two faces

The Shekhinah

Where can we find a powerful image of the Divine feminine within Jewish sources? One name for Her which has been with us for centuries is the Shekhinah, the “dweller within.” In ancient times, the Shekhinah was a Talmudic word for the glory of God that rested on the mishkan (the mishkan was the Tabernacle, God’s sacred dwelling space in the wilderness (see Exodus 26-28). The Israelites saw the “glory of God” (kavod adonai) as tangible, powerful, and sacred, a pillar of fire or cloud guiding the Israelites through the wilderness.

According to the Talmud, the Shekhinah, the Indwelling, is the Divine that resides within the life of the world, dwelling on earth with the Jewish people and going into exile with them when they are exiled. While the traditional Jewish image of the transcendent God is male, in the kabbalah, that image has been accompanied by the feminine image of the Shekhinah—the inner glory of existence.

In the Zohar (a medieval mystical work), there are ten facets or sefirot of the Divine, and the Shekhinah (also known as malchut) is the tenth and final one, closest to the created world. She is a mystical embodiment of the feminine, earth-centered presence of God, and was also called the bride of God, the Sabbath, the Torah, the moon, the earth, and the apple orchard. Mysticism depicts the Shekhinah as female, but she can be both female and male. Two biblical figures who symbolize her are Rachel (wife of Jacob and mother of the Israelite nation) and David (shepherd, psalmist, and king of Israel). The Shekhinah rests on those who study, pray, visit the sick, welcome the new moon, welcome guests, give charity to the poor, dwell in the harvest booth called the sukkah, or perform other sacred activities.

The Shekhinah embodies joy, yet she is also a symbol of shared suffering and empathy, not only with a nation’s exile, but with all the hurts of the world. Mystics believe that in messianic times She will be reunited with her heavenly partner and that they will become one. Many Jewish poets of the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries have reclaimed her as a powerful feminine image of God.
Yet the Shekhinah as She is portrayed by Jewish sources is not a panacea for all that ails the way we look at God. Until recently kabbalists have considered Her the lowest and most inactive part of the Godhead, the last and least in a series of ten steps of creation.

The Shekhinah embodies traditional feminine traits like passivity and nurturing, and at the same time she is associated with death and darkness. These images, taken uncritically, can be damaging to women and to the male conception of the feminine. To discover the Shekhinah as the full embodiment of the feminine Divine, we must transform her from a stereotype into a living divinity who speaks to us in many different kinds of voices: mother and daughter, old and young, light and dark, compassion and anger, revelation and mystery.

We can rediscover the Shekhinah throughout Jewish text, throughout history, and throughout the natural world. God in the Bible is sometimes mother eagle and sometimes Holy Wisdom crying out in the streets. In the Talmud and midrash, the Divine is sometimes portrayed as a nursing mother or as the (female) twin of Israel. In the Zohar, there are multiple feminine God-images, such as Binah (understanding), also known as Immah Ilaah (the higher mother), who is called the womb and palace of creation, the fountain of understanding, the well of souls. Then there is Lilith, a mythic figure whom the tradition demonized but who for some is the embodiment of sexuality and freedom.
We also cannot forget that the images and stories of the Shekhinah are connected to traditions of the Divine feminine around the world, from the ancient goddess Inanna, who is described as a warrior for her people just as the Shekhinah is in the Zohar; to the Virgin Mary, who is an intercessor in matters of Divine judgment like the Shekhinah; to Kuan Yin of Asia, who embodies compassion for those who suffer, just as the Shekhinah does. Jews have been afraid to acknowledge the Shekhinah’s relationship to goddesses and goddess-like images because of the traditional Jewish prohibition against idolatry. Yet to deny our connection to the Divine feminine as it is expressed and loved by others is to deny our connection to the human, and feminine, religious experience, and to render invisible some of the sources of our own spirituality.

Today feminist theologians and earth-centered Jews have reclaimed the Shekhinah as a unified deity in her own right, dwelling within living things and the earth, seeking peace and promoting human connection, speaking through women as well as men, working through the neglected and invisible, promoting change and healing brokenness. She is the Goddess—an image of the forces of life and the mysteries of creation.

As a rabbi, a feminist scholar, and a seeker, I have been looking for the Divine feminine for many years. In my own dreams, I have seen the Shekhinah as a pregnant woman glowing with light, as a great bird, as an old, secretive woman in a black robe, and as a stone with feathers. While I constantly look for her in texts, I believe that our own experience of Her will guide us toward Her, if we can open our eyes and ears.

The Shekhinah, for some, is a reminder that there is no division between creation and divinity. The Shekhinah allows us to break through the exclusively male and hierarchical visions of God and imagine a God that changes as we change, that evokes nature as well as the supernatural. Melissa Weintraub writes: “Shekhinah, Mother of all being, you are the stream that runs through our veins, and dances through the soil....” When we speak to the immanent Shekhinah, She speaks not to us, but through us, and through all the varied facets of the world.

Jill Hammer



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