Culture, Mishegas, Religion, Sex & Gender

Okunov and the Asherah

from Guestposter Soferet Avielah Barclay
New York City’s underground fashion’s latest darling, bad-boy wild child Levi Okunov, is dressing women up as Torahs.
Now, I’m not the smartest person in the world. Sometimes it takes me a while to fully get an idea. I need time to process so I can fully appreciate the impact of a situation or an event. But not with this. This I got right away. Just not in the way you think.
For a little background, please see Jay Michaelson’s Jewcy article and this 1:22 minute film on YouTube.
Okay, it’s interesting – sort of. As for his actual auto-didactic fashion designs, nothing special there. It’s a bit of a simplistic rebellion, and therefore boring. And empowering the Torah as a focus of fetish (in the religious or veneration-of-the-animal sense) is not new, as Michaelson’s article pointed out. Neither is heresy new – nor necessarily offensive or threatening. “Heresy”, after all, is just a Greek word for “choice”.

So Okunov is a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn who was raised in a Chassidic family which he has broken away from for the sake of expressing his art (hello, Asher Lev!). And he obviously has issues – but don’t we all? What he’s done here isn’t as simple as it appears.
So because I’m a Jungian-influenced Jewish Orthodox Feminist, or rather, a Femandrist (a neologism I coined earlier this year), you’re expecting me to write a long rant about how women’s bodies should be covered and certainly not drawn attention to with objects and designs normally reserved for awed worship, blah, blah, blah. Well, yeah, that’s the p’shat, the surface reading, but there’s more to it than that. I’ll leave the modesty rant up to the fundamentalist “Tsni’us Police”.
The problem here is this:
Levi Okunov is exiling the Shekhinah.
What? Isn’t that a little far-fetched? I mean, everything we do in this world must be Be-Shem yichud Qud’sha B’rikh Hu u-Sh’khinte for the sake of the unification of The Holy One and His Shekhinah. So isn’t Okunov using these female models wearing his designs to connect us to his conceptions of the Divine Feminine? Is this not a way of re-imagining the sacred, humanity, and re-awakening a sense of awe? The reclamation of Shekhinah, the Divine Mother?
No, that’s what Leonard Nimoy achieved with his 2002 book, “Shekhina”.
But these are just revealing outfits made from Torah covers. Aren’t they? He’s only expressing the Shekhinah, the Feminine In-Dwelling Presence of G@d, associated primarily with feminine imagery, such as the Shabbat Queen, and the Bride. Okunov is simply letting her rise to the surface of Torah like a powerful wave of subconscious breaking on the shores of our minds, reminding us she’s always just there under the facade we’ve built over G@d to enable us to commune with the Divine. Okunov is liberating us from the Patriarchal male-only G@d through iconoclasm. Isn’t he?
But is this really iconoclasm, image-breaking, or is it actually image-building? Isn’t it avodah zarah, idolatry? Isn’t this a reincarnation of the Asherah? Yes, that’s it. Levi Okunov has turned his models into Asherah trees.
Asherah, or Ashtoreth, was a Middle-Eastern goddess also known as Astarte or Ishtar, and she was all about love, sex and fertility. All nice and necessary stuff. She was very popular with us before the days of the Nevi’im, the Prophets, to the point where King Solomon set up a place of worship for her outside of Jerusalem, where her ritual equipment included large carved poles, or even living groves of trees. An Asherah pole was even featured in our Holy Temple until King Hezekiah destroyed it. Why? Because Asherah was sometimes regarded as Y-H-V-H’s consort, but the official Y-H-V-H religion was not regarded as purely male, so did not need a female partner. This compromised our worship of Y-H-V-H for a very long time, so her worship is repeatedly condemned in the Bible.
What I see in Okunov’s art is the whole person/image/Torah being split into components (deconstruction) but also the transfer of an idea of Shekhinah plastered superficially onto a place where it doesn’t belong (construction). Kind of like Asherah. Asherah wasn’t idolatry because she was female and the “real” G@d of Israel was male, she was idolatry because she was pulled out of G@D (who is everything and all, there is nothing else but G@d) therefore weakening the whole Elohut – G@dhead – not in actuality, but in people’s minds, which damages the holy I-Thou relationship.
El-ohut, the G@dhead or Ain Sof Infinite Divinity, is G@d expressed fully who S/He is. Y-H-V-H. IS-ness. The verb To Be. The Self-Existent One. And Shekhinah is a part of that name: she is the last letter Hey in G@d’s Four-Letter Name, the Yud being the Supernal Father, the first letter Hey representing the Primordial Mother, the Vav being the Son/Groom, and the last Hey the Daughter/Bride. She is Shekhinah. Not Asherah.
Shekhinah is Internal to G@d, intrinsic, while Asherah is redundant. Not external, as nothing exists outside of G@d, but excessive.
The reason why Asherah poles and trees were considered avodah zarah, idolatry, and why they needed to be destroyed is not because they represented a different small-d deity competing with our Big-D Deity, but because Asherah was meant to be representative of the feminine aspect of G@d separated out – and the whole purpose of Creation and for Tiqun Olam, Repair of the World, is to re-unite the masculine and feminine aspects of G@d.
We weren’t allowed to plant trees in the Beit Ha-Miqdash (Temple) courtyard because they represented Asherah. Not that all female energy is considered “bad” in Judaism, but because to put the feminine there – Outside, in exile – would imply that only the masculine was in the Qodesh Qodashim (Holy of Holies), that only the male aspect was behind the curtain – on the Inside.
But the K’ruvim (golden winged figures facing each other atop the lid of the Ark who were of one form) themselves show us that there were both male and female in the most sacred physical space that G@d occupies, and that they embraced sexually (Talmud Bavli Masekhet Yoma 54a, Bava Batra 99a). So it’s not that appreciating of the feminine is wrong or that femaleness is lesser or that recognizing that G@d is half female is idol worship – indeed, the undermining of the Feminine is a chilul Ha-Shem (diminishing G@d’s Presence in the world) and to claim that G@d is exclusively masculine is also.
It’s that any human’s mental separation of G@d’s unification is harmful to not only that person’s soul, but to all of Creation. Either gender acknowledged in a vacuum is a misrepresentation of Divinity. The direction of the Universal flow is toward total yechidut – unification. But the way things have been translated and interpreted through the generations, well, this is how it comes across. It’s damaged all the Abrahamic faiths. Time to heal that and thereby move a little closer to a planet of shalom.

