On the Wings of Shekhinah: Rediscovering Judaism's Divine Feminine

On the Wings of Shekhinah: Rediscovering Judaism's Divine Feminine

Rabbi Léah Novick
Wheaton, Ill.: Quest, 2008. 210 pages, paper, $17.95.

After spending decades as a powerful presence in Washington politics and then as a professor of public policy, Léah Novick found herself on the California coast over twenty-five years ago being summoned by the Divine Feminine. She recounts her epiphany in her recent book, On the Wings of Shekhinah: "A gigantic goddess was calling me. At first she spoke through sand and rocks, flowers and animals; later she spoke through visions and memories of earlier lives. Still later she spoke through the spirits of the ancestors and Judaism's forgotten women saints and miracle workers." Gradually she returned to the religion of her youth, but with a new understanding, which she refers to as "respiritualized Judaism." Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, ordained her as a rabbi in 1987.

Reb Léah's work focuses on the restoration of the Divine Feminine in Judaism, often known as the Shekhinah. To that end, she has expressed her vision in various media, including the written word, music, movement, and drama. At one point, she held meditation circles on the birthdays and death anniversaries (yahrzeits) of the many women Jewish scholars and mystics who have gone unrecognized for generations; she calls these women "the Messengers of the Shekhinah." I was fortunate to be able to study with Reb Léah a few years ago when I attended her workshop on Kabbalah. She impressed me not only as a scholar of the Jewish mystical tradition but also as a touchstone of knowledge and wisdom gleaned through hard-won realization and life experience. Moreover, coming as I do from an interfaith family and possessing a spirituality that defies easy categorization, I appreciated her understanding of and esteem for a wide range of religious traditions while maintaining her profound commitment to Judaism.

On the Wings of Shekhinah, her first book, highlights Reb Léah's scholarship and accessible writing style as she elucidates the complex story of the Shekhinah in Jewish thought and culture. Beginning with Genesis and through the Jewish people's history in Canaan, the Temple period, the Babylonian Exile, medieval times, and the beginnings of Kabbalah, she explores diverse and sometimes contradictory conceptions of the Divine Feminine. Of course, Judaism has never been a monolithic institution; it has always been composed of numerous factions that disagree, usually in a most vociferous manner. Jewish culture does not shy away from debate, but encourages it, whether at the dinner table or in the study hall. The larger tradition tolerates and even revels in a multiplicity of viewpoints.

The term "Shekhinah" does not appear in the Hebrew Bible, although versions of its root, shakhan, the Hebrew verb "to dwell," show up in the text. Over the centuries, the Shekhinah has most often been perceived as the "indwelling presence of the Holy One." Jewish mystics have also seen her as mourning at the wall of the destroyed Temple, as the cosmic soul of the world who connects all living things, as the faithful mother sustaining the Jews in the Diaspora, as the fierce protective mother who punishes the wicked, and as the glorious Sabbath Queen. Some biblical commentators have envisaged the Mishkan or Tabernacle, the portable residence of the Divine carried by the early Israelites as they wandered the desert, as the meeting place where the Shekhinah and her consort Yahweh reunite each evening in sacred marriage to renew and perpetuate the life force that animates the earth.

One of the book's great strengths is Reb Léah's retelling of well-known biblical stories from a perspective that encourages her readers to question and expand their view of these ancient tales. For example, in the chapter entitled "Encountering the Pagan Past," she reminds us that all four Jewish matriarchs—Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, and Rachel—were originally from pagan cultures. She details episodes in Jewish history when goddesses such as Asherah were widely worshipped and notes that "thousands of Asherah figurines have been found in archeological digs all over Israel, covering an extended span of Israelite history." Reb Léah also draws attention to research in this generally obscure area, highlighting the contemporary feminist scholarship of Savina Teubal among others. Teubal argued convincingly that as a priestess of the Goddess, Sarah was sought out by neighboring kings to participate with them in the hieros gamos, a sexual fertility rite enacted in order to increase the land's fruitfulness.

While the Shekhinah as a goddess figure enlivens the spirituality of many contemporary women, not all Jewish women, even feminists, embrace this concept. A leading Jewish feminist theologian (and a former professor of mine) adamantly proclaimed to her students that the word "Goddess" should not be a part of the Judaic tradition, although the word "God" was acceptable. I found this to be an odd theological position, especially if the Holy One is seen to be beyond gender, which many Jews would agree is the case. This particular theologian didn't have a logical explanation for her stance; it seemed more of a visceral reaction than anything else. Does this position reflect a residual fear of the Goddess's power even today? Perhaps. As Reb Léah notes, "Judaism continues to resist its pagan roots. . . . Perhaps there will be a future time in which memory is no longer a threat."

I found Reb Léah's writing on Kabbalistic thought especially fascinating. One mystical community, the famous circle of Kabbalists in sixteenth-century Zefat, Israel, focused many of its spiritual endeavors on reconnecting with the Shekhinah. Headed by Rabbi Isaac Luria, this close-knit group would venture outside on the eve of the Sabbath, summoning the Shekhinah as Sabbath Queen and Bride to bless their celebration. One evocative song, still sung today on Friday nights, was penned by one of the Zefat mystics; L'Cha Dodi ("Come, My Beloved"), a heartfelt plea to the Shekhinah to grace the congregation with her presence. Those familiar with the classical Gnostic myths will recognize the remarkable similarities between the stories of Sophia in exile and the tales of the Shekhinah's separation and reunification with her people through their prayers and good deeds.

To round out the historical narrative, each chapter concludes with a simple yet powerful meditation that encourages the reader to actually experience the Divine Feminine. Reb Léah notes others ways, including dream and healing work, seasonal celebrations, love and sexuality, and life passage rituals, in which the Shekhinah may be accessible to us. Reb Léah's wise and intuitive guidance pervades The Wings of Shekhinah, offering its readers a palpable sense of personally studying with this extraordinary Jewish teacher.

Reb Léah relates that as a young girl she never heard of the Divine Feminine, even though she grew up in an observant household and had many years of Jewish education. This called to mind a conversation I had not long ago with my mother, a Jewish woman of Reb Léah's generation, in which we were discussing Jewish veneration of the Goddess during different historical periods. My mother exclaimed, "We were never taught that in Hebrew school!" She didn't sound incredulous but rather as if she had been cheated of essential knowledge that might have changed her life. Thanks to the life work of Reb Léah and many others, the Shekhinah has made her presence known in our time. May it be that the Shekhinah is never again exiled; may she be acknowledged as an essential part of Jewish spirituality and tradition far into the future.

Siobhán Houston

Siobhán Houston, Ed.D., is a scholar, writer, and editor living in Denver, Colorado. She is the author of Invoking Mary Magdalene: Accessing the Wisdom of the Divine Feminine (Sounds True, 2006) and Priests, Gnostics, Magicians (forthcoming from Apocryphile Press).