Kabbalah and Eros

Kabbalah and Eros

by Moshe Idel

In this book, the world’s foremost scholar of Kabbalah explores the understanding of erotic love in Jewish mystical thought. Encompassing Jewish mystical literatures from those of late antiquity to works of Polish Hasidism, Moshe Idel highlights the diversity of Kabbalistic views on eros and distinguishes between the major forms of eroticism.

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In this book, the world’s foremost scholar of Kabbalah explores the understanding of erotic love in Jewish mystical thought. Encompassing Jewish mystical literatures from those of late antiquity to works of Polish Hasidism, Moshe Idel highlights the diversity of Kabbalistic views on eros and distinguishes between the major forms of eroticism.

The author traces the main developments of a religious formula that reflects the union between a masculine divine attribute and a feminine divine attribute, and he asks why such an “erotic formula” was incorporated into the Jewish prayer book. Idel shows how Kabbalistic literature was influenced not only by rabbinic literature but also by Greek thought that helped introduce a wider understanding of eros. Addressing topics ranging from cosmic eros and androgyneity to the affinity between C. J. Jung and Kabbalah to feminist thought, Idel’s deeply learned study will be of consuming interest to scholars of religion, Judaism, and feminism.

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Editorial Reviews

Geoffrey Hartman
"Idel, with the brilliance and learning we have come to expect, has illuminated what went into 'the culture of eros' among a large cast of rabbbinic and kabbalistic authors. His book makes for surprising and fascinating reading."—Geoffrey Hartman, Yale University

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Yale University Press
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6.10(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.30(d)

Meet the Author

MOSHE IDEL is Max Cooper Professor of Jewish Thought, Hebrew University, and senior researcher at the Shalom Hartman Institute, Jerusalem. He is the author of Absorbing Perfections (winner of the Koret Prize for Jewish Thought), Kabbalah, and Messianic Mystics, all published by Yale University Press.

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Copyright © 2005 Moshe Idel
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-10832-3

Chapter One


Any significant historical and conceptual analysis of medieval Jewish mystical literature must take into consideration the relevance of a variety of influential sources. First and foremost is the variety of rabbinic themes and practices, of esoteric themes found in Jewish written and oral traditions, then the impact of a variety of non-Jewish literary corpora, philosophical, mystical, astro-magical, belles lettres, stemming from or deeply influenced by a variety of religions: Christian, Muslim, Greek, Hellenistic, and even Iranian and Hindu. According to studies published in the last decade, especially by Simo Parpola, even concepts stemming from the remote Mesopotamian forms of religion might have had some impact on Kabbalah. An acute awareness of the complexity of possible sources is necessary also with regard to the treatment of eros and sex. The following chapters explore visions about eros and sex in some medieval and premodern Jewish texts belonging to different schools of Kabbalah and Hasidism. By and large those mystical schools produced traditionalist forms of literature, which strove tomaintain a significant and ongoing dialogue with earlier layers of nonmystical forms of Jewish and non-Jewish literature. In some cases these interpretive writings moved beyond earlier Jewish modes of thought, either by emphasizing elements that were marginal in their sources or by adopting views found in alien types of thought. Thus, for an understanding of the emergence of kabbalistic and Hasidic concepts of eros and sex, a succinct survey of topics found in ancient and medieval sources which inspired some of the stands of Kabbalah and Hasidism is necessary. Needless to say, this brief survey cannot be exhaustive. It will, however, raise some questions about the status of eros and sex in some prekabbalistic layers of Jewish literature and their adumbration of fuller developments in the main body of literatures that will concern us in the following chapters, Kabbalah and Hasidism.

1. Biblical Models of Eros

There can be no doubt that the Bible is the founding book of Judaism. Biblical discussions concerning eros and sex reverberate in all other forms of Jewish literature, though they were understood in a variety of forms. Notwithstanding the formative role of exegesis in shaping the reception of earlier texts in new circumstances, we should be aware of the existence of both biblical and prebiblical views. Some of the latter, which were never accepted in a clear manner in the Scriptures, like the famous inscriptions found in the desert of Sinai, where the 'Asherah is mentioned as if the consort of YHWH, might nevertheless have had some form of subterraneous career, hard to detect and whose affinities to later, similar stands are even harder to prove.

Four main areas of discussion in the Bible represent different visions of eros. First is the discussion in Genesis of the manner in which the first couple was created and the implication of that manner of creation for the future relationship between men and women. Genesis 1:27, which explicitly describes the creation of both man and woman in an image of the divine, should be compared to Ezekiel 1:27, where the likeness of man on the throne is described in terms which imply both male and female aspects. I shall designate this category as the mythical-paradigmatic mode, and some of the treatments of this topic in medieval literature will be addressed in chapter 2.

