One effect of rising interest in the Kabbalah is a renewed focus on the Shekhinah, Judaism's divine feminine principle. Written with warmth and clarity, On the Wings of Shekhinah interweaves historical views of this concept with thoughtful quotes and guided meditations. Rabbi Leah Novick offers healing strategies for both Jews and non-Jews disaffected by rigid gender roles. Awareness of the Shekhinah's energy within and around us helps bring hope to a planet afflicted by war, violence, and environmental abuse -- this book shows how to find and use that energy.
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About the Author
Rabbi Leah Novick is a spiritual teacher whose teaching and research has been focused on the Divine Feminine, referred to as "Shekhinah" in Judaism, for the last two decades. She draws on traditional knowledge, combining it with guided visualization and meditation in her workshops and ceremonies. She has also written biographies of Jewish women saints, which have been integrated into a theatre piece performed with her advanced students. Rabbi Leah was ordained in 1987. Since that time she has provided rabbinical leadership to both alternative and conventional Jewish groups in California including 'Beit Shekhinah' in Berkeley, Temple Beth El in Salinas, and 'Shabbos in Carmel' on the Central Coast. She is also founder and spiritual adviser to Ruach Ha Aretz, a Jewish spiritual retreat group that serves the Western states. Leah is featured in the International Hadassah calendar of "Women Rabbis around the World." She has also been honored with the title 'Pathfinder' by the Aleph Alliance for Jewish Renewal for her pioneering work in bringing the feminine into contemporary Jewish liturgy and rituals. Prior to her re-immersion in Jewish spirituality she had a long and distinguished career in Public Policy and Academia. During the 1980's she taught at the U.C. Berkeley Graduate School of Public Policy. In the late 70's after serving as chief coordinator of the International Women's Year Commission, she was appointed ASSU guest professor at Stanford University. Leah moved to California in 1980 after ending a long marriage blessed with three grown children and five fabulous grand-children. Charmed by the West Coast (after several years in New York and Washington D.C.), she now resides in Carmel on the beautiful California central coast. She draws inspiration from the power of the natural environment and continues to travel and work for harmony, understanding, and peace between all people.
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On the Wings of Shekhinah
Rediscovering Judaism's Divine Feminine
By Rabbi Léah Novick
Theosophical Publishing HouseCopyright © 2008 Rabbi Léah Novick
All rights reserved.
The Hebrew Matriarchs
The Jewish sages, studying the Torah carefully, found evidence of Shekhinah's presence in many of the stories in Genesis. We are taught that Abraham and Sarah initiated souls by bringing them "under the wings of Shekhinah." For men, the covenant required circumcision and water immersion, or mikveh. For women, it required mikveh and possibly some ritual of Sarah's design, which we do not know. (In modern times, there is a long process of study and practice for men and women prior to the actual ceremony.)
The midrashic literature defines Shekhinah's presence as basic to the divine guidance experienced by the founding fathers—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—and tells us that the Ruach ha Kodesh, or Holy Spirit, animated all the matriarchs as well, giving them prophetic knowledge. The role of the patriarchs, as conduits for the Divine, has been reinforced in later Rabbinic Judaism by the cycle of daily prayer, in which the standing prayer known as Amidah is initiated by calling upon Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, whose merit facilitates our connection with God. In recent times, the matriarchs have been added to the invocation in the more liberal streams of Judaism. Traditional Jewish prayers for healing (mi sheberach) have also been modified to invoke the matriarchs. Traditionally, they are also called upon at burials, in the El Malei Rachamim prayer, when the deceased is a woman. The practice of praying through the merits of the matriarchs is important in the tekhinot, European women's prayers written mainly in Yiddish in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, suggesting a more continuous and earlier practice.
Abraham's power to bless others is also a function of his connection to the Shekhinah, who is Blessing, according to the mystical literature. Abraham is blessed bakol, meaning with everything, acquiring land, animals, and wealth wherever he goes. According to Jewish legends, Abraham's son Isaac sees the angels and Shekhinah when he is bound on the sacrificial altar as an offering of his father's profound faith, and he eventually loses his vision because of that encounter. These elements of the legends are consistent with the traditional teaching that we see the Divine Presence as we leave the world. In that same episode, Abraham is supposed to see the Shekhinah when the ram appears as a substitute for Isaac, or possibly when the angel intervenes. Isaac's younger son, Jacob, sustains that connection with Shekhinah and receives the main blessing in place of his older brother, Esau, to become the progenitor of the twelve tribes of Israel. According to Midrash, Jacob's connection with Shekhinah is strongest when he is able to sustain the joy of living; he loses that power when he is depressed, as when he mourns for many years over the presumed death of his favorite son, Joseph. As Jacob prepares to die and blesses his sons (his daughter, Dinah, is not included in the biblical blessings), he intends to share visions of the future with them, but the connection is temporarily disrupted, preventing the prophetic communication. The alignment with Shekhinah is regained when his sons reassure him of their faith by reciting the Sh'ma prayer (the basic one-line statement of faith in Judaism, repeated at every prayer service: "Sh'ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheynu Adonai Echad"—which can be translated, "Listen, all of you who seek the Divine: The Eternal is our God, the Eternal is ONE, there is only One"). Jacob can then leave in peace.
