Monday, October 27, 2008

Bereshit (Supplement)

The One and the Two: On God, Man and Woman-- Towards a Jewish Theory of Sexuality


The idea of writing a series of studies on the Judaic understanding of sexuality originated several years ago, during the course of my studies of Rambam. In those studies, we noted that Rambam, in his treatment of sexual matters, posits a sharp dichotomy between spirit and matter, between mind and body—and, by extension, between male and female (see HY V: Emor). Essentially, in Hilkhot De’ot and other sources, he describes sexuality as: (a) the means by which the human race (and the Jewish people) reproduces itself; (b) a kind of hygienic necessity, to be indulged in only when absolutely necessary; (c) a marital duty of the husband towards his wife. The path of maximum holiness, like that of Moses, “the father of the prophets… the teacher of all Israel,” is that of celibacy, of withdrawal from and transcendence of all such bodily needs.

For we moderns, this approach is problematic in two different ways. First, we are far more aware than were our medieval forebears of the personhood of woman, of woman as a spiritual-intellectual as well as a biological being. We tend to see marriage as an institution whereby the two sexes complement one another, achieving wholeness. (See Rav Soloveitchik’s teachings on this subject, e.g. in his respective eulogies of the Talner Rebbe and the Talner Rebbitzin and, especially, in his book Family Redeemed). Second, living in the post-Freudian age, we see sexual pleasure as a vital part of the complete life, and celibacy (i.e., self-imposed sexual frustration), not as a path to holiness, but as more likely an obstacle to mental health. To put matters simply, as a culture we like sex, and are not embarrassed to admit it.

But on another level, sexuality is an area in which our culture is deeply troubled, confused and conflicted—whether aware of it or not—and, as I have written in the past, headed on a potentially dangerous path in terms of social cohesion: if the smallest cell of society, the family, is in trouble, this must inevitably reflect back on society as a whole. But more on that another time.

My treatment of this issue began during Year VIII of Hitzei Yehonatan, in my discussions of Rashi. In three separate passages in Parashat Bereshit, Rashi makes significant comments on man and woman, which in turn prompted further reflection. Two of these I commented on in that series (HY VIII: Bereshit; Hol Ha-Mo’ed Pesah); I have reposted these essays on my blog for the reader’s convenience. The third and final essay in this series is presented below.

This is preceded by a more theoretical essay, in which I attempt to present a certain new model for thinking about sexuality within a traditional Jewish framework. I will also append two other as-yet-unpublished essays related to this theme.

I. The One and the Two: On God, Man and Woman

God is one. Man and woman are two.

God is one, but the universe He created is multiple, divided into different, at times even conflicting, objects. All multiplicity, conceptually, philosophically, begins with two. Even atoms, the smallest building blocks of the universe, are composed of positive and negative particles. In Genesis, creation is described as beginning with the division into two: light and darkness, heaven and earth, water and dry land, sun and moon—therein laying the basis for havdalah, separation, as the necessary counterpoint to kedushah, sanctification… and ending with the duality of man and woman. Halakhic thinking begins largely with dualities or separations—pure and impure, holy and mundane, Shabbat and weekday, milk and meat, etc. Thus, too, the traditions of the Far East adopted the yin-yang as a basic symbol for universe.

This basic duality is epitomized in the duality of the sexes, of male and female. Indeed, sexuality is the very paradigm for duality. Even in the linguistic sense, sexuality relates to two-ness. The English word “sex” is derived from the Latin sexus, which in turn is derived from the root secare, meaning “to split / to divide in two”— the same root from which we derive such familiar words as “section,” “second,” etc.

The problem of unity and multiplicity is an essential one in religious thought (as noted by Martin Buber, among others). Unlike the pristine unity of the Divine in which God dwells in the hidden recesses of the Infinite, the dynamic, ever-changing aspect of life is related to twoness, to duality. The duality embodied in sexuality is thus that instrument by which God fills His world with life, the mechanism through which He acts in the world. Far from being antagonistic to the principle of unity, it embodies the vital force of the One within a multifaceted universe. Beyond the level of the simplest organisms, all life—mammals, birds, fish, even vegetation and many species of insects—reproduces itself through sex. This is so of necessity: all life, all change, all growth, comes about through the interaction of two beings. This assumes concrete form in the creation of life through sexual union and in the very laws of genetics that govern sexual reproduction; every child is a kind of synthesis of its two parents: not a clone, but a new being, reflecting something of the being of each one, while also being something new. Thus, just as every breath taken by a living creature may be seen as God breathing life into His world, so too is every act of coupling, whether of human or beast, an act in which God, so to speak, replenishes and revitalizes the life of His universe.

