Encountering the Shechinah,
The Jewish Goddess RABBI LEAH NOVICK 204-14.
from Nicholson, Shirley ed. 1983 The Goddess Re-Awakening
She so pervades this lower world... that if you search in deed, thought and speculation, you will find Shechinah, for there is no beginning or end to her. Rabbi Joseph 13th-cent mystic
Traditional Jewish scholars have always insisted that the Shechinah is not a separate presence from the one God whom Jews worship. At the same time, they have given us a Shechinah literature replete with images, descriptions, and qualities of the most detailed and often anthropomorphic nature. This body of commentary, poetry, and prayer provides, in my view, a filtered but consistent memory of "God the Mother," and is the basis for the "Jewish Goddess." I say "Jewish Goddess" pointedly to distinguish her from the "Hebrew Goddess" that Professor Raphael Patai has documented so well namely the Canaanite Mother Goddess Asherah. The Bible itself tells us that the ancient Hebrews honored her until about 800 B.C.E. when King Josiah removed the Asherah from the Jerusalem temple and destroyed the outlying shrines. While her worship had been denounced repeatedly by the Prophets, they themselves chronicled consistent Jewish homage to Asherah or Astarte, Queen of Heaven. While the development of the Shechinah may indeed be an outgrowth of earlier Nhddle Eastem Goddess worship, that is not the subject of this paper. The Shechinah is a distinctly Jewish conception and contains theosophical elements which evolved after the destruction of the great temples in Jerusalem. So long as the Jews lived an agrarian Iffe, there was less need to define the Shechinah as the source of all things in nature. The process of spelling out her attributes-like the development of the synagogue and the prayerbook-came with the exile of the Jews from their own land. The Shechinah is defined, in traditional Jewish writings, as the "female aspect of God" or the "presence" of the infinite God in the world. She is introduced in the early rabbinical commentaries as the "immanence" or "indwelling" of the living God, whose role as the animating life force of the earth is to balance the transcendent deity. While she does not appear by name in the five books of Moses, the explicators of the Old Testament refer to her in interpreting the text. For example, when Moses encounters the burning bush, he is told to remove his shoes and prepare himself to receive the Shechinah. According to the rabbis, the choice of the simple thorn bush as the vehicle for the revelation was to emphasize the Shechinah's presence, since nothing in nature can exist without her. In Proverbs, we are introduced to the Divine Mother as Chochmah (Wisdom), who was present from the time of creation as the loving consort and coarchitect with the YHVH. In this Solomonic portrayal, she delights in humanity and provides us with her wise direction towards the path of truth and justice. (In this form, she is related to the Sophia of the Gnostics, who were influenced by Jewish thinking, and also included Hellenized Jews in their numbers.) This association with humanity was emphasized by the Talmudists who saw her as suffering when human beings erred: "Acts of bloodshed, incest, perversion of justice and falsification of measures cause her to depart." They tell us: "Whoever is humble will ultimately cause the Shechinah to dwell upon earth. Whoever is haughty brings about the defilement of the Earth and the departure of the Shechinah." In the Talmudic view, actions harmful to other human beings or the earth cause the Shechinah to flee, and she rises upward to the Seven Heavens.' On the other side of the scale are the positive actions of humanity which attract her presence downward to the earth. Specifically, in Jewish tradition, we are told that the goodness of our patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, merited her presence, although even they "lost" her at times when their behavior was amiss. (Of course I am sure she spoke to the matriarchs as well; unfortunately they didn't publish.) The other way that the Shechinah is drawn downward is when people are in need of her as a comforting presence. The rabbis tell us she hovers at the bed of all sick individuals and is seen by the dying as they exit the world into the great light. According to tradition, the Shechinah comes to the good and true at death, giving them the opportunity to go straight up the center of the heavenly ladder in a moment of pure consciousness, into the merger with the Divine. The Shechinah is intimately connected with expressions of human love, particularly romantic and marital bliss. It is she who blesses the happy couple; the