Holiness and Transgression

Mothers of the Messiah in the Jewish Myth

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Ruth Kara-Ivanov Kaniel
Eugene D. Matansky
Psychoanalysis and Jewish Life
  • Brighton, MA: 
    Academic Studies Press
    , March
     380 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Ruth Kara-Ivanov Kaniel’s Holiness and Transgression is not only an important book for its most likely audience—scholars of medieval kabbalah—but also for readers interested in the history of maternal figures in Jewish and Christian thought generally. Scholars of early Marian devotion—a topic that has seen much interest in recent years—might miss this book, given its title and call number, which would be a great loss.

Kara-Ivanov Kaniel steps into an ongoing debate about whether the medieval portrayal of the Shekhinah as a female manifestation of God reflects interaction with increased Marian devotion or “internal” development of classical Jewish themes. Kara-Ivanov Kaniel contends that both sides are correct. The medieval Shekhinah reflects Jewish awareness of Marian tropes, yet this phenomenon also builds on a set of motifs with a long Jewish history. This dual-origin theory explains why “the Shekhinah is portrayed in the Zoharic literature as a figure who is simultaneously a harlot and a virgin” (241).  

This argument is based on the broader claim, which runs throughout the book: Jewish sources from Genesis to the Zohar consistently portray messianic mothers as active female protagonists who play with or even transgress sexual boundaries, directly resulting in the birth of another man in the messianic line.

The book comprises three sections—one on messianic mothers in the Bible, another on “rabbinic” texts, and a third on Zoharic literature. In part 1, Kara-Ivanov Kaniel lays out both her argument and her data set, namely, passages dealing with the biblical figures of Lot’s daughters, Tamar, and Ruth. Kara-Ivanov Kaniel describes how each of these figures “initiate[s] the messianic birth scenes” (2).  Her reading of these messianic mothers is in opposition to “a prominent trend in feminist theory” that reads the women’s subversion as “a patriarchal tool for the purpose of reproduction” (4-5). Kara-Ivanov Kaniel reads as subversive the descriptions of these women as active, praiseworthy protagonists, juxtaposed with bumbling and passive male partners.

Part 2 turns to what the author labels “rabbinic” literature, though I take issue with this depiction. Kara-Ivanov Kaniel offers a primarily diachronic analysis, moving from biblical texts, to “rabbinic” ones, to the medieval Zoharic corpus. However, chapter 3 attends to a passage from the Yalkut ha-Makhiri, which the author notes was composed in the 14th century, significantly later than the classical rabbinic period, and even potentially later than the Zoharic texts she analyzes in part 3.

The placement of this chapter is therefore confusing, especially for the reader who is not a specialist in rabbinic literature and might take this text to be an example of the “middle” in Kara-Ivanov Kaniel’s history of Jewish thought. This is not to take away from the insightful analysis of this passage in this chapter, which shows that the theme of the sexually transgressive female protagonist, praised precisely for her active participation in the maintenance of the messianic line, remained a powerful myth.

Chapter 4 is a refreshingly innovative reading of a well-studied passage from the Babylonian Talmud—a reading so persuasive that it made me wonder how I had ever read it any other way! Kara-Ivanov Kaniel highlights the gendered context in which the statement “a transgression for its own sake (lishmah) is greater than a commandment/good deed not for its own sake (shelo’ lishmah)” appears. The passage consistently praises women and disparages men for precisely the same action. The major figures in this passage are Lot’s daughters, Tamar, and Ruth (as well as Yael, who slayed Sisera)—precisely the messianic mothers who, Kara-Ivanov Kaniel showed in part 1, shared the motif of messianic motherhood in biblical texts.

One small quibble here is technical: Because she does not provide the text in its entirety at the outset of her analysis, readers unfamiliar with rabbinic texts may have difficulty understanding Kara-Ivanov Kaniel’s careful reading of the text. Thankfully, the standard printing of the Babylonian Talmud, in English, is readily accessible online nowadays (e.g., at www.sefaria.org); having the entire text in front of such a reader will likely make this chapter more rewarding.

Part 3 considers three Zoharic passages, one each for Lot’s daughters, Tamar, and Ruth respectively. Kara-Ivanov Kaniel continues her analysis of the motif of the messianic mother as she also engages in debates of contemporary Zohar scholarship. For example, Ruth’s varied portrayal in two different sections of the Zohar lends support to an argument for the chronological priority of one to the other. Kara-Ivanov Kaniel also shows how Zoharic literature participates in and builds on the biblical and rabbinic foundations and works as link in a chain of Jewish myth.

Kara-Ivanov Kaniel’s epilogue is not only lengthy, but of critical importance both to scholars of kabbalah as well as to scholars in other fields—and especially those interested in the origins of Marian motifs. Kara-Ivanov Kaniel powerfully “challenge[s] the current scholarly assumption that traditions about the mother of the Messiah were not important or prominent in Judaism until after the development of the Christological image of Mary” (219). For Kara-Ivanov Kaniel, Mary represents “the maternal and the ‘female sin’ of Davidic genealogy” (221). This is a potentially huge claim for New Testament and early Judaism scholars, who too often alternate between understanding Mary as a radically innovative development of early Christian authors, and carelessly citing later rabbinic texts as evidence that Mary was indeed a “natural” outgrowth of pre-Christian Jewish ideas.

Kara-Ivanov Kaniel’s arguments throughout result from—and in—a host of close and innovative readings of biblical, rabbinic, and mystical texts. Naturally, some are more convincing than others; a reader who focuses over much on cases in which they disagree, however, will be impoverished for not attending to the overall picture Kara-Ivanov Kaniel draws from these data points, which is not only convincing, but powerfully productive. Kara-Ivanov Kaniel’s book deserves a wide reception, not only in medievalist and mysticism circles, but also among scholars of feminist study of religion, Hebrew Bible, early Judaism, and New Testament.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michael Rosenberg is Associate Professor of Rabbinics at Hebrew College, Newton Centre, Massachusetts.

Date of Review: 
October 13, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ruth Kara-Ivanov Kaniel is a lecturer at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies and at the Hebrew University, and is a research fellow at the Tel-Aviv Institute for Contemporary Psychoanalysis and at the Shalom Hartman Institute. She is also the head of a Research Group at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute. Her current research deals with intersections between Jewish mythology, mysticism, gender and psychoanalysis.


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