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The Shechina

The Kabbalistic literature has transformed the Shechina into an entity that expresses the connection between the divine and the human. Unlike the eternal and exalted God, the Shechina is close to man. His troubles are its troubles and his suffering is its suffering. Biti Roi discusses the shaping of an imperfect, dynamic and multi-faceted divinity which stands alongside the believer in coping with the turbulence of life

The Kabbalistic literature has transformed the Shechina into an entity that expresses the connection between the divine and the human. Unlike the eternal and exalted God, the Shechina is close to man. His troubles are its troubles and his suffering is its suffering. Biti Roi discusses the shaping of an imperfect, dynamic and multi-faceted divinity which stands alongside the believer in coping with the turbulence of life.

The term Shechina is first found in the literature of the Sages and used to describe the divine presence in the world. “If two sit together and speak of Torah – the Shechina is among them” (Mishne Avot 3:2) and similarly “When a man and a woman are worthy, the Shechina is among them” (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 17a). The Shechina comes down, goes up, or depart, and always represents the manifestation of God in the world.
For the believer, the divinity is the ultimate other, the object of desire and perfection, in whose presence the religious individual performs his day-to-day acts. Against this background, one can understand the importance of the term Shechina, as it has developed since the Kabbalistic literature of the Middle Ages. The Shechina is a divine entity to be found between the worlds, and which reflects in its essence the connection between the divine and the human, a connection that can be defined as the deep core of religion.
From a grammatical viewpoint, the word Shechina is feminine; however this fact is not emphasized in the literature of the Sages, which does not delve into the female aspects of the Shechina. It is only in Kabbalistic literature the Shechina is identified as one of the divine spheres and where its feminine aspect is developed to a much greater extent.  