glow of lovers is considered to be the reflection of her presence. The rabbis say: "When man and wife are worthy, the Shechinah abides in their midst. If they are unworthy, fire consumes them." Here they allude to her role as destroyer; sometimes she is presented as the punisher of mankind. While reference is made to the bank of fire that accompanies her, along with two angels, the concept is not stressed as much as her other qualities . Early Jewish mystics emphasized the splendor of the Shechinah, often envisioning her as God's glory. In their conception, she is the jewel or precious stone represented by the Torah, as the crowned bride of God. She is the luminous presence of the Divine, the great light who shines on all creatures. Similar concepts are expressed in later Jewish writings, reflecting the continuity of the received oral teachings back to the early centuries of the common era. This received knowledge or "Kabbalah" was ffifther developed by the twelfth and thirteenth-century German "Pietists" (also called Hasidists) and reached its zenith with the later Spanish and Safed Kabbalists. It was the latter group, living in a spiritual enclave in Northern Israel in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, who articulated the qualities of the divine female in considerable detail. Within the Kabbahstic system of "sephiroth" or emanations of divine energy (known to the readers as the "tree of Iffe" or "cosmic tree"), the ten sephiroth are equally balanced with one side of the tree representing female qualities and the other male qualities. Within this system or map of consciousness, Shechinah is most often identffied with Malchuth (which translates as "sovereignty") at the base of the cosmic tree, which to me represents the energy of the earth. In the poetry of Rabbi Isaac Luri (the Ari), leader of the Safed Kabbalistic school, there are many phrases that describe Shechinah. The Ari's liturgical poems refer to her as the "Matronit...... holy ancient one, the old of davs, the holy old one without eyes," and the "holy apple orchard" (the latter consistent with the teaching that to experience the Shechinah one needs oniv to enter an apple orchard in bloom). While the outdoor rituals and breathing practices used to induce visions of the Shechinah declined with the sacred community of Safed, the images of Shechinah as Shabbos Queen were passed on in the prayers for receiving the Sabbath, which are still used each week by Jews around the world. Because the Kabbahsts were devoted to the reunification of the dyadic Godhead, all of their prayers began with blessings that invited both the YHVH and the Shechinah. This form, too, has been preserved and continues to be used. The scholars of the Spanish and Safed schools also understood that the Shechinah could "appear" to inspired individuals (or "Prophets"), and that the form adopted would be a reflection of the divine purpose. For example, Rabbi Joseph Caro a great seventeenth-century scholar and mystic known for his compilation of the Shuichan Aruch (code of Jewish laws) "channeled" the voice of the Shechinah, especially on Friday nights. His guide sometimes announced, "The Shechinah speaks to you," or, "I am the Mother Who Chastises." Yet another contribution of the Safed school was its emphasis on spiritualized sexuality as a part of sacred practice (of course, within Jewish marital guidelines and family purity laws). Unfortunately, we lack descriptions of home life at that time and have little knowledge of women's views within that community, since there is no women's literature per se, or none that has been preserved. Despite the fact that this was an all-male esoteric movement, the writings acknowledge female orgasm and recognize the persona of wife and mother as earthly representatives of Shechinah. This view of Shechinah resting on or being reflected in the human female form would be further developed in Eastern European Hasidism. The Baal Shem master-teacher of the seventeenth-century movement believed that the prayers of women ascended directly to God. He also acknowledged women's capacity for prophecy, and he attracted many female followers. In the early years when the movement was still quite radical, the openness to women's spiritual charisma resulted in the emergence of women " rebbes, " mostly daughters and wives of the great masters. Charisma is one of the blessings of Shechinah, according to the Talmud. Taking the teachings of Kabbalah and adapting them to community life in a more egalitarian wav, Hasiduth restored the belief in each individual's ability to access the Shechinah and bring her back to earth through personal actions. The key elements in the practice were