Friday, April 20, 2007

Last Days of Pesah (Shir Hashirim)

For further teachings on this subject, see the archives to my blog for April 2006.


This past Shabbat we read Shir ha-Shirim, the Song of Songs, that ancient yet ever-fresh book of love poetry: of love between man and woman, between God and Israel, and between the human soul and its Creator. Hence, it seems an appropriate time to return to some issues relating to man and woman. I have for some time been thinking and working on a major project, a study of what might be called a theology of sexuality in Judaism. This theme is one that by its nature draws largely on the opening chapters of Genesis: and indeed, the opening study in this series on Rashi, which I presented on Shabbat Bereshit on the verse “And they shall be one flesh” (Gen 2:24), was intended as a beginning of that series. Today I wish to present two more essay-studies on other Rashi passages from that same section.

Interestingly, Rav Soloveitchik, whose 14th Yahrzeit fell this past Friday (18 Nissan), was much interested in both these texts. His great essay of philosophical anthropology, The Lonely Man of Faith, is couched as a midrash on Chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis (albeit the relation of man and woman is discussed there primarily as paradigmatic of the human community—the couple and the family being the smallest and most basic cell of human community); while his typology on the nature of religious experience, Uvikashta misham, begins with a lyrical passage based on themes from Shir ha-Shirim.

Sexuality by its very nature involves duality: the duality of man and woman, the duality of human beings’ potential for both good and evil, the back and forth dance of love itself, and other dualities. The union of man and woman can be one of our greatest earthly joys, a situation in which the ordinary person may most readily encounter ecstasy, both emotional and physical, and in which he/she may even encounter a certain sense of the holy. It is this that is expressed by Shir Hashirim, on both its literal and metaphorical levels, as well as by the Sheva Berakhot, the blessings recited at every Jewish wedding feast, which I see as a kind of midrash on the chapter of Bereshit concerning the creation of man and woman. But sexuality also has its negative, demonic side. I see this encapsulated in a certain way in the curse of Eve in Gen 3:16, as well as in the possibility of its perversion in the chapters on forbidden relations (Lev 18, 20), which we shall read in a few weeks. I will elaborate on these more problematic themes at that time, in Aharei Mot-Kedoshim.

“The First Human was Created Androgynous”: Two Creations or One Creation?

Shortly before the verse discussed in our earlier study (HY VIII: Bereshit), in which a man leaves his parents to cleave to his wife and to become one flesh, we read of the creation of the first woman from man. After God brings all of the various animals and beasts before Adam as potential companions, without success (although Adam does give each one a suitable name), God casts a deep sleep upon him:

Gen 2:21. “And the Lord God cast a deep sleep upon the man, and he slept, and he took one of his tzela’ot (ribs? limbs? sides?) and closed the flesh beneath it.” Rashi: “One of his tzela’ot.” From his side, as in the verse, “And on the side (tzela’) of the Tabernacle” [Exod 26:20]. This is what we have said: They were created with two faces/sides.

This verse is often thought of in modern times as the height of male chauvinism, establishing the inferiority of woman by the fact that she was fashioned from man. But Rashi—who is very brief here, if not cryptic—clearly states that this is not so: the word צלע, often translated in the Christian tradition as “rib,” in fact means “side” or “half” of the body; a proof-text is invoked from the description of the construction of the Sanctuary in the wilderness. The original human had two sides; one became man, the other woman. Hence, there is no inherent inferiority to woman; man and woman were created as equal in stature.

To understand this motif more clearly, let us examine Rashi’s sources. This is based a midrashic motif that appears in several different places—Genesis Rabbah 8.1; Lev. Rab. 14.1; Midrash Shohar Tov (Tehillim) 139.5; b. Berakhot 61a; b. Eruvin 18a; and, in truncated form in a halakhic discussion, at Ketubot 8a—each with certain variations.

