Many concepts have crept into mainstream Judaism through the persistent teachings of mysticism. While average Jews do not always understand the concept they are accepting, mystics repeat new notions in a manner that causes non-mystical Jews to believe that the concepts must have been ancient tradition. At times, mystics have taken ideas that originally had no mystical connections and twisted them into mystical concepts. The evolution of the term shekhinah is a good example of this. Originally a term with a simple, acceptable connotation, it was later radically transformed in the minds of some Jews into an anthropomorphic and polytheistic concept that is totally alien to traditional Judaism.
Shekhinah is related to a term in the Torah
Shekhinah (meaning dwelling or presence) is a non-biblical rabbinic term employed in discussions of what is called kavod (glory or presence) in the Torah. Saadiah Gaon, in his Beliefs and Opinions 2:10, explains that the terms are identical. The term kavod is used in cases in which Israelites of the Torah are exposed to God’s presence (as in Exodus 16:7–10 and 24:17). However, the Torah is ambiguous about what it is that the Israelites actually saw on these occasions.
The Generally Accepted – But Mistaken – Understanding of the Shekhinah
If asked, a knowledgeable Jew might say that shekhinah is used today as a noun to refer to God’s presence in the world. However, this answer is far from satisfactory. First, how could God, who is understood by many Jews to be omnipresent – that is, present everywhere – be said to be “dwelling” in one area? Second, if shekhinah is separate from God, how could Jews, who believe in a single deity, imagine that there is another being with divine powers?
These quandaries do not trouble many Jews. Hearing the term shekhinah repeated frequently by their pious teachers, they assume that it must be expressing a profound religious truth and do not dwell on the questions it raises.
Some Facts about Shekhinah
- Some people use shekhinah as an alternative way of referring to God. Thus, when Midrash Sifrei Numbers 94 states that God placed the divine shekhinah in the midst of Israel, they understood it is a figurative way of saying that the Israelites felt the presence of God (who is everywhere). Similarly, Maimonides understands Isaiah 6:3, “The whole earth is full of God’s kavod” to mean that the earth bears witness to God’s perfection (Guide of the Perplexed 1:21). This insight, seeing kavod and shekhinah as figures of speech and not separate entities, resolves the two questions just raised.
- However, many people understand kavod and shekhinah as divine manifestations of God; not God, but rather some type of divine emanation or outflow from God. When they hear a statement such as “May the shekhinah rest on you,” they picture the shekhinah as an entity separate from God. When they read in the Bible, for example, that God sent the kavod, they understand that God placed some other divine entity among the Israelites. There are even examples of some sages who think of the shekhinah as a distinct entity, separate from God. For example, Midrash Proverbs to 22:28 pictures the shekhinah talking to God. The Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 7a and Shabbat 22b, and Midrash Numbers Rabbah 7:8 state that while God is everywhere, the shekhinah is with Israel. This view of a separate divine-like entity is the current belief of most mystics. It is problematic because, as we have seen, it creates a notion of the existence of many gods. This danger of plural deities would be dispelled if the separate shekhinah were understood only figuratively, as a way of understanding how God functions or how the people feel about the presence of God. However, most mystics insist that the shekhinah is a reality, a radical anti-monotheistic outlook that reflects all the dangers of a polytheistic belief.
- A third approach considers shekhinah an expression that certain acts draw one closer to God. For example, the Talmud states that when one learns, the shekhinah is present; it also states that the one who gives charity receives the shekhinah. In short, in contrast to the first and second views, this viewpoint and the next one do not consider shekhinah to be God or a part of God or a being separate from God. It is a figurative statement that expresses the feeling that people feel about God. As Rabbi Yossi said in the Babylonian Talmud, Succah 5a, “The shekhinah never came down to the world below.”
- Others, similarly, envision the term expressing a sense that something is holy. When thought of in this way, the blessing “May the shekhinah rest on you” means may you feel sanctified.
Other popular ideas bear striking similarities to kavod and shekhinah. The most widely known are midat hadin and midat harakhamim. These picture God functioning through “the stern attribute of justice” or “the attribute of compassion and mercy,” respectively. Like kavod and shekhinah, it is possible to view them as figurative expressions of how God functions – sometimes God seemingly exacts strict and proper justice, while at other times God seemingly ignores the mandates of justice and is compassionate. However, one can also believe that these are not figurative descriptions, but two separate parts of the divine. Indeed, many mystics came to believe that there are ten parts to God, ten sefirot (emanations). According to their beliefs, these are two of the ten elements of God, and shekhinah is another, the tenth of the sefirot.
Where Did these Mystical Theories Develop?
The understanding of kavod, shekhinah, midat hadin and midat harakhamim as parts of God originated in Neo-Platonic philosophy and in Gnosticism. (There were various Gnostic beliefs, but many of them stressed the attainment of knowledge through a mystical-type method.) The two addressed the question, “How could an incorporeal deity create corporeal matter?” These mystics answer that God radiated a substance, as the sun emanates rays. This material was slightly corporeal. It, in turn, emitted another body that was more corporeal. Each of the imparted items was to some extent divine. The final substance was able to create the corporeal world. Thus kavod, shekhinah, midat hadin and midat harakhamim were understood by mystically-minded Jews as somewhat corporeal emanations from God that were separate from God.
The Shekhinah in Exile: An Example
The distinction between shekhinah as a figurative expression or as a distinct entity can be understood by addressing the midrashic expression “the exile of the shekhinah.” This phrase is used to soften the impact of the exile upon Jews. What does the Midrash mean by saying that the shekhinah is also in exile?
Those who understand the term as a figurative depiction of God’s function or how humans emotionally feel about God, would say that the term states: “Do not despair, Jews. Remember that wherever you are, God is always with you, even outside of Israel, just as God was before the exile. All you have to do is turn to God and you will feel God’s presence.”
In contrast, the people who take the term as a description of a real entity, as do most mystics, understand it to say: “Jew, you must realize that just as you have been exiled from Israel, the shekhinah is caught, restrained and exiled in the terrestrial world, far from the other nine sefirot. As long as this situation exists, the messianic era cannot begin. You, Jew, must find a way to help release the shekhinah.” The mystics then detail procedures by which this can be accomplished.
Judaism is not monolithic. Numerous beliefs, vital to some Jews, are entirely unknown to others. One example is the understanding of shekhinah. While clearly originally an expression of a human feeling about God, mystics distorted the ancient concept and insisted that the shekhinah is a separate divine entity.
The figurative approach is rationally acceptable. The mystical system borders on polytheism, or belief in multiple Gods. It changes the very relationship of people with God, altering their beliefs and actions in relation to God.