The Shechinah: A Supernal Mother

A Kabbalistic interpretation of the suffering of the Jews in Egypt, and their ultimate redemption.

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Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).

The signs and wonders (or "plagues") described in Parashat Vaera must have been extremely frightening for both the Egyptians who suffered and the Israelites who bore witness to God's might for the first time. Thirteenth-century Kabbalists believed that when the Children of Israel braved the agonies of slavery and the ten displays of divine might that devastated Egypt, they did not do so alone. Rather, the Israelites knew that the Shechinah, the pre-eminent feminine aspect of God, dwelled alongside them in Egypt. Medieval Kabbalists often portrayed the feminine Shechinah as a loving mother who suffers along with her children Israel in exile. She toils with her children while they are slaves in Egypt and protects them in the wilderness after they are liberated.The Torah A Women's Commentary

This association between the Shechinah, the supernal mother, and human mothers is given a biological dimension in the Zohar, the most popular work of medieval Kabbalah. The Zohar understands God as a power that is utterly transcendent and--at the same time--wholly immanent in our world. The Deity is comprised of the Ein Sof ("Without End"), which lies beyond the realm of human cognition, and ten lower sefirot (aspects) that emanate forth into the realm of being. Kabbalists believed that everything on earth reflects this divine realm.

The Zohar represents the realm of the sefirot in a myriad of different ways. It often compares the sefirot to an inverted tree or to the days of the week.

Perhaps the most popular symbol, however, is gufa (the body). Genesis 1:26 states that God made humans in God's image and after God's likeness. Kabbalists understood this verse literally. If human beings are in the form of an anthropos (human body), and if human beings were made in the image and likeness of God, then God must be an anthropos too. Human anatomy and physiology reflect this divine reality. Hence, women and men engage in sexual intercourse because two sefirot--Tiferet (the sixth sefirah, symbolically understood as the King and Groom) and Shechinah (the tenth sefirah, symbolically understood as the Queen and Bride)-desire harmony and union. Women conceive and give birth because the Shechinah receives the effluxes or emanative powers of the higher sefirot. And women have a monthly flow because the Shechinah menstruates when she comes under the influence of the demonic "other side" (sitra achra).

Kabbalistic Niddah

Medieval halachah (Jewish law) required women to separate from their husbands for twelve to fourteen days every month: the five- to seven-day period of menstruation plus another seven "clean" days. The Zohar traces the source of this halachah to the myth of the Shechinah. The Zohar considers Egypt to be the ultimate symbol of the sitra achra. When the Shechinah dwells with the Children of Israel in Goshen, She becomes influenced by the "other side" and begins to menstruate. Therefore she must separate from her husband, Tiftret, for the duration of her blood flow; as a consequence, she is exiled or banished (literally niddah) from the forces of the Holy. Although her flow ends as soon as the Children of Israel flee Egypt, the Shechinah is not ritually pure yet. In keeping with the dictates of halachah, she must separate from her husband for another seven clean days. The Zohar conceives of these seven "days" as seven weeks--the seven weeks of the counting of the Omer between Passover and Shavuot.

After forty-nine days of travel, the Shechinah her children rest at the foot of Mount Sinai, where she at last undergoes the final purificatory ritual: immersion in a supernal mikveh (pool). Like a newly adorned bride, the ritually pure Shechinah meets her husband, Tiferet, at the crest of Mount Sinai. They engage in divine union on the eve of Shavuot. On Shavuot day, the Shechinah gives birth to the two tablets of the Covenant. Ever the devoted mother, the Shechinah gives these tablets to Moses for her children Israel (Zohar 3:96b).

A Feminist Read on the Zohar

The Shechinah figures prominently throughout the Zohar. Consequently, many Jews understand Kabbalah to be the only haven for gender equality in rabbinic Judaism. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Indeed, it would be extraordinary if it were. The Zohar is the product of a 13th-cenrury worldview. Its author, Moses de Leon, and his circle lived in a world in which women's physical and intellectual inferiority was believed to have been proven scientifically. It would have been inconceivable for them to develop a mythology of the Shechinah that defied societal norms. Hence, the Shechinah is most often represented as a passive vessel with "nothing of her own." When she acts righteously, she sometimes changes gender and becomes male; when she comes under the sway of the sitra achra, she always remains female.

There are passages, however, that we can read as more sympathetic to feminist views. When we read the Zohar through the prism of history, we can differentiate between the different shades of prejudice to create a new meaning. The Kabbalistic story of the Shechinah's exodus from Egypt is a case in point. There are many troubling notions in this passage-the association between menstruation and demonic possession being one of the most egregious. Nonetheless, valuable insights that can enhance our spirituality are embedded in this story. The Shechinah as caring mother, basing the Omer on a female biological function, and the notion of the giving of Torah (matan Torah) as a birth are notions that we can reclaim and make our own. The notion that the Shechinah gave birth to the Torah tablets gives an entirely new meaning to the notion of 'Torah from Sinai." Indeed, I believe that the custom of eating dairy on Shavuot can be traced to this very myth. After all, dairy foods symbolize the lactating Shechinah who nourishes her children Israel with the Torah.

The product of fourteen years of work and the contributions of more than 100 scholars, theologians, poets, and rabbis—all of them women—The Torah: A Women’s Commentary is a landmark achievement in biblical scholarship and an essential resource for the study of the Bible. For more information or to order a copy, visit URJBooksandMusic.com.

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Dr. Sharon Koren teaches at HUC-JIR. She received her Ph.D. from Yale University in Medieval Studies. Her research focuses primarily on Jewish women's spirituality and Jewish-Christian relations in the Middle Ages.