views updated


SHEKHINAH . The term Shekhinah, generally translated as "presence," was coined by rabbinic sages in the formative period (first through sixth centuries) to denote the manifestation of a transcendent God in the world of space and time. On balance, there is little evidence in classical rabbinic literature that Shekhinah denotes a hypostatic entity ontically distinct from God, a secondary or demiurgical being akin to the Logos in the writings of Philo or in the prologue to the Gospel of John. As a number of scholars have noted, in most instances, Shekhinah is used interchangeably for the supreme divine being, though it is evident that the reference is, more specifically, to the appearance of God in history and nature, a mythopoeic expression of divine providence related especially to Israel. This theme is epitomized in a dictum that has instilled hope in the hearts of pious Jews through many a dark moment, Shekhinah accompanies the Jewish nation into exile (Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 29a). The implication of this promise is clearly that the deliverance of Israel from exile heralds the redemption of God, a bold mythical idea that a number of rabbis insist must be accepted since Scripture sanctions it explicitly.

The word shekhinah is derived from the root shkn, which means to dwell, to abide, and thus it is functionally synonymous with kavod, the scriptural expression used to designate the divine glory, the revelatory aspect of God that assumes material formmost often of a luminous naturein relation to the people of Israel. Related to shkn is mishkan, the priestly designation of the Tabernacle, the temporary abode of God's indwelling that accompanied the Israelites on the sojourn through the desert (Ex. 40:34-38), the prototype of the Jerusalem Temple built in the time of Solomon, which is described in similar language as the place where God shall abide if the Israelites uphold the covenant and obey the commandments (1 Kgs 6:13). In the Solomonic account, a paradox that has plagued the religious sensibility of Jews from time immemorial is made explicit: on one hand, God describes himself as dwelling in the darkness of the thick cloud, lishkon ba-arafel (1 Kgs. 8:12; cf. Ex. 20:18; Dt. 5:19; 2 Sm. 22:10; Ps. 18:10, 97:2; Jb. 38:9; 2 Chr. 6:1), an image that conveys the inherent inscrutability and hiddenness of the divine, and yet, on the other hand, it is the will of God that summons Solomon to build a "stately house" (beit zevul) to serve as a place for his dwelling eternally (1 Kgs. 8:13), a domicile to give shelter to the name (1 Kgs. 20), a locution that resonates with the Deuteronomistic emphasis on the abiding of the divine name (shem ) in the sanctuary (Dt. 12:5, 11; 14:23-24; 16:11). The glory inhabits the earthly temple through the agency of the name, presumably the tetragrammaton, a conception that is related to the widespread belief in the ancient Near East concerning the magical power of divine or angelic names. The query placed in the mouth of Solomon when he addresses God as he stands before the altar reflects the anxiety that lies at the core of this paradox: "But will God really dwell on earth? Even the heavens and the heaven of heavens cannot contain You, how much less this house that I have built" (1 Kgs. 8:28). In the continuation of Solomon's remarks, the reader confronts one of the axiomatic principles of theistic faith that persists to this very day:

Turn, O Lord my God, to the prayer and supplication of Your servant, and heed the song and prayer that Your servant offers before You this day. May your eyes be open night and day toward this House, to the place of which you have said "Let My name be there," to heed the prayer that your servant prays toward this place. And You will listen to the supplications of Your servant and Your people Israel that they pray toward this place, and You will give heed in Your place of dwelling in heaven (el meqom shivttekha el ha-shamayim ), You will listen and pardon (1 Kgs 8:28-30).

