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).

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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.