The Da Vinci Code and Jewish Culture:
A Rabbi Examines What Robert Langdon
Says about the Star of David, Shekinah, Kabbalah, and Much More
In the novel, the Star of David is said to be the symbolic fusion of the masculine and the feminine-the chalice and the blade. Is there any truth to this?
Interestingly there is some merit to discussing the sacred union of male and female within Judaism. I must warn you, however, that when you enter into the mystical domain of Judaism--into Kabbalah, the esoteric or mystic doctrine of Judaism--you are going beyond historical fact. You are going into a teaching that is connected to the spirituality of life and of the world. In Jewish mysticism it is explained that the Star of David is the symbol of the world and of God. The arrow pointing downwards is God. God is seen as the male because God is the one that gives life. God is the creator, the father, the master. The world, the universe, everything of creation is compared to the female for it receives. It receives life, it receives sustenance, it receives Godliness.
This is similar to the chalice and the blade, although I think in the novel the roles are reversed with the downwards triangle being the feminine and the upwards triangle being the masculine. Also, you have to remember that the chalice and the blade is a Christian concept, so you won’t find that specific symbolic expression in Judaism. But the idea of male and female is very much in line with the Star of David. The purpose of creation is to merge and combine both forces—to bring heaven down to earth and to elevate the earth to a level of Godliness and of spirituality. This is what the Star of David expresses. As soon as I saw this in the book my ears pricked up and I was impressed that Dan Brown had discovered it.
The book also says that in the early days of the Jewish faith there was a duality between a male divine force and a female divine force, the Shekinah force. What was Shekinah in ancient Judaism? Is Shekinah still a force in contemporary Judaism?
“Shekinah” means “the divine presence” and is seen as being feminine. Shekinah is a Hebrew word and in the Hebrew language you have masculine and feminine words just as in French. Now, anything that ends with a letter “hey”—which would be Shekinah—is a feminine word. But this is not the only word connected with God which is feminine. The highest possible name of God--which according to Jewish law I cannot even pronounce--ends in a “hey”. It is spelt “yod,” “hey,” “vav,” and “hey.” It’s the name of God that transcends and precedes all of creation.
Now that is very interesting because the question is always, is God male or female or both or none? But in Judaism, it is not insignificant that highest name of God is expressed in the feminine. And it is the same with the Shekinah. It is understood in the teachings of Kabbalah that the most elevated being in this world is the human being, but that the female comes from a higher source than the male. And that’s why Kabbalah teaches that the female is more sensitive because her soul is more connected; that’s why she cries more, that’s why she understands more.
The understanding in Judaism and Jewish law is that women are not obliged to do as many things as men is not because women are weaker but because they are stronger. For instance, a man is obliged to place himself in a structured form of prayer. He needs to go to synagogue with a minyan (a quorum of ten or more adult male Jews) and daven (pray) there. That’s how he fulfils the commandment of prayer. The female is not obliged to do that. She can pray however she wants in whatever context. That’s because the understanding is that the male needs more of a structure, more guidance in his pursuit of spirituality, whereas the female intuitively has it already.
So rather than a duality, it’s a superiority of the female over the male?
In a mystical sense, absolutely.
So what about in a real life sense? After all, the Da Vinci Code is based on the characterization of an independent Jewish woman, Mary, who lived 2,000 years ago.
Throughout the generations in Jewish tradition the idea of the female being superior was understood by some of our greatest thinkers and leaders. That is why we can be proud that in our past, many women were our leaders, judges, and our prophetesses, women like Penina Devora, Dina, Miriam, and women like Sarah, the first mother, of whom God says in the bible to Abraham, ‘you need to listen to her voice’ because Sarah, the first Jewish woman, was greater in prophesy than Abraham and had a better understanding of the spirituality of family dynamics.
