Philip V. Bohlman

The Shechinah, or the feminine sacred in the musics of the Jewish Mediterranean

When I first formulated this article and undertook research for it, I intended it quite specifically to provide a case study contributing to the larger theme of "Music as Representation of Gender in Mediterranean Cultures" dealt with during the meeting of the ICTM Study Group on "Music and Anthropology in Mediterranean Cultures" held in Venice, June 1998.

My strategy was one of beginning locally, that is, with a very fundamental instance of gender in Jewish music and to examine the ways it could be expanded to Mediterranean Jewish communities. For any scholar working in Jewish Studies, the shechinah, the feminine presence of God, most familiarly represented in the metaphor of the Sabbath bride, was an obvious case, a locus classicus rich with metaphorical importance in the local ritual of the synagogue and its musical practices. In the Friday evening liturgy of every Jewish synagogue, the Sabbath bride arrives and assumes a presence in the life of the community when it gathers for prayer, and then she departs when the community disperses at the conclusion of Sabbath prayers, only to return for the next Sabbath. The arrival of the Sabbath bride, moreover, takes place in the form of a song, "L’cha dodi," and its physical performance physically represents her entrance into the synagogue.

As I explored the dimensions of the shechinah, however, it became increasingly difficult to restrain its focus on the local. What had been a metaphor became a metonym, and in turn my focus shifted to the Mediterranean in a much more complex sense. In other words, a paper that had begun as an attempt to locate gender had turned into an essay in which gender in its multifaceted dimensions provides a means of making a much more sweeping argument about Jewish music in the Mediterranean and, in fact, about the ontology of Jewish music and the metaphysics of Jewish musical thought. By privileging gender in this way, I am not simply saying—or just saying—that gender is everywhere in the music of the Jewish Mediterranean. What I am saying—and I want to make this point as unequivocally as possible in this prologue—is that what Jewish music is, that is, how "Jewish music" takes shape as a way of thinking about and expressing Jewishness, results from the ways gender creates time and space in the Jewish Mediterranean, and the ways in which a gendered Mediterranean world and history serve as the template for Jewish selfness and lay the boundaries that distinguish Jewish otherness.

In this article gender therefore assumes various forms in the different cases of Mediterranean Jewish music that I examine. Although I take recourse in a representational language that employs traditional gender binarisms—female and male, feminine and masculine—this language is for the most part inadequate to describe the ways in which music and gender interact and intersect. Male and female, in fact, coexist in the different cases I examine here, and music provides a means of understanding just how that interaction takes place, how it maps a much more complex landscape of in-betweenness on Jewish cultural history in the Mediterranean. The following examples are not homologous, but I wish to suggest that they are morphologous, and it is in the representational capacity of the shechinah that we might understand the deeper meanings of their shared morphology.

  1. Introduction: Sephardic Romance, and the gendering of the Mediterranean
  2. The Shechinah and traditional concepts of gendered sacred realms
  3. Women’s music/secular music in the Jewish Mediterranean
  4. Cross-gendered musics of the Mediterranean: confusing Self and Other in Jewish modernity and postmodernity
  5. Otherness and the Mediterranean: gendered narratives of Jewish history
  6. References
  7. Sources

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(updated 9 Nov 1998)