This archaic text captures the insight that the possibility of prayer within a theisitic context, that is, a religious setting that presumes a personal deity attentive to human needs, is dependent on the representation of God in embodied form, which, in turn, necessitates the construction of a physical place where this form will resideeven though it is forbidden to depict it iconicallyand become accessible to the worshipper. From the aforecited verses readers learn, moreover, that the sacred space below corresponds to the imaginal construct of the heavenly Temple, an idea well attested in ancient Near Eastern mythologies and reaffirmed in different cultural settings throughout Jewish history; it is precisely the offering of prayer in the former that activates God's forgiveness in the latter. Solomon cannot logically resolve the paradox of how a God so vast that he cannot be contained by the heavens will reside in the earthly Temple. Interestingly, there is a rabbinic text, transmitted in the name of Rabbi Yoanan by Rabbi Judah bar Simon, that expands on Solomon's wonder by placing an analogous question in the mouth of Moses. Perhaps the theological significance of the midrashic text lies in the fact that it deepens the scriptural mystery and comes close to offering the rabbinic version of a kenotic incarnation: When Moses is commanded to build the Tabernacle, he trembles and asks God how the presence can reside in the Tabernacle when all the heavens cannot contain him, recalling that when Solomon built the Temple, a physical space larger than the Tabernacle, he posed a similar question to God. The divine response is instructive: "Moses, it is not as you think, rather twenty planks on the north, twenty planks on the south, eight on the west (Ex. 26:18-25), and I will descend and constrict my presence in your midst below (ered u-metsamtsem shekhinati beineikhem lematan )" (Pesiqtaʾ Rabbati 2:10; compare Exodus Rabbah 34:1). Paradoxical though it may be, God has the capacity to delimit his presence to a constricted physical space, whether the Tabernacle, the Temple, or the Synagogue; the spiritual calling of liturgical worship within a theistic framework demands this very possibility. Lest there be any misunderstanding, it must be stated emphatically that the rabbinic text does not employ the language of emptying and suffering the humility of death, hallmark features of the kenotic orientation, scripturally anchored in Philippians 2:7-8. This use of the term "kenosis" to depict the midrashic theme is limited to the theme of God constricting his presence to a space with distinctive and measurable boundaries, an occurrence that would necessitate self-limitation on the part of the seemingly limitless divine being.

A crucial verse that doubtlessly informed the rabbinic conception is the command uttered by God to the Israelites through Moses, "They should make a sanctuary (miqdash ) for me and I will dwell (shakhanti ) in their midst" (Ex. 25:8). This surmise regarding the rabbis is supported by the rendering of the verse in Targum Onkelos, one of the ancient Aramaic interpretative translations of the Torah: "And they shall make a sanctuary before Me and I shall cause My Shekhinah to dwell among them (asherei shekhinetti beineihon )." The disclosure of the divine presence requires an enclosurethe root of the word miqdash, "sanctuary," is qdsh, which means, primarily, "to set aside" and, secondarily, "to consecrate," to separate holy from mundaneinitially the transient Tent of Meeting (ohel moʿed) and later the stationary Temple (beit miqdash ). In accord with some of the Jerusalem priests responsible for the section of Torah demarcated by biblical scholars as P, the priestly stratum, identified more recently by Israel Knohl as the "Holiness School," a distinct layer within this stratum, the theological rationale for the narrative of Israel's sacred history is linked especially to the mishkan, the edifice that provided an enclosure to both shelter the glory and facilitate its disclosure in the community of the holy people (Lv. 15:31, 28:11): "I will dwell (shakhanti ) amidst the children of Israel, and I will be their God. And they will know that I am the Lord their God who brought them out of Egypt that I might dwell (leshokhni ) in their midst, I am the Lord their God" (Ex. 29:45-46). The demand for ritual purity contained in the priestly interdictions, particularly salient in the holiness code (Lv. 18), which had a profound impact on the religious sensibility promulgated by the rabbis in their construction of a halakhic framework, was in no small measure dependent on the mythopoeic belief in the material abiding of the divine presence in the midst of the Israelites (Nm. 5:3, 16:3).

In general terms, the rabbinic conception of Shekhinah is phenomenologically on a par with the priestly notion. To be sure, the rabbis formulated their ideas after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 ce, and thus, in contrast to the priests whose views are preserved in Scripture, the abiding of Shekhinah is not restricted to the physical space where the sacrificial cult is performed. The Temple, tellingly referred to by Onkelos as the "house of His presence," beit shekhintteih (Dt 12:5), is replaced by the rabbinic institutions of the schoolroom (beit midrash ), the synagogue (beit kenesset ), and the domestic space of the family, as these are the main locations wherein one can access the indwelling of the divine presence through the cultivation of a life of holiness by means of the performance of ritual. Rabbinically, the two primary ways of worshipping God in the absence of the sacrificial cult were Torah study and prayer. Concerning the former, a classic formulation of this sentiment is found in the respective dicta of Rabbi Hananyah ben Teradyon and Rabbi Halafta from the village of Hananyah. According to the former, if two men sit down together to study Torah, Shekhinah resides with them (Mishnah, Pirqei Avot 3:2); according to the latter, Shekhinah dwells amidst ten men who sit together, occupied with Torah, though he eventually acknowledges that Shekhinah is found even with the solitary individual engaged in study (Mishnah, Pirqei Avot, 3:6; compare Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 6a).

