Encountering the Shechinah, The Jewish Goddess
.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".

The Shechinah is a distinctly Jewish conception and contains theosophical elements which evolved after the destruction of the great temples in Jerusalem. 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 co-architect 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 behaviour 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 further 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 Kabballistic system of "sephiroth" or emanations of divine energy (known to the readers as the "tree of Iife" 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 identified 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 days, the holy old one without eyes," and the "holy apple orchard".

Because the Kabbalists 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" [rabbis], mostly daughters and wives of the great masters. Charisma [Charismata: Gifts through Grace] 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 way, 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, Hasidic teachers saw the Shechinah as Goddess in exile and associated her with the redemption of the Jews.  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 clearing 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 discern 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 may 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 mostly (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/they 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. 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 Iife and language including the exclusion of women from the sacred professions. 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. The Shechinah that is emerging especially in North America is a varied Goddess, indeed a Goddess with a thousand faces.  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.

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. 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 [illumination and revelation] 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 image came on a Friday 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. Serious scholars, including non-Jews, have tended to regard the Shechinah as an abstraction, or a way 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.

Her Presence is needed in order to bring wholeness back to the planet, providing a living philosophy for our own times.