Each of the matriarchs also has her distinctive connection with the Divine Presence. Sarah is portrayed in the aggadic literature as having her own ceremonial tent, where she institutes the candle-lighting ritual for inaugurating the Sabbath, perhaps drawing on much more elaborate temple ceremonies that originated in her native Chaldean background in Ur. In this context, she is the conduit of the light of Shekhinah, which would later be ceremonialized in the temple menorah and throughout history in the eternal light lit over the ark in synagogues, called ner tamid. Because Sarah is merged with the light of the Shekhinah, the sages say, "Her lamp does not go out at night." In Sarah's ritual tent, which was sheltered by a cloud of glory, the sages tell us that the candles miraculously stayed lit for a whole week. Sarah is the only woman to have a full chapter in the Torah (Chaye Sarah, Gen. 23 and 24), which chronicles her life and death. Enduring and supernal life is attributed to her because of her intimate connection with Shekhinah, who regulates life and death.
Sarah is praised in the Talmud and the Zohar as the woman who "sees" Shekhinah during the famous annunciation scene when three angelic messengers come to predict the birth of Isaac. Her handmaiden, Hagar, who cohabits with Abraham, also has direct connection with divinity and encounters an angel at the well of "the God who Sees." According to Jewish sources, Sarah (whose name means "princess") is blessed with a child in her nineties and experiences many other miraculous events in her heroic journey, including escapes from dangerous and compromising situations. The sages say that her descent into Egypt with Abraham—where her great beauty exposes her to the acquisitive impulses of the Egyptian pharaoh—indicates her ability to deal with negativity and emerge whole, as her life is imbued with divine life. Contemporary feminist scholar Savina Teubal, in tracing the journey of Sarah, portrays her as a priestess who is sought after to perform the hieros gamos ceremony, ritually coupling with neighboring kings to assure the fertility of the earth. We also know from the Torah that Sarah resided in sacred groves, among the terebinths of Mamre, suggesting that her ritual work took place at sites already holy to the Canaanite residents of the land. Memra is also an attribute of Shekhinah as holy speech. In the Torah, Sarah's special connection to the Divine is exemplified in the deity's instruction to Abraham that in all matters, he "listen to the voice of Sarah."
The miracle of welcoming the Shekhinah in the sacred tent with the candlelighting is maintained by Sarah's daughter-in-law, Rebekah, who keeps the light shining after her marriage to Isaac. She is praised for her generosity to Abraham's servant Eliezer when he comes seeking a bride for Isaac, offering water for Eliezer and his thirsty camels at the communal well. She invites Eliezer to stay with her family, assuring him there is space for him and the animals. In this respect she is very much aligned with her father-in-law, Abraham, who is celebrated for his hospitality. They are precursors to the concept in the Talmud that whoever offers hospitality to a stranger will merit the appearance of Shekhinah. Her connection with water also aligns her with Shekhinah. In the Zohar, the water, a symbol of Shekhinah, rises miraculously to meet Rebekah, enabling her to slake the enormous thirst of the camels. The well, another Shekhinah symbol, also connects her forward in time to her daughter-in-law, Rachel, who meets Jacob at the well, and Tziporah, who meets Moses at the well. The theme is continued through the prophetess Miriam, whose holiness is acknowledged with a miraculous well of water that accompanies the Israelites in the years of wandering in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt.