The rabbinic emphasis on the indwelling of Shekhinah should not be taken as a mere figurative expression, or as a circumlocution to avoid an anthropomorphic conception of the deity, but rather as signifying an encounter that approximates the intensity of mystical experience. The view that Shekhinah dwells with the man who studies Torah by himself is supported by the prooftext "In every place where I cause my name to be mentioned I will come to you and bless you" (Ex. 20:21). Implicit in the homiletical use of this verse is the presumption that the name of God is symbolically interchangeable with Torah, an idea that became a cornerstone for various forms of medieval Jewish esotericism. It is reasonable to suppose, moreover, that underlying the rabbinic belief that study of Torah facilitates the indwelling of Shekhinah is a presumption regarding the congruence of the hermeneutical enterprise and religious experience that may even be on the level of prophetic revelation. Such an interpretative possibility is supported by a Talmudic pericope that begins with a comment attributed to the third-century Palestinian Amora, Avdimi of Haifa: "From the day the Temple was destroyed, prophecy was taken from the prophets (neviʾim ) and given to the sages (akhamim )." The anonymous redactor interposes the rhetoric query, "Is it not the case that a sage (akham ) is a prophet (navi )? Thus it is said even though it is taken from the prophets it is not taken from the sages." At this juncture the redactor transmits the teaching of Ameimar, a fifth-century Babylonian Amora, "The sage is preferable to the prophet (akham adif mi-navi ), as it says 'and the prophet wise of heart' (Ps. 90:12). Who is dependent upon whom? I would say the lesser one is dependent on the greater" (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Batra 12a). Ameimar's exegetical proof rests on an intentional misreading of the Masoretic text from Psalms 90:12 (also attested in the Targum to the verse), we-navi levav hohkmah, part of the psalmist's appeal to God, limnot yamenu ken hoda we-navi lev hokhmah, "Instruct us to number our days that we might gain wisdom of the heart." Ameimar reads wenavi (nun-bet-alef), "and we might gain," as we-navi (nun-bet-yod-alef) "and the prophet," a textual changeand not simply an eisegetical interpretation masked as exegesisthat lends support to his claim that the sage is more worthy than the prophet. The strategy reflected in the dictum of Avdimi is not to deny the efficacy of prophecy nor is it based on the supposition that the institution of prophecy ended at a certain period in the past. On the contrary, prophecy endures, but since the destruction of the Temple it has been entrusted to the sages, an insight that affirms not only that prophetic vision serves scholastic wisdom, but also that scholastic wisdom is inherently visionary. This, one suggests, is the intent of Ameimar's dictum "The sage is preferable to the prophet"textual study, the principle task of the sage, is not merely on a par with prophecy, but it is itself a prophetic undertaking.

The juxtaposition of Torah study and the indwelling of Shekhinah points to the influential role assigned by rabbinic authorities to the imagination in actively configuring the semiotic body of God. The key source that articulates the contemplative practice of visualization is a passage wherein the dictum "It matters not whether one augments or one diminishes if only one orients one's heart to heaven" (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 5b) is applied to Torah study. The proper intention, kawwanah, required by study entails that one direct one's heart to God, she-yekhawwen libbo la-shamayim. The word kawwanah is derived from kiwwen (from the root kwn ), to turn or to face a particular direction, to orient oneself, to find one's spatial bearings. Despite the many embellishments and transformations of this critical term through the course of the history of Jewish thought and religious philosophy, something of its etymological foundation is retained, for kawwanah involves an orientation in space, an intentional facing, a directing of the heart to the other. But what is it to face the other when the face of the other is not visible, to turn one's gaze upon that which cannot be seen? Here one arrives at the phenomenological mystery of the rabbinic notion of incarnation: By directing the heart through study heavenward, the celestial habitation of the transcendent other (the word shamayim, which literally means "heaven," is one of God's appellations in rabbinic thought), the individual provides the mental space wherein the incorporeal God is embodied. The body of Shekhinah is composed of the letters of Torah, which is the name, but that body is apprehended only when Torah is contemplated with the appropriate intention.

