Shekinah: The Feminine Element in Divinity
Gershom Scholem: On the Mystical Shape of the Godhead, Schocken, 1991


In conclusion, I would like to respond to a question that has no doubt occurred to a number of readers during the discussion of these notions of the feminine within the divine. Can the Shekhinah be described as a cosmic force in the same sense as we find the feminine in the image of Shakti in Indian Tantric religion? To my mind, I believe that we can discern quite clear differences between the two conceptions -- differences no less profound than their affinities.

The schematic representations of the Sefirotic world in geometric symbols can be legitimately compared, without distorting the subject, to the forms of the yantra -- diagrams intended to guide meditation, which were first interpreted by Heinrich Zimmer in his masterpiece, Kuns~form und Yoga (Berlin, 1926). Utilizing geometric configurations, these yantras illustrate the development of the various gods and their mates (Shaktis). Both the Sefirotic tree and the Shriyantra -- which make similar use of primal, ancient symbols of the triadic form -- can be take above all as depictions of the self-unfolding of the transcendent and unknowable. The student of Zimmer's second, posthumous opus will be amazed to discover the Kabbalistic symbols of the point and the triangle in these remarkable discussions of Indian material. The absolute is the energy point that cannot be represented but only focused upon, the hidden center from which everything spreads out. The creative energy that spreads from within the absolute, touching the center and eternally uniting with it, is the primal Shakti, represented by the innermost interpenetrating triangle of the Shri-yantra. This symbolism is not identical with that of the Zohar, but there is a deep relation between them. The author of the Zohar understands the primal point not as the unknowable ultimate depths of Ein-Sof but as the unconstructable and hence totally indissoluble hhokhmah (Wisdom), in which opposites nullify and merge. This primal point is indissolubly united with the upper Shekhinah, represented by the symbol of the house or the womb, in which the primal point of hhokhmah (wisdom) is sown as the world seed. Thus, the Sefirotic pair of hhokhmah and Binah have something of the nature of the Shakti and her supernal consort. This resemblance is even more striking when we recall that in at least a few, albeit late, Kabbalistic schools, I-jokhmah stands for the unconscious and unknown, while Binah represents the conscious. Just as in Kabbalah hhokhmah emanates nine Sefiroth from within itself, so in the Indian doctrine the transcendent and unknowable in the invisible primal point are represented in the Shri-yantra diagram by nine interpenetrating triangles, representing the male and female potencies of the god and of his Shakti.

The Shakti is the dynamic aspect of the world substance; it is itself the world of manifestation, at the same time as it is within it and works within it. But this last statement, repeated in various ways in Woodroffe's and Zimmer's discussions of Shakti, cannot be applied to the Shekhinah, even where it cati be thought of as an active potency. It is true that the lower Shekhinah operates in everything and animates everything: His Kingdom rules in everything (Ps. 103:19), as the biblical verse reads; it is the spark that dwells in everything, or is trapped or captive in everything but the Shekhinah is in exile there (a notion that, so far as I can see, is totally absent in the Indian conceptions). The lower Shekhinah is not itself the thing or manifestation in which it is present; to put it in Indian terms, it is not the world of Maya. The manifesting and the mani- festation, Shakti and Maya, which are one for the Indian esoteric, are not identical for the Kabbalist. The spark of the Shekhinah, which resides within concrete things, is always distinct from the phenomenality of these same things, as clearly demonstrated by the discussions on this point in many Hasidic texts. The spark can be elevated from the things in which it is mixed, without thereby affecting the things qua phenomena. A different, perhaps even more intense, life enters into them; but there seems to be no necessary inner bond between this specific manifestation and the specific spark of the Shekhinah that dwells within it. There are only occasional hints of an esoteric stratum of this doctrine, which may have gone further than the written formulations would suggest.

One further point:

The God and Goddess are the first self-revelation of the Absolute, the male being the personification of the passive aspects which we know as Eternity, the female of the activating energy (Shakti), the dynamism of Time. Though apparently opposites, they are in essence one.

It is impossible to apply this to the Kabbalist schema without misconstruing the sense of the symbols. None of the Sepheroth appearing as male in these pairs could be identified with the masculine in Indian symbolism, albeit the idea of femininity as producing the motion of time may indeed correspond to an astonishing passage in Sefer ha-Bahir.

This passage describes the Shekhinah as the precious gem that brings forth the years i.e., time, which flows from the primal time gathered therein, but I am by no means certain that this primal time can be identified with eternity

On the other hand, when dealing with these comparisons, we must not forget that the Shekhinah is split in the Kabbalah, so that the active element within the feminine has been primarily absorbed in the symbolism of the upper Shekhinah. The latter is the womb of the Sefiroth, of the aeons and cycles of the worlds (shemitoth), while other aspects of Shakti, such as the eternal feminine and the destructive element, are expressed in the final Sefirah or Malkhuth. On the other hand, the notion of the masculine as purely inactive and passive, an idea that seems intrinsic to the doctrine of Shakti, is totally alien to the Kabbalah, in which the male is perceived as active and flowing.