Safat Kabbalists, she was the Divine Presence

as “pardes” holy apple orchard and Shabbos Queen,

whose reunification with the Divine King

was the goal of all prayers and ritual actions.

To the Hasidic Masters, she was the Divine Presence

who shone on the faces of righteous women and men,

Mother of the soul’s breath

her return to earth was the goal of their prayers.

To our diaspora foremothers she was the Divine Presence

as the compassionate source

the one they called out to in childbirth, illness and death

and celebrated on the New Moon.


And to us, contemporary Jewish seekers,

she is the Divine Presence

in the voice of women, representing the

Shekhinah reawakening

who is calling to us from the earth

save the planet, stop the nuclear madness, clear the air

heal the sick, respect the elders, care for the children


and to her, we respond...


we are ready to create a dwelling place

for the divine here on earth


to her, we answer...


in music and meditation

in politics and poetry

in dance and drama


to her we respond...

... “Hineynu” ...

Yes, we are here. [6]