The Mystical Exodus in Jungian Perspective: Transforming Trauma and the Wellsprings of Renewal

Who is Jewish? Perhaps the person who, while

never sure of it, by and by discovers his

Jewishness in the probability.

Judaism is conjugated in the future.

To read in yourself — not only for yourself —

The book you are carefully deciphering.

To read the erasures

Under the writing.

Edmond Jabès, “The Book of Shares”

The Egyptian-French poet Edmond Jabès sees Judaism as a living book of ancestors and descendants. As we consciously re-engage the tradition and understand our place as inheritors and carriers of it, we write ourselves into the book — we claim it as our own. This book is not just the outer Torah that we draw down from the Ark, but also the Torah of our memories — our inherited stories and of our collective past.

I experienced a profound and quite unexpected re-engagement with Judaism after years of feeling that the tradition was not one in which I could find transcendent meaning. The Judaism of my childhood was overbearingly patriarchal and seemingly lacked the spiritual substance I found in other traditions. Yet my deepening meditation practices opened a pathway in my psyche to the Jewish cultural collective unconscious. As I expanded my study and engagement with rabbis from Reconstructing Judaism and Jewish Renewal, I was stunned to discover the depths of our tradition, filled with mythos and meaning.

I became curious about the experience of others who had similar unexpected turns towards Judaism. I began researching the experiences of individuals who unexpectedly re-engaged with Judaism after having turned away from it earlier in life. My research led me to an exploration of the midrash surrounding the story of the Exodus, in order to make meaning of my own and others’ experiences. I began to see how the reclamation of meaning in the post-Shoah era is reflected in the profound mystical and deeply psychological midrash related to the Exodus story.

My book, “The Mystical Exodus in Jungian Perspective: Transforming Trauma and the Wellsprings of Renewal, ”explores the lived experience of those who felt disconnected, disenchanted and displaced from Judaism, and their surprising awakening and deepening into passionate reengagement with the collective memory of ancestral wisdom. These individual stories are part of a larger story of healing the separation from Jewish ancestral memory wrought by the recent epoch of dislocation, trauma and assimilation in the wake of the Shoah and other upheavals in Jewish collective life.

The stories are contextualized within the archetypal framework of the Exodus from Egypt, the central story of the Torah. The archetypal lens provided by the Exodus offers guidance for individual spiritual development as well as a map for healing from collective and transgenerational trauma. We see how this timeless story is also the story of our time — of exile as a consequence of collective trauma, of hearing the call of the Beloved, and how, through following this voice, we find our way into deepening connection with our own souls, with the collective soul of Judaism and with the sacred. Individual stories of reconnection are amplified through several expansive lenses — interpretations from Jewish mystical and other rabbinic sources; contemporary feminist theology; and Jungian and other psychological literature on individuation, or personal and spiritual development and healing from trauma.

Rabbi Edward Feld notes that finding faith after the Holocaust is a challenging task for most Jews.[1] Many Jews have completely rejected God, feeling betrayed and abandoned or failed by One that could not or would not prevent the annihilation of His chosen people. The reclamation of the sacred is a critical task for Jews because, Feld notes, “the obliteration of all that was holy” had been “at the center of the Nazi enterprise.” Feld reflects that the religious imagination of Judaism can provide the salve for healing the Jewish psyche. Jewish theology was borne of many cycles of death and rebirth following historical tragedy, and it developed in response to a perceived need to re-create a spiritual life following destructive events. Just as each generation has had to find its voice, Feld urges that the current generation must also speak.

As I deepened my exploration of both Jungian and Jewish mystical approaches to the Exodus story, I understood how it offers an archetypal roadmap that shows us how to heal from trauma, both personal and collective, and rekindle our connection to the Source — the Self in Jung’s view and what the mystics called the Divine. The Exodus story is a vessel into which sages over millennia distilled the mystical wisdom that enabled Jews to remain connected to Jewish collective memory in the wake of cataclysmic epochs (the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in the first century C.E., the Spanish Inquisition in the late 15th century and pogroms in Eastern Europe from the 17th through 20th centuries). Their wisdom offers profound psychological insight for present-day Jews still reeling from the collective trauma of the Shoah, and the massive historical upheavals and devastations of the past two centuries.