Picture appearing on the cover of the Latin translation of the book, “Shaarei Ora” by Yosef Gikatilla, Augsburg 1516
In the literature of the Zohar, for example, the Shechina is described with respect to its physiological, functional, sociological, sexual and psychological characteristics. The texts discuss the structure of its body and attribute to it an ability to accept, to embrace and even to give birth, nurse and nurture. Its sexual connections are expressed in situations of lust and awakening which contrast with moments of distance such as menstruation or banishment. From a social and sociological point of view, its relations with the home and with the world of speech are described, as well as with the world of government and royalty. Its personality is connected to opposites and the diversity of reality. On the one hand, the Shechina is connected to the aspect of judgment, to fire and the destruction of the world. It is called Ilana Dmuta (the Tree of Death) and is identified with judgment, night and with the forces of destruction. On the other hand, it is also described as a figure that is protective, supportive and beneficial, as well as being merciful and an advocate.
The Kabbalistic Shechina has diverse and contradictory faces which reinforce the puzzling nature of its image. The encounter with the Shechina is multifaceted – the Shechina is the presence of the divinity in the world, and its having various faces illustrates the complex, multi-dimensional nature of reality.
Although the structures in the literature of the Sages, which describe the Shechina as a presence and as an expression of proximate divinity, also appear in the Kabalistic writings, the multiple manifestations and characteristics that the Kabbala attributes to the Shechina make it possible to distinguish between the Shechina and the more exalted divine presence. Thus, through this distinction, the presence of the Shechina in the believer’s world is brought into clearer focus. In some of the Kabbalistic literature, the Shechina is described as the divine figure closest to earthly life, to history and to the soul. The terms "spirit", "soul" and "I" are applied to the Shechina and further reinforce the similarity between it and man and its proximity to the experience of existence and the internal structures of man’s soul.
Another connection between man and the Shechina in the Kabbalistic literature is related to its presence on the axis of time and in the history of the Jewish People. This approach already has deep roots in the Midrash, although in the Kabbala it is developed in a way that has significant implications for the world of Jewish ritual. According to E.E. Urbach, the term Shechina in the Tanaitic literature originally indicated presence in a location and usually this location was related to the Tabernacle. The house in which God dwells is the "House of the Shechina" (Sifri Zuta Nasa 5,2). Following the destruction of the Temple, the Shechina was chosen to represent the divine presence, which is not related to a specific location but rather to the Jewish People: "In every place to which Israel was exiled, the Shechina was exiled with them: they were exiled to Egypt…the Shechina was with them; they were exiled to Babylonia, the Shechina was with them…" (Mechilta of Rabbi Yishmael, Masechet de’Pascha verse 14).
The Kabbala strengthened the identification of the Shechina with the Jewish People. The Shechina went to exile with the Jewish People and stayed with them there. The Kabbalists are the sons of the Shechina but so also are the whole Jewish People. Here, the Kabbalists are essentially connecting the image of the Shechina to the Sages’ approach, which recognizes a collective entity for the community of Jewish men called "Knesset Yisrael." Thus, the close connection of the Shechina to the life of the Kabalist is strengthened once again. It is one with him and with the community to which he belongs. His troubles are its troubles and his suffering is its suffering.
With the transition from a presence in a specific place to a presence among the Jewish People, a new dimension in which the Shechina exists, i.e. time, also becomes more prominent. When the Shechina is exiled with Israel after the destruction of the Temple, it becomes an entity living in time – in its flow and its vicissitudes. In other words, the Shechina changes from a term that indicates a philosophical necessity to something in fact identified with change, with the possibility and the diversity that history brings with it.
In this context, it is worthwhile looking at a fascinating idea that appears in the late 13th century and which identifies the Shechina as the "secret of the possible." This is a philosophical concept derived from the three-way distinction between "inevitable", "impossible" and "possible." The "secret of the possible" suggests an alternative to the divine description as inevitable, as found, for example, in the Rambam (Mishne Torah, Foundations of the Torah A) and provides a different view of the divine alongside it which is in fact related to the principle of change and transition within reality and to the processes that are common in the reality familiar to man. This is an additional deviation from the religious, perfect and distant divinity in the direction of change, multiplicity and vicissitude. Here again, the Shechina is related to the daily life of man, which is characterized by diverse possibilities and freedom.
Later approaches used the place of the Shechina in real life and its identification with Jewish history in order to construct a whole ethos around "raising the Shechina," which is perceived as the core of the redemption. The raising of the Shechina from the dust became a central component in the lives of the Kabalists in Tsefat and various customs were tied to it, such as tikkun hatzot (waking at midnight to mourn the destruction of the Temple), studying Torah, calling for a life of poverty (which imitates the present situation of the Shechina) and giving charity (which is meant to redeem the Shechina from its destruction).
From this developed a unique image of the divine in crisis. Alongside the exalted, perfect and unapproachable God, the Shechina is revealed to be an imperfect and downtrodden figure. This is an image of divinity not at its best but rather in a state of weakness.
In some Kabbalistic approaches, the structures of exile and redemption, of destruction and rescue, are wrapped around the drama within the imperfect divine figure. For the Kabalistic approach, in which the acts of man play a major part in the design of the divine world, this picture of imperfection is an invitation to repentance. The downtrodden Shechina needs to be raised up. The ones to accomplish this are the people – its sons, who support and lift it up from its ailments. This is an approach that encourages religious activism and integrates well with the feminine image of this divine entity, which contrasts with the masculine image of the Kabbalists and strengthens erotic and activist structures. Thus, the image of the Shechina within the Kabalistic philosophy strengthens Jewish religious ritual as a whole, which is harnessed for the redemption of the Shechina and its raising from the dust.
The Kabbala has also had a major influence on Hassidut, which emphasizes the central position of the Shechina and its proximity to man by making it the focus of prayer. While according to the approach of the Sages, the individual should direct his consciousness to the Shechina, in the Hassidic literature it has a more dominant role that requires not just that the individual direct his prayers to it but that he deeply identify with it. Some Hassidic sources emphasize that the individual should strive for a situation in which the "Shechina speaks from his throat" or in other words, a situation in which the Shechina breaks forth from within him, is identical to him and even constitutes a substitute for his personality and voice. Other approaches create a similar connection when they emphasize the need of the individual to unite with the Shechina during prayer.
These approaches, which shed new light on prayer, as well as those that view the historical reality through the Shechina’s life story and view man’s ethical acts and the act of prayer as directed towards its empowerment, would not be possible if the Kabbala had not begun a process that reinforces the proximity, presence and connection to reality of this unique image.

Biti Roi is a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and is currently completing her doctorate at Bar Ilan University on the myth of the Shechina in the Tikunim of the Zohar.

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