Mother Mary and Judaism

For more icons by Brother Robert Lentz visit:

For more icons by Brother Robert Lentz

With this icon the artist, Franciscan friar Robert Lentz, wants to remind people that Mary and Jesus were Jewish. It's so obvious when you read the Bible and yet people seem to want to forget. Christians, who honor the Jewish identity of Jesus, Mary, and the apostles, also honor their contemporary Jewish brethren. If, on the other hand, we ignore that Mary and Jesus were Jews, we enable anti-Semitism to grow. Brother Robert Lentz depicts Mary with the kind of star of David the Nazis made Jews wear and with barbed wire. Indeed, Mary and Jesus would have been killed if they had lived in reach of the Third Reich. The Hebrew title of his icon reads, 'captive daughter of Zion' which is taken from Isaiah 52.2

Jews accept Mary as just another Jewish mother of just another Jewish son, who could have been the Messiah - but wasn't, as far as they're concerned. Generally they have no interest in Mary - or rather in Miriam. (The Hebrew name Miriam became Maria in Latin and Mary in English.)

Christians on the other hand, have always had a great interest in linking Mary and Jesus to the Hebrew Bible and tradition, albeit in a way not appreciated by Jews since Mary and Jesus were to replace the things held most holy by Israel. Mary was to be the new ark of the covenant, Jesus the new temple. Both were to embody the Wisdom of God described in the Hebrew Bible. 

Christian Mother of God and Jewish God the Mother

Mystical Judaism has much to say about the feminine face of God, called Shekhinah. She grew out of the Hebrew Bible (which Christians call the Old Testament) and out of later Jewish experience and imagination, just like Mary, the Mother of God, grew out of the Bible and Christian experience and imagination. Certain parallels can be drawn. 

Shekhinah, means 'indwelling in the world', God's immanence. A branch of Jewish mystics, the Kabbalists, took this immanence, Lady Wisdom, and the Holy Spirit, and crafted from them God the Mother, the bride of the Father. She is the totality of divine speech - the Word, if you will. She is his bride in heaven, but also on earth, for she tied herself to the people, whom God chose to wed.

As Christ is God become human, so she too became like us in order that God might be close to his children and lead us back home. God the Mother loved her children so much, that she left God the Father in heaven and descended to be with her kids, following them into exile. People saw her roaming the communities of her exiled refugee children at night, wearing black and moaning loudly in pain. She cries over her children's suffering, over the sin of humanity which made her leave the embrace of her bridegroom, and over her separation from him.

The image reminds me of the mater dolorosa, sorrowful mother Mary, crying not only for her son Jesus, but for all her children, her heart pierced with seven sorrows. Shekhinah leaving her heavenly abode to be with her children in exile also is reminiscent of Jesus "Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness;" (Philippians 2:6-7) 

According to Kabbalah, no one can come to God except through Shekhinah. She is to Kabbalists what Jesus is to Christians and what Mary is to her devotees. The Zohar, the major classic of Kabbalist literature, says: "Shekhinah is the opening to the Divine: 'One who enters must enter through this gate'."(*1) Sounds a lot like Jesus in John 14:6: "I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, except by me." But Mary too is called the Gate of Heaven.

The kabbalistic persona of Shekhinah developed over the centuries. Once she had taken on human form, she gradually came to represent all aspects of the feminine: the chaste virgin and the promiscuous whore, the nurturing mother and the bloodthirsty demon, the powerful queen and the disenfranchised refugee.(*2) 
This is the main difference between the Jewish God the Mother and the Christian Mother of God: Shekhinah has a demonic and a sexual aspect, that are lacking almost entirely in Mary. 
Since a wife and mother was seen as an earthly representative of Shekhinah, Kabbalists were encouraged to have "kosher sex". By uniting the feminine and the masculine in a pure way, here on earth, they were also helping God the Father and Mother reunite in heaven.(*3) Pure sex was to be joyful, but chaste. I.e. you had to be married, it had to be after midnight, in the pitch dark, you couldn't be naked, whorish, or animal like.(*4) 

As Shekhinah and pure femininity became more and more powerful in the minds of men, the sons of Adam got scared. A powerful feminine principle was intriguing at first, but when it threatened to become uncontrollable by men, when it resisted subordination, men hurried to "put it in its place". How? They demonized independently powerful femininity. They claimed that not only women, but even God the Mother had a tendency to fall from a divine into a demonic state when she wasn't content to be subordinate under the male. When Shekhinah falls, she turns into Lillith, the demon who was meant to be the first woman, but was exiled to the realm of demons when she refused to lay under Adam during intercourse.

To be fair, God the Father too could fall into demonic states when he lost his divine bride and attached himself to her demonic shadow.(*5) Male and female could be divine only when they were together and in balance. Unfortunately, balanced gender relations in the patriarchal mind (whether Jewish or otherwise) does not mean equality. Instead it means that the feminine is content in her subordination under the masculine. 

Demonizing the divine Mother when she gets out of the control of men, reminds me of the Catholic Church's dealings with Marian apparitions. They have become very adapt at controlling the Mother of God. If she says anything that is not in accord with church doctrine or if she criticizes a bishop, she is either immediately stamped as an apparition of the devil instead of God or, if they're feeling gracious, she is granted a trial period to see if she learns to behave. 
Surely, it is hard to allow God to control us. We'd all prefer it the other way around.

*1: verse 1:7b of the Zohar, The Book of Enlightenment, transl. by Daniel Matt, Paulist Press, Ramsey, N.J.: 1983, p.37.
*2: Raphael Patai claims she inherited all these traits from the ancient near Eastern goddesses. In, The Hebrew Goddess, Ktav Publishing House, New York: 1967, pp. 187 - 190. 
*3: Rabbi Leah Novick, Encountering the Shechinah, The Jewish Goddess, in: Shilrey Nicholson, The Goddess Re-Awakening: the Feminine Principle Today, Theosophical Publishing House, Wheaton, Ill: 1989, p. 208
*4: Raphael Patai, op. cit. p. 265 and Isaiah Tishby, The Wisdom of the Zohar: An Anthology of Texts, Vol III, p. 1394. 
*5: Raphael Patai, op. cit. p. 239