Genesis Rabbah 8.1. “Fore and aft You have created me” [Ps 139:5]… R. Jeremiah b. Eleazar said: When God created the first man, he created him androgynous. Of this it is written, “Male and female he created them… and he called their name Adam” [Gen 5:2]. R. Shmuel b. Nahman said: When God created the first man, He created him diprisophon (i.e., with two faces), and severed him and made him two backs—one back facing this way, and one back the other. They challenged him: But is it not written, “And he took one of his tzela’ot” [Gen 2:21]? He replied: [One] of his two sides (sitrohi), as one says, “And the side (tzela’) of the Sanctuary” [Exod 26:20], and its [Aramaic] translation is, velistar mishkena.

How are we to imagine this first human being? Like Siamese twins, with two heads, four arms and four legs, and two torsos, who simply needed to be separated into two individuals? And were they, perhaps, in sexual embrace (“the beast with the two backs”), whom could reasonably be described as Siamese twins joined at the genitals? According to one midrash, particularly beloved by some of our latter-day prophets of a re-eroticized Judaism, the Roman invaders were scandalized upon breaking into the Holy of Holies to discover that the cherubs that crowned the Holy Ark were representations of a male and female figure in intimate embrace. Or was he/she, as the word androgynous is used today, a single individual, with a dual sexual nature?

It seems significant that, in the versions from the great midrashic collections, such as that quoted above, the sexually androgynous nature of the human being is but one of many dualities mentioned, alongside moral, existential and philosophic dualities, all of them inferred from the verse “fore and aft You have formed me.” (For a fuller discussion of this passage see HY III: Bereshit, or Bereshit (Midrash) in the blog archives for October 2005)

I will begin my discussion by reiterating a point I have often made in the past: midrash is to be read, not as a literal account of events, but as myth, in the positive sense: as an image, a paradigm, used to convey some universal, eternal truth about human beings or the world. To say that something is myth is not to dismiss it as untrue, but to acknowledge that it expresses a depth-insight that cannot be expressed as well in conceptual language. The question then, as Levinas would say, is what issue is being discussed by the rabbis in the guise of this seemingly mythical language?

What, precisely, is the point of the distinction between “androgynous” (or “hermaphrodite”) and diprosaphon or du-partzufi (i.e., Janus faced?) in the Talmudic reading of this midrash? I read the idea of the first human being as androgynous as suggesting that the archetypal human being transcends sexuality, so that each of the two sexes represents only a part of the full range of human capacities. The primal androgynous represents an ideal image of humanity, combining the ideal characteristics of both sexes (bracketing the contemporary issues as to whether these are innate or “cultural constructs,” and certainly whether they are “politically correct”): initiative, abstract intellectual qualities, creativity, physical strength, leadership qualities, “conquering worlds,” of the male; and the more nurturing, intuitive, tender, intimate, home-building qualities, connected to the stuff of life itself, and typically more readily sacrificing self for others, of the female. (These spiritual qualities seem to be symbolized by the Kabbalistic identification of male and female with the qualities of mind known as hokhmah and binah, “Wisdom” and “Understanding/Intuition”; sexual union, known as da’at, “knowledge, is simultaneously a merger or synthesis of the two. See Chapter 1 of Pseudo-Ramban’s Iggeret ha-Kodesh.) Of course, no individual embodies all of these qualities. Their presence in the paradigmatic Adam suggests that neither sex is sufficient unto itself. The fully human is a synthesis of the two, that doesn’t exist in realty, but only in the archetypal world of the Golden Age, of Creation itself.

The du-partzufi image, on the other hand, suggests two fully-formed individuals, man and woman, who were originally joined and then, as part of their creation, severed in two. Here the emphasis is on man/woman as an incomplete creature, who seeks completion through mating with a partner, who is so-to-speak a lost part of himself. Or shall we say, rather, that human life is a constant two-step dance of uniting and parting, autonomy and togetherness, the relationship/community of man and woman being a basic, elemental part of world. (An interesting Jerusalemite strictly-Orthodox female Kabbalah teacher and scholar, Sarah Yehudit Schneider, has written at length about these issues in her Kabbalistic Writings on the Nature of Masculine and Feminine)

I see at least three basic ideas implied by these midrashim:

1. The basic common humanity of man and woman. The differences between the sexes, insofar as based on status or power, are temporary imperfections (even if long-standing in terms of historical time), and not innate. The curse of Eve, as the origin of male supremacy, is a fault in the world as we know it.