Another biblical discussion deals with the legal obligations of the Israelite husband toward his wife, including sexual satisfaction, and various laws of purity conceived of as regulating the marital sexual rapports, which have a much more formal and prescriptive structure than the more mythological one in the Genesis paragraphs. This is, for example, the case of Exodus 21:10. Some of these issues, which will remain at the margin of the following discussion, had an impact on important segments of kabbalistic literature, which was haunted by questions of purity and impurity. What is quintessential for a proper understanding of the commandment of 'onah is the fact that it constitutes an obligation like any other religious obligations a husband assumes at the moment of marriage. Though the frequency of those sexual encounters may vary according to the husband's profession, its obligatory nature is quite evident. It has to do not with sex in general, but with the imperative to supply forms of well-being to the wife, like food and garments. The term 'onah as a religious obligation is commonly connected not to the sexual satisfaction of the husband but to the special sexual needs of his wife.

The third area of interest is the individual eros as found in the Song of Songs, a book which became a major source of inspiration and attracted many commentaries. Though the book itself deals with interhuman eroticism, it has been understood since rabbinic and patristic literatures as teaching a human-divine relationship. It is possible that some prophets had already been influenced by the themes of this book when formulating their covenantal thought. In the same context, the polarity between two elements, the divine male and the female power as a representative of the Jewish nation, characteristic of most of the readings of the covenantal theology, parallels the male/female polarity in Genesis 1:27, and according to some readings also that of Ezekiel 1:27.

Last, but not least: the covenantal nature of the relationship between God and the people of Israel has been described in some passages of the biblical prophets using matrimonial imagery, and several erotic themes can be detected in the biblical theology of the covenant. Most important for the subsequent developments that will concern us below is Isaiah 50:1, where the people of Israel are told that because of their iniquities and transgressions their mother has been given a bill of divorce. This personification of the people of Israel in the figure of a mother whose matrimonial relation depends upon the religious behavior of the nation she represents had deep repercussions on some trends of national thought, what I shall designate "ethnoeroticism," which will be dealt with in more detail in chapter 3.

All four forms of discussion can be described as horizontal, by which I mean the forms of relations between entities are found on the same ontological plane. This horizontality is obvious in the first three categories, where male and female human beings are involved in certain forms of erotic relations. In the fourth category, dealing with God and the elected nation as His wife, this feature is less evident. One may claim that God as the transcendental male stands in a vertical relation to the nation living in the mundane world, envisioned as female, an entity active on another plane than the divine, assuming as I do that the metaphysical structure of the covenant implies a hierarchy. However, the type of sexual and erotic imagery used in the covenantal theology found in the Pentateuch and in some of the prophets can be understood as horizontally descriptive. Israel as a corporate personality is described as following God in the desert, just as a wife follows her husband. When revealing Himself at Sinai, God is descending upon the mountain, arriving on the same ontic plane with the children of Israel. Or, to put it differently: even Moses was not asked by God, according to the biblical account, to transcend his human status in order to ascend on high and enter another ontological realm; he did not become a divine figure, not even an angel. At most, his face was illumined after his descent. Thus, we may speak about a biblical propensity to prefer horizontal relationships in all four categories, at least when the imagery involved in the expressions of these relations is concerned. All these forms of conceptualization carefully maintain a distinction between the male and the female, not only de facto, in the present, but also in the ideal forms of relationship.

Needless to say, these disparate biblical sources, written at different periods by various authors, who treated diverse topics, do not constitute a unified vision, and no scholar (if he does not subscribe to a theological project) should reasonably undertake an attempt to reconstruct such a view if he accepts a critical approach. However, the canonization of all these forms of literature, which expressed these four categories, invited harmonistic interpretations by traditional authors who combined the different concepts of eros. So, for example, the covenantal expressions have been understood in terms influenced by the Song of Songs, while the latter has been understood as teaching covenantal forms of relation. Also the Adam/Eve relationship has been used to convey the covenantal relation between God and Israel. In the following chapters we shall see various attempts to interpret the different biblical models described above within metaphysical structures which emerged in postbiblical periods. However, first let me attempt to distinguish among different biblical treatments of a variety of issues which belong to our topic.

