I kept falling into this poetic form of idolatry
I started this project, a book-length sequence tentatively entitled Shekhinah Speaks, in 2017, when I was invited to participate in a Shekhinah-centered event called “SHE” at the University of Colorado (Boulder). I'd written a couple of Shekhinah-related poems in the 1980s, when I was living and writing as a man. In those poems, the Shekhinah appears as a mysterious, disembodied female life-force—a metaphor for the female gender identity I had hidden since early childhood. Later, a similar but unnamed version of this life-force reappeared in the poems I wrote before embarking on gender transition—haunting, hunting, exhorting and finally merging with a “you” who stood for me.
By 2017, when I had been living as myself for ten years, this conception of the Shekhinah seemed dated and narrow. Those poems were about me, not the Shekhinah. What, I wondered, would she say if my poems invited her to speak? I began by improvising on verses from divine monologues in Isaiah, starting with “Sing out, o barren one, who has not given birth,” that use female-centered imagery. Several poems quickly emerged, and I enjoyed reading them at the Boulder event. But when I revisited them a few months later, I realized the Shekhinah wasn't speaking in these poems—I was masquerading as the Shekhinah, using her as a mask or a persona.
I needed to find a different way of writing—a way that would ensure that the language in these poems wasn't mine. I decided to sample—cut up and re-mix—language from God's monologues in Isaiah monologues and mix it with more intimate, contemporary language sampled from Cosmopolitan articles whose themes resonated with those in Isaiah. (You can see that kind of resonance in the sources I used for “Revelation”; in both, speakers talk about revealing themselves to people who don't understand or value them.) I pull words and phrases from each text and mix them together until a voice that isn't mine emerges, the way someone else's future emerges from patterns of tea leaves under a fortune teller's gaze. When that voice startles me, when what it says about and to “you” makes me question myself and summons me beyond my usual ways of thinking and feeling, it sounds to me like Shekhinah is speaking.
For a long time, I wasn't sure I had found that voice in “Revelation.” What it was talking about—being invisible, unheard, disregarded—seemed familiar, too familiar, to me, a reprise of the sense of God I had when I was growing up, a sense that God, like me, longed to be recognized by human beings who couldn't see us. This sense of identification made it hard to find a voice in the words that wasn't a version of mine, that wasn't mouthing my personal idea of divinity.
I kept falling into this poetic form of idolatry, until I realized that the voice struggling to be recognized in the words I had culled from the source texts wasn't only speaking to others—she was also speaking to me. Rarely, if ever, do I stop my daily activities and listen for divinity. Most of the time, I “busy [my]self / with [my] own imagination, / eating food that makes [me] hungry, / drinking in what makes [me] thirst, / worrying about money // and what to do with [my] body.”
Once I saw I too was being addressed by the voice emerging from the mashup of words and phrases, that voice started saying things I had never thought of, summoning me toward a kind of divine-human relationship I had never imagined, and which, even now, I struggle to understand: a relationship in which to hear the Shekhinah's voice is to recognize that she, I, all of us are “sing[ing] a new song together / about what it means to be human,” and that to be human is to be the love she is revealing.
Joy Ladin is the author of nine books of poetry, including 2017's The Future is Trying to Tell Us Something: New and Selected Poems and Fireworks in the Graveyard, and two Lambda Literary Award finalists, Impersonation and Transmigration. Her memoir of gender transition, Through the Door of Life, was a 2012 National Jewish Book Award finalist. A new work of creative non-fiction, The Soul of the Stranger: Reading God and Torah from a Transgender Perspective, came out in 2018 from Brandeis University Press. Like that book, her Shekhinah Speaks project is supported by a Hadassah-Brandeis Institute research fellowship. Her work has also been recognized with a National Endowment of the Arts fellowship and a Fulbright Scholarship, among other honors. She holds the David and Ruth Gottesman Chair in English at Stern College of Yeshiva University. Links to her poems and essays are available at wordpress.joyladin.com.