Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Shekhinah, God's Presence

Professor Daniel Matt, pre-eminent scholar of the Zohar, an ancient Jewish text, spoke at Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles this weekend. 

"From Kabbalah to the Big Bang: Ancient Wisdom & Contemporary Spirituality" was the title of the lecture series.

My Hebrew teacher, Gilla Nissan, invited her students and friends to attend, so I took part in Shabbat evening services in a temple for the first time.

"Holy, holy, holy--kadosh, kadosh, kadosh" is about all I can say of the experience.

We sang psalms: "Sing to God all the earth, sing to God a new song...."Tov L'Hodot"... "L'cha Dodi"...

For this Presbyterian it was kind of like the praise singing at the beginning of some church services, but in Hebrew with Hebrew tunes and rhythm, so much more powerful and authentic.  These words have been sung and chanted for three thousand years to reach out to the Almighty.

The rabbi leading the service was herself a treat to watch: a joyful smile spread across her face as she spoke and sang, close-cropped brown hair topped by a kippah or yarmulke, more often worn by Jewish men.  

Her clothing too was androgynous: a simple black suit with black scoop-neck shirt and no jewelry or make-up... clearly female but joyously free of the usual gender accoutrements.

Then Daniel Matt spoke about "Shekhinah: the Feminine Half of God."  He noted that although the Hebrew God is clearly beyond gender to those who reflect on the issue, still God has been portrayed predominantly in masculine terms.

"We have to balance the masculine with the feminine," he argued.  

Kabbalah challenges our understanding of God.  It pushes us to move beyond our childish images to "Ein Sof"-- a god that can only be described as "Without End."  

The Talmud uses a word with feminine grammatical gender, Shekhinah, to describe God's Presence.  Kabbalah says that when the Shekhinah and "the Holy One, blessed be He" are reunited, the original union of all things will be achieved.

"Every human action affects the divine couple, either helping or hindering" this union, Matt said.  "If we become truly receptive, wisdom appears spontaneously, taking us by surprise."  

The Zohar was written in Provence and Spain in the 12th & 13th centuries by Moses DeLeon, perhaps using earlier mystical material.  It's about mysticism, which Matt defined as "direct contact with God."

When Moses asks for God's name, God refuses to be pinned down, saying only "I am Who."  The ten commandments include the prohibition against making "graven images, but Ezekiel begins with a most riveting picture of God.  That book becomes "the archetype of Jewish mystical ascent," Matt said.

The community out of which the Zohar developed began to reimagine God in new and startling ways, Matt said.  They used "new ancient words"--milim ha-attiqim ha-hadash.

"There is no place on earth empty of your presence," says a commentary on the Torah in the Talmud.  The word Shekhinah denoting God's presence comes from the root shakan meaning "to dwell."

Partly because of the word's feminine gender, Shekhinah came to be seen as the Divine Feminine.  One rabbi even describes his mother as "the embodiment of the Divine Feminine," said Matt.

He said that Gershem Sholem calls it "the revenge of myth" that God starts to be seen as both masculine and feminine because for so long any hint of the feminine had been excluded from the view of God.  The prophets criticized worship of Anat, Ashtoreth, and Asherah--the female gods worshipped in Canaan. Maimonides and others had said for so long that God is not physical.

But in the 12-13th centuries, a view of God as union of masculine and feminine re-emerges in the heart of rabbinic Judaism in Kabbalah.

"Some people don't realize that God is equally masculine and feminine," Matt said.  

Matt summed up his view of God in three statements:
1) God is Ein Sof--without end and beyond any other descriptive words.
2) Thus we cannot see God as masculine.  More accurately, there is a balance of the divine feminine and masculine within God.
3) God needs us--is incomplete without our cooperation.

"We need to reacquaint ourselves with the Shekhinah," he said.  One way is to welcome the Sabbath as a queen, a practice that was begun in Kabbalah:  "Come, let us go forth to welcome Queen Shabbat."

"As the sun sets and the Sabbath begins, go to a high spot, close your eyes, and meditate on the Shekhinah, God's Presence," Matt suggested.  "Shabbat means 'to stop.'  It is an opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with God.  For the whole day, we possess the greatest luxury possible--not thinking of money [or work]."

"We can disengage from materialism," he said.  We can enjoy walking, reading, unplanned time.

"The Shabbat is a palace in time, a chance to recover the divine presence of God."

As his words ended, the room was filled with awe, a holy sense of God's nearness, and a new feeling that we can indeed live in God's presence for at least one day if we choose.

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