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Relating to God Through Emptiness

Rabbi Tirzah Firestone

February 26, 2024

Editor's Note: Rabbi Tirzah Firestone wrote this essay three decades ago, and we are honored to publish it for the first time. Here, Rabbi Tirzah begins to articulate, in a nascent form, the ideas about the Shekhinah and the Divine Feminine in Judaism that she would fully develop in her groundbreaking 2003 book The Receiving: Recl-aiming Jewish Women’s Wisdom. Our hope in sharing this essay is that it honors and brings light to our neo-hasidic lineage, and whets your appetite for the richness of Rabbi Tirzah’s later books.

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Where In The World Am I? /Jessica Tamar Deutsch/ 

The Goddess is indeed returning. Jewish seekers know her as the Shechinah, the feminine face of the Divine. For many of us She is a veritable personality, a living force.


Originally, though, the concept of the Shechinah was just that: a concept. Not mentioned in the Bible in its noun form (much less a personage), the root (sh-kh-n) was used for the embodiment of G-d's presence on our earth. For example, in Numbers, the new nation of Israel is exhorted: "Do not pollute the earth that you live on because I, too, rest (shokhen) there." Shechinah is literally the resting place of G-d, the space on our earth (and within our beings) that awaits G-d's presence. When we are set on the righteous path, the Bible tells us, then G-d's holy presence rests (shechen) among us. This presence is one of blessing; it brings us rain in its proper time and fruitfulness to all we undertake.


Within this early understanding of Shekhinah we are prescribed to lead a life of loving service to the Transcendent G-d through the Torah, the written Law. We thus invoke G-d's Immanence and create an environment on earth for G-d to abide. Several hundred years later, the oral traditions were set down in writing in the Mishnah, and later the Talmud. By then, the Presence of G-d had begun to acquire a distinctly feminine attribute. The Talmudists spoke of this Feminine Presence as being above all else, sensitive to our personal relationships. She was described as suffering at our human insensitivities, at our abuses of our fellows. "Acts of bloodshed, incest, any perversions of justice... cause Her to depart." On the other hand, humility, acts of loving kindness and, in fact, gathering together for Holy purposes draws Her downward to our human lives.


Through the centuries, this feminine motif would be developed by Jewish Mystics around the globe. The Unknowable Divinity, Elohut, they explained, does not innately dwell in our world. But It/He longs to be known and embodied here on the earth plane, to be received in a Divine Vessel. And this Vessel longs, with equal fervor, to be filled in this world by this great godly force.


As we can see, this theme is replete with sexual allusions. And the Jewish Mystics did not demur. By the 16th Century, the Shekhinah and the feminine vessel had evolved into one, the Bride of G-d, the “Matronit,” the Beloved. She had entered into the ecstatic prayer and meditation-life of the mystics who took upon themselves the reunification of the Lover and His Holy Bride as their personal spiritual work. Through meditations on G-d's holy names, Hebrew mantra, and carrying out G-d's holy commandments, the Mitzvot, with exacting care and intentionality (Kavanah), Shechinah was brought out of her exile and reunited into a holy union, for a time. The ultimate and perpetual union, and the end of the exile of the Feminine Presence, could come only at the time of the Messiah, and toward this end every Jew, mystic or no, prayed and worked.


The Jewish concept of the mystical marriage had begun to infiltrate mainstream Jewish liturgy and tradition by the 18th Century. One central instance is the Sabbath. It was common knowledge to the ecstatic Jews of Safed from the 16th Century onward, that on the Sabbath Eve the Shekhinah Herself descended out of her exile to be reunited with G-d. The mystics would bathe and dress themselves with scrupulous attention and joy in anticipation of Her Friday night

appearance. Into the westerly hills they would run, to greet Her and usher Her in with songs and poetry fit for the Queen of Life.


These very songs have been retained to this day, (the Kabbalat Shabbat or Receiving the Jewish Prayerbook, is replete with lyrics dating back from the Middle Ages. The L'CHA DODI or "Come my friend to meet the Bride" is a beautiful example) as has the imagery of the Sabbath Queen. Jewish children have adored Her through the ages. We are taught to usher Her Holy Presence into our homes with the lighting of two plain candles which stand side by side. One sings the holy blessing of welcome over them, scooping the magical light into our eyes four times. The reunited Divine couple, symbolized by the two separate yet mingling lights, is thus brought into our homes once a week, holy and complete. For the Shekhinah lives in exile and needs us to be reunited with her Divine Lover. Life is out of balance, Judaism teaches, for the Divinity as well as for us. It is our work to reunite the exiled Feminine with the lonely Masculine forces; the Sabbath is a viable way of beginning this work.


