Oberlin had lots of Jews, but not lots of great Jewish stuff going on. Most of the services lacked something - the right kavanah; whether traditional or not, something was missing. So, because this group of women gelled and had that rare something, Miriam Bronstein, who is very inclusive, was not going to be quick to lose this rare sense of kavanah-rightness. It was only when this group saw my "Crust of Bread at the Seder Lesbian Story," which they wanted badly for the Hagaddah, that they understood that I came along with the story, and so I was in the group.
The day came when Miriam, an influential and beloved former Havurah member and current associate member, and a very close friend of longstanding, and I were enjoined with a formidable task, to come up with Female Names for God. We had one and a half hours to accomplish this awesome task.
Actually, we had each been preparing for the entirety of our 23 years of life, so it was not as rushed as it seemed.
The most obvious choice was Shekhina. We included it, a lovely traditional Jewish name for the Female Divine. Still, it came with traditional male understandings of the feminine - and we wanted a name for God from our feminist understanding. So we kept searching.
We tried Goaltanu, the feminine of Goalanu, Our Redeemer, clearly connected to Passover: redemption from slavery. We used Goaltanu, still, it was just a feminization of the male word, not enough kishkes/guts, and we were not satisfied. Time was passing and we thought/felt, what about Rachamim, Compassion a word often used in the traditional prayerbook? Rachamim comes from rechem or womb. A good place to begin. This began to feel fruitful - we were on to something, some scent of what we were after or what was after us was coming.
While we were still in our heads trying to say the 'Compassionate One' in the feminine, 'Rachamaimah' took over. Out of me came, Her Name, “Rachamaimah.” Though I spoke it, Rachamaimah came from Miriam as much as from me. She came from us or through us, and actually, we were only tapping into Something Greater.. Or maybe SHE was tapping into us and birthing HERSELF through us, though it is older than the most Ancient of Days. “Rachamaimah.”
We loved how it sounded, earthy, womby, deep, rich, kind of like Mama. This was what we came for. We loved it and were not sure if it was a word; our grammar was not that good. So off to the Judaic studies professor, Eliot Ginsberg. We asked him, “Is this how you say The 'Compassionate One, ' in the feminine?” He was very interested, present, helpful and proud of us. "No, he said, “That would be Rachmonah, but what you did was put two words together, Rechem, Womb, and Emah, Mother, a compound word. And this is totally valid and accepted in Hebrew.”
So there it was, “Rachamaimah”, Compassionate Womb Mother. Wow!! The Female Jewish God, The Goddess, the Jewish Goddess. Here She was!!! She came to Us!!! Awesome!!!! There was a sense of deep fulfillment, rightness, and it was Jewish, from 'Rachamim', a word that is very much a part of the traditional Siddur/Prayer Book.
We were not alone, many Jewish and feminist women of all backgrounds were tapping into the Female Divine the Goddess. Kim Chernin had written a novel, “The Flame Bearers”, a novel about women who were connected to an ancient female tradition. They were not Jewish women, but had attached themselves to Jews because of how much oppression Jews faced. And Kim mentioned Womb, Compassion, and Mother, though not the word Rachamaimah. Still the idea
of this FEMALE DIVINE was there.
So we were excited and felt we had found what we came for. Then there was the question. What words would go with Rachamaimah in the brachot, certainly not Melech Ha-olam/King of the World!! Ruach ha-olam, Spirit of the World, did not feel right, because Rachamaimah was so earthy/physical. So Miriam told her sister Deborah, and Deborah dreamed we should say 'Chai Haolamim', Life of the Worlds. The phrase, 'Life of the Worlds', went very well with Rachamaimah. Furthermore, this is a traditional term used in Baruch Sheh-omar/ Brucha Sheh-omra. So we had found what felt like an authentic Female Divine Name that had deep connections to our own Jewish tradition.
It was deeply gratifying to tap into, 'Rachamaimah', which was new, yet very ancient. For me, as someone who grew up with exclusively male terms for God, in a very patriarchal, traditional Orthodox background, it was incredibly empowering. Probably because I had faced so much sexual abuse of my female body, and had felt such a sense of total degradation, it was very powerful to tap into a positive expression of the Female Divine that was physical as well as spiritual. It felt an affirmation of my body, that God was like me, and in a sense, I was like God. God was female as well as male, and beyond all genders and categories; it felt right; I felt right, like I too was holy, my female body was holy, and women too were holy. And that it was 'Rachamaimah', it was Jewish; that meant a lot to me and Miriam and other women and men and those In between- my term for transgender/ non- binary, intersex, queer etc..
I know that this is only one way to see the feminine; there are many ways, non-binary, trans, intersex, queer, etc., and this is one way that was powerful to me and many women who had our bodies so violated, to feel we too were and are Divine. And beyond any sense of violation, to tap into, acknowledge, honor and Celebrate the Divine Feminine was deeply profound.
So, I celebrate Rachamaimah, that Miriam and I and so many other women Birthed, How She Birthed Us, and How the Havurah, took Her in, How She Took Us In, How She became a part of our Siddur, Our Davening/Praying, along with many other names. And that many of us at Havurat Shalom, so many years later, pray to Her, 'The Compassionate Womb Mother', who is also
'Chai Ha-olamim, Life of the Worlds'. Thus the historical or her/storical continuity from the Very Beginning of Life, of our Jewish Tradition, our feminist tradition and how they combine in beautiful ways, all the way back to the Very Beginning and moving into a more just and equal future. That is only one of the many reasons that I love and am so glad to belong to Havurat Shalom.