Rabbi Fern Feldman

To Dwell in the Thick Darkness: The Sacred Dark in Jewish Thought

                              Lee Bontecou, Untitled, 1960

(To be published as a chapter in the upcoming book, Anima Mundi. Voices from Many Shores (An Anthology of Spiritualities) edited by Frederique Apffel-Marglin and Stefano Varese)


It came to pass, as the trumpeters and singers were as one, to make one sound heard, praising and thanking Adonai, and when they lifted their voice with the trumpets and cymbals and instruments of song, praising Adonai, saying, For God is good, for God’s loving kindness endures forever, then the house, the house of Adonai, was filled with a cloud; And the priests could not stand and serve because of the cloud; for the manifesting presence of Adonai had filled the house of God. Then Solomon said,Adonai has chosen to dwell in the thick darkness (II Chronicles 5:13-6:1)


When I explore my own nature, or experience the sacred, most often I find darkness. Although dominating theologies assert binaries, in which light is holy and darkness is evil, a recognition of the multivalent nature of all that is can evoke awareness of wave upon wave of dark and light.

Some say they want to “embrace the dark” when they mean embrace the grief, anger and suffering in the world, and be present with it, rather than denying, ignoring or hating it. But that is not the aspect of sacred dark that interests me most. What interests me is how in darkness all separation dissolves into oneness. Darkness is depths, cave, womb, soil that sprouts seeds, soothing shade, nighttime during which we dream, grow and make long-term memory. Darkness can be source, essence, innermost being, transcendence, embodiment, nothingness, emptiness, mystery.

Darkness is often associated with the earth, for a number of reasons. The sky can be dark or light, but the earth has no light of its own, except the molten core that shows its fiery light when it erupts. Under the surface of the earth, of course, it is always dark. So, too, we find that darkness is associated with depths, while light is associated with heights.

The dark of the womb and the common association between women and earth are aspects of a metaphorical connection between women and the dark. European colonialism and white supremacy have been invested in associating dark skin and dark hair with negative metaphors of darkness. When we discount the power of darkness, we devalue all one might associate with it—dark skin, women, and the earth. Audre Lorde explained it like this:

These places of possibility within ourselves are dark because they are ancient and hidden; they have survived and grown strong through darkness. Within these deep places, each one of us holds an incredible reserve of creativity and power, of unexamined and unrecorded emotion and feeling. The woman’s place of power within each of us is neither white nor surface; it is dark, it is ancient, and it is deep. (Lorde 36-37)

It is essential to be aware of these places of possibility Lorde describes. We need the holiness, and the liberating power, of deepening into the dark. And this particular historical moment requires of us the dismantling of the negative dualist metaphors of blackness and darkness, both for the sake of justice, and for the sake of the life of the planet.

Christian theologian Eulalio P. Baltazar, in his book, The Dark Center: A Process Theology of Blackness, writes about what he calls “western color symbolism”, based on “white Christianity and white theology” (7-8). These developed out of Appolonian thought, combined with Aristotelian dualism, and led to the problem mentioned above, in which white is associated with good and black with evil. However, Baltazar claims, up through the Middle Ages, that set of beliefs about metaphysical colors did not transfer into prejudice toward black skinned people. It was the development of the philosophy of empiricism that led to the belief that

man is his appearance, or man is as he appears. It was this new anthropology that facilitated the transference of the color symbolism from the soul to the body…But even this transference would have remained purely in theory and not in fact if the economic colonization of Africans and the need to justify slavery were not present as reinforcing factors. In other words, the economic superiority and dominance of the Europeans confirmed their belief in the positive theological values attached to white skin, and conversely, the negative theological values attached to people with dark skins. (29) [1]


Baltazar also explains how European Christian culture “integrated sexuality with blackness” (35) And he points out that “From a psychoanalytic point of view, darkness or blackness is the symbol of the unconscious; whiteness or light of the conscious. Western color symbolism in psychoanalytic terms is precisely the expression at the conscious level of the flight from the unconscious.” (57) He adds, “Thus the Western psyche is…split, for the ego is separated from the id from which if flees. This results in an abstraction which is then projected into everything that is considered the nonself: nature, making of it a ‘harlot’ to be used, wasted, deadened; and nonwhites made invisible” (63). At issue, then, in addition to the broader political implications, is the opportunity for integration of the psyche. Which, of course, also leads to further societal healing.

Another way of framing the racial implications of color symbolism comes from Amoja ThreeRivers, an American-born African, Choctaw, Tsalagi, Ojibwa Jew, who in her booklet “Cultural Etiquette: A Guide for the Well-Intentioned” asks “How about instead of “the pot calling the kettle black,” you say, “the pus calling the maggot white”?

Ellen Davina Haskell in writing about the Zohar, discusses an image that is “offering a startling juxtaposition specifically designed to promote contemplation and mental reordering for its reader…” (11) In speaking of sacred darkness, this paper is promoting contemplation, and a mental reordering. How we imagine, what images we make, reorders our awareness, and reorders the world. So, dear reader, I invite you to contemplate, and let the reordering begin.

Baltazar develops what he calls “a processive theology of blackness”, in which “blackness symbolizes the Supreme Reality as Divine Darkness and Faith as a saving darkness” (2). Catholic theologian M. Shawn Copeland in her article “Blackness Past, Blackness Future—and Theology” tells us “To come to terms with blackness means to come to terms with the failure of Western metaphysics and ontology” (634). She suggests

Perhaps a route [that] theology might take side by side with the symbol of blackness to a future with authentic and luminous possibility emerges from the ancient mystical tradition of apophasis, the via negativa or negative theology. In this posture, rather than attempting to overcome the opacity of the symbol, theology draws us near to it and into its meanings, its agonies, and its ecstasies. Theology worked out on apophasis eschews easy harmonizations, questions every similarity and dissimilarity even as it holds these in creative tension, and resists simple closure. Negative theology acknowledges the inability and poverty of language to express any experience of awe, of the holy, of divine Mystery. Always, there is more—a dense and fruitful residue that can never be grasped or uttered or rendered absolute. Experience of divine Mystery eludes the very structures of language; such experience is beyond words, beyond saying. (635)

Certainly, the notion of sacred darkness evokes experience of that mystery that is beyond saying. Perhaps a pause here is in order, to do just that—a moment for awe, for acknowledgment of the ungraspable…


And then, an attempt—not to grasp, but to taste the mysteries of the sacred dark.

Often, we think the paths to holiness are to be found by ascending into the light. Certainly, light is an evocative metaphor for that which gives life, and for the flow of divine presence. But there are numerous levels to the metaphors of dark and light. On one level, dark can be seen as that which blocks the flow of light. This can be limiting, when we imagine that light is the source of the good or the sacred. But the blocking of light can be protective, when light is destructive, or too much to handle, or if time is needed to hibernate or grow. A further level to the metaphor is the darkness beyond the light.   That darkness is the place where all separation dissolves into oneness, and there is a taste of a taste of what it means to be an integrated part of all that is.

The portions of the brain that registers physical sensations are greatly reduced when experiencing mystical states (Begley and Underwood 52). In the dark, one may be more open to these states. Astrophysics is also encountering the power of the darkness. The theory of dark matter proposes that there is dark, unseen substance that provides the majority of the gravitational pull that is literally holding the universe together (“Dark Matter”, 2012). What an evocative metaphor for the divine—that which holds it all together. Rabbi Marcia Prager, in her book The Path of Blessing, cites the Chernobyler Rebbe, who noted that one of the most common Jewish terms for God, Adonay, shares a root with the word adanim, “…usually translated as ‘ball-joints’ or ‘sockets’. A ball-joint, the Rebbe mused, is a mechanism for flexible connection. Just as the flexible adanim held the upper and lower sections of the Mishkan [travelling sanctuary] together, so too Adonay holds the lower and higher worlds together” (105-106). One might, then, imagine God somewhat like dark matter, holding the world/s together.

