Expressions of Mysticism
by David Rankine
Illuminating the Soul Within
"For she is more beautiful than the sun, and above all the order of stars: being compared with the light, she is found before it. For after this cometh night: but vice shall not prevail against wisdom,."
The Kabbalah is a Jewish system of mystical philosophy and spiritual practice which syncretised components of Gnosticism, Neo-Platonism, and early Jewish mysticism (Merkavah mysticism) with aspects of ancient Sumerian and Egyptian cosmologies. These diverse sources all came together in tenth-fourteenth century Europe, although their origins were considerably older. Due to its early oral origins, the first appearance of the Kabbalah cannot be specifically dated. Considering the word Kabbalah means received wisdom, this oral beginning is entirely appropriate. The Sepher Yetzirah (Book of Formation), one of the key texts on which Kabbalistic philosophy is based, is usually regarded as being dated to the second-third century CE.1
The Shekinah has a range of powerful roles and functions within the Kabbalah, being seen as the primordial light of creation, the heavenly glory of divine wisdom and the inspiration for prophecy. She is also the world soul, manifest through the divine sparks of her light which comprise human souls and thus unites us all. With roots in the wisdom goddesses of the ancient world, the unnamed Wisdom Goddess of the Hebrew Bible (especially the Book of Proverbs) and early Jewish wisdom literature, the Shekinah is the manifestation of feminine divinity in the Jewish mystical systems known as the Kabbalah and Merkavah (Chariot) mysticism.
The transition from unnamed Wisdom Goddess to named divine feminine wisdom occurred around first-second century CE, contemporary with the Gospels, the earliest Merkavah texts (such as the Revelation of Moses), the first Kabbalistic text (Sepher Yetzirah) and the proliferation of Gnostic texts. The name Shekinah first appeared in material found in the Onkelos Targum, which dates from the first-second century CE.1 This text, by an unknown author, was misnamed during the medieval period after Onkelos the Proselyte (35-110 CE), who translated the Bible into Aramaic. In the Onkelos Targum the term Shekinah is used to illustrate a divine presence which is separate from Yahweh, as in the paraphrase of Exodus 25:8;
The first glimpse of the power or function of the Shekinah is seen in the meaning of her name, which is derived from the Hebrew root Shakhan meaning 'to dwell'. In Kabbalah this meaning hints at her tangible presence as a visible manifestation of the light of wisdom in the books of the Hebrew Bible, as the burning bush seen by Moses, in the Ark of the Covenant and in the Temple of Solomon.
A story of the first century religious teacher Rabbi Gamaliel records that when he was asked why God revealed himself in a burning bush to Moses, he replied "To teach you there is no place on earth not occupied by the Shekinah, that is, there is no place on earth where the Shekinah cannot reveal itself."2
The idea that it was the Shekinah who spoke to Moses from the burning bush is a common one in old Kabbalistic texts. As the Shekinah was equated to both of the prophetic mediums of the Ruach HaQadosh (spirit of holiness or holy spirit) and the Bath Kol (daughter of the voice), it is easy to see why the burning bush should be considered as one of her manifestations. The burning fires of the bush also hints at the divine fires associated with the Shekinah in many of the descriptions of her.
To gain a greater understanding of the self, the universe and the divine, Kabbalists have studied the books of the Hebrew Bible for inspiration and guidance for many centuries, producing numerous works in their discussion of the hidden meanings and layers of revelation found in the words and phrases of the verses and chapters (including Gematria which is the study of their numerical values and associations). When studying Kabbalistic writings from the medieval period onwards, the Shekinah can be found permeating Kabbalistic philosophies and the glyph of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. This is especially evident in two of the most famous Kabbalistic texts, the Bahir and the Zohar.
The Zohar emphasises this connection between the Shekinah and breath, saying:
One of the most important attributions of the Shekinah in Kabbalah is as the Neshamah or higher soul. The Kabbalah describes the soul as having three main parts, the Neshamah, Ruach and Nephesh. The Neshamah has two further divisions, giving five parts in total. This is why the Hebrew letter (Heh), with a numerical value of five, is often seen as being a symbol of the soul. is also symbolic of the Shekinah in the divine name Tetragrammaton, a fact which is no coincidence. Tetragrammaton, the unpronounceable name of God, is commonly spoken as Jehoveh or Yahweh, and is comprised of the Hebrew letters Yod, Heh, Vav, Heh, which are equated to the divine as the family of father, Mother, Son & Daughter.
So from the perspective of the Shekinah, the human soul is divided into the three major components of the Neshamah (higher soul) which is equated to the Shekinah as a spark of her fire, Ruach (middle soul) which may be equated to the Shekinah as the breath of life, and Nephesh (lower soul).
The different parts of the soul are considered to each exist in a different world or level of being, demonstrating the interconnectedness of man, the universe and the Tree of Life as all being manifestations of the same creative divine impulse. The Zohar, on the subject of unification, states:
Echoing the attribution of the Shekinah to the higher soul, some of the Gnostics also viewed the soul as feminine, as seen by the opening of The Exegesis on the Soul (one of the Nag Hammadi texts):
In an important discussion of the generation of souls, the Zohar makes the hermaphroditic nature of the soul clear, saying,
Developing the idea of the hermaphroditic nature of the soul, the Hebrew words for man and woman both contain within them the mystery of the Shekinah as the divine fire of the soul when explored from a Kabbalistic perspective. The word for woman is ishah and for man isyh. If we remove the Heh from ishah and the yod from isyh then both words become esh meaning 'fire'. So we can see that both women and men contain the same fire within them (the Shekinah), but the difference is in the manner of its manifestation and expression.
The Zohar says of the parts of the soul that, 'all three are one, comprising a unity, embraced in a mystical bond', reminding us that the quest for the divine is one which is true to all religions.
As Francis Peters observed,
In the quest for illumination, the divine wisdom offers her light for all who seek.
D'Este, Sorita & Rankine, David (2011) The Cosmic Shekinah: A Historical Study of the Goddess of the Old Testament and Kabbalah.
Matt, Daniel Chanan (2003-2009) The Zohar, Pritzker Edition (5 vols).
Chicago, Stanford University Press
Peters, Francis E. (1990) Judaism, Christianity, and Islam: the Classical Texts and Their Interpretation.
Princeton, Princeton University Press
Rankine, David (2005) Climbing the Tree of Life.
Sperling, Harry, & Simon, Maurice (trans) (1933) The Zohar (5 volumes).
London, Soncino Press
- Targums are Aramaic translations of the Bible that often included commentaries.
- Zohar I.27a, C13th CE.
- Zohar 1:66b, C13th CE.
- The Exegesis on the Soul, C4th CE, trans. W.C. Robinson Jr.
- Zohar 1:85b, C13th CE.
- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam: the classical texts and their interpretation, Peters, 1990:235.