COVER STORY:The female face of God

When Eva Konigsberg says a prayer before engaging in any mitzvah, she says it in English rather than the more-usual Hebrew. She also makes sure to unite the traditional “Holy One, blessed be He” with the Shechinah, “the Divine presence, blessed be She.”

In doing so, the teacher at Berkeley’s Chochmat HaLev reinforces in herself that God is male and female.

“I believe that through seeing God as equally male and female in its infinite, formless symbolic language, I will become a more compassionate and tolerant person, and as a society, we humans will become more compassionate and tolerant,” she explains.

Konigsberg’s study of the Shechinah is not unique; the medieval kabbalistic concept is being embraced as a window into the soul by more and more Jews in the Bay Area and across the country.

And while some say the concept describes God’s omnipresence, ascribed neither to a feminine nor masculine role, others believe it is definitively the female side of God — a beacon of spirituality that brings them closer to the Divine or the loving, tender and compassionate role of spirituality within all of us.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg, j. Torah columnist and a former Palo Alto resident, found her connection with the Shechinah when she gave birth to her daughter and “discovered a more personal relationship with a maternal aspect of the creator God.”

As a scholar, Eilberg had always known about the Shechinah on an intellectual level. But as the Conservative movement’s first woman rabbi, a mother and a spiritual adviser, she learned the power of balance, intimacy, creation, healing and the feminist need for a female aspect of God.

“It allows us to broaden our concept of God, and our experience of God is richer and more full,” says Eilberg, who has observed that modern Jews are weaving the Shechinah into their personal lives as well as their religious practices.

Shoshana Kobrin, a choir member at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, was drawn to the Shechinah because she was having trouble connecting with the traditional male God.

The Walnut Creek therapist, who wrote her master’s thesis on Jewish women and self-actualization, studied patriarchy in Judaism. She has taken her link with the Shechinah beyond the feminine into a more literal relationship with God — the “in-dwelling God,” she notes.

She says that in our post-9/11 world — rife with war and terrorism — we are looking for quick fixes instead of delving inside ourselves. To her, the Shechinah is home, the one who dwells inside.

“It ties in with my belief about what’s fundamental in life,” says Kobrin, who became bat mitzvah three years ago at the age of 61. “When the universe was created, there was darkness. In order for there to be creation, you need [such a] void so you can create from there. That to me is a person’s innermost self.”

Historian-scholar David Biale, in contrast, feels the contemporary use of the Schechinah may be somewhat oversimplified — and ignores its kabbalistic complexities.

Biale, the Emanuel Ringelblum professor of Jewish history at U.C. Davis, says that today “the Shechinah is represented as a kind of Divine mother, a very positive image. But if the Godhead [gets] out of balance, if what is called the left side — stern judgment — predominates, then the Shechinah turns from being a source of life to being a source of death. It becomes a malevolent figure.”

That, he adds, “represents, in my view, the kabbalists’ very ambivalent relationship toward women and male sexuality.”

Still, Biale admits, “the Shechinah as feminine is very well established. It is entered into the mainstream of traditional Judaism.”

Traditionalists mostly interpret the Shechinah, which is derived from the Hebrew word meaning “to dwell,” as a term that means God’s presence or omnipresence.

Daniel Matt, a scholar in Jewish mysticism who has spent years translating the Zohar, the major kabbalistic work, observes that the Shechinah is one of the three themes of that biblical commentary dating from the second century.

“All names for God are inadequate,” says Matt, a Berkeley resident who for 20 years was a professor at Graduate Theological Union, “but if you’re going to describe the Divine, then the masculine depiction must be balanced by the feminine.”

Biblically, the Shechinah does not incorporate gender, but according to Biale, author of “Eros and the Jews,” the Kabbalah gives it a gender and makes it the “part of God that mediates between God and the world.”

There are “a number of scholars that believe that the development of this feminine aspect of God in the 13th century was a response to the cult of the Virgin Mary in medieval Europe,” he says. “But the Shechinah is not a virgin. In the Kabbalistic mythology, the Shechinah is represented as being in the form of sexual intercourse with the male God. It’s extremely erotic in its treatment of spherot, different aspects or emanations of God.”

Rabbi Leah Novick, a traveling spiritual adviser on the West Coast who lives in Carmel, differs.

That representation, she maintains, depicts the “fear of the female asserting itself and vetoing both spirituality and logic. [The] Shekhinah’s penetration by the forces of evil makes her the equivalent of the raped woman who is now defiled and unable to continue in her legitimate role.”