meditation and prayer with Kavannah (deep faith and intentionality), devekuth (clinging to God) accompanied by a sharing lifestyle, in which justice, mercy, and charity prevailed. Added to this mixture was the inspired persona of the Tsaddik (saint) who provided the inspiration for devotees, facilitating and affirming personal experiences of the divine.8 Hasidic teachers saw the Shechinah as Goddess in exile and associated her with the redemption of the Jews. 9 Some of the early masters-like Dov Baer, the Maggid of Mezerich-emulated her wandering by serving as itinerant preachers who taught in the villages and rural areas. The great maggid, like the Kabbalists he studied, was a philosopher of elegance and depth who emphasized the importance of meditation. Meditation practice using the traditional Hebrew prayers in a mantra-like manner was central to the teachings of the great rebbes, as it had been to the mystical predecessors. Dov Baer, the master who followed the Baal Shem, taught the need for dearing the mind and forgetting the self in prayer in order to pray for the return of the divine presence to the earth. Connecting the Shechinah to the ensoulment of the individual, he urged: "Think of your soul as part of the Divine Presence, as the raindrop in the sea." As the reader can discem even from this brief and limited review of traditional teachings, there are rich sources of inspired thinking about the Jewish Goddess. While the unconscious awareness of the twentieth-century seeker mav be rooted in this sacred tradition, few of us have been given the benefit of a Jewish education in which the Shechinah is even mentioned. While the knowledge is rooted in the old prayer forms, Talmudic commentary, and Hebrew poetic language, the contemporary Shechinah work is coming mostlv (although not exclusively) from Jewish women. Some of the articulators are individuals who have studied Hebrew sacred texts however women who have studied mysticism tend to do so on their own or in secondary sources. A few are rabbis, scholars, and cantors who acquired traditional knowledge and skills. The majority are musicians, dancers, storytellers, and actresses, therapists and healers, who developed their insights first and then found themselves drawn towards acquiring information to match their awareness of the energy called " Shechinah, " which they express through their work. For most of the Shechinah celebrants, experience preceded study, or was interlaced with it. In this respect, we/thev depart from the traditional Jewish formula (and the male model) which says that one must study the basic texts first and go to the mystical interpretations after there is a firm grounding in the biblical exegesis. For women who must overcome the misogynistic text in order to get to the poetic metaphor, interpretation must come earlv in the study process. This is why Jewish women are writing new Midrash, expositions of the significance of biblical texts, to restore the Torah to both sexes as a meaningful source of sacred knowledge. Contemporary Jewish feminists have had to confront sexism in religious Iffe and language including the exclusion of women from the sacred professions. As a result of our activism, some important doors have opened in the last decade. Increasingly, we are now working on bringing forth our own images of the Divine and turning to the creation of new forms to nourish those who are ready for change. In this process, the Shechinah that is emerging especially in North Americ ais a varied Goddess, indeed a Goddess with a thousand faces. For what is apparent in the workshops and conferences on Jewish feminism and in the New Moon groups (which are springing up spontaneously in many places) is that Jewish women carrv the imprint and the images of the Goddess within them; th the traditional Shechinah and the earlier Canaanite and Middle Eastern forms. Because this generation is serving as the midwife for the rebirth of the Shechinah, we will have to be familiar with the ancient knowledge and traditional prayers which invoke her, at the same time that we are creating new forms. In this ancient/future subculture we will need poets and prophets, rebels and rabbis, musicians and mothers. What is clear is that we have the beginnings of a movement without a hierarchy, a central leader, or a single organization. This Goddess who shines on us as we study sacred texts is found in redwood groves and apple orchards. She is coming to us in the wind and the water, in the ocean and the mountains. Like the underground Goddess herself, this movement comes from the subterranean parts of the human psyche. It emerges from a place of discovery and awe, from a place of wonder and worship.
