Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Divine Presence -- Ruach HaKodesh, Shekhinah, and the Sabbath Bride

According to the Bible, the Presence of God, which was also referred to as the Spirit of God, dwelt with the Hebrew people and manifested itself in several ways over time. The first way noted was as the divine breath, the Ruach HaKodesh, which hovered over the waters of the primeval deep, the Tehom, (a word related to and with the same meaning as the name of the Babylonian mother goddess Tiamat). The Spirit of God moved over the face of the waters, and creation began.

In the Book of Exodus the Presence of God manifested to Moses as the Burning Bush.

During the Exodus itself, the Spirit of God manifested as a Pillar of Cloud by day and a Pillar of Fire by night to guide the people along their way.

In the Tabernacle (or Mishkan)—used for worship during the Exodus—the Divine Presence manifested as a brilliant light which had a burning and sometimes destructive power. Sometimes the Divine Presence would manifest as a cloud above the Tabernacle.

 When the Temple was built, the Divine Presence resided in the temple’s most sacred precinct, the Holy of Holies, a chamber that could only be entered by the High Priest on the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashana as he went in to make the sacrifice of Atonement that absolved the sins of the nation and allowed it to move into the new year. When the Presence manifested in the Holy of Holies, amidst the clouds of fragrant incense, the Presence showed itself as the bright shining “glory” of God, which appeared to the priests and was sometimes evident on their faces after they left the sacred enclosure. Moses was said to have shone with God’s glory when the people saw him after he’d come down from the mountain after receiving the Ten Commandments. 

In the New Testament stories, the Presence/Spirit of God manifested itself as the dove (symbol of the Goddess in ancient times) that hovered over Jesus during his baptism by John in the Jordan River, as well as the Voice that declared him “beloved son” at that time, the tongues of fire that appeared over the heads of the apostles at the first Pentecost, and the wind that heralded their appearance.

And so it was said that the Presence of God dwelt with the people. The Hebrew word used for this is shakan, which means “to dwell with, or dwell within.”  This is a feminine word—just as Ruach HaKodesh, or Holy Spirit, is a feminine gendered word.

This indicates that the Presence of God was seen to be a feminine presence. At first, the goddess Asherah may well have been the Presence that dwelt in the Sanctuary since she was worshipped as Yahweh’s consort and bride in the Jerusalem Temple for over 2/3 of its time of existence. But in later years, the Spirit of God who dwelt in the Temple began to be referred to as the Shekhinah, from the Hebrew shakan.
In Israel’s darkest hours, such as their defeat at the hands of the Babylonians, the Romans, and finally, the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, it was thought that God’s Presence—the Shekhinah—had left them, and that the reason for this was because the people had in some way broken their covenant with God, perhaps by worshipping pagan deities or some other form of disobedience or disrespect. When this happened it was felt that the bonds between the realms of heaven and earth had been torn apart, and only that when these bonds were repaired would the Presence of God, the Shekhinah, return to her people. The 6th century prophet Ezekiel had visions of both her departure and return.

The 1st century A.D. destruction of the Jerusalem temple was particularly devastating for the people. The Shekhinah’s sanctuary, the Holy of Holies, no longer existed. She had no residence, no place to be. The people felt that the Spirit of God had left them.

The temple’s sacred treasures, such as the menorah—the seven-branched golden  oil lamp made in the form of a stylized, flowering almond tree—were carried off to Rome. The menorah’s blossom shaped lamps represented God—the Life Force—in the form of Light, while its stem and branches represented the Tree of Life...a worthy representation of both the Divine Spirit’s presence and its manifestation in the physical plane.

The defeat of Israel and the temple’s destruction resulted in a loss of national identity and a feeling of being deserted by God. This caused many people to flee into exile.

Later, Talmudic tradition taught that God’s Presence/Spirit, the motherly Shekhinah, had dwelt not only within the Holy of Holies but within the very life of the world itself. She did not desert her children; her love for them was so great that she went into exile with them.

Because there was no longer a temple in which to worship God, the religion centered ever more around observance of the Sabbath (called Shabbat), a remembrance of the seventh day of creation—which God had decreed must be a day of rest to commemorate his own rest after six days of creating the world. The Shabbat was considered a sacred and blessed day, a day of delight.

Traditions grew up around Shabbat: blessings recited over the candles to usher in Shabbat, eating of the Challah, chanting the Kiddush blessing over the wine, the sacred duty of married couples’ lovemaking, and chanting of the Havdalah ceremony the next evening as Shabbat ended.

Over time, and unsurprisingly, the sacred occasion of Shabbat became personified as the Shabbat bride or queen. This is remembered every Friday night when the candles are lit by the woman of the house and many Jews welcome in the Shabbat by singing or playing a traditional song that refers to the Shabbat as a bride. When Shabbat ends the following evening as the first three stars appear in the sky after sunset (quite often Venus and Jupiter are among these), the Shabbat queen is bid farewell in the Havdalah ceremony, which involves song, wine, fragrant spices, and a candle which is extinguished in the wine.

One wonders if these ceremonies reflect a dim memory of a time when the Hebrew goddess was known, loved, and regarded as the bride and consort of God the Father.