2. Remarks on Eros and Sex in the Book of Genesis

The attraction between man and woman is explained in the book of Genesis twice: once, when it is said that man, seeing that the woman was taken from his side, exclaimed: "'This is now bone of my bones, flesh out of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.' This is why a man leaves his father and his mother, and cleaves to his wife; and they become one flesh." The first verse deals with an etymological issue, the name of woman, 'yishah, as derived from that of man, 'yish, as pointing to the extraction of the former from the later. The Hebrew verb translated as "taken out" is luqqahah, which can be understood in a more intensive manner or in a less intensive one. The first reading may assume a violent extraction of the female out of the male, and create a nexus between violence and sex, as has been suggested by Samuel Terrien. A less intensive reading would diminish the violent aspect of the creation and conceive it as closer to a benevolent intervention intended to help Adam without harming him. According to Umberto Cassuto, this verb should be understood as implying the final return of woman to man, an issue that may have something to do with the Septuagint. The Syrian and the Latin translations of the noun teshuqah in the Genesis verse reflects the Hebrew term teshuvah, namely the return. In any case, it would be interesting to compare this division with the cosmic creative acts of God earlier in the same chapter, where He is described as dividing natural entities. Seen from this perspective, division is not only an act intended to solve the particular plight of Adam, but a more general mode of activity in illo tempore.

The second verse attempts to formulate the primordial event as a paradigmatic one, and we may describe it as an etiological effort. The first man, Adam, becomes everyman. The erotic or sexual attraction is therefore envisioned in terms of an attempt to return to the initial state. Is the Bible conceiving the sexual union as the reconstruction of the lost state of organic union between the male and the female? Given the brevity of the biblical passage, so characteristic of the style of the Bible in general, it is difficult to answer this question in a definitive manner. We may attempt, following Cassuto's proposal, to discern in the verb ya'azov, "he leaves," meaning the separation between man and his parents, an implication for the verb we-davaq, "he will cleave." Just as in the case of the parents and the son, the initial organic union dissipates with birth, though the emotional linkage emerges and remains in force long afterward, the cleaving with the woman has the same momentary nature, though the emotional aspects may last much longer. What may be the nature of the leaving of the parents is, again, unfortunately not so clear; in a patriarchal society as the biblical one was, the woman was supposed to leave her parents and come to the place of her husband, which was that of his parents. Thus, the act of leaving the parents may consist not precisely in a spatial departure, but in an emotional distantiation. If so, the cleaving to one's wife may represent not only a corporeal adhesion but also an emotional one. Or, to put it in more explicit terms: sexual union implies, in the biblical verses, emotional aspects.

Becoming "one flesh" in the second verse must be seen as reflecting "flesh" in the first verse. However, if one is allowed to speculate about the absence of the "bones" in the second verse, we may assume that a return to the primordial state is not fully envisioned even if one should stress the strength of the becoming "one flesh" to its maximum. If I am correct, then the first verse, dealing with the unique and primordial event in the past, serves as a paradigm for a less unitive experience, described in the second verse, which deals with the common experience in the present. A superficial reading of Genesis 2 will construe verse 24 as a later gloss, intended to insert a moralistic updating in the middle of a mythological discourse.

Let us turn to the description of the woman's attraction to man: after Eve's sin she is cursed by God (Genesis 3:16), one of several curses on her being formulated as follows: "and yet thy desire shall be to thy husband; and he will rule over thee." Eve's desire for Adam and her subordination can be conceived as two different curses, or as one which is more complex. Is the sexual impulse of women part of her subordination? Or are the two topics different issues? It is hard to answer the question insofar as the Bible is concerned. In any case, here again the primordial events-both Eve's sin and God's curse-are conceived of as paradigmatic: they not only affect the fate of the first couple but reverberate throughout history. Thus primordial events are conceived of as explaining the present ones. Moreover, these events deal with the relations between men and God. In the first case, God is creating female in order to help man, thus a positive act; in the other He curses woman to desire and subordination, thus a negative one. The Genesis subordination of the women to men is reversed in Song of Songs 7:11, where the beloved declares that the desire of her lover is directed toward her.

My analyses above are reminiscent of an understanding of the category of myth as formulated by Paul Ricoeur: "Myth will here be taken to mean what the history of religion now finds in it: not a false explanation by means of images and fables, but a traditional narration which relates to events that happened at the beginning of time and which has the purpose of providing grounds for the ritual actions of men of today and, in a general manner, establishing all the forms of action and thought by which man understands himself in the world."

The verses from Genesis 2 can be understood as using a mythologem of the two-faced human being-reminiscent of though not identical with that of the androgyne or hermaphrodite-in order to explain the attraction between the two sexes in the nonprimordial times, an issue that will preoccupy us in the next chapter.


Excerpted from KABBALAH AND EROS by MOSHE IDEL Copyright © 2005 by Moshe Idel. Excerpted by permission.
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