Jewish tradition evokes many forms of sacred darkness, and this will be the focus of the rest of this paper. Nighttime study brings a thread of loving-kindness into the world. Divine presence can be a sheltering shade. Revelations occur at caves. Torah was received in darkness, formed of black fire on white fire, and still the ink is black. The source of everflow is imagined as a burning black coal or a deep spring. Before God said “Let there be light” there was already darkness, the darkness of wisdom, and beyond. These images, and the texts that hold them, are openings that take us deeper into the sacred.



The Talmudic sage, Resh Lakish (BT Hagigah 12b) comments that “Whoever engages in Torah by night, the Holy One draws down upon that person a cord of loving-kindness by day, as it is said ‘By day, Adonai[2] commands His loving-kindness’(Ps.42:9). What is the reason? Because ‘And by night His/Her song is with me’” (ibid).[3] The Talmud goes on to comment that some say that Resh Lakish elaborated and compared night to this world, and day to the world to come. In acknowledging that only some make this association, the passage recognizes two levels of darkness—on one level, night is to be compared to this imperfect world, versus the world to come; on another level, night is the sacred time in which our Torah study brings forth loving-kindness.

The Zohar (Vol. II, 148b-149a) explains that this cord of loving-kindness to which Resh Lakish referred comes from the original light of creation that was hidden away for the righteous to receive at the end of days, that is, at the time of the final redemption.[4] And yet, “Had it been hidden away altogether, the world would not have been able to exist for one moment. But it was only hidden like a seed which generates others, seeds and fruits, and the world is sustained by it…whenever the Torah is studied by night, a little thread of this hidden light steals down and plays upon them as they are absorbed in their study.” Earlier, (Vol. I, 31b-32a), the Zohar explains that that original light of creation “issued from the darkness which was carved out by the strokes of the Hidden One; and similarly from that light which was stored away there was carved out through some hidden process the lower world darkness [that is, night], in which light resides. ” Light, here, issues from the darkness that precedes creation, the place of the “Hidden One”, the One that cannot be seen or known directly. And night, that “lower world darkness”, can carry us back to a deeper level of consciousness, to that “darkness which was carved out by the strokes of the Hidden One”. This text teaches of the holiness of the night, and its potential to connect us to the deepest level of the sacred imaginable. It also evokes the awareness that there is not just one type of darkness and one type of light, but layer upon layer, wave upon wave, of dark and light, making diffraction patterns[5] that ripple in all directions. Slightly further on in the passage, the Zohar explains: “The difference by means of which light is distinguished from darkness is one of degree only; both are one in kind, as there is no light without darkness and no darkness without light; but though one, they are different in color. Their differentiation is not of kind, but gradations of levels of color.” Thinking of dark and light as gradations of color, one might understand that this variation is part of what makes things beautiful, like the threads of a tapestry. And, also, there is not a complete separation, “their differentiation is not one of kind”. All is one, without all being the same, or homogenous. In exploring the reverberations of dark and light, we hold the awareness that we are not talking about any sort of essentialism, nor any inherent binary, in which all associations can be piled one on top of the other, to create sets of false associations, as is so often done, by thinking that equates male=light=good=mind, and female=dark=bad=body.

Another Zohar passage (I 92a), describing what happens at midnight, in addition to mentioning the thread of loving-kindness that comes down for those who (in this case) play with Torah, explains that the Holy Blessed One arises to play with the righteous ones in the garden of Eden. And more:

at midnight, when the Holy One, blessed be, enters the Garden of Eden, all the plants of the Garden are watered more plenteously by the stream which is called “the ancient stream” and “the stream of delight”, the waters of which never cease to flow. When a person rises and studies the Torah at this hour, the water of that stream is, as it were, poured on his head and he is watered by it along with the other plants of the Garden of Eden.


Quite strikingly, the passage continues further on: “It is written ‘Midnight I will rise to give thanks to You because of Your righteous judgments’ (Psalm 119:62). Since the word ‘at’ is omitted, we may take ‘Midnight’ as an appellation of the Holy Blessed One, who is addressed thus by David…” That is to say, midnight is a name of God.



The spiritual opportunities of midnight abound in Jewish tradition. One aspect of its power is implied by the events that take place in the middle of the night in Torah. Rabbi Shalom Noach Barzovsky, (sometimes called the Slonimer rebbe, or simply the Slonimer), in his multi volume work Netivot Shalom, points out that both of the Israelites’ moments of redemption occurred at night. Pharaoh “arose in the night” (Exodus12:30) and told the people to leave. So, the Exodus (the first night of Passover) was at night. Almost a week later (the seventh night of Passover), the Reed Sea was split during the night. Not only was it at night, but the Israelites were assisted in the process by a pillar of cloud: “Thus, there was a pillar of cloud with the darkness and it cast a spell upon the night” (Exodus 14:20).[6] The Slonimer explains the reason redemption came at night through a commentary on a verse from Psalms, “To tell in the morning of your loving-kindness, and your faithfulness in the nights” (Psalm 92:3). The reason, the Slonimer says, that the verse from Psalms says “nights” in the plural is to remind us of these two nights of redemption, the first and seventh nights of Passover.

He explains that they/we merit loving-kindness in the day, which he parallels with redemption, due to faithfulness during the night, which he equates with exile. While in exile in Egypt, the Israelites were unable to purify our own ethical qualities. The faith we expressed purified our souls and bodies for us, to prepare us to cleave to the Holy Presence when it was revealed in the Exodus and at the Reed Sea. Once the Presence is explicitly revealed, it becomes impossible to experience deep faith, because faith is unnecessary unless there is cause for doubt. The Slonimer is thinking of a level of darkness that is a lack of light, saying that even though it is painful, it is also an opportunity to manifest virtue; the night makes faith possible.

The Slonimer’s perspective on darkness somewhat parallels the second of the two opinions in the Talmud passage discussed above, that is, that night can be correlated with this world, and day with the world to come. The Talmud balances that opinion, however, with the view that the loving-kindness we experience in the day has its roots in our Torah study, God’s song, in the night. On this level, the darkness is connected with the concealment of divinity. The Zohar adds another dimension: it correlates the concealed world with a higher level of divinity, and with the world to come. In the Zoharic perspective, the revealed world, also called “this world” is the “lower Mother”, also associated with the Shekhinah, the manifestation of divine presence, and the concealed world is associated with the “Upper Mother”, the realm of Bina, or Understanding, which is also “the world to come”, or “the world that is coming” (temporality is nonlinear in Jewish thought, as well as Hebrew grammar). This results in an opposite set of associations from that of the Talmud: whether we associate revealment with this world, and concealment with the world to come, or vice versa, is situational. Associations shift and move, there are no binary fixed positions, rather multi-dimensional shifting valences, where identities are not inherent, but rather arise out of the intra-actions of which they are a part. [7]

In his essay on Chanukah, “The Light and the Dark”, Emmanuel Levinas writes:

Before the miracle of generous light, and as a condition of this miracle, another miracle took place: a dark miracle that one forgets. One forgets it in the blaze of lights triumphantly burning brighter. But if, in the Temple…one had not found in a little flask of pure oil bearing the seal of the High Priest, which, ignored by everyone but unchanging, had remained there throughout the years while the candelabra remained empty, there would have been no Hanukkah miracle. There had to be preserved somewhere a transparent oil kept intact. Oh! nocturnal existence turned in on itself within the narrow confines of a forgotten phial. Oh! existence sheltered from all uncertain contact with the outside…a clandestine existence, isolated, in its subterranean refuge, from time and events, an eternal existence, a coded message addressed by one scholar to another…Oh! miracle of tradition, conditions and promise of a thought without restraint that does not want to remain an echo, or brief stir of the day. Oh! generous light flooding the universe, you drink our subterranean life, our life that is eternal and equal to itself. You celebrate those admirable hours, which are dark and secret. (Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism 230)


The Zohar teaches, one “who desires to penetrate to the mystery of the holy unity should contemplate the flame which rises from a burning coal or candle” (Zohar I 50b, Daniel Matt translation). When we look at the center of the candle flame we can see the traces of the dark miracle of the oil of which Levinas speaks; that oil held inside and protected bleeds through into the dark center of the flame. We sense the pnimiyut—the innerness—the divine shelter holding the most precious. And when we look closely, we also see the dark that surrounds the flame. And in this seeing is awareness that there are layers upon layers of dark and light, not a binary, but a beautiful diverse multivalent living wholeness that can in no way have any of the rigid mind’s reified binaries laid upon it. Dark within the flame; dark around the flame; dark between each flame. And finally, dark beyond the flames. As Emmanuel Levinas says of the menorah at the outset of his essay, “One light the first evening, two the following day, three the day after, and so on up until the triumphant blaze of light on the final evening—up until the strange and mysterious night that will surround the candelabra after this final illumination.” Beyond the story, beyond the eight lights, holding them in its endlessness, is the mysterious night. Night, Laila, the word that the Zohar says is a name for God, holding all that we know. Before and after the lights, and deepest within, the sacred dark, sustaining it all, holding it all.


The Hidden Face and the Hiding Place

Other Jewish images of hiddenness also reflect a multivalent view of the dark. There is a concept called “hester panim”, the hiding of the face, based on a Deuteronomy 31:15-18, and developed in the Prophets and Psalms. Deuteronomy 31:17 reads, in part: “Then my anger shall be kindled against them in that day and I will forsake them, and I will hide my face from them, and they shall be devoured, and many evils and trouble shall befall them.” This concept is used to explain why negative events can happen—they are a result of the hiding of the divine face, or presence. In the language of light and dark, hester panim is the blocking of the divine light that leaves us, abandoned and alone, in the destructive dark. But there is a flip side to this concept, which is discussed by Herbert Levine in his book, Sing Unto God a New Song: A Contemporary Reading of the Psalms. That is the seter, the shelter, or hiding place. The root samech-tav-resh (or s-t-r) has to do with hiddenness, and is used both as the root of the term hester–the hiding of God’s presence– and as the root of the word seter, the hidden divine shelter. One of the sources for this image is in Psalm 18, which contains numerous images of the sacred dark, including these:

He bent the sky and came down,

Thick cloud beneath His feet.

He mounted a cherub and flew,

Gliding on the wings of the wind.

He made darkness His shelter (seter);

Around Him, His sukkah[8],

Dark thunderheads, dense clouds of the sky. (Psalm 18:10-12)


Levine, referring to a later portion of Psalm 18, writes “For moral support, the psalmist petitions that all God’s devoted ones be hidden, from the root s-t-r, within the divine presence, treasured in God’s sukkah (v.21)” (162). He explains: “God’s sukkah is a liminal doorway that transforms vulnerability into protection. God may at times seem hidden, but one can be concealed even with the hidden God” (162-3). That is, protection comes from being hidden with/in God. Levine examines numerous other psalms that contain related imagery, including Psalm 27, which Jews recite twice daily for about six weeks in preparation for and during the Days of Awe (the season of the Jewish New Year). He writes

…having entered into the concealment of God’s tent, seter ‘oholo, the psalmist remembers the opposite feeling of God’s hiding his face, hester panim: ‘do not conceal Your face/presence from me’ (‘al taster paneka, v. 9) The expression of both security and vulnerability through the root s-t-r indicates the necessary interrelatedness of these emotions and the pivotal, unifying role played by s-t-r in the psalm. Each emotion must be played out in full (168).


The issue in regard to hiddenness then, is whether we are within or without the hiding place. In Hebrew, the root for ‘face’ and the root for ‘within’ are the same, peh-nun-heh. The hiding of God’s face or presence, and being within God’s presence are thus linguistically related in two ways. If God is within and we are without, then we feel loss. If we can be within the hiding place also, then we experience protection and connection with the divine. Perhaps when we are deeply in the experience of being hidden from sacred presence, we are uniquely situated to cry out to be held within the divine shelter. That can be a great and compassionate gift in moments of despair.


Shade And Shadow  

Psalm 91:1 expands the image of a shelter further, and includes the reader within the shelter: “Oh you who dwell in supernal shelter (seter) will pass the night in the shade (tzel) of Shaddai.” (Shaddai is itself an interesting God-name: it is often translated into English as “Almighty”, but the root is related to a word for mountain, and a word for breast. In the Talmud, it is understood homiletically to mean “enough”—“El Shaddai [means], I am the One who said to the world: ‘Enough!’ Resh Lakish said: When the Holy One, blessed be He, created the sea, it went on expanding, until the Holy One, blessed be He, rebuked it and caused it to dry up, for it is said: He rebukes the sea and makes it dry, and dries up all the rivers” (BT Hagigah 12a). Interestingly, this hearkens back to the idea of the God name Adonai having something to do with holding the worlds together.)   In numerous places in Psalms, the concepts of seter, sukkah, and shade or shadow are connected. (Shade and shadow are the same word in Hebrew). Psalm 91 starts with an image of being sheltered in the shade of Shaddai, the holy mountain, or divine breast, or the power that holds the world together. What does it mean to be in the shade?

There are multiple levels to the metaphor. If we need the sun to grow or see, being completely blocked from it could be a problem. But shade felt so important to people in the ancient near east, that the psalmist actually equated it with God: Psalm 121 says “Adonai is your keeper; Adonai is your shade, at your right hand.” (Psalms 121:5) The Psalms also repeatedly refer to the shadow of God’s wings. Psalm 91 implies this sense of shade, in verse 4: “He shall cover you with His feathers, and under His wings you will find refuge.” This image, of the divine as a protecting bird, likely a mother bird, is central in Judaism. Each morning, right after putting on a tallit, (prayer shawl) with it enfolding the person engaging in prayer, and draped over the head, Psalm 36:8 is recited: “How precious is your loving kindness, O God! The children of humanity take refuge under the shadow of your wings.” One can imagine the tallit as the sheltering, shade-giving wings of the divine.

The travelling sanctuary, the Mishkan, which was the predecessor of the Temple, is also imagined as a place of sacred shade. The craftsman who designed it was named B’tzalel, a name literarily meaning “in the shadow of God”; that is the sanctuary itself is the place of divine shade, or presence, for whenever there is a shadow, the source of the shadow is nearby.

And there are many other levels to the image. Ancient Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria saw the divine shadow as the presence of God that could be experienced– the “Divine Mind, the Idea of Ideas…the pattern of all creation and the archetype of human reason” (Winston, p.26).