Rebekah's special qualities as an emissary of the Shekhinah are exhibited in her journey of faith to marry Isaac, the older cousin whom she has never met. When she first sees him, he is out meditating in "the field," another metaphor for Shekhinah. Modestly, she veils herself and alights from her camel to honor him. Their connection is strengthened as she comforts him for the loss of his mother and brings the Shekhinah back into the tent of Sarah. It is said that Isaac, seeing the Shekhinah dwelling in his wife, "embraced faith." Theirs is one of the few successful love stories in the Torah. They have a monogamous marriage, and Isaac demonstrates his devotion to Rebekah by praying on her behalf for children—unlike his son Jacob, who complains when Rachel asks for his help in that regard. There is also no mention of Abraham praying for Sarah to conceive. Later, when Rebekah becomes pregnant, her twins struggle mysteriously in her womb, reflecting the divergent paths they will follow. In Genesis 25:22, she calls on God directly for an understanding of the conflict between the two fetuses. Later commentators suggest that she goes to Abraham or others as intermediaries to ask for divine guidance, but the Torah text itself states that she inquires directly of God. When the twins as men take different paths, she intervenes to guarantee that her younger son, Jacob, receive the main blessing from his father, Isaac. This is attributed, in the legends, to premonitory knowledge from her connection with Shekhinah, informing her that Jacob is destined to become the spiritual leader of the people of Israel.
The matriarch Rachel is introduced to us in the Torah as a beautiful shepherdess bringing her herd to the well, where she has her first meeting with her cousin Jacob, a dramatic example of love at first sight. Jacob, a simple man not known for strength, is empowered to remove the stone from the well. The romance of Jacob and Rachel thus begins like the Arthurian legend in which the hero must pull the sword from the stone. Their initially highly romantic relationship ultimately descends into a complex family drama full of frustration and jealousy. Rachel's inability to have children for some years undermines her satisfaction with life, despite Jacob's great love for her. The Genesis narrative gives us a picture of a competitive extended family, caught in a historical shift from matrilocal to patriarchal, in which the sexual favors of Jacob become a source of tension between Rachel and her sister, Leah, and the two additional co-wives, Bilhah and Zilpah, because their status depends on providing sons to the patriarch. Rachel, the beloved wife, dies young giving birth to her second son, Benjamin, and becomes a kind of patron saint for Jewish women with fertility challenges. The Jewish mystics transform her in death from the beautiful earthly wife into the Lower Shekhinah who watches over the people of Israel. She becomes associated with the realm of Malkhut, the attribute located at the base of the Tree of Life (see chapter 7, Kabbalah: The Feminine on the Tree of Life). Buried at a crossroads, Rachel assumes the eternal role of pleading directly to God on behalf of the exiled Israelites. She represents Shekhinah watching over the earth and all its inhabitants. Described by the prophet Jeremiah as "weeping in Ramah for the return of her children to the land," she becomes the people's guardian spirit. While this portrait of Rachel was already present in the prophetic era, it was elaborated considerably in the mystical literature.
The midrashic literature describes the sister matriarchs, Leah and Rachel, as being able to see the future, like priests and prophets, whose intuition is drawn from Shekhinah. Leah is introduced in the Torah as having weak eyes (or perhaps soft or tender). According to the medieval commentator Rashi, this difficulty was the result of her weeping over her presumed destiny to be married to Jacob's brother Esau, who was known to be a rough and insensitive fellow. Other commentaries say she was able to see the future suffering of the children of Israel and wept for them. Some modern commentators see the power of her tears as transforming her fate; and there has been more focus in modern Kabbalah, especially in the writings of Moshe Idel, on weeping as a mystical practice.
In the biblical story, Jacob, who was already in love with Rachel, acquires a heavily veiled Leah as his first wife through the deception of their crafty father, Laban. The Zohar cites the participation of Rachel in this drama, crediting her with not wanting to see her older sister shamed. Leah subsequently gives birth to six sons and a daughter, fulfilling her kabbalistic role as Great Mother, in which each of her children represents one of the seven lower Sephirot, or embodiments of the divine attributes on the Tree of Life. In the Torah, she is the great name-giver. According to the Zohar, her capacity to name her numerous children appropriately is inspired by the Shekhinah, which enables her to "see into" their character. Leah, the senior matriarch, whose son Judah became the progenitor of the main surviving tribe of Israel, is buried with Jacob in the cave of the Machpelah in Hebron with the other ancestors.
The great sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, who lived in the second century, warned against considering these narratives in Genesis as just stories and urged a deeper analysis of their meaning. The midrashic and mystical literature that followed laid the groundwork for a metaphorical understanding of the archetypal energies represented by these ancestral personalities, each with some special destiny to fulfill. In that context, the Zohar's presentation of Leah and Rachel as twin aspects, or different manifestations, of Shekhinah energy on the Tree of Life provides an alternate understanding of the painful romantic triangle. The Zohar regards Leah's role as founder of the tribes and mother of future leaders as representing the Upper Mother, Binah, who gives birth to planets and stars. In fact, the Zohar states that Jacob did not "hate" Leah as the text implies, but felt a strangeness with her as he might in coupling with his mother! Her reunification with Rachel, the daughter or Lower Mother, who protects planet earth, is essential to the cosmic plan, as is the marriage with the Sephira of Tiferet, represented by Jacob, in the center of the Tree. He is the divine masculine consort to Malkhut, the Divine Feminine—or Shekhinah—at the base of the Tree of Life.