Lest this sound too simplistic, let me remind the reader that receiving the "inner voice" usually comes after periods of silent meditation which go along with disciplined spiritual practice. When the illumination does arrive, not all of us are ready to receive it, and for many there are years of confusion and ambivalence over what spiritual path to take. The recognition of the Goddess for Jewish women brings us face-to-face with the traditional taboo on worshipping other gods, " on creating images of God, and the centuries-old question of whether the Shechinah is indeed a separate entity from the genderless infinite God. In workshops on Shechinah that I have conducted during the last few years, I find that men and women, Jews and non-Jews, carry concepts, feelings, and images of the Shechinah within them. Again, in most people experience precedes naming the energy or having a knowledge of her characteristics as presented or expressed in the Jewish sacred literature. Interestingly enough, when we share these experiences, we find that individuals "know" or uncover most of the traditional characteristics of Shechinah on their own. The most common experiences are of light and radiance, which is consistent with the writings of many Jewish scholars who described her as a great light which shines upon all God's creatures. Many writers considered her the light of creation itself or the place of the primordial light. Some people's experience of Shechinah involves hearing a voice or feeling a great warmth. For myself she is most present on Friday nights after I light the Shabbat candles; that is when I hear her speaking to me. At other times I feel she is present when I begin composing songs with words that address issues or people I care about. During these times, usually in the forest or at the ocean, a great sense of joy overcomes me, and all ordinary problems fade alongside the bliss I feel. On other occasions I have experienced myself falling into a great soft whiteness that is her embrace, as if all the down feathers in the world were in a single pile waiting for me to fall into them. My favorite linage came on a Fridav night when I saw her "dressed" in stars and the planets. Her size was beyond imagination, and her celestial "diadem" was made up of the heavens. I was overwhelmed. While there is clearly a rebirth of Shechinah consciousness, concepts of a Jewish Goddess have not yet influenced mainstream Judaism or even the larger New Age movement which tends to regard Jewish feminism as a paradox. Serious scholars, including non-Jews, have tended to regard the Shechinah as an abstraction, or a wav of writing about the attributes of God rather than an energetic form to be experienced. At this point, it is too early to know how this contemporary Shechinah -consciousness will be absorbed into Judaism and into the growing Goddess movement. What is hopeful is that more scholars are studying and researching the old material to find these connections, and increasing numbers of Jewish women and men are finding the face of God in the Shechinah. I believe that her form resonates for more of us now because there is a literature and poetry about her that are part of our usable past, which our female ancestors also used in calling on her. While she needs to be reinvented or remembered, at least our reconstruction of Shechinah fits with the sacred tradition and the inner music of our people. Their basic philosophy that her presence is needed in order to bring wholeness back to the planet still provides a living philosophy for our own times.
Extract of Bride, Spouse, Daughter
Arthur Green 255-7
from Heschel, Susannah (1983) On Being a Jewish Feminist, Schocken Books, NY.
A new myth of Judaism emerged in,the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, hiding behind the word kabbalah, which means tradition itself. Here is presented a Judaism of mythic complexity that had been previously unknown, one in which the single, static, nic monotheism is and essentially masculine God of biblical-rabbi replaced by a dynamic, multifaceted, ever-flowing, separating and uniting, new kind of ten-in-one monotheistic deity. In that paradigm of the inner life of God, described through so many rich and varied images in the kabbalistic literature, the Shekhinah took a major role.
Using an ancient term for the indwelling or presence of God, the Kabbalists employed Shekhinah to symbolize a particular realm within the divine world. Described as daughter, bride, mother, moon, sea, faith, wisdom, speech, and a myriad of other figures, usually but not always feminine by fact or association, the Shekhinah is the chief object of both the divine and human search for wholeness and perfection. She is the bride of God within God, mother of the world and feminine side of the divine self, in no way fully separable from the male self of God. Indeed, the root of all evil, both cosmic and human, is the attempt to bring about such a separation. The picture of that feminine aspect of divinity is a complicated one. As the tenth of the sefirot, or manifestations of divine selfhood, she is, when facing those above, passive and receptive. She takes all the upper powers into herself; "All the rivers flow into the sea," as the Kabbalists love to quote from the Book of Ecclesiastes (1:7). But as the sea transforms all the rivers, gives them new life as a dynamic power all her own, and reaches her destined shores as a new being, so is the Shekhinah, when facing the lower worlds, described as giver, provider, ruler, and judge. In a way that cannot be fully understood, she is represented ts the mystical embodiment of the Community of Israel: the Kabbalist has transferred the locus of mystical marriage from the relationship of God and the earthly Israel to an entirely divine plane. Rather than seeing himself and his people as the bride of God, he now joins with God above in rejoicing at a sacred marriage that has taken place, as it were, within God. Perhaps most interestingly, Shekhinah is the only aspect of divinity that most Kabbalists ever claim really to experience. The Shekhinah, the outermost gate to the divine mysteries, is all the Kabbalist dares to say that he has attained. It is through the union of Shekhinah with God above that the Kabbalist, too, is bound to those higher forces. He serves as "attendant of the bride," knowing secretly at the same time that his soul is born of this union that he has helped to bring about. We read now of the Shekliinali froin the earliest text we liave in all of Kabbalistic literature, the Sefer HaBahir, that appeared in southern France in the latter decades of the twelfth century. The Bahir is written in an intentionally mystifying and yet defiantly simple tone, one that does much to set the stage for the later symbolic development within Kabbalah. Here the Bahir is commenting on the biblical verse "Blessed be the Glory of God from His place" (Ezek. 3:12). Glory, in Hebrew kavod, is the Biblical term which the Kabbalists (following the Targum) usually took as a code word for the Shekhinah.
