The picture of her long white dress and veil was only amplified when I grew older and started attending synagogue. I marveled over the mythological language in the classic Friday night prayer, “Lecha Dodi.” “Come, my beloved, to greet the bride, let us receive the face of the Shabbat.” Written in 16th century Safed by Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz and popularized by the Kabbalists of that era, the prayer’s image of the bride is spellbinding. But while “Lecha Dodi” is sung in synagogues the world over, it was another Kabbalistic poem of the same era that truly had my six-to-seven-year-old’s heart. The song, “Azamer Bishvachin,” was written by the renowned Rabbi Isaac Luria, known as the “Ari” (“lion,” in Hebrew.) It is part of the Friday night repertoire in homes such as mine, where the Chabad custom is to follow the traditional liturgy arranged by the Ari. In language that describes the opulence of the festive royal table, replete with silver candelabras, shining crowns and platters of delicacies, the Ari paints the wondrous fairy-tale picture of the Divine Bride reuniting with her partner on the Sabbath Eve. In a somewhat clumsy Aramaic, I spent my elementary school years following along with my father as I stumbled over the challenging words, until we embarked on a tradition of singing in English as well, using the same tune. “We herewith invite the Shechinah to the festive table, with the glorious candelabra shining on her head,” we sang.
I knew what the Shechinah was. In the Orthodox school where I was educated, it was often referred to as the Divine presence—that shining light of God that could be brought into one’s home, synagogue or even body by aligning with the traditions we were taught. According to Chabad’s Chassidic philosophy, the Shechinah, though exiled, could be found again when people gather to speak words of Torah, when sacred space is created in the home, when the body and its acts become a vehicle for the sacred in embodied ritual, thereby reclaiming the divine presence that was once present in the ancient Temple of Jerusalem. When I undertook in-depth study of biblical prophets in high school, I learned about the weeping Mother of Zion, the exiled Shechinah with her tattered and muddy gown.
But I hadn’t reconciled this divine, motherly, feminine presence with the idea that God—the God I regularly prayed to, spoke to and negotiated with—could be that same feminine presence which flowed through me all the time.
Beyond the divine mother, the Shechinah represents embodied presence, a shining ray of divine light that is present in physical corporeal form even in the hidden world of duality. This explains her state of exile—for how often do we forget the inherent divinity of the world we live in? Instead, we resort to the classic hierarchical state of things, believing that “work hard, play hard” is all that life is made of.
In Kabbalah, that divine aspect of existence is called Malchut. The tenth of the Sefirot (energetic attributes that form the building blocks of life), Malchut is all feminine, all manifestation, all embodied communicative creative effusive presence. Malchut denies the harsh reality of today’s world of hierarchy and competition. Malchut celebrates receiving for the sake of giving, channeling and creating something new outside oneself.
In my journey to understand my evolving relationship with God, Goddess, Divinity, or the Infinite, I learned that Shechinah—often spelled Shekhina by those who transliterate correctly!—is a term often used by goddess worshippers of Jewish background, carving out a space for the white-gowned queenly figure I’d first embraced as a child on Friday evening.
But beyond transforming liturgy into language of the feminine and realigning my references to God as “she,” redeeming the Shechinah from exile for me has also meant understanding a deeper layer of her transient presence on Shabbat—in the temple, and on the hilltops and trees of ancient Israel.
On Shabbat, all physical acts become holy. Simply eating, sleeping, and having sexual relations are lauded as celebratory acts to welcome the Shabbat bride. Shabbat celebrates the embodiment of divinity into something so physical it appears to be the antithesis of holiness. Yes, paradoxically, in this transmutation, it becomes far more sacred than the most transcendent of mystical experiences. Precisely because it is so physical, with intention and elevation, it becomes divine.
The divine feminine presence is not about meditating far off into the cosmos. Unlike the transcendent nature of the masculine God, Shechinah is about embodiment, embracing the physical to elevate it into the divine. It’s about cooking an exquisite meal to share with loved ones, reveling in the feeling of grain transforming into bread beneath the fingertips. It’s about singing and dancing with elation, moving limbs in ecstasy with the divine flow. It’s about elevating every mundane act into something sacred; and respecting that these acts are just as holy as a lifetime of fasting and prayer.
In the Jewish vision of a messianic, utopian future, referred to in Kabbalah as “l’atid lavoh“—”the future time”—the Shechinah is discussed as being fully present and fully expressed constantly, divine feminine and masculine united in oneness just as they were during the time of the temple represented by the cherubim of the holy ark.
It has become my understanding that this unification is an act that we can all take part in, today in our universe, by allowing the Shechinah’s presence into our homes, our temples, our kitchens, our bedrooms, and our bodies. In eating intentionally with gratitude to the earth and its divine abundance. In dancing with joy to release pain and trauma from our bodies for the sake of loving ourselves. In singing with delight to children, pets and just ourselves as we allow our truths to erupt free from our blocked throats. And in embracing every physical act of sacredness with intention and consciousness—kavanah, in Hebrew.
By bringing the Divine into our lives through the sacred feminine aspects of embodied practice, and thus achieving universal balance and harmony, we can create the day that is always Shabbat, a utopian existence for all.
Rishe Groner is a writer and strategist living in Brooklyn. She is the founder of TheGene-Sis.com, a post-Hasidic embodied approach to self-transformation.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.