The Shekhinah also figures prominently in midrashim on the sisters' sex life with Jacob. In the legends, the Shekhinah rests over the tent of the wife he will sleep with that night, reminiscent of the clouds of glory in Exodus. After Rachel's death, the cloud moves to her co-wife, Bilhah. In the mystical tradition, Bilhah and Zilpah are the "handmaidens" of Shekhinah, almost like the two cherubs who flank the Ark of the Covenant. In mystical thought, Rachel and Leah endure as twin aspects of Shekhinah or embodiments of the Divine Presence. Because of the importance of the sisters, the Jewish midnight prayers enunciated on behalf of the planet, called tikkun chatzot, are directed to both. That concept leads to regarding women—particularly mothers—as the closest representation of the Divine Mother we can know in earthly form. While the Midrash gives us hints about the spiritual power of the matriarchs, we do not know the specific nature of their practices. New midrashim by women scholars and fiction by writers like Anita Diamante (The Red Tent) help keep the mystery alive.
Remembering the Matriarchs
It is midnight. I look out my window, and I know that this radiant moon that shines down on me was there for my mother, and my grandmothers, and my great-grandmothers, that we all understand our special relationship to the moon. We understand why the great Jewish mystics prayed and meditated and traveled through space between midnight and five AM. They taught that this was a special time when God's compassion on the world was more open, more available; and that in this time of willingness in the heavens above, if we down below would pray, we could enlist divine assistance for all life and the planet itself.
Tikkun chatzot are prayers designed to appeal for the health of the planet, prayers that bring an awareness of just how endangered this earth is. We send petitions addressed to the matriarchs, to Leah, representing the Upper Shekhinah in the higher realms, in the Sephira of Binah, and to Rachel, representing the Lower Shekhinah connected with us here on earth. Most of us don't know the words of these prayers, and even those of us who know them tend to see them as very long and complex. So we look for a direct route to the Creator, expressing ourselves through our mothers and our grandmothers and our great-grandmothers.
Let us start with our own families. We picture our mother, perhaps an image of her when she was young and lovely and hopeful and about to give birth to us. We call her in, and we ask her, "Dear one, how did you experience the Divine Presence? What gave you faith and courage and hope, and enough strength to bring us forth? For even in your time, there were so many problems in the world. And we thank you for giving us the gift of life, the most precious gift that anyone could receive. We ask you to help us, whether you're in this world or the other world, to become the people that we were destined to be." We ask for help in visualizing our grandmothers, even if we didn't know them both, along with their families, their communities, the places they came from, and the struggles they endured to create a better life for their children. We try to imagine how they spoke to the Shekhinah, how they imagined the Divine Presence. If we go a bit further back, we ask for memory of our great-grandmothers, even if we never saw them, even if we have no photographs of them. We ask to know them inside ourselves and to feel their love and their longing to be in connection with the innermost expression of the Divine One.
Excerpted from On the Wings of Shekhinah by Rabbi Léah Novick. Copyright © 2008 Rabbi Léah Novick. Excerpted by permission of Theosophical Publishing House.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: Rediscovering the Shekhinah,
Part 1 Shekhinah in the Tapestry of Time,
Chapter 1 Genesis: The Hebrew Matriarchs,
Chapter 2 The Desert Experience: Divine Presence in Nature,
Chapter 3 Canaan: Encountering the Pagan Past,
Chapter 4 Temple: Divine Mother Comes Home,
Chapter 5 Babylonian Exile: The Ethical Mother,
Chapter 6 The Medieval Years: Divine Light and Prayer,
Chapter 7 Kabbalah: The Feminine on the Tree of Life,
Part 2 Holding Her Place,
Chapter 8 Shabbos Queen: Celebrating through History,
Chapter 9 Early Chasidism: Shekhinah's Return to Humanity,
Chapter 10 Haskalah: Back to Zion and the Land of Israel,
Chapter 11 Contemporary Jewish Feminism and the Return of Shekhinah,
Part 3 Shekhinah in Our Lives,
Chapter 12 Birth, Death, and Reincarnation,
Chapter 13 Love and Sexuality,
Chapter 14 Divine Guidance in Dreams,
Chapter 15 New Moon,
Chapter 16 Spiritual Healing,
Notes on Sources,