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The Mystical Wanderings of the Shekhinah (revised)

As Creator, and the Source of our being, God continuously brings our existence out of the abyss of nothingness, and is renewed with the possibility of new life.  God’s love and compassion is bio-centric and embraces the universe in its totality.  God’s power is not all-powerful (in the simplistic sense); nor is it coercive in achieving this end, but is all-relational in His capacity to relate to the world—even suffer with it as well. God’s love initiates new beginnings and endless possibilities ex nihilo to a suffering people. In the Exodus narrative, God instructs Moses to tell the Israelites אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה   (´e|hyè ´ášer ´e|hyè) “I will always be present as I will always be present.”

The early rabbis referred to God’s indwelling among mortals by the designation of שְׁכִינָה (“Shekhinah”), which signifies, “that which dwells.” The root word שָׁכֵן, (shakhen), or שָׁכַן, (shakhan) “to dwell,” “reside,” cf. Isaiah 60:2). Rabbinical wisdom traces this epithet of God to the well-known biblical verse,  וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם   “They shall make a sanctuary for me, that I may dwell in their midst” (Exod. 25:8). Most biblical translations overlook a more literal meaning that conveys a mystical meaning, “They shall make a sanctuary for me, that  I shall dwell in them.” God dwells not outside the human heart, but within the human heart. Hence, the idea of the Shekhinah best means “Divine Indwelling.”

Throughout much of the Jewish midrashic and mystical literature, the rabbis depict the Shekhinah in feminine terms; this aspect of the Divine personifies God’s maternal love. Although the Shekhinah freely embraces suffering, She is not overwhelmed or defeated by human evil and stubbornness. Whenever the Shekhinah sees suffering, She identifies with the pain of her errant children, “My head is heavy; My arm is heavy.  And If God grieves  over the blood of the wicked whose blood is justifiably shed,  how much more so is the Shekhinah grieved over the blood of the just!”[1] The Shekhinah represents the part of God that each human being possesses. In William Blake’s famous depictions of Job, the observant reader will note that the face of God and the face of Job are the same. This aspect of God corresponds in biblical terms to the “image of God” that each of us bears inside us.

One Midrashic text connects the Shekhinah with the opening passage of Song of Songs 1:1, which speaks about the Lover (God) entering into the Garden (symbolizing Eden), to be alone with His beloved (symbolized by Israel):

I come to my garden, my sister, my bride; I gather my myrrh with my spice, I eat my honeycomb with my honey, I drink my wine with my milk. Eat, friends, drink, and be drunk with love.

According to the Midrash, all of Song of Songs is an extended metaphor about God’s love for Israel. The word “my garden” has Edenic overtones and significance. The term “gani” (“My garden,”) implies not just any “garden,” but specifically to “My garden,” i.e., the bridal chamber where a bride and groom consummate their love for one another. By saying “My bridal chamber,” the text mystically suggests a return to a time when God’s Being was originally present and revealed. The Midrash teaches that when Moses built the Tabernacle, the Shekhinah returned to co-inhabit the earth just as She did in the days of Eden before the primal couple’s great fall. In Eden, God “walked” alongside mortals (Gen 3:8). However, after the primal couple sinned, the Shekhinah began retreating Her Presence from the earthly realm. Bereft of Her divine intimacy, Adam and his wife hid themselves because they felt alienated from the deepest dimension of their souls.  Adam’s spiritual stature underwent a radical reduction.

However, the Shekhinah’s mystical ascent was far from finished, for when Cain murdered his brother Abel, the Feminine Presence felt disgusted with human violence and retreated unto the second level of Heaven in a panic. Alas, Her ascent away from the earth still continued;  Enosh forgot his Creator when he worshiped idols, so the Shekhinah retreated to the third level; after watching more of man’s inhumanity to man, a flood occurs, and the saddened Shekhinah retreats because She could not watch Her children perish. With the passage of time, the Shekhinah develops revulsion for violence. Once again, human cruelty chased Her, one more degree away from the earth.

After the Tower Builders announced their designs to conquer the heavens, the Shekhinah retreated yet another degree because she found human arrogance repugnant. The violence of the Sodomites upset Her even more, as she wanted nothing to do with men because of their barbarism and sadism. The Shekhinah’s withdrawal from the world reached Her zenith after the Egyptians mistreated their fellow earthly brothers and sisters, by enslaving the Israelites to a life of suffering and pain. She could not bear to watch. She wondered, “Could the rift with humanity get any worse than this?”

However, the Shekhinah could not remain in a permanent state of estrangement from humanity—despite its errant ways. Abraham was the first to recognize the Shekhinah’s reality and he sought to make her more intimate with mortals once more. Isaac’s willingness to die for Her, as a show of his love and devotion, made the Shekhinah yearn yet more for intimacy with mortals. Through his many struggles within himself, Jacob comes to discover the Shekhinah’s luminosity and beauty and finally understands the true meaning of blessing.  In an effort to purge himself from the violence that defiled his life after he and his brother Simeon massacred the inhabitants of Shechem (Gen. 34-31), Levi sought to renew his relationship with Her. The Shekhinah pitied this pathetic excuse for a human being and granted him a peacefulness of mind. She was determined to make Levi’s descendants do penance for their forefather’s crimes against humanity  by making them serve as priests to their Maker. She mused, “Every saint has a past, every sinner has a future–this applies even to Levi!”

The Shekhinah brought Yochebed and Amram together, and they became the parents of Moses—the liberator of Israel.  Mysteriously, She finds herself drawn back to the earth. With Moses, the Shekhinah found a lover who decided to build a new home for the Divine—The Tabernacle–a place that would permanently restore Her Presence to our world, where She would walk once more with humankind. [2] From the various rabbinical texts written about the Shekhinah, She appears in a world that suffers from the ruptures of history. She is vaguely Present when the fullness of God’s reality seems absence of God in human history because of radical evil and senseless suffering. Yet, the Shekhinah is the often associated with the Spirit of God that gives shape to the chaos of Creation, forming it into a cosmos. In the Midrashic imagination, the purpose of the Creation is to serve as a dwelling place for the Divine Presence. Creation. However, only human beings can create the space for the Shekhinah to dwell.



[1] Mishnah Sanhedrin 6:5.

[2] Numbers Rabbah 12:13.

 



Discussion

  1. Yochanan Lavie  July 2, 2012

    I like the idea of a feminine aspect of God, rather than an anthropomorphized God with a penis. As a non-biological being, God is neither masculine or feminine literally, but metaphorically both. The danger is overliteralizing the metaphor so we get a god/goddess duality, or some kind of goddess monolatry like the Wiccan faith.

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