The Female Divine

ON LANGUAGE

By Philologos

Published February 20, 2004, issue of February 20, 2004.
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Is (the?) Shekhina (Shekinah? Shechinah?) a “she” or an “it”?

“The Shekhina is a woman,” Star Trek actor Leonard Nimoy is quoted as saying in the latest issue of Moment magazine, in which the article “In Search of Shekhina” deals with Mr. Nimoy’s recently published book of photographs, “Shekhina.

And yet in none of the following dictionary definitions is there any indication of femininity:

Shekinah: A visible manifestation of the divine presence as described in Jewish theology.” (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language)

Shechina: In Jewish theology, God’s presence in and throughout the world.” (The Encarta World English Dictionary)

Also “Shechinah: The presence of God on earth or a symbol or manifestation of his presence.” (The Random House Dictionary of the English Language)

So who’s right?

Let’s start with the spelling and the definite article. I myself would recommend “Shekhinah” (“kh” pronounced like the “ch” in “Bach”) as the best transliteration of the Hebrew dpiky. And despite the article-less titles of the Moment article and Mr. Nimoy’s book, it should generally be “the Shekhinah,” just as in Hebrew it is almost always ha-shekhinah.

That’s the easy part.

Coming to the hard part, we might begin by observing that whereas the word shekhinah in Hebrew is feminine and always takes the pronoun “she,” a “manifestation,” “presence” or “symbol” in English is neuter and takes “it.” And we might also observe that, since in Hebrew, as in French and other languages, all nouns are either masculine or feminine, most Hebrew feminine pronouns need to be translated into English as “it.” The Hebrew word for “undershirt,” gufiyah, is feminine, but you would not normally translate lavashti otah, when said about an undershirt, as “I wore her.”

The question, therefore, of whether the word Shekhinah in English takes a feminine or neuter pronoun — of whether we should say, “The Shekhinah is God’s presence; it is a manifestation of the divine,” or “The Shekhinah is God’s presence; she is a manifestation of the divine” — is not a technical or grammatical one. It is a question of who or what, in Judaism, the Shekhinah is, and it calls for a quick look at the word’s history.

Although shekhinah is not a biblical word, it has a clear biblical basis. This is the statement, occurring in many places in the Bible, that God “dwells” (shokhen) on earth, whether among the people of Israel, in the Tabernacle or Temple, or elsewhere, as when the prophet Joel declares, “So you shall know that I am the Lord thy God who dwells in Zion.” Exactly what it means that the God who created the world also dwells within it is something the Bible doesn’t ask or attempt to answer, nor does this appear to have been perceived as a logical difficulty by biblical authors.

But it definitely was a difficulty for post-biblical Jews: How could a transcendent God also be immanent? Already in early rabbinic Judaism, therefore, we have an attempt to deal with this paradox by means of the concept of the shekhinah, sometimes translated as God’s “indwelling,” used not for God himself but for a worldly extension or emanation of Him. Sometimes this emanation is pictured as being present in a specific place, as in the rabbinic legend that, when Pharaoh’s daughter opened the ark in which the infant Moses was left in the Nile, she saw the Shekhinah in it, and sometimes it is thought of as all-pervasive, as in the saying of Rabbi Gamliel, “If the sun, which is only one of a thousand myriad servants of God, shines all over the world, how much more so the Shekhinah of God.” In either case, the early rabbinic Shekhinah is better translated as “it” than “she,” since it is not personalized and is feminine only in a grammatical sense.

And yet with the passage of time, the Shekhinah did come to be thought of as womanly, both because the word’s gender suggested it and because Jews had a psychological need to find a place for femininity in a divine order of things created by a God conceived of as masculine. When we read in the medieval midrashic anthology “Yalkut Shimoni,” for instance, that the Shekhinah “came down and kissed” Aaron, thus drawing out his soul at the time of his death, the Shekhinah is certainly being sexualized, while in kabbalistic and kabbalistically inspired works, the Shekhinah’s feminine nature is openly stressed. She is daringly imagined as both the masculine God’s daughter and wife, and as the mother of Israel who worries and cares for her children — “a passionate and compassionate female deity,” in the words of the scholar Raphael Patai.

Whether the Shekhinah is a “she” or an “it,” then, depends on a number of factors: on what period of Judaism you choose as your reference point, on whether you have recourse to mystical imagery and on how literally you feel that this imagery — which undoubtedly is startling in conventional Jewish terms — should be taken. Those looking for a goddess figure in the Shekhinah will find one in her. The less radically inclined will speak of it as God’s presence in this world, sometimes personified as female for merely allegorical ends.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.






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