This is why throughout Jewish history, women have been understood to be the very foundation and guide of the home. This notion has been etched in the national Jewish character that the woman is the one that runs the show. Yes, males dominated in the leadership but females had a tremendous role throughout our history. So for a woman, 2000 years ago to have that type of power and influence is not that out of the ordinary in the Jewish tradition.
However, Judaism has always lived within the culture and the society around it. This idea of the female being superior to the male wasn’t the understanding in the general society at that particular period of time. In the Roman times, women were second class for social, economic and physical reasons. Society was based and shaped in a way that women were forced to rely on men for their sustenance, for their livelihood. In those days being a mother with children was considered to be the highest level of occupation that one could achieve. So I doubt that the Mary that we met in the novel could have been quite so independent as she is portrayed.
Well, what about the depiction of Jesus? Was a rabbi in those days expected to be married?
Well, here we have two very diverse approaches to sexuality and to marriage. In Christianity, the first woman is Eve. She is the one who enticed Adam to eat from the tree of knowledge. She brought evil into the world. It was the first sin. And women since then have been seen as the enticers. That’s where we get the word evil from—Eve brought evil into the world. Thus, sexuality and anything that has to do with enticing males, was seen throughout Christian history as a lower level of living. And that is why it’s understood that committing yourself to a life of celibacy, a life before sin, is the ultimate spiritual way of life.
Judaism sees it from a completely different point of view. Eve is known as Hava, which in Hebrew means “the source of life.” And she’s the one who brings life into the world. She is seen as a tremendous woman, someone who gives birth to all of life. In Judaism, one of the greatest mitzvahs (commandments) that one can do is to get married. It is an obligation to get married and to find someone of the opposite sex with whom you can procreate and bring life into the world. Sexuality in Judaism was never seen as a descending level of being. It was seen as a holy act, a sanctified act.
In Judaism a marriage is not called a marriage, it’s called “Kiddushin” which means you are sanctifying someone in an unselfish and godly relationship, and there are many mitzvahs that are associated with marriage. Jewish law would say to the 18-year-old male in those days: “You need to get married. It’s a sin to live without marriage.”
So would it make sense then that Jesus the rabbi would, as Dan Brown suggests, have been married?
Not necessarily, because there’s one allowance that the Talmud gives for postponing marriage and that is for people who are dedicating their lives to the study of Torah. According to Jewish tradition, Jesus was a student of Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Prachya. He was a student of this sage at a time when the Talmud was being written and he used to go to yeshiva and spend all day studying, debating and going over Jewish law. If this tradition is valid history, then it may not be so surprising that Jesus was not married.
What about the suggestion in the Da Vinci Code that the marriage of Jesus and Mary was important because it represented a merger of the houses of David and Benjamin?
In Jewish tradition there is a belief that the House of David would carry on the dynasty of the kingdom and would live on for eternity. There is a linkage in every generation to particular individuals connected to this bloodline and it is believed that the messiah will come from this lineage. But marriage plays no part in this tradition. It’s not required for someone from the House of David to be merged in any way with the tribe of Benjamin. Also, there is no evidence that Jesus or Mary were of these tribes. Jesus’ lineage was never truly considered seriously and it is something that will be argued for many more years to come. As for Mary, we know very little about her at all.
What about the scene in the Gospel account in which a woman called Mary washes the feet of Jesus and uses spikenard, an expensive unguent? Some analysts have even said this is an allusion to the Song of Solomon. Do you agree?
I have to say that I have never heard this before. What I can say is that if you look at the Gospels most of them were written by Jewish people. Their knowledge of religion and faith was based on Jewish teaching and writings about people like David, Solomon and Moses, and the Torah. Everything they knew was contained within Jewish tradition. So it’s not surprising that over and over you find the style, wording, and sentiments of the Gospels are reflective of what is found in the Torah.
