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Shekhinah, God's Bride

Shekhinah, God's Bride

One of the most perplexing concepts in Judaism is that of the Shekhinah, a figure identified as the Divine Presence and Bride of God. Shekhinah is a Hebrew noun that means literally the act of dwelling. In the Bible Shekhinah is used as one of the names of God. In the Talmud the term comes to be identified as the Divine Presence or indwelling or presence of God in this world. However, by the twelfth century the term had undergone a radical transformation and has since been used to refer to God's feminine aspect and/or consort. The kabbalistic system known as the Sefirot describes ten emanations of God—what Abraham Joshua Heschel (1996) calls the inner life of God—and the tenth of these is Malkhut and is identified as the Shekhinah. In this view the Shekhinah is understood to be the feminine aspect of God—not an independent mythic being.

However, in some sections of the Zohar, the central text of Kabbalah, dating from about the thirteenth century, the Shekhinah is clearly identified as God's Bride. In some of these kabbalistic myths, the coupling between God and the Shekhinah is described in specifically erotic terms: "The Temple served as the sacred bedchamber of God the King and his Bride, the Shekhinah…. The King would come to the Queen and lie in her arms…. He took his delight between her breasts…. They lay in a tight embrace, her image impressed on His body like a seal imprinted on a page" (Zohar 1:120b, 3:74b, 3:296a).

Other kabbalistic myths portray a confrontation between God and the Shekhinah provoked by the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem—the Shekhinah's home in this world—and the impending Babylonian exile, that concludes with God's Bride declaring her intention to abandon her spouse—God—and go into exile with her children, the Children of Israel (Zohar 1:202b-203a). Nor will she return to God until her home—the Temple in Jerusalem—is rebuilt. It is in this central myth of the exile of the Shekhinah that the figure of the Shekhinah attains mythic independence.

Thus, the term Shekhinah undergoes a radical transformation, from one of the names of God, to the presence of God in this world, to one of the emanations of God, and, finally, to God's Bride. It is difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile the monotheism of Judaism with the notion of a divine consort, which more closely resembles the divine pairings of Zeus and Hera in Greek mythology or El and Asherah in the Canaanite. This is one of the reasons that the study of Kabbalah was regarded as esoteric and was limited to married men over the age of forty.

The exile of the Shekhinah from God inspired Rabbi Isaac Luria of Safed (1534–1572) in the sixteenth century to teach that heaven was in need of human assistance in bringing the divine couple back together. These teachings, known as Lurianic Kabbalah, present the concept of tikkun olam, repair of the world, in which God is said to have created the Jewish people in order to repair the breaches that took place in heaven at the time of the creation, at the time of the Fall, and when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. Further, messianic Jewish theology holds that one of the key tasks of the Messiah will be to restore the Temple in Jerusalem, at which time the God's Bride will be reunited with God and the world will be restored above and below.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Abelson, J. 1912. The Immanence of God in Rabbinical Literature. London: Macmillan.

Heschel, Abraham Joshua. 1996. "The Mystical Element in Judaism." In Moral Grandeur and SpiritualAudacity: Essays, ed. Susannah Heschel. New York: Noonday Press.

Patai, Raphael. 1990. The Hebrew Goddess. 3rd edition. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

Schafer, Peter. 2002. Mirror of His Beauty: Feminine Images of God from the Bible to the Early Kabbalah. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Schwartz, Howard. 2004. Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism. New York: Oxford University Press.

                                         Howard Schwartz

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