And the Zohar, along with later mystical teachings and practices, calls the sukkah the shade of faith (tzila dim’heimnuta)[9]. The sukkah is understood as an evocation of the clouds of divine presence that protected and guided the Israelites as they wandered through the desert on the way from slavery to freedom, so calling the sukkah the shade/shadow of faith evokes this experience of divine presence. Just as with a physical shadow, where the shadow necessitates a presence casting the shadow, when we feel ourselves to be in the shadow of God, we can feel the presence of the source itself. That is, there is some link in our awareness between the experience of the sacred darkness and the sacred itself. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, (Kedushat Levi, 70b) takes this idea a step further:

‘God is you shadow (tzilcha)’ (Psalm 121). That is, just as a person’s shadow does whatever a person does, so does the blessed Creator, as it were, do whatever a person does. Consequently, a person needs to do mitzvot (commandments and good deeds) and give tzedakah (righteous acts and donations) and have compassion on the poor, so that the blessed Creator will do likewise with them.


The shadow is a manifestation of one’s own soul, and a link between that soul and the Holy One. And it is more. That dark, ephemeral companion is a reminder that what we do here creates a pattern that is repeated on other levels, beyond what we can even imagine.


Revelation as Endarkenment

The experience of the Israelites at Mount Sinai took place in the shadow of the mountain. Shortly before the Ten Speakings[10] are given, Exodus 19:17 states “And they stood in the underside of the mountain”. The Talmud (BT Shabbat 88a), tells the following midrash[11]: “Rabbi Avdimi bar Hama said: The verse implies that the Holy One overturned the mountain upon them, like an inverted casket, and said to them: If you accept the Torah, it is well, if not, your grave will be right here.” Commenting on this, the Pesikta de Rav Kahana (Piska 7) says, “ ‘Israel accepted the Torah that was given out of darkness’. The Torah was given out of darkness, that is, the darkness of the shadow where they were standing, because the mountain was being held over their heads.” At this point, the Torah relates that the people experienced thunder, lightning, dense cloud, shofar blasts, smoke, and the shaking of the mountain; then they heard the divine revelation.

The Israelites then become too fearful to continue the intensity of this encounter, and they ask Moses to go on alone. The Torah tells us “So the people stood at a distance, and Moses came near the thick darkness (‘arafel) where God was.” (Exodus 20:18).  Philo wrote

Moses entered into the darkness where God was, that is into the unseen, invisible, incorporeal and archetypical essence of existing things. Thus he beheld what is hidden from the sight of the mortal nature, and in himself and his life displayed for all to see, he has set before us, like some well-wrought picture, a piece of work beautiful and godlike, a model for those who are willing to copy it. Happy are they who imprint that image in their souls. (Philo, The Life of Moses, I, 158, quoted in Three Jewish Philosophers)

The Torah was given in the darkness because it gave Moses the experience he needed to transmit the Torah, which is itself a pathway back to the essential darkness. Rabbi Menachem Mendel, the 19th century Kotzker rebbe, comments in his book Emet V’Emunah (quoted in P’ninei haTorah) that the arafel is the essence (ikkar), and the innermost part (pnimiyut), and that is why the divine presence was there. And medieval rabbinic authority, Jacob ben Asher, comments on Exodus 20:18 “the thick darkness (‘arafel): in numerologic equivalence (gematria), the Divine Presence (haShekhinah). That is, he equates the thick darkness that Moses entered to receive Torah with the Divine Presence itself.

So, at the time of the giving of the Torah, Moses and the Israelites were both having experiences of the sacred dark, although of different sorts. But later, the people had the experience of thick darkness (‘arafel) in the Temple that Moses had at Sinai. When King Solomon is building the Temple, he states (I Kings 8:12, and again in II Chronicles 6:1) “God has chosen to dwell in the thick darkness (ba ‘arafel)”. So the place of our most powerful communal religious experiences is described as holding the same type of sacred dark as that which Moses entered to receive the Torah. The core experiences of manifestation of Divine Presence—in the transmission of Torah, and in the bringing holiness into the world through the Temple– were both experiences of a thick darkness.


Caves, the Temple, the Holy of Holies, and divine manifestation

After traveling up Mount Sinai during the initial revelation of Torah, Moses ascends again to receive the written version of the Ten Speakings on stone tablets. This time, the mountain is covered with cloud, which the Torah associates with the divine presence (Exodus 24:15-16). When Moses comes down, the Israelites are worshipping the golden calf, and Moses breaks the tablets he is carrying. He ascends yet again to receive a second set of tablets. Moses is full of doubt: “And he said ‘Please show me Your presence’” (Exodus 33:18). In response, God says “As My Glory [or Presence] passes by; I will put you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away and you will see My back; but My face must not be seen.” (Exodus 33:22-23). So this revelation takes place in the dark. Moses is in a cleft of rock, covered by the divine hand. When Moses is allowed to see, what he sees is the back of the divine head. The Talmud comments thus: “R. Hama b. Bizana said in the name of R. Simon the Pious: This teaches us that the Holy One, blessed be, showed Moses the knot of the [i.e. God’s] tefillin[12]” (BT B’rachot 7a). So the image of the divine that Moses sees in this central epiphany is blackness–the black leather knot of tefillin.

When Moses descends from the mountain with the second set of tablets, the skin of his face is shining with rays of light (Exodus 34:29, 30, 35). The Midrash (Exodus Rabbah 47:6) asks:

From where did Moses derive these rays of splendor? The sages said: From the cave [i.e. the cleft of rock] as it says, As My Glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with My hand until I have passed by. R. Berakhiah the priest said in the name of R. Samuel: The tablets were six handbreadths in length and six in breadth; Moses grasped two handbreadths and the Shekhinah [the Divine Presence] another two, two handbreadths being left in the center, and it was from them that Moses derived those rays of splendor. R. Judah ben Nachman said in the name of R. Simon ben Lakish [Resh Lakish][13]: A little ink was left on the pen with which Moses wrote the Ten Speakings; when he passed this pen through the hair of his head the rays of splendor appeared.


On one level, this midrash is suggesting three different sources of the rays of light shining from Moses’ face. But on another level, the three possibilities are being paralleled, or equated, or diffractively read [14] through each other. The cave, the divine presence, and the black ink of Torah have something in common—perhaps their sacred darkness—that makes them all possible sources for the way Moses’ face looked when he came down the mountain. This reading may remind us of the (somewhat later) Zoharic teaching that the light of creation came forth out of the more primordial sacred darkness, referred to earlier in this paper (Zohar I 31b-32a). We will come back to this concept later.

For now, we return to the image of the cleft in the rock. The Zohar (I 84b) comments on Song of Songs 2:14: “O my dove in the clefts of the rock, in the covert of the hill”, saying: “’In the covert of the cliff’—this is the place that is called ‘the Holy of Holies’, the heart of the entire world.” The text then goes on to say that the Shekhinah secluded herself there. So the covert, or cave, again, is where the Shekhinah dwells. No wonder revelation happens in caves. And, the cave is the Holy of Holies, the most sacred spot in the Temple, which is described as a place of thick darkness (arafel)[15]. Herbert Levine describes the holy of holies thus: “The innermost sanctum was a place of deep darkness, where God’s awesome presence could be experienced without any earthly distractions.” (41). He describes the Temple as “a bridge between two worlds”, and a “liminal zone”(43). The Ba’al haTurim, Rabbi Jacob ben Asher[16] noticed the repetition of a word in two different verses: Leviticus 16:12, which describes what Aaron, the High Priest, should do in the inner sanctum of the Mishkan, the precursor to the holy of holies in the Temple: “And he shall take a panful of glowing coals scooped from the altar before Adonai, and two handfuls of finely (dakah) ground aromatic incense, and bring this behind the curtain”, and another epiphany at a cave—that of Elijah (I Kings 19:12): “And after the earthquake a fire; but Adonai was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small (dakah) voice.” The Ba’al haTurim explains that the common word dakah—fine, thin or small– is telling us that in both cases, “the glory of Adonai appeared”, that is, the divine presence manifested. The cave, the holy of holies, the liminal space of the deep darkness of divine presence, is an opening for healing and transformation. In the place where boundaries are no longer determinate, reality can shift.