Novick adds that this demonization of the Shechinah shows itself in negative human psychological states such as rage and violence, and stems from being “cut off from the feminine, both Divine and human.”

It is not unusual that interpretations of the Shechinah be rife with sexuality. Take Leonard Nimoy’s published book of photographs, “Shekhina,” depicting scantily clad women using Jewish ritual objects. Some find the volume offensive, but Nimoy, most famous for his portrayal of Mr. Spock on “Star Trek,” says he used the book as a “quest for insight, the exploration of my own spirituality.”

Some find their path to awareness of the Shechinah taking circuitous routes. Konigsberg, for example, was raised in an Americanized Chassidic-Lubavitcher household in Brooklyn. She attended a Chabad yeshiva, then public high school, and then became a hippie. She dedicated many years to forming her own religious belief system, attempting to fill a spiritual hole left by the traditionalist Judaism of her youth.

Finally, in 1999, she enrolled in the teacher-training course at Chochmat HaLev, where she discovered a spiritual home and a fascination with the Shechinah and the symbolic feminine language in Judaism.

“I believe that we shape our image of God and that image shapes us,” she says. “In our symbolic language, the language of the female is a deep underground river that unites the subconscious of humanity toward a compassionate image of the Godheads.”

For three years, Konigsberg has taught classes about the Shechinah at Chochmat. Her students, she says, find it interesting to know there is a concept of equal femaleness inside the symbolic Godhead in Judaism. “They mostly find it like discovering a hidden treasure.”

The Shechinah “has made me much more comfortable identifying as a Jew,” she elaborates. “I’m not comfortable inside a liturgy that is entirely male. I find it gives me a home in Judaism. It certainly gives feminists a home in Judaism.”

Eilberg underscores the idea. “The image of the Shechinah has [enabled] classical Jewish terminology to affirm what we now know to be true: that God is female as well as male — really beyond gender.”

As a maternal figure, the Shechinah concept also allows Jews to move beyond thinking of God’s malevolence. Eilberg mentions a person who has been bludgeoned by life or who is sick and now has the opportunity to conceptualize God as a loving entity. “That’s a way [to] assume God is crying with her and praying for her recovery along with her.”

Novick, who spoke about the Shechinah at last year’s Ohalah Jewish Renewal conference, contends the concept represents the future of theology. That theology would incorporate: universal awareness of the divinity in all beings that elicits the tenderness, respect, love and caring that we associate with the Divine Mother; widespread experience of the holiness in all the earth (Gaia) that would make it impossible to pollute, destroy or exploit this planet or others; and universal sharing and teaching of all wisdom traditions, with universal awareness of the Divinity in all beings.

“Such a messianic era would involve the unification of consciousness across all boundaries, genders, ethnic identities and religions,” she says. “That collective awareness, based on the unity of all beings in the Source, would foster respect for the beauty of difference, allowing humanity to enjoy real mutual tolerance.”

Konigsberg — who has dedicated a Web site to the Shechinah at www.shechinah.net — also explores in her teachings the notion of the Shechinah incorporating tolerance and compassion.

Eilberg, meanwhile, finds the contemporary interest in the Shechinah a manifestation of the broader feminist question — how to help women become clear that they were created equal to men. One way of emphasizing that truth, she says, is to alter language in religious texts and prayers to be more egalitarian and inclusive.

Kobrin, too, has a problem with the patriarchal language in everyday Hebrew prayers that refer to God in the masculine, singular. “How can I say a prayer like that when I’m a woman?” she asks.

Rabbi Judy Shanks of Reform Temple Isaiah tends to agree. While she personally prefers to explore God in many forms and without gender, some of her congregants want to move away from the “masculine sense of God that dominates the Torah, that dominates the prayerbook.” Some of her women congregations, therefore, have started exploring using the Shechinah as a name with which to call God.

She acknowledges, however, that “the problem with using [the] Shechinah is that we then lock ourselves into another one-dimensional understanding of God.”

Like Shanks, Rabbi Mark Bloom of Conservative Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland has a concept of the Shechinah that transcends gender. He understands it as “literally, God’s presence.”

But he also understands the importance of some women utilizing it as a feminine incarnation of God.

“I like that there is something women can hang onto that seems non-patriarchal. I like that it gives people an entry point and a less threatening way to connect to God,” he says.

Shoshana Hebshi
Shoshana Hebshi

Shoshana Hebshi is a freelance writer and former J. copy editor living in the North Bay.