Oftentimes, the term Shechina is used in the tradition simply as an alternative term for God Himself, as when the Talmud asks about the verse “Follow (the ways of) God your Lord” (Deuteronomy 13:5), “is it possible for a man to follow (the ways of) the Shechina?” (Sotah 14a). Thus, that notion and the statements to the effect that the Shechina is in all places (Baba Battra 25a), and that just as the sun radiates throughout the world so does the Shechina (Sanhedrin 39a) seem to indicate that the term Shechina was oftentimes used to play-down the idea that God was restricted to any one sphere.
The term is also used in connection with the experience of God’s presence to an extreme degree as before the thorn bush in which Moses caught sight of Him, at Mount Sinai and the Tabernacle where everyone encountered His presence, and at the first Temple (see Shabbat 67a, Sotah 5a, Yoma 9b, and Shemot Rabbah 34:1), as well as the Shechina being in our midst in exile (Megillah 29a) or even in our impure state (Yoma 56b). And that, too, seems to align the term Shechina with God’s omnipresence.
But unlike the above rabbinic insights, the early Jewish philosophers were concerned with avoiding any possible anthropomorphic interpretations of the term, and went to great lengths to point out that the Shechina doesn’t refer to God Himself but rather to an independent entity that He’d created.
According to Saadiah Gaon, the term Shechina is identical with God’s “glory”, which served as an intermediary between God and man during the prophetic experience. Thus, he maintained that when Moses asked to see God’s glory, he was shown the Shechina, and when the prophets “saw” God they actually saw the Shechina (Emunot v’De’ot 2:10).
According to R’ Yehuda Halevi there are two aspects of the Shechina: the visible one, that ceased to appear in our midst with the destruction of the Holy Temple and the cessation of prophecy, but which will return with the coming of the Moshiach (Kuzari, 2:20, 23; 3:23); and the invisible Shechina, which has never disappeared and is instead “with every virtuous Jew with a pure heart and an upright mind” (ibid., 5:23). He thus managed to equate the Shechina with God and to remove it from Him at one at the same time.
And like Saadiah, Rambam also identifies the Shechina with God’s glory at a certain point (Moreh Nevuchim 1:21), yet also identified the Shechina with God Himself at another point (Ibid. 1:28).
Let’s see how the Zohar, the Kabbalists, and Ramchal himself defined the term.
(c) 2013 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman
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