“Ve-ne’emar ve-hayah Ad@nai le-melekh al kol ha-aretz, be-yom ha-hu yihiyeh Ad@nai echad u-shemo echad.”
“And it is said: And the L@RD shall be King over all the earth; in that day shall the L@RD be One, and His name one.”
– Zechariah 14:9

Let’s work to reunite G@d’s El-ohut, G@d’s Self and G@d’s Name with Shekhinah, the true Etz Chayim, Tree of Life, not the transgressive counterfeit Asherah, so G@d and all humanity can be fully who we are.
In the meantime, don’t call me for any repairs or alterations to your parchment and Hebrew embellished clothing…

4 thoughts on “Okunov and the Asherah

  1. Hi,
    I just have to comment on your discussion. I really appreciate your putting the Shekhinah/ Asherah history in its full context, but I think your conclusion, as inspiring as it should be, comes across as a little thin. Some thoughts:
    1) In my admittedly limited understanding of theology, the Torah is not an aspect of God. Just because the Shekhinah is female and the Torah is female doesn’t mean they’re somehow related.
    2) The Shekhinah is the only feminine name of God, and we NEVER pray to her in shul. We pray to the other, 6 male names. God is always referred to in shul as Father, King, etc. God is obviously male in the mind of the Jewish people. In fact, in the prayers of the Jewish people, all the important Jewish ancestors are male, probably because all the rabbis were male. Unfortunate as this is, it’s the truth. Considering that historically YHVH was a war god in a pathenon of Elohim, it’s not a real surprise.
    3) I think Asherah needs to make a real comeback as an aspect of God. She’s the only feminine divine presence in our history that ever came close to equaling the male divine. I’m not an idolator but frankly the Jewish people have become such by allowing God to be defined as stern, male, and war-like. I and Thou really only works for Jewish men. If we’re all made in God’s image, 6/7 of people on Earth should be men, and obviously that’s not the case. Then we need 4 more divine female aspects of God to round it out, and we’ll be on our way to an inclusive religion. Of course, I sound like a heretic. That’s feminism and religion for you.

  2. Did I miss something, is this new? This blog has mentioned the torah/fashion article twice this week (here and in a post with a bunch of links), but what’s the news? The background post you linked to was from March 2008.

  3. G-d bless you Sarah. Without heretics, there would be no Judaism today. I’ll tell you something. One time, friday night, i subsituted the name of Asherah for HaShem in the prayers. Is that avodah zarah? maybe. i dont think so. because i did it for the sake of rescuing the kernel from the shells.

  4. This is the second post I’ve seen on Jewschool about this in the past couple of weeks, but always citing content from 2008. Is there something that’s bringing this to the surface now?

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