Moses not only had a revelation in a cave; he is also described by the midrash as being a cave:

You find sometimes, ‘And the Adonai spoke to Moses’, and, ‘And Adonai said to Moses’; so also you find, ‘And Moses said to Adonai’ and also ‘And Moses spoke to Adonai.’ It can be compared to a cave situated by the seashore into which the sea once penetrated, and having filled it, never departed, but was always flowing in and out of it. So it was that Adonai spoke to Moses, and Moses said to Adonai.”(Exodus Rabbah 45:3).


In addition to the Torah telling of Moses’ epiphany at a cave, and the prophetic section of the Hebrew Bible telling of Elijah’s epiphany, the Talmud (BT Shabbat 33b) tells the story of the great mystic, Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, who spent twelve years with his son in a cave, hiding from the Roman authorities after he was reported for criticizing them. They used the time to develop mystical skills. In the foundational texts of Kabbalah, the Zohar, the character of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai is the greatest master and teacher of mysticism. In the narratives of the Zohar, caves are places of revelation of the maternal aspect of God’s presence, and of light coming from the darkness.[17]

Perhaps the most famous cave in Jewish tradition is the cave of Machpelah. Abraham bought it to bury his wife, Sarah, and eventually it became the burial place of Isaac, Ishmael, Rebecca, Jacob and Leah. Genesis Rabbah (58:8) tells us that the primordial Adam is buried there, too. The root of the name Machpelah in Hebrew is khaf-peh-lamed, which means “double”, so the midrash hypothesizes about what is doubled. [18]The Talmud (BT Eruvin 53a) wonders whether there are two chambers, an upper and a lower, or one within another. The Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 58:8) tells us that “the name signifies that the Holy One, blessed be, bent [the primordial, and very tall] Adam double, and buried him within it.” The midrashic text Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer (Ch. 36) recounts that Abraham chased a stray calf who had run into the cave of Machpelah, and found Adam and Eve buried there. The Zohar (Vol. I 127a-128b) adds to this story that when Abraham followed the calf into the cave, he saw a river of light emanating from it. Yet another image of light emerging from the sacred dark. This same Zohar passage also addresses the issue of doubling. The cave and the field it is in are both referred to in the Torah as Machpelah. The Zohar says

The term Machpelah belongs properly neither to the cave nor to the field, but to something else with which both were connected. The cave belongs to the field, and the field to something else. For the whole of the Land of Israel and of Jerusalem is folded up beneath it, since it exists both above and below, both of the            same pattern. The Jerusalem above has a twofold attachment, above and below; similarly the Jerusalem below is linked to two sides, higher and lower…Further, the esoteric implication of the term Machpelah [which is referred to in the Torah as HaMachpelah—the Machpelah– with a letter heh at the beginning and at the end] relates it to the Divine Name, in which the letter heh is doubled, though both are as one.


The Zohar is presenting an image of a cave that is a pathway between the worlds, a liminal zone. It is reminiscent of the notion in General Relativity of a wormhole, “a shortcut connecting two separate points in spacetime. A wormhole may connect extremely long distances such as a billion light years or more, short distances such as a few feet, different universes, and different points in time. A wormhole is much like a tunnel with two ends, each at separate points in spacetime.” [19] One enters the dark cave of the first heh of HaMachpelah, and winds up coming out the second heh, into another level of reality.[20] It is by passing through the dark, where boundaries are blurred, that one can make this transition. Machpelah is the cave in which the ancestors are buried, so it is a place for souls to transition out of this life and into something else, but it is also a place for transition from the more mundane level of reality to somewhere both literally and metaphorically deeper. This liminal power of the cave of Machpelah, connected with its double nature, is brought forward in a variety of tales, including one modern one, by Howard Schwartz, based on traditional sources, in which Talmudic sages enter the cave where it is geographically located, in Hebron, and see, through the far end, where the cave opens out into the garden of Eden (Schwartz 276-279). Another version of this idea is brought by Itzchak Buxbaum, who recounts a story that takes place during the Ottoman empire, in which a midwife named Fruma Riveleh enters the cave of Machpelah, is locked in, wanders through it, meeting the spirit of King David, and walks out the far end, which opens out onto her home street in Jerusalem (Buxbaum 207-211). These stories are clues to us that the image of the cave of Machpelah is a meditative tool, where one can visualize entering into the dark depths and emerging transformed.

Another aspect of the double heh of the cave of Machpelah, has to do with the way that the letter heh ה is shaped a bit like a pair of legs and a pelvis, and is associated, particularly in the Tetragrammaton, with the female aspects of the divine.[21] So the image of entering a cave, particularly one that is associated with the letter heh, and being taken through into another world evokes the image of passing through the womb. The imagery of the heh, the cave, the earth, the womb, and the Shekhinah are all overlaid in Jewish thought. The Sefer Yetzirah (1:13), a second century C.E. mystical text, takes the first three letters of the Tetragrammaton, the yud heh vav, and associates each of the six possible permutations of these three letters with the six directions (above, below, east, west, south and north). In imagining these letters in the directions, one is surrounded with the letters of the divine name. What doesn’t get mentioned explicitly is what is missing: the final heh of the Tetragrammaton, and the seventh direction—the center. The final heh is the center—the earth, the place of the self surrounded by the rest of the directions.   The most manifest level of reality for us, then, the earth, is also the innermost part—that which is completely surrounded on all sides. This is like the womb, which is in the center of the body but brings forth into existence. The womb is the place of the darkness that pre-exists the light in the creation of every mammal. In Jewish thought, this is related to the darkness that preceded the creation of the world, which we will discuss shortly.

But first, another perspective on the double hehs and the cave of Machpelah, that comes from Rabbi Isaac Luria, the 16th century eponymous creator of Lurianic kabbalah, whose work was based on deep contemplation of the Zohar. His teaching is brought forward by contemporary philosopher and rabbi, Marc-Alain Ouaknin, who explains that Luria called the doubling of the heh in the Tetragrammaton (yod heh vav heh) “The Cave of Machpelah” (Ouaknin 388-9). He goes on to explain that the shape of the heh ה can be written in two ways, either comprised of a letter that looks like three connected points, describing a plane—the letter dalet ד—and a letter that looks like two connected points, describing a line– vav ו ; or the heh can be comprised of a dalet ד and a letter that looks like a dot– yod י. If the first heh is formed with the dalet and vav, and the second heh is formed with a dalet and yod, then the tetragrammaton turns into an explosion of the point (yod) into two points that are arranged in space as a mirror image: yod-dalet-vav/vav-dalet-yod. The tetragrammaton is the movement of a point that returns to the point.

