The Sabbath night is the joy of the Queen with the King, and their uniting… Scholars who know this secret are intimate with their wives only on the Sabbath night.
This is a text from the Zohar, an important kabbalistic work. We all know who the King is—the disembodied yet fatherly entity who creates the world by word— not by sex with a goddess— and who gives the Torah. But who is the Queen? Don’t Jews reject the idea of a divine queen? Didn’t the prophet Jeremiah scold Israelite women for worshipping the Queen of Heaven?
There is a Jewish custom to recite the poem Lecha Dodi “Come, My Beloved”— on Friday night, as they turn to the door of the synagogue to greet the Sabbath. What most Jews don’t know is that Jewish mystics regard the Sabbath as an embodiment of the immanent, feminine face of God. The Sabbath’s entry into the synagogue, and the sexual coupling of lovers on Friday night, are embodiments of the divine union of the masculine face of God and the feminine face— dare we say— of Goddess.
This feminine immanent face of God has many names, but the most prominent of them is Shekhinah. Shekhinah means “dwelling,” with the noun-verb force of that word: the act of dwelling. The state of being somewhere. This talmudic word describes the numinous presence of God that abided in the Temple. In the centuries following the destruction of the Temple, sages begin to depict the Shekhinah as a woman. They see her as a loving mother who suffers the same exile as her people:
When the Shekhinah went forth from the Temple, she hugged and kissed its walls and pillars and wept, and said: “Shalom, goodbye, my Temple, goodbye, my royal dwelling, goodbye, my beloved house!…
In an era when Jews feel punished by God, they turn to a divine mother who loves them and takes to the road with her people. Shekhinah is the estranged wife of God, beloved but living separately as long as the world remains unredeemed.
This divine mother, according to Raphael Patai (author of The Hebrew Goddess) and other scholars, has her roots among the earliest Israelites, who worshipped the divine mother Asherah along with the God of Israel. The mysterious female figure of Proverbs, Lady Wisdom, may be a version of Asherah, since she is called “happy” (asher) and described as a tree, as Asherah was depicted as a tree:
She is a tree of life to all who hold her fast,
And all who cling to her find happiness.
Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.
The Divine made me at the beginning of his road,
the most ancient of his works of old….
And humankind was my joy.
Now, children, listen to me,
Happy are they who keep my ways.
Proverbs 3:18, 8:22, 27-32
Centuries later, kabbalists take these biblical references, and later talmudic references to Shekhinah, and create a fully-formed female divine figure. Sometimes she is a warrior, sometimes a mother, and sometimes she is all of nature. A kabbalistic scholar, Hayyim Vital of sixteenth-century Sfat, reports a vision of Shekhinah:
Behold, I saw a dignified woman, beautiful like the sun, standing on top of the ladder. And I thought in my heart that she was my mother.
The kabbalist vision of Shekhinah still has issues of sexism and heteronormativity— the Shekhinah is often portrayed as passive and defined by her relationship with the divine masculine. Yet she is a powerful antidote to our idea that the Jewish God is male. Even more interesting is what Jewish feminists have done with the Shekhinah. She becomes, not a piece of the pie, but the whole pie— an all-encompassing Divine presence who can receive prayer, be in relationship, tend to the world.
Alicia Ostriker, the poet and critic, writes in her poem “Prayer to the Shekhinah”:
you folded wings patched coats
dragged mattresses pans in peasant carts, lived your life
laboring praying and giving birth, you also
swam across the hard Atlantic
landed in the golden land
they called you greenhorn
you danced in cafes
bargained pushcart goods ice shoes Hester Street
put on makeup threw away wigs
and you learned new languages…
Here, the Shekhinah is an exile, but a lively and joyful one. She is embodied in Jewish women in all their fullness. In an untitled poem from her book The Volcano Sequence, Ostriker writes of Shekhinah as a complicated figure of compassion and natural law:
womb compassionate pitiless
eyes seeing to the ends of the universe
in which life struggles and delights in life
Rachel Adler, in her poem “Second Hymn to the Shekhinah,” plays with the mystical idea of nothingness and relates it to the hollow space of creativity. She cries:
Nothing is my own mama and
I am nothing myself…
Hollow in the pot nothing
Hole in the flute nothing
Rest in the music nothing
Shabbat in the week nothing
I am your daughter, Lady,
And pregnant with you…
Holy wind whistle through me
Been a long time since you had a pipe for this music
Many others, men as well as women, have been inspired in the modern age by the image of Shekhinah, emerging from the hidden depths of the Jewish psyche, changing as She is spoken, not only by male mystics, but by women seeking language for their own spiritual experience.
Along with Holly Taya Shere, I am the co-founder of the Kohenet Institute, an earth-based, ecstatic, embodied, feminist spiritual leadership program for Jewish women. Through ritual, study, and self-reflection, we are reclaiming a vision of Jewish women as priestesses: vessels for Divine presence in the world. We use the name Shekhinah when we pray, as well as other feminine and masculine God-names. Like the mystics, we believe in the power of seeing God/dess as a woman, and in all the other ways we authentically experience spirit. We, and many others, are rebirthing Shekhinah into the world.
One of our students, Tiana Mirapae, writes:
Since the destruction of the Second Temple, we have carried the Spirit of the Divine One within us. Wherever we go, wherever we are, we are home; within us is Shekhinah, Divine Spirit. It is our duty to ourselves and to the Divine, to heal and love ourselves, that we may open fully to serve Her and others, as Her.
Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD, is the co-founder of the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute (www.kohenet.org) and the Director of Spiritual Education at the Academy for Jewish Religion (www.ajrsem.org). She is the author of many essays, poems, rituals and stories, and of five books: Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women, The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons, The Omer Calendar of Biblical Women, The Hebrew Priestess (with Holly Taya Shere, forthcoming 2014), and The Garden of Time (with Zoe Cohen, forthcoming 2014).