Beginning in the mid-19th century, Jewish collective life was undergoing a profound transformation — a movement away from the insular communities in which Jewish mystical life had flourished, into increasing assimilation in central European and American culture. Integration was bought at the cost of the dominant culture’s implicit requirement that Jews turn away from traditional practices. As in our own time, the rate of attrition of Jewish spiritual practice was alarming, and many wondered whether Judaism itself would continue.

Several great scholars of Jewish mythic imagination in the early to mid-20th century turned towards reclamation of Jewish ancestral wisdom, both as a source of understanding how to survive collective trauma, and also out of the imperative to preserve Jewish memory during the rise of Nazism. In the post-war era, Jews who had grown up highly assimilated or alienated from Judaism were able to reconnect with its depths because of mystical texts rescued from the fires of the Shoah by German Jewish cultural historians Martin Buber, Gershom Scholem, Erich Neumann and others. Their work provided a pathway for postmodern Jews to access the depths of Jewish mystical wisdom.

Gershom Scholem recognized that periods of profound historical collective trauma are often followed by a resurgence of mysticism. Following the Shoah, access to the healing wisdom our tradition might offer was largely overlooked because most Jews were unaware of the deeper meaning at the heart of the tradition. The reclamation of Jewish mysticism by rabbis in Jewish Renewal and Reconstructing Judaism, led by the work of Rabbis Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Arthur Green, Burt Jacobson and others, enabled many to reconnect with Judaism that had previously seemed to lack depth or meaning.

Another thread central to re-engagement with Judaism in post-modernity is the rebirth of the Sacred Feminine in the tradition in the post-Shoah era. In his epic work, The Origins and History of Consciousness, Erich Neumann outlined the arc of human history, beginning with matristic societies that worshipped the Great Goddess throughout nearly 40,000 years during the Paleolithic era at the dawn of human culture. This epoch was followed by the ascendancy of patriarchy during the past roughly four to eight millennia (differing by place and culture). Drawing on kabbalistic imagery of the Divine Marriage, Neumann saw a coming age in which the feminine (associated with mythic imagination and what Jung called the Self) and masculine energies (egoic, rational consciousness) would come into a balanced relationship. Following millennia of overreliance on rational consciousness, we are reaching a crisis point in our planet’s capacity to survive. Our ability to integrate the mythological and deepen our reverence for the Sacred Feminine in our relationship with Mother Earth are critical to ensuring and sustaining our future.

The book explores how we are collectively moving towards a realization of the kabbalistic Divine Marriage through the emergence of feminist spirituality. The Shekhinah, or the immanent, feminine aspect of the Divine, is central in both medieval and Hasidic Kabbalah. However, women’s voices were not included in previous epochs of Jewish mysticism. In the last 50 years, the advent of Jewish feminism profoundly altered the landscape of the tradition, making it accessible to many who had felt alienated by its inherent patriarchalism. Jewish Renewal and Reconstructing Judaism were expanded and popularized in large part by women such as Rabbis Leah Novick, Shefa Gold, Jane Litman, Marcia Prager, Lynn Gottlieb, Jill Hammer, Taya Sher, and others who began taking their place as spiritual leaders and scholars in positions that had previously been reserved for men, changing the forms of Jewish practice from hierarchical structures to increasingly experiential and collaborative ones.

This book reflects the spiritual awakenings experienced by individuals engaging with Judaism through teachings of Jewish Renewal and Reconstructionist rabbis, or through spontaneous mystical experiences — people who had grown up feeling that the Judaism of their youth lacked meaning. The Exodus story guides us on the path of individuation, providing a framework for ongoing psychological and spiritual growth and development. The following is a summary of the archetypal journey explored in the book, where it is further amplified by personal stories of transformation, midrashic interpretations, contemporary feminist theology, and Jungian and other psychological perspectives on healing trauma.

The mystics saw the exile as a state of disconnection from the sacred. In our time, many are exiled from Judaism itself. Yet the mystics also saw that much could be discovered and redeemed in exile that would not have otherwise be encountered or integrated. The movement away from Judaism into secularized consciousness also brought new awareness that is now being integrated back into the tradition — the increasing participation of women, gay, lesbian, transgender and non-binary people in spiritual leadership; new views of the text based on scientific and psychological understandings; and an increased commitment to tikkun olam (repairing the world)with an awareness of the interconnectedness of all life.