The name withdraws at the same time it is given…An analysis of the graphics of the name ought thus to make it easier to understand its construction as a deconstruction based on the point. In fact, as we have said: ‘The point returns to the point’

The name is a meditation on nothingness that becomes a being, and which returns to nothingness. It is entry into movement and an infinity of time (389).


Nothingness is not determinately empty. Rather, quantum field theory teaches that there are continual fluctuations of the vacuum. As Ouaknin puts it, “nothingness that becomes a being, and which returns to nothingness”; as Barad, speaking of the quantum vacuum puts it, “Nothingness is not absence, but the infinite plentitude of openness…Infinity is the ongoing material reconfiguring of nothingness…” (Barad 2012: 16). In introducing the idea of the tetragrammaton as the cave of Machpelah, Ouaknin has this to say about it: “Seeing the four-letter name is to be engulfed in the nothingness of the senses, to penetrate into an annihilation of consciousness, to experience a vacuum, a void, the infinite… (386)

Rabbi Alan Lew wrote “…the Great Temple of Jerusalem was an elaborate construction surrounding nothing. There at the sacred center, at the Holy of Holies… is precisely nothing—a vacated space, a charged emptiness, mirroring the charged emptiness that surrounds this world, that comes before this life and after it as well.” (Lew 221)

So we might see the journey of the cave of Machpelah, the contemplation of the divine Name, and the entry into the Temple’s Holy of Holies as an evocation of awareness of the vibrating life force of all that is, the continual entering into and returning from the void, in endless waves of diffraction patterns of dark and light, dark and light. [22]


The Darkness Before Creation

The second verse of Genesis, the creation story, ends like this: “…the spirit/wind of God hovering over the face of the water.” The Jewish mystical tradition likens the waves of emanation of creation to the patterns made by a stone thrown in a pond.[23] Creation is a wave-making process: sound waves, water waves, diffraction patterns of all kinds. We can still feel these waves vibrating deep inside the body. We might imagine them as wave upon wave of dark and light—first, a primordial darkness, out of which comes the light of creation. Out of that light, the deep darkness we call night, and out of that, the light of day. Out of the darkness we call night, which includes the depths of divine thought, says the Zohar, out of that darkness, comes voice and speech, which reveal the depth.

In Genesis, before God said “let there be light” there was “darkness over the face of the deep, the spirit/wind [ruach] of God brooding/hovering over the face of the water” (Gen.1:2). Biblical poetry is often structured with two parallel stiches in a verse. In this case “over the face of the deep” parallels “over the face of the water”, and “darkness” parallels “the spirit/wind of God”. There is something profoundly holy about this darkness, which Genesis tells us pre-existed what we think of as creation.

The creation story starts by saying “B’reishit bara Elokim et hashamayim v’et ha’aretz”, a strange grammatical structure saying something like “With a beginning of, God created the heavens and the earth.” The 4th-5th century CE midrashic collection, Genesis Rabbah (and subsequent Jewish tradition) interprets this “beginning” to be wisdom— Ḥokhmah.[24] That is, with wisdom God created the heavens and the earth. In the proof text for this interpretation, Proverbs Chapter 8, Ḥokhmah is envisioned as a crone, standing at the crossroads.[25] She says

It is Wisdom calling, Understanding raising her voice. She takes her stand at the     topmost heights, by the wayside, at the crossroads…Adonai created me at the         beginning of His path (reishit darko).


It is a vision of ancient dark female wisdom, assisting in the birthing of the world. In Jewish thought, wisdom (Hokhmah) differs from understanding (Bina) in that it precedes analysis. It comes from the level of realization, the aha moment before it has been articulated into distinct words. The darkness of wisdom where all boundaries dissolve is a pathway that can take us beyond our individual selves into something bigger.


The Black Ink Of Torah

Hokhmah is also associated with the black in of Torah (Kaplan 75). In his brilliant commentary on the ancient mystical text, Sefer Yetzirah, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan cites Exodus Rabbah 15:22 which reads:

Three things preceded the creation of the world-water, wind/breath[26], and fire. The waters conceived and gave birth to thick darkness; the fire conceived and gave birth to light; the wind/breath conceived and gave birth to wisdom, and with these six things the world is maintained: with wind, wisdom, fire, light, darkness, and water.


Here, (as in the Genesis creation story itself), there is an association between water and darkness. The Sefer Yetzirah (1:11) calls Ḥokhmah “water from breath”. The breath of life that God breathed into the world condensed on its way. Ḥokhmah, the wisdom that comes from going beyond the individual’s boundaries, into a place beyond reason, beyond analysis to synthesis, is like the rain, which does not differentiate, but falls on everything without distinction. Kaplan explains (74) that this idea is rooted in the prophecy of Isaiah (55:10-11):

But as the rain and snow descend from heaven

and return not there

without watering the earth

making it bloom and bud

giving seed to the sower and bread to he who eats.

So the word that emanates from My mouth

shall not return to me emptyhanded

without accomplishing that which I please

and succeeding in its mission.


The Sefer Yetzirah goes on to say about Ḥokhmah “with it He engraved and carved [22 letters from] chaos and void, mire and clay”. Here watery wisdom, Ḥokhmah, is related both to the chaos that preceded creation, and the mire that provides the ink for the Hebrew letters. The letters, then, are another way of taking us beyond ourselves. And it is no coincidence that they are black. Exodus Rabbah (47:6), we recall, suggests that the black ink that got into Moses’ hair from the reed with which he wrote the Torah may have been the source of the beams of light that emanated from him.


The Burning Bush, Black Fire and Burning Coal[27]

Moses had a formative encounter with the sacred dark earlier in his life, as well. The Torah, in Exodus 3:2 reads: “An angel of Adonai appeared to him in a blazing fire out of a bush. He gazed, and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed.” The burning bush that is not consumed sparked the movement for liberation from slavery that birthed the Israelite people, and continues to inspire Jewish and other liberation movements. It can inspire us, and give us guidance in how to take further steps in our own movements toward liberation in whatever forms we are called to.

So, what is the burning bush here to teach?

The midrash[28] on Exodus 3:2 explains:

From this they derived that the heavenly fire shoots out branches upwards, burns but does not consume, and is black in color; whereas fire used here below does not branch upwards and is red, and consumes but does not burn.


It may be hard to imagine a black fire—perhaps it is counter-intuitive, or paradoxical. So let’s examine it further. The fire metaphor itself is multifold. It implies something awesome, powerful, something with the potential to give life or death. And then there is the concept of blackness, or darkness. In seeing light, one sees rays bouncing off of surfaces—one might get the impression that the world is made up of separate, inherently bounded entities. But when we are in the dark, it is easier to sense that all boundaries are situational—to feel beyond the limits of the self with a small S, and become aware of being part of a larger whole that includes all that is, and even all that is not. This may be why, a few verses after seeing the burning bush, Moses hid his face– In Exodus 3:6, the Torah says that “Moses hid (vayaster) his face in awe from looking[29] at God.” This is usually interpreted in a negative way, that it is unfortunate that Moses wasn’t willing to see what would have been revealed to him had he not hidden his face. But perhaps in hiding his face he avoided focusing on the sense of sight, the sense that may induce a belief that we are separate individuals, with boundaries that are revealed as light bounces off them. With face hidden, eyes closed, one enters the realm where boundaries disappear, and it is easier to sense being part of a whole that is all that is, easier to sense how we are not separate from God, or from anything else.