In a similar manner, the rabbinic conception of kawwanah in prayer, at least according to one trajectory discernible in the landscape of rabbinic texts, entailed the visual apprehension of the divine presence in the imagination. In this context, the term kawwanah refers to an internal state of consciousness by means of which the worshiper creates a mental icon of God. Although one must speak of this as an "internal" state, the phenomenal boundaries of inside and outside dissolve, for only by means of the internal image does the worshiper experience the divine as external. The conception of mental imaging is epitomized in the teaching attributed to Simeon the Pious, reported by Hana ben Bizna: "The one who prays must see himself as if Shekhinah were opposite him, as it says, 'I have set the Lord always before me' (Ps. 16:8)" (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 22a). Prayer requires a visualization of that which cannot be visualized, a process predicated on the assumption that God can assume incarnate form. The word "incarnate" refers to the ontic presencing of God in a theophanic image, a form that should be distinguished from both the embodiment of God in human flesh and the metaphorical representation of that which cannot be represented in a rhetorical trope. The specific form that this image assumes is suggested by the prooftext cited by Simeon the Pious, shiwwiti yhwh lenegddi tamid, "I shall place the tetragrammaton before me constantly." The image that the worshiper must set in his mind is that of the ineffable name, the sign of that which cannot be signified, for only through the name is the invisible rendered visible. Rabbinic discussions on the intention in prayer are based on the notion of an imaginal body attributed to God. The form that the body of Shekhinah assumes, which inheres in human imagination, is constituted by the letters of the unutterable name (un)spoken in the sacred space of prayer.

The symbol of Shekhinah continued to play a decisive role in the various genres of medieval Jewish religious creativity, to wit, rabbinic homilies, biblical commentaries, philosophical treatises, mystical compositions, and liturgical poetry. In the minds of qabbalists, in particular, Shekhinah is accorded a significance, both quantative and qualitative, unparalleled in earlier texts. As the theosophic system of the qabbalah crystallized in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Shekhinah routinely was associated with the last of the ten sefirot, the luminous attributes that constitute the revealed aspect of the hidden God, although one also finds evidence in some sources, including Sefer ha-Bahir, one of the earliest documents that expounds a theosophic conception, a distinction (which can be traced terminologically to pre-qabbalistic texts) between Shekhinah above and Shekhinah below; interpreted qabbalistically, the former is associated with the third sefirah, binah, and the latter with the tenth, malkhut. Needless to say, qabbalists absorb many of the older rabbinic portrayals of Shekhinah, but what is most distinctive about their approach is the explicit representation of the divine presence in a litany of female images, to wit, matronae, bride, daughter, sister, mother, community of Israel, heavenly Jerusalem, throne, temple, tabernacle, moon, sea, and earth, just to mention a few of the salient examples.

To appreciate the gender valence associated with Shekhinah, it is necessary to contextualize the matter in a broader hermeneutical and cultural perspective. Undeniably, one of the great contributions of qabbalists to the history of Judaism is the explicit utilization of gender images to depict the nature of God and the consequent application of erotic symbolism to characterize the divine-human relationship. In line with earlier rabbinic tradition regarding the two main attributes of God, but explicating the sexual implications far more openly, qabbalists envisage the unity of God in androgynous terms as the coupling of male and female, which are respectively aligned with the attributes of lovingkindness and judgment, the right and left side of the divine economy. Gender symbolism in traditional qabbalistic literature is dynamic, presupposing, as it does, crossing of boundaries and intermingling of identity, male in female and female in male, one containing the other within which the other is contained. In spite of the flexibility of gender transformation, however, the process is determined by an inflexible structure, and hence while one may legitimately speak of variability in qabbalistic gender symbolism, it is not helpful to introduce the notion of ambiguity. Male and female are correlated consistently with the activity of projection and the passivity of restriction: the potency to overflow is masculine, the capacity to withhold feminine. The religious obligation imposed traditionally on the Jewish man to unify God is interpreted as the harnessing of male and female, a pairing of right and left, the will to bestow and the desire to contain. But, just as the entirety of the Godhead is androgynous, so each of the sefirot exemplifies the dual capacity to overflow and to receive, and Shekhinah is no exception. In relation to the sefirot above her, Shekhinah receives the divine efflux and is thus engendered as feminine; in relation to the worlds below her, Shekhinah overflows and is thus engendered as masculine. The sovereignty or governance over this worldin virtue of which the name malkhut, "kingship," is attributed to Shekhinah is not indicative of a positive valorization of the feminine, as some have maintained, but rather it marks the capacity of Shekhinah to be transformed into a demiurgic being, which is masculine in relation to the worlds beneath the realm of divine emanations.