This may be compared to a king who had a matron in his chamber. All his hosts took pleasure in her. She had children, and those children came each day to see the king and greet him. They would say to him, "Where is our mother?" And he would answer, "You cannot see her now." To this they would reply, "Blessed be she, in whatever place she is."
Immediately the Bahir adds a second parable:
This may be compared to a princess who came from a faraway place. Nobody knew where she came from. Then they saw that she was an upstanding woman, good and proper in all her deeds. They said of her, "This one surely is taken from the place of light, for by her deeds the world is enlightened." They asked her, " Where are you from?" She said, "From my place." They said, "In that case, great are the People of your place. Blessed are you; blessed is she and blessed is her place."
The Shekhinah, the mysterious woman, queen or princess, hidden or coming from a place beyond, is the only one we see, the only one we greet. What is her place, what is her origin? These are hidden somewhere in the mysteries of God beyond. All we can say of the God we know, of that feminine God we encounter is "Blessed is she and blessed is her place." The glory of God is apparent to us, the glory of God lies within the realm of human experience. The Shekhinah is the God we know. Surely, that Shekhinah stands in relation to a transcendent deity, whether described in male terms or in terms of more pure abstraction, but our knowledge of that is only through her. Blessed is she and blessed is her place. While the Shekhinah plays a central role in all of Kabbalistic literature, it is especially in the Zohar that its feminine character is highlighted. The author of the Zohar was possessed of a seemingly boundless mythic imagination, a great deal of it centering on female figures, both sacred and demonic, as well as on deeply ambivalent fantasies concerning human women in this world." In what is surely one of its most strikingly impassioned passages, the Zohar speaks of the love of God through the symbol of the kisses that Jacob gives to Rachel. From the passage it becomes clear that the experience of the mystic is that of being aroused, drawn into, and kissed by God. As the passage develops, Rachel, the recipient of the kisses, is really related to an entirely hidden and abstract God beyond, a God so abstract and hidden, however, that He cannot be described as one who kisses. How, indeed, can one be loved by a God who is hidden beyond all being? Jacob is the personified manifestation of this hidden God, personified only, as it were, in order that the great mystery be enabled to kiss the bride. The passage reads as follows:
When it (the spirit of love) enters the palace of love, the love of supernal kisses is aroused, those of which Scripture says: "Jacob kissed Rachel" (Gen. 29:11). This arousal brings about the kisses of supernal love, as needs to be. These kisses are the beginning of all love, attachment, and binding above. That is why the Canticle opens its praises with: "Let Him kiss me." Who is to "kiss me"? The one hidden in sublime hiding. but should you ask: "Do kisses apply to the most hidden One? Does that one kiss below?"come and see: that most hidden of hiddens, no one knows it. It reveals of itself but a slim ray of hidden light, revealed only through a narrow path that proceeds from it. But this is the light that gives light to all. This is the arousal of all the sublime secrets, yet it remains hidden. Sometimes hidden, sometimes revealed. But even when it is not revealed at all, it remains the source of arousal for those ascending kisses. And since it is hidden, the Canticle begins its praises in a hidden (i.e., third-person) way.'