In seeing the black fire of the bush, Moses was brought into a realm beyond the usual boundaries. He was empowered to move beyond what he thought possible, and he was given the means to do it, through the ability to connect with a power beyond his individual self. This is in keeping with another image of black fire, which comes from a teaching brought in Talmud and Midrash. The Talmudic form of the teaching says the following:

Rabbi Pinchas [said] in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish: the Torah that the Holy Blessed One gave, its hide is white fire, its ink is black fire; it is fire mixed with fire, carved from fire, and given from fire: “at His right hand a ritual of fire for them.” (Deuteronomy 33) (Talmud Yerushalmi, Sotah 37a)


The shape and flourishes of the letters of the Torah scroll, calligraphed in a particular style called Ashurite script, are very reminiscent of flames, and not coincidentally. An additional layer of meaning comes from the midrashic telling of the same teaching, which has another phrase at the beginning. It says: “Rabbi Yochanan said: One who engages in Torah should see oneself as if he were standing in fire.” (Yalkut Shimoni, Brachah, 951) That is, we are not to experience the sacred fire of Torah just from the outside—we are meant to experience it from the inside. We are meant to be immersed in it. There is another teaching, that each Israelite is a letter of the Torah.[30] These teachings together teach that each individual is invited to experience themselves as a letter of Torah, a letter made of black fire.

Medieval kabbalist Rabbi Isaac the Blind calls the black fire of Torah “the world to come”, and associates it with the Oral Torah—that is Talmud and midrash.[31] He explains that

It is the hue of a black fire on white fire, which is the Written Torah. Now the forms of the letters are not vowelized nor are they shaped except through the power of black, which is like ink. So too the Written Torah is unformed in a physical image, except through the power of the Oral Torah.


He also calls the black fire the “crown of the kingdom”, keter malchut. This is an interesting concept—keter, or crown, is the highest or most transcendent sefirah, or sphere of reality, in the kabbalistic tree of life, while malchut, or kingdom, is the lowest, or most manifest. Yet in this royal imagery, the crown sits right on the head of the king. So the whole system has a different topology from what we usually think of—it is not a linear hierarchic system, but rather circles back on itself. [32] Rabbi Isaac explains this concept with another image of black fire—the burning coal, in his commentary on the ancient text, Sefer Yetzirah, which says “Ten sefirot of Nothingness. Their end is embedded in their beginning and their beginning in their end, like a flame in a burning coal. For the Master is singular; He has no second, and before One, what do you count?” (Sefer Yetzirah 1:7, in Kaplan 57) Rabbi Isaac the Blind explains this verse by saying:

Their end is (found) in their beginning: just as many threads come out of the burning coal, which is one, since the flame cannot stand by itself, but only by means of one thing; for all [the] things [(that is, Sefirot)] and all [the] attributes, which seem as if they are separate, are not separate (at all) since all (of them) are one, as their beginning is, which unites everything in one word.[33]


The burning coal, then, reminds us of that from which all else emanates. “Their end is embedded in their beginning” explains what R. Isaac said in his previous text, that the black fire is the crown of the kingdom; that is, the ultimate source, which one might think is furthest from the manifest world, is actually closest to it. And all of it is rooted in that black coal, without which the flames that emanate could not exist. Our source is in the darkness. Without it we do not exist. And although that darkness is the most transcendent we can imagine, it is also closer to us than anything else ever could be. It is our innermost being. And that dark source is where we go to experience the sacred, where we go both when we want to feel safe, and when we are challenged to go beyond the beyond—the innermost, the deepest, the furthest, the closest.

Kaplan also explores another aspect of the burning coal image—it troubles the binary of cause and effect:

A flame cannot exist without the coal, and the burning coal cannot exist without the flame. Although the coal is the cause of the flame, the flame is also the cause of the burning coal. Without the flame, it would not be a burning coal. Since Cause cannot exist without Effect, Effect is also the cause of Cause. In this sense, Effect is the cause and Cause is the effect. Since beginning and end are inseparable, “their end is imbedded in their beginning, and their beginning in their end (57).


Contemplating the burning coal can lead to awareness of the non-binary: cause and effect, transcendence and immanence, up and down, light and dark are interwoven in multivalent, multidirectional ways and waves. They cannot be essentialized or dualized.


The Dark Depths

The burning coal in Sefer Yetzirah is associated, as mentioned above, with Keter, what is usually considered the “highest” or most transcendent of the sefirot, spheres of being, in the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. Often in western thought, up and high are privileged over down and low or deep, leading to some of the problems we have mentioned, such as devaluing the female, the earth, and the subconscious. But in Jewish thought, Keter, in addition to being imagined as the highest, is also imagined as the dark depths. The Zohar (II, 42b-43a) pictures Keter as the source of a spring, which flows into an ocean, from which rivers flow that are the sefirot, the channels for the flow of divine into the world:

He has no attribute, no image, and no form. It is like the sea. The waters that come from the sea cannot be grasped, nor do they have form. But when the waters of the sea spread themselves over a vessel, which is the earth, an image is formed, and we can then make a calculation as follows: the source of the sea is one; a spring comes from it as it spreads in the vessel, in a circle, which is a yod; and so we have the source—one; and [together with] the spring that comes from it—two. After this, He makes a huge vessel, like someone digging a great pit that fills with the water that comes from the spring. This vessel is called “sea”, and is the third vessel. And this huge vessel is split into seven vessels, like long vessels. Thus the waters from the sea are spread out into seven streams. And so, we have a source, and a spring, and a sea, and seven streams, making ten. (Zohar II, 42b-43a, Raya Mehemna).


In this image, the source is in the depths, and the flow goes up. Here, the closest that can be imagined to the source of emanation of all creation is the dark point at the depths of the deepest spring. It is possible in awareness to follow the steps described here back in the opposite direction, from the rivers into the sea, then back to the spring, and finally the source. Perhaps it is divine compassion that took the difficult path by emanating upstream, in order to allow us simply to float on the rivers’ currents to return to the source in the sea.

The Zohar III 289b (Idra Zuta), refers to Keter as the “depth of the well” (‘amika d’beyra). Medieval rabbi, Bahya ibn Pakuda uses a similar metaphor to describe an inner journey:

‘Counsel in a man’s heart is deep water; but a man of understanding can draw it out.’ (Proverbs 20:5) The meaning is that wisdom is implanted in man’s nature, in his character and in his powers of perception like the waters that are hidden in the depths of the earth. The intelligent and discerning man will try to tap into his own inner potential for wisdom, uncover it, and bring it to expression, drawing it out of his own heart much like the search for water in the depths of the earth. (25)


Rabbi Bahya compares wisdom to water in the depths of the earth, in the depths of the heart. One needs to reach into these depths to draw on the source of wisdom. The deeper we can go into the dark, into our own inner depths, and into the infinite depths, the closer we get to the source, to wisdom.

The Zohar also teaches:

Every person who presents his request before the King should focus mind and will on the root of all roots, to draw blessings from the depth of the well, so that it will gush blessings from the spring of all. And what is that? The place from which the river issues and derives, as is written: A river issues from Eden…(Genesis 2:10)…This is called ‘out of the depths’—depth of all, depth of the well, springs issuing and flowing, blessing all. This is the beginning of drawing blessings from above and below. (Zohar II 63b, Daniel Matt translation)


The Zohar invites us to focus our awareness in the deepest depths, to the place from which creation emanated, the source of all blessing. And the more we can draw the flow of blessing from the deepest of the deep, the more the world will be filled with the presence of the sacred.