But human sexuality involves further antinomies and polarities. It is this fact that lies at the root of medieval philosophers being wont to speak of the two sexes in terms of spirit, or form, and matter. Translated into modern concepts, we might speak of: consciousness and biological impulse or, in more philosophical terms, determinism and freedom. Sexuality embraces the most intensely personal elements of life, the longing for emotional, spiritual, intellectual completion through union with another; at the same time, the act of union may be, and often is, limited to its purely physical, instinctual aspect; indeed, it may be a brute, violent, even non-consensual act, powered by what we call pure lust—that is, drive or instinct.

There is thus much duality and ambiguity in sexuality in the moral sense as well. One need hardly belabor the point that sex involves the potential for good or for evil; it is one of those areas in which the ordinary person is confronted with moral choices. Christian moralists often speak of love and lust as opposed poles, tantamount to good and evil. Hazal, the Jewish Sages of yore, spoke of Yetzer Hara, of “the Evil Urge,” predominantly, or paradigmatically, in sexual terms—as the desire for sex with forbidden partners. So, too, the examples of “compete teshuvah,” whether the archetypal case invoked by Rambam in Teshuvah 2.1 or that of the profligate Eleazar ben Dordai in Avodah Zarah 17a, involve sexual transgression.

This duality is also expressed in the very polarity of self and other entailed in sexuality. In the sexual act, one derives pleasure from an act committed with an Other, while simultaneously giving pleasure to the other. What is the balance of self-pleasuring and other-pleasuring? There is giving and taking; generosity and selfishness; love and deceit; pretense of love and authentic, whole-hearted caring commitment; perception of the other as an object, used for one’s own pleasure, or as a subject, a locus of consciousness in his/her own right; of deception, of self and of other, and honest confusion: all of the subtle, mercurial ebb and flow and changes of human emotion. (So long as Western culture has the sexual norms it currently has—and I don’t expect radical changes in this area in my lifetime—of wide acceptance of sex outside of marriage, so that the ordinary person will have experience with several partners in the natural course of things, often rather casually, these moral problems will be accentuated and the concern of the many.) Of course, the moral ambiguities involved in sexuality echo the moral choices involved in human existence generally; or, put differently, the duality of human nature itself.

There are also dualities in love itself: in the ebb and flow of desire and satisfaction, of coming together and separating, indeed, in the polarity existing even in the most intimate relationship between bonding and autonomy, between the two basic human needs for individuation and coupling, the need for the other and for space for oneself. (As many have noted, this is reflected in the halakhah in the laws of niddah, in the constitutive laws of marital law, with their insistence that there is “a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing” [Eccles 3:5].)

II. “And The Two of Them Were Naked and Were not Ashamed”

“Was there, or could there ever be… a reconciliation between sexuality and innocence?“ (Anita Shreve, Where or When, p. 212)

Let us begin with a simple question: was the apple, the “forbidden fruit” eaten in the Garden, a metaphor for sexuality? What exactly happened in the Garden between the Serpent, Eve and Adam? And: did Adam and Eve already have sexual relations in the Garden, in a perfectly natural way, or did this only happen in the wake of their disobeying God by eating the fruit? As we shall see presently, these questions have far-reaching ramifications for the basic attitudes towards sexuality, and the diverse answers given to it are emblematic of the differences between Christianity and Judaism. We shall begin with a Rashi on a somewhat later verse:

“And Adam knew Eve, his wife, and she conceived and bore a son, Cain…” (Gen 4:1). Rashi: “And Adam knew…” (veha-adam yada’). Already prior to the above matter, before they sinned and were expelled from the Garden of Eden; similarly regarding conception and birth. For had it been written , ve-yada’ adam, “then knew Adam…”, this would imply that after they had been expelled he begat children.

Rashi begins with a seemingly technical question—When did Eve become pregnant with Cain? Building his argument on an almost technical linguistic point, he