In spite of the symbolic representation of God as male and female, the gender orientation of medieval qabbalists was androcentric in nature, and, consequently, both the male and female elements, active bestowal and passive reception, were interpreted as features of the male. The simplest way to express the matter is to note that qabbalists read the account of God having created Adam male (zakhar ) and female (neqevah ) in the first chapter in Genesis in light of the second account wherein the derivative ontic status of woman (ishshah ) from man (ish ) is made explicit, the woman having been constructed from the body of man. Accordingly, the proto-human, adam, is conceived as a male androgyne, the single gender that contains its other as part of itself, a typical patriarchal construction. For qabbalists, therefore, one can speak properly of an Edenic state of the androgynous prelapsarian man, a condition to be retrieved in the end of time. In the conjunctio oppositorum, two sexes are unified and woman is restored to man, the ideal unification that tolerates no difference. Representations of Shekhinah as feminine, and especially as the erotic object of male desire, bespeak the sexual dimorphism characteristic of a state of exile wherein the unity of the male androgyne has been severed, and as a consequence the male seeks his other, to restore the part of his self that has been taken and rendered independent. Redemption entails the overcoming of this dimorphic condition, the reconstitution of the androgynous male, expressed by the image of the ascent of Shekhinah as the diadem (atarah ) that rises to the head of keter, the first of the sefirot. By virtue of this ascent Shekhinah is transformed into the crown of the male and the unity that was rendered asunder in the beginning of creation is repaired.

See Also

Attributes of God, article on Jewish Concepts; Qabbalah.


Green, Arthur. "Shekhinah, the Virgin Mary, and the Song of Songs: Reflections on a Kabbalistic Symbol in Historical Context." AJS Review 26 (2002): 1-52.

Liebes, Yehuda. Studies in the Zohar. Translated by Arnold Schwartz, Stephanie Nakache, and Penina Peli. Albany, N.Y., 1993.

Mopsik, Charles. "The Body of Engenderment in the Hebrew Bible, the Rabbinic Tradition, and the Kabbalah." In Fragments for a History of the Human Body, edited by Michel Feher with Ramona Naddaff and Nadia Tazi, pp. 49-73. New York, 1989.

Pattai, Raphael. The Hebrew Goddess. New York, 1967.

Schäfer, Peter. Mirror of His Beauty: Feminine Images of God from the Bible to the Early Kabbalah. Princeton, N.J., 2002.

Scholem, Gershom. On the Mystical Shape of the Godhead: Basic Concepts in the Kabbalah. Translated by Joachim Neugroschel, edited and revised by Jonathan Chipman. New York, 1991.

Tishby, Isaiah. The Wisdom of the Zohar. Translated by David Goldstein. Oxford, 1989.

Urbach, Ephraim E. The Sages: Their Concepts and Beliefs. Translated by Israel Abrahams. Jerusalem, 1975.

Wolfson, Elliot R. Through a Speculum that Shines: Vision and Imagination in Medieval Jewish Mysticism. Princeton, N.J., 1994.

Wolfson, Elliot R. Circle in the Square: Studies in the Use of Gender in Kabbalistic Symbolism. Albany, N.Y., 1995.

Wolfson, Elliot R. "Coronation of the Sabbath Bride: Kabbalistic Myth and the Ritual of Androgynisation." Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy 6 (1997): 301-344.

Wolfson, Elliot R. "Occultation of the Feminine and the Body of Secrecy in Medieval Kabbalah." In Rending the Veil: Concealment and Secrecy in the History of Religions, edited by Elliot R. Wolfson, pp. 113-154. New York and London, 1999.

Elliot R. Wolfson (2005)