I have been exploring the sacred dark for decades, starting with learning from the Reclaiming Collective in San Francisco, CA, particularly Rose May Dance and Starhawk, in the early 1980s. In the late 1980’s, I started teaching about the sacred dark in my feminist spirituality work, and, since the early 1990’s I have been learning and teaching about the sacred dark in Jewish tradition. Since 2002, I have taught on the sacred dark in Jewish tradition at a wide range of venues around the country. I am particularly grateful to my teachers Rabbis Marcia Prager and Elliot Ginsberg for helping me in this process. My final paper for rabbinic ordination, (which is an earlier version of this article), called “Toward a Theology of Darkness”, was written in 2002 at the behest, and with the support of my beloved teacher, Rabbi Zalman Shachter-Shalomi, z”l.

Most recently, I have received tremendous support in my work on the sacred dark from two people, Dr. Ibrahim Farajaje, may his secret be sanctified, who initiated a participatory Facebook project #EMBRACINGDARKNESSPROJECT in my honor, and from Dr. Karen Barad, who always encourages, inspires, and expands my thinking, and has taught me almost everything I know about physics.


[1] Although Baltazar’s book was published in 1973, it did not come to my attention until 2016, and I read it after completing most of this paper. Had I read it earlier, I would have found it very

influential, as several of the images of the sacred dark that I have developed, and have never or rarely seen mentioned elsewhere, were touched on in his book. I feel much gratitude for the work he did, and direct readers to this book for many reasons, especially for an excellent historical analysis of how western color symbolism led to racism, and a theology of the sacred dark in Christian thought.

[2] Adonai is the most common name used to express the unexpressable, most sacred name of God in Judaism, spelled yod heh vav heh, sometimes indicated YHVH. It is spelled without vowels, and so is not pronounced as written. For more about the meaning of the name, see Prager, The Path of Blessing.

[3] Depending on how one reads the k’rei/ketiv (the words as they are to be read vs. the written version) in this verse, one could read ‘Her song’ or ‘His song’.

[4] Redemption is one of the most central concepts in Judaism, and can be understood to mean communal liberation from suffering.

[5] The image of diffraction as a way of understanding the making of difference—in contrast to reflection, which is a making of sameness—comes from the work of Karen Barad, see Meeting the Universe Halfway.

[6] I am indebted to the Jewish Publication Society Tanakh for this understanding of the root aleph-resh-resh, to cast a spell, rather than the more common translation, to light up.

[7] The term intra-action is a neologism by Professor Karen Barad. For a brief explanation, see Kleinman, “Intra-actions” in Mousse Magazine 34. For a deeper discussion, see Meeting the Universe Halfway.

[8] A sukkah is the temporary outdoor booth Jews dwell in during the harvest festival of Sukkot.

[9] Zohar III 103a and elsewhere

[10] The Hebrew term Aseret haDibrot, often translated as the Ten Commandments, literally means the Ten Speakings.

[11] The term Midrash refers to the interpretive rabbinic tradition of stories and legal interpretations based on oral traditions related to the Hebrew Bible. Some use the term only to apply to ancient and medieval rabbinic texts, while others include what might be called “modern midrash”, sacred stories that are still being crafted.

[12] Tefillin are sometimes translated into English as “phylacteries”, but often the Hebrew word is used in English.

[13] It is not a coincidence, I believe, that the Talmudic sage Resh Lakish is cited as the source both for teachings about the power of the dark of night, and the dark of the ink of Torah. As we will continue to see, he had a developed understanding of the sacred dark.

[14] See Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway, Chapter 2, on diffractive reading

[15] See I Kings 8:12 and II Chronicles 6:1. Interestingly, Thorkild Jacobsen, in his book, The Treasures of Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian Religion, reports that in Ancient Mesopotamia, the Temple’s “…holy of holy, the god’s private apartment shrouded in darkness was the ‘dark room’… which ‘knows not daylight’, its ritual vessels ‘no eye is to see’”(16).

[16] commenting on Leviticus 16:12

[17] See for example Zohar III 149b-150a

[18] Genesis Rabbah (ibid) claims that the reward of anyone who is buried there is doubled.

[19] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wormhole accessed on 12/20/16. Interestingly, the passage continues “the interior black hole region [of a wormhole] can contain a mix of particles that fell in from either universe (and thus an observer who fell in from one universe might be able to see light that fell in from the other one).” In the midrash and Zohar, the light from Eden is visible from inside the cave of Machpelah.

[20] I owe my understanding of the doubled cave being the two hehs in haMachpelah to the teachings of R. Elliot Ginsburg, with whom I studied this Zohar passage in a course he taught at Elat Chayyim in the summer of 1998.

[21] See my forthcoming article, Gender And Indeterminacy: The Non-Binary In Jewish Mystical Imagery, in Unsettling Science and Religion: Contributions and Questions from Queer Studies

(edited by Whitney Bauman and Lisa Stenmark, Lexington Press) for more on the two hehs of the divine name

[22] See Barad, “What is the Measure of Nothingness”

[23] Baumann 23, teaching about the thought of Isaac Luria

[24] The word reishit is in a grammatical form called “construct”, which means it should be the first of two nouns in a row, where it would be translated as the <first noun> of the <second noun>. So reishit should mean “beginning of”. However, there is no second noun. To address this problem, the tradition looks for other places where the same word is used to clarify its meaning. Proverbs 8:22 refers to wisdom/okhmah as “reishit darko”, “the beginning of [God’s] path”, thus the association of “With a beginning” with wisdom.

[25] Similar images of wisdom as a dark crone standing at the crossroads occur elsewhere in Mediterranean tradition as well, for example the Greek figure Hekate. See the work of the greatest recent scholar of Proverbs, Avigdor Hurowitz, who writes (my translation from his Hebrew): “Hokhmah is depicted as a woman. There are those who say that there isn’t anything here except a metaphor to concretize the availability of Hokhmah to anyone who wants to become wise…Others believe that there is here an image of mythological divinity (elohut mitologit)” (247)

[26] The Hebrew word ruach means variously breath, wind and spirit.

[27] This section is a slightly edited version of a talk given at Kehillah Community Synagogue, Dec 21, 2013, which was also published as an article in Tikkun magazine, online December 29, 2015 http://www.tikkun.org/nextgen/the-burning-bush-and-black-fire

[28] Exodus Rabbah 2:5

[29] often translated as “…because he was afraid to look”. Fear and awe are the same word in Hebrew, and the infinitive can be translated in multiple ways, since there are many fewer tenses in Hebrew than English

[30] See Zohar Hadash Shir HaShirim 74d

[31] Unpublished manuscript, “The Mystical Torah—Kabbalistic Creation”, translated by Ronald Keiner in Joseph Dan’s book, The Early Kabbalah

[32] For more on this topology, see my upcoming article, Gender And Indeterminacy: The Non-Binary In Jewish Mystical Imagery in Unsettling Science and Religion: Contributions and Questions from Queer Studies (edited by Whitney Bauman and Lisa Stenmark)

[33] Quoted in Gottlieb, Freema. The Lamp of God: A Jewish Book of Light. (Jason Aronson, Northvale NJ, 1989)

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    • Hi Jeremy,
      Welcome! This article is from a little over a year ago, and will be published in a collection called “Anima Mundi Voices from Many Shores”. It is an expansion of my final project for rabbinic ordination from 2003, and many teachings I have given over the years. Would love to hear your thoughts. I feel it is very important in our current world to be undoing the binaries that associate dark with evil, etc.

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