A version of the following article was originally posted at Judaism.bellaonline.com.
There exists within many, if not most, religious traditions and spiritual systems some notion or conception of the Divine Feminine, and Judaism is no exception. In the Jewish tradition, the Shekhinah, which derives from the Hebrew root meaning “to dwell or settle,” is most commonly used to refer to G-d’s Divine Presence, particularly in the Mishkan or Tabernacle, as well as the Holy Temples in Jerusalem.
Due to the fact that Shekhinah is gendered feminine in Hebrew, many believe that it also represents G-d’s feminine attributes, or the feminine attributes of the Divine Presence. Many contemporary feminists and others in search of the Divine Feminine in a Jewish context have focused upon the Shekhinah as she is portrayed in classical Jewish texts and have also explored the meaning or significance the Shekhinah has for their own lives.
The Shekhinah is an important Talmudic as well as Kabbalistic term. The Babylonian Talmud or Talmud Bavli contains numerous references to the Shekhinah. The Shekhinah is believed to dwell or be made manifest not only in the Mishkan, the Tabernacle which the Children of Israel traveled with throughout their forty years in the desert, and the Holy Temples in Jerusalem, but is also present when a minyan, a quorum of ten adult Jews is gathered for prayer, as well as when a Bet Din (rabbinic court consisting usually of three dayanim or judges) is gathered.
One of the most beautifully moving references to the Shekhinah is in Tractate Megillah, 29A, which says that the Shekhinah went with the Jewish people whenever and wherever they were exiled. This is particularly interesting in light of the fact that the Talmud was codified and redacted in the centuries following the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem and the resulting dispersion of the Jewish people throughout the world. The Shekhinah is considered to be what allowed the prophets to prophecy and what allowed David to compose the Book of Psalms. It is made manifest through joy.
In other words, the Shekhinah is made manifest or felt in those moments when a person feels closest or most deeply connected to G-d. The Shekhinah dwells with a person while they are praying, studying sacred text or while doing any number of positive mitzvot which bring joy, including dwelling in the Sukkah, the temporary booth that Jews dwell in for the Sukkot holiday which occurs in the fall. The Shekhinah is with those who are sick and is mentioned in the Angel’s Blessing which is a part of the Bedtime Shema.
The Shekhinah also plays an important role in Kabbalah or Jewish mysticism and most specifically in the teachings of Rabbi Isaac Luria, also known as the Holy Ari, who lived in Safed, Israel in the sixteenth century. The Shekhinah is the tenth of the Sefirot or emanations of G-d, which is also called Malchut. For the Kabbalists, Shabbat or the Sabbath was likened to a bride or a queen, which is also related to the settling or indwelling of the Shekhinah. Many of the Shabbat songs composed by Rabbi Isaac Luria reflect this directly, as does Kabbalat Shabbat, the series of songs and psalms we sing on Friday evenings to welcome in Shabbat.
For some contemporary Jewish feminists and others, there has been an increased emphasis or focus on the Shekhinah as representing the feminine attributes of G-d. Although in Judaism G-d is incorporeal, without gender and beyond time and space, some find it easier to relate to G-d using feminine terminology, rather than masculine. There have been a smattering of new liturgical texts which focus on the Shekhinah, though these are not currently mainstream.
The Shekhinah is a vehicle through which many are able to discover or rediscover their own unique Jewish spirituality, which is particularly true for people who may affiliate with groups in Judaism which seek to practice Judaism through a more earthbased lens, as well as those who affiliate with the Jewish Renewal movement which has had an impact upon many areas of contemporary Judaism across the denominational and observance spectrums.