Specifically about the washing of feet, you’ll find many references in the Torah: Abraham washing the feet of three angels that come to visit him, Moses’ feet being washed by the daughters of Jethro. But within Jewish tradition there is not much attention focused on trying to find comparisons or insights between things that are written in the Gospels and things that are found in the Tanakh (the books that comprise the Torah, “the prophets” and “the writings”).
One of Dan Brown’s most striking revelations is about the divine proportion, the number 1.618 (or PHI), which Langdon explains as being a “fundamental building block of nature” present in everything from honeybee populations to nautilus shell spirals. Does that number appear in Jewish tradition?
Well, that was one area where I felt that Dan Brown missed something. The number 1.618 is a very significant number in the Jewish community and I was surprised he didn’t mention it along with the rest of his discussion on this topic. That number is a powerful force that symbolizes God’s presence in this world in the Jewish tradition.
In the Torah there are 613 commandments and then there are five extra factors that bring you to 618. There are two opinions on what those factors are. Some say they are the five additional rabbinic commandments which make 618. Others say that the 613 commandments that are performed by our five senses make 618. But we understand that this is the way in which God—the 1—permeates the world. God, the 1, enters into the world via the 618. When I saw 1.618 as the divine proportion, I thought this was very true from a Jewish religious perspective.
What about the Knights Templar? How are they perceived in Jewish history?
They’re only really seen as extras. They enter the story after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem at a time when the Jews are dispersed. In the Jewish community the most we can say about them is that they did have a strong sense of spirituality and sensitivity seeing the Dome of the Rock as Solomon’s Temple, but that’s about it. As for the Holy Grail, well that is not something that enters into Judaism at all.
You get a larger attendance for classes in Kabbalah than you do for a Saturday service, and your talks on mysticism and numeric codes are very popular. What is it about these subjects that attracts people?
Throughout the generations religions were seen--and are still seen in many circles--as a set of laws: “thou shall” and “thou shall not.” And it worked for many years. People were told that if they follow the laws they would go to heaven. If they didn’t, then they would go to hell. Many observed religion out of fear and religion was transmitted to the masses through the context of persuasion. This approach to faith can not truly be internalized and has been diminished through the development of science and our greater understanding of the world. It doesn’t mean that people don’t need faith. It just means that the mechanisms of transmission are not as effective as they used to be.
I live in Quebec, Canada, and Quebec was a Catholic province that was run by the Church until 40 years ago. Today there’s been a turning away in a sense. But people essentially are spiritual. They need faith. They need to be able to trust. They need something permanent in their life and they need something more than just the material world.
I think the Da Vinci Code is so appealing because it opened up people’s eyes to the spirit of religion and the mysteries and underpinnings of all that goes on in religion. Dan Brown touched on many spiritual matters that are of much fascination to people. There’s a reservoir of people that are wanting that type of spirituality; one that doesn’t threaten them, one that doesn’t shout at them, one that doesn’t tell them that if they don’t follow they are going to be damned. I think what a lot of people loved about the book is that they were not only reading a novel, they were learning about the world and about spiritual forces, and about topics like Kabbalah and the mystical tradition. All these things that are right in front of our eyes every day and we miss it.
But aren’t you troubled by the way Dan Brown begins his book claiming that everything is true and then the story veers off into fact, fiction, truths, half-truths, etc?
In the teachings of Kabbalah, there is a saying that the words that you are learning can be healing for your soul or they can be poison. There is always a danger when you are entering into the unknown domain that it is possible to go off the wrong way and to misinterpret and to misunderstand.
What I find difficult about the book is that it speaks with absolute certainty. But I think it has to do that because Christianity has been speaking with certainty for 2,000 years. Perhaps the only way to get people to think is to speak with the same certainty and to create a balance.
I believe that people who are really searching won’t take this book as the bible. If they have any sense of wisdom they will use it as a springboard to further their search. You hear about people reading this book and starting journeys in their life.
That’s a wonderful thing.Sample the New Secrets of the Code: The Da Vinci Code and Jewish Culture