Several women have written me expressing an interest in learning about the feminine aspect of G-d, using the term “Shechina” as a name for it. One of them even went so far as to state that G-d is female. Such a statement is patently false, as are statements that G-d is male. The use of the term “Shechina” to men the feminine aspect of G-d is also erroneous. My aim in this article is to clarify these issues.
My husband likes to say that asking whether G-d is male or female is like a computer program asking whether the person who programmed it is binary or hexadecimal. The terms simply do not apply. G-d is a purely spiritual force and does not have a physical body, and therefore, has no gender. Assertions that G-d is definitely male or female reflect shallow thinking into G-d’s true Nature.
G-d is usually referred to as “He” in Torah and prayer, not as a statement of gender, but simply a grammatical necessity. In Hebrew, there is no pronoun “it.” As in many languages, nouns in Hebrew are either masculine or feminine, and the appropriate pronouns, either “he” or “she” are used when necessary.
This brings us to the word “Shechina,” which is one of the most widely misunderstood concepts in Judaism. Some people claim that because “Shechina” is a feminine noun, it is the feminine aspect of G-d, but this is incorrect. The Shechina is the presence of G-d’s holiness in a place, person (or group of people), or period of time. It comes to dwell there because of the mitzvohs associated with that place, person, or period of time. As Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan explains, “When we say that G-d ‘dwells’ in a certain place or situation, we really mean that a person can have an additional awareness of G-d there. Wherever the Shechina rests, there is an enhanced ability to experience the Divine” (Innerspace by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, p. 222, footnote 81.)
One of the strongest manifestation of Shechina in Jewish history was in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. This was because it was the site dedicated solely to the sacred services the Jewish people were required to perform there. G-d’s Holiness was so clear to the people who visited there that they were inspired to greater and greater levels of commitment to G-d. In our present day, we can experience some of the Shechina by meeting righteous individuals. The Shechina surrounds them because of all the mitzvohs and self-perfection they have achieved, and in turn, these people are models for us.
In discussions of G-d, the use of either pronoun, “He” or “She,” is not to be taken literally. These words are no different than expressions like “written by the finger of G-d” (Exodus 31:18), “G-d’s hand” (Exodus 9:3), “G-d’s eyes” (Genesis 38:7), or “G-d’s ears” (Numbers 11:1). Jews do not believe that G-d has body parts; it would in fact be heretical to think so. However, the Holy Writings use these anthropomorphic metaphors because they are easier for the human mind to grasp. (See the Mishnah Torah of Maimonides, Chapter 1, §7-12.)
I am, nonetheless, sympathetic to those women whose hearts resonate to a feminine analogy for G-d. When the Torah and liturgy speak of G-d’s mercy, the usual metaphor is of G-d as Father. Certainly it is true that the quality of mercy is maternal as well, but the important lesson is the parental metaphor, not the gender. To make an issue over the grammar is to miss the point entirely. A person would learn far more about the Nature of G-d by contemplating the intangible elements of the metaphor, such as the relationship between parent and child and the characteristic of mercy in general. Stretching our minds to envision a reality beyond the physical will bring us closer to G-d.
Therefore, it is incorrect to define the “Shechina” as the feminine aspect of G-d. Actually, it is not even correct to say that G-d has different aspects at all, although sometimes we read about G-d’s attribute of mercy contrasted with G-d’s attribute of Justice. These terms, like those about G-d’s body parts, are also metaphors. Although human beings may experience G-d’s justice and G-d’s mercy as different from each other, in the reality of G-d, they are one. The Shema affirmation: “G-d is One” means that all things which in human beings are distinct and even contradictory are united in G-d (The Way of G-d by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, Part I, Chapter I, §5). Thus, the realization that G-d is beyond all divisions, including feminine and masculine, is the more accurate view.