The emergence of the Shechinah from Her exile and Her reunion with Her masculine counterpart are symbols of exquisite relevance in our time. For those of us who are consciously cresting the collective tide of masculine values into a calmer ocean of feminine and masculine balance,this  work of reuniting forces is daily work.


How do we go about creating within ourselves a Shechina atmosphere (the modern Hebrew term, Shekhunah, means neighborhood, hence a warm, welcome environment) within which to receive the Divine? This is, ultimately, the basic question that must be asked as one matures on the spiritual path.


In my own spiritual work and study of Judaica, this is above all the most compelling, growing edge. How do I deliver the Shekhinah from the beautiful imagery, the lengthy conceptual discourses sprinkled through the Talmud and Kabbalah? How can I open myself like a bowl, the sacred Vessel, and become Her? Take my part in Her wide and fertile body? How might I surrender even the zeal and ambition which seem so necessary to my studies and open myself to G-d? For the Shechinah is about NOW; She is the present tense and all about the business of relating right now. She refuses to be merely concept. 


C.G. Jung spoke of the immediate relationship with G-d, the Great Other, as as the Ein Under Zetzung: the positioning of oneself to directly face the Other. Martin Buber spoke of this immediate and intimate relationship as the I and Thou. Rather than thinking and talking ABOUT G-d, we might talk, groan, sing, cry out TO this Other. It is not the discourse, but rather the INTERCOURSE that counts in the approach of the Feminine.


While we position ourselves in this opened fashion to the Divine, a softness emerges. A delicacy. A sense that there is truly a greater, feminine body that we are part of who can mother us as her child. It allows us to move from the rushing mode, the product orientation, to a slower, easier passage of time. To smooth a lotion or oil over our own bodies with consciousness, to lie on the earth and drop our burden into it, to hear a thirsting plant or animal call out, to listen well to a friend without overfilling the painful spaces. letting oneself be empty, relishing in the emptiness, assures of being filled, impregnated with the Divine Will.


This can be hard, painful work for those of us who have been inculcated into the Western, unaccompanied masculine approach. Most of us are so deeply familiarized with the push for activity, for busyness, for filling empty time, space and earth, that coping with emptiness on any of these levels is a fearful undertaking. Indeed the value in doing and filling and achieving is vital to life; however, it becomes hollow if it loses its mate, the value of being itself, of not doing, of waiting with an open door. Many of us have found by now that activity born of automatic responses, or effort rather than of the Shekhinah-atmosphere, of empty listening and following is an unsatisfying, one-sided affair. No marriage at all.


I have one last comment. It is about our Mothers. Our capacity

for Shekhinah consciousness, or the allowing in of the Divine

love and guidance, has much to do with how we were origin-

ally loved by our mothers. This is a painful fact for some of us,

myself included. If we are lucky enough to know the feeling of

having been gentled into the day, into one’s little clothes, into

the pressures of school, there is more easily available to us the

same tender style of opening our own selves, later in life.


My own mother was from a family of Rabbis. She knew the

feminine behaviors well, to serve, to feed, to prepare for

guests. But always in my rearing, a too-quick, almost hysteri-

cal frenzy prevailed; empty space was filled swiftly, from debt

and duty. The Shekhinah, l believe, lives at a different frequen-

cy, although she may ask of us the same outward actions. The

lineage of overly-filled, rarely silent frenzy that I was raised in

must be healed. And this can be done not by doing but by

stopping, by gentling, by silencing the roar,


A Biblical Midrash (exegesis) on Exodus describes the

Shekhinah as coming into any empty space. (Eretz Panui: literally means open or free ground/earth.) This is how we might invoke and actually become her: by being open, fallow ground. By taking a Sabbath, perhaps not once a week but once a day! and simply stopping the automatic frenzy of doing that the world around us seems to demand. (Shabbat means stopping to rest) To this sweet place of open waiting may new rhythms, ideas, energy fill us like fresh waters, blessed to bear new fruits to the world. And through our empty/fullness may the Shekhinah be restored to us all.


The Mountain /Jessica Tamar Deutsch/ 

Rabbi Tirzah Firestone

Rabbi Tirzah Firestone, PhD, is a Jungian psychotherapist, an award winning author, and a spiritual leader in the international Jewish Renewal movement. She was ordained by Reb Zalman Shachter-Shalomi in 1992, and teaches internationally on ancestral healing and the common boundary between Kabbalah and modern psychology. Her books include Wounds into Wisdom (2022), The Receiving (2004), and With Roots In Heaven (1998).

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