According to midrash, we begin the movement out of exile through an awakening among the women, hearing the voice of God guiding them to invite their husbands into a dance of erotic play through the use of copper mirrors. This text gains new meaning in light of depth psychological perspectives on how we begin to heal from trauma through the empathic holding and mirroring by one who sees and reflects back to us the potential of our larger self.

Carl Jung saw that a natural part of consciousness is the religious function of the psyche. Moses symbolizes this awareness in our own psychological development. Looking at Pharaoh symbolically as an internalization of limiting beliefs, we explore how trauma closes down psyche’s connection with the sacred. Like Moses being called awake by his encounter with the burning bush, how is our innate capacity for spiritual connection aroused by a direct personal encounter with the numinous?

The Israelites’ movement out of mitzrayim, the “narrow place” or Egypt, was catalyzed by the ten plagues. The plagues are explored as ways in which historical trauma is internalized in the individual and in the Jewish collective psyche. Movement out of a constricted state of consciousness requires that we work through the limitations imposed on our awareness through post-traumatic stress and internalized antisemitism. Each plague is explored as a way in which our connection to the larger reality has been occluded, and how becoming conscious of and working through these cultural complexes can lead us out of the exile of constricted consciousness.

Various archetypes guide our journey towards healing. In the Midrash, the ancient Israelites encounter the figure of Serach bat Asher, who was able to help Moses locate the hidden bones of Joseph, a task that had to be fulfilled before the people could leave Egypt. Serach bat Asher teaches us that healing from collective trauma requires reconnection with our ancestors and with the larger collective memory of Judaism. This awareness is reflected through the powerfully healing experiences of individuals connecting with their own ancestral stories. The eternal nature of Serach bat Asher carries echoes of the Hebrew Goddess Asherah, the holding presence of the eternal Feminine in our lineage.

Why do the people have to find Joseph’s bones before they can leave Egypt? In Joseph’s own personal transformation, he models the collective journey the Israelites will undertake. He carries a Divine light, but he also appears inflated and is envied by his brothers. His journey of multiple descents leads to a reorientation of his ego in relationship to the sacred; he becomes a vessel for the holy light, rather than being identified with it. From this renewed place, he restores harmony and balance to his family. Joseph’s transformational journey helps us understand how the most painful moments of our lives often open us to the sacred and how, through suffering, we may grow into a vessel capable of holding the Divine. We may also bring healing to our families and lineages from perspectives gained through own work of individuation.

As the people approach the shores of the Red Sea, we may imagine that there they encounter Lilith — the first woman, before Eve — who fled the Garden of Eden rather than lie beneath Adam, whom she saw as her equal. How does reclaiming the disowned dark, chthonic feminine support us in turning towards the difficult histories of trauma that have not yet been consciously worked through in our family lineages, given the overwhelming pain that our parents and grandparents may have experienced? Embracing our inner Lilith may open us to the redemptive power of grief.

The crossing of the Red Sea symbolizes the need to release our former sense of who we are and open to a new reality. Great faith was required of the Israelite people to move into the Sea, not knowing whether it would part. Their journey reflects our own current challenge in finding faith following the catastrophe of the Shoah. The Shekhinah, the Divine Feminine, supports the movement into the Sea, symbolizing the Mother holding us through the rebirth of consciousness following collective trauma. Miriam the prophetess, leading the women in circles of chanting and celebration, reflects the non-hierarchical forms that enable many to re-engage with Judaism.

The revelation of the Ten Commandments at Sinai reflects the transformation of consciousness that has been distorted by trauma. The vessels shattered by the 10 plagues re-emerge, through the spiritual disciplines of the commandments, as vessels capable of holding the transformative light of holiness. As we stand together at Sinai in an ongoing morphogenetic evolution of collective consciousness, we may find that our engagement with Judaism transforms not only us as individuals, but the collective itself, as we bring new expressions and interpretations to Jewish life.

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[1] Edward Feld, The Spirit of Renewal: Finding Faith After the Holocaust (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1994), xi–xii.

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