“They symbolized You in many varied visions; yet you are a Unity containing all the allegories.”
The above verse is from “Anim Zemiros,” a Kabbalistic song which many congregations sing on Shabbos and the Festivals, and which was composed by Rabbi Yehudah HaChasid, a noted 12th century sage and Kabbalist.
Although our tradition discusses various attributes of the Creator - including attributes which we understand as “masculine” or “feminine” – there is a mitzvah to recognize the Oneness and Unity of the Creator. As Maimonides writes in his “Book of Mitzvos,” we are to have the following belief:
“The Creator of all things in existence and their First Cause is One. This mitzvah is contained in His words, ‘Hear O Israel, Hashem is our God, Hashem is One’ (Deut. 6:4). ”
The One Creator is the “First Cause” – the Source of all life; thus, a deep awareness of the oneness and unity of the Creator can lead to a deep awareness of the oneness and unity of all creation. This universal awareness is the goal of our people's unique journey through history.
The Shechinah is the Sacred Presence of the Compassionate One that we seek to experience on this earth, and in this way, we become more aware of the unity of heaven and earth - the unity of the spiritual and the physical. In fact, according to “halacha” – the requirements of the Torah path - we are to become aware of the Shechinah when we pray. As Maimonides states in his discussion of the halachos of prayer, “One should see one’s self as if one is standing before the Shechinah.” (Mishneh Torah, the Book of Love, the Halachos of Prayer 4:16)
According to Kabbalah – the hidden wisdom of Torah – there are certain names for Hashem that refer to the Shechinah. One of these names is “Ado-nai” – the Master of All. We only pronounce this Divine name when we are reading from the Scriptures or saying a traditional prayer. On all other occasions, we refer to this Divine Name as “Hashem.” (The teaching on this Divine name is cited by Rabbi Moshe Alshich, a noted 16th century Kabbalist and biblical commentator, in his commentary to Isaiah 49:14).
The Shechinah expresses those attributes of the Compassionate One that we understand as “feminine”; thus, this leads to the following question: If we are to develop the consciousness of the Shechinah when we pray, then why do our classical Hebrew prayers usually use the masculine form of Hebrew words when addressing Hashem, rather than the feminine form? For example, the Hebrew word “ata” – you – is the masculine form, while the Hebrew word “att” – you – is the feminine form. In our prayers, we address Hashem as “Ata” – the masculine form. As we discussed previously, there are references to the Shechinah and the feminine attributes of Hashem in our Sacred Scriptures, so why do our Scriptures usually refer to Hashem with masculine terms? For example, in Psalm 136, we find references to “His lovingkindness” and not “Her lovingkindness.”
There are deep answers to these questions which can be found in “Kabbalah” – the hidden wisdom of the Torah; however, I am not a student of Kabbalah, and I am therefore not able to discuss with you the Kabbalistic answers. What I will share with you in this letter is a possible answer that I discussed with two of my Torah teachers. It is meant to serve as “food for thought”; moreover, I share it with the awareness that the terms of finite human beings cannot adequately describe the Infinite One.
Within the physical world, the female receives the seed from the male, who acts as the source of the seed – the first cause; thus, feminine energy is associated with receiving the seed of life in order to nurture and protect it. The Shechinah - the “feminine” aspect of the Compassionate One – expresses this energy within the spiritual realm. Our tradition, however, stresses the “masculine” aspect of the Compassionate One in order to increase our consciousness that the Compassionate One is the “First Cause” – the Source of all life!
With this consciousness, Avraham and Sarah challenged those pagan societies that had lost the awareness of the One Creator, and who worshiped various gods and goddesses. For the deification of any fragment of creation can cause human beings to lose their consciousness of the unity and common origin of all creation. Rabbi Avraham Yaffen, a noted teacher of Jewish ethics in the early 20th century, elaborates on this idea in an essay that he wrote about our father, Avraham, and his love for humanity:
“It is precisely he (Avraham), who dedicated his life to acts of lovingkindness, who was also the great zealot who dedicated his life to the negation of idolatry in his generation. The reason for this can be understood: Idolatry is based on the assumption that the various forces within the world are separate one from the other; therefore, each human being is also considered to be separate from his neighbor. Thus, our father, Avraham, found no better strategy to remove this mistaken assumption from their hearts than through acts of lovingkindness. Through this, he strengthened the spiritual bond which connects human beings.” (Mishel Avos - An anthology of Commentary on Pirkei Avos, p. 144)
Rabbi Yaffen adds that when Avraham would see the people of his generation fighting with each other, and how each would offer sacrifices to his own god in an attempt to gain support in his struggle against his neighbor, Avraham would teach them that, on the contrary, “each should help his neighbor, for one God created them and desires the honor of all of them.”
The following prophecy describes how the teachings of Avraham and Sarah will be accepted in the messianic age, and how the peoples of the world will rediscover their own unity through rediscovering the Divine unity. As the prophecy indicates, they will gain this higher consciousness through the pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem - “the House of the Shechinah”:
“It will happen in the end of days: The mountain of the Compassionate One's Temple will be firmly established as the head of the mountains, and it will be exalted above the hills, and all the nations will stream to it. Many peoples will go and say, 'Come, let us go up to the Mountain of the Compassionate One, to the Temple of the God of Jacob, and He will teach us of His ways and we will walk in His paths.' For from Zion will go forth Torah, and the word of the Compassionate One from Jerusalem. He (the Messiah) will judge among the nations, and will settle the disputes of many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation will not lift sword against nation, and they will no longer study warfare.” (Isaiah 2:2-4)
“To the Temple of the God of Jacob” – “The House of the Shechinah of the God of Jacob” (Targum).
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
A Related Teaching:
“Hashem is One” – In discussing the attributes of Hashem, our sages often use “masculine” and “feminine” terms within the same teaching, and the following teaching from the Zohar, a classical text of Kabbalah, can serve as an example:
It is written, “Draw me, we will run after You” (Song of Songs 1:4), and it is written, “I will place My Sanctuary among You” (Leviticus 26:11). Come and see: The Holy One, Blessed be He, placed His Shechinah among Israel so that She will hover over them like a mother over her children, and to protect them from all sides. (Zohar, The Song of Songs, 217)
The above teaching is cited in the noted Hebrew encyclopedia of Torah thought, “Aspaclaria,” which was compiled by Rabbi Shmuel Avraham Adler.