2. Sexual attraction as a search for a lost part of oneself. Elsewhere (at the end of b. Kiddushin) Hazal compare a man’s quest for a mate to that of one seeking a lost article. Marriage, and its sexual consummation, is a restoration of the primordial state of oneness. That is why various firms of solipsistic sexual gratification—i.e., those oriented toward self-pleasure alone—are seen as contradicting this verse (see Sanhedrin 58a-b, where the entire Noachide teaching on sexuality is learned from Gen 2:24).

3. Male and female are present in the psyche of each person (as in the Jungian notion of the animus and the anima, a part within the psyche representing the opposite sex within the individual’s own identity). Hence male and female, man and woman, are not exclusively, or even primarily, biological, physical concepts, but spiritual definitions. Each is a component of the “full stature” of humanity. Therefore, a person must seek wholeness not only through personal integration, but through his relationship with a partner.

In the Talmudic discussion, two further elements are introduced: were man and woman created in one act of creation, or in two separate acts? (Some say that the third and fourth of the seven nuptial blessings allude to these two aspects of human creation.) And was the “side” or “rib” from which Eve was created a face or a tail? At first blush, the latter view sounds like an insult to woman. But Emmanuel Levinas, in his Nine Talmudic Readings (Bloomington–Indianapolis: Indiana U. Pr., 1990, pp. 161-177), suggests that the issue here is whether the essence of sexuality has to do with a spiritual difference between man and woman, something about the human essence of each, or whether the difference between them is in fact a strictly biological, functional difference, relating to the “lower” functions of the body—what is referred to in the Talmudic versions as “the tail.” That is, the point is not that woman is “tail-like,” but that she shares in the full, singular humanity of man, and it is only their relatively marginal biological functioning that makes the sexes different.

An Interesting Postscript: Just over six months ago, I was present at a wedding at which Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat recited the fourth of the seven blessings. He made a small but significant departure change from the usual version of this blessing, printed in all the Siddurim and “benchers.” Rather than the traditional:

ברוך אתה ה' אלקינו מלך העולם, אשר יצר את האדם בצלמו, בצלם דמות תבניתו, והתקין לו ממנו בנין עדי עד. ברוך אתה ה' יוצר האדם. Blessed are You, O Lord God King of the universe, who has formed man in His image, in the image and likeness of His pattern, and created for him an eternal building. Blessed are You, who forms man.

He read:

ברוך אתה ה' אלקינו מלך העולם, אשר יצר את האדם בצלמו, ובצלם דמות תבניתו התקין לו ממנו בנין עדי עד. ברוך אתה ה' יוצר האדם. Blessed are You, O Lord God King of the universe, who has formed man in His image, and in the image and likeness of his pattern created for him an eternal building. Blessed are You, who forms man.

By moving the conjunctive letter vav, and thus grouping the phrases together differently, the whole syntax of this sentence changes. It is clear in the latter version that woman is not merely an appendage of man created to provide as a “eternal building”—in vulgar terms, a breeding machine, a source of ongoing offspring and thus eternal continuity—but herself made in the Divine image and likeness just as is man. This change is highly significant—far more egalitarian, and portraying the relationship between the sexes in far more complementary terms.

Though I had heard about this alternative reading, I had until then never heard it recited publicly nor seen it in print. I approached Rav Riskin afterwards to ask him about this, and he explained that he had learned this reading from Rav Soloveitchik, and that other students of Rav Soloveitchik (including Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, who was also present at this wedding) also used it. It seems clear that this reading is as ancient and legitimate as the more familiar one. Later, I consulted the article in Encyclopaedia Talmudica (IV.646) on Birkat Hatanim, where I found the sources for this alternative reading given as Semag, Aseh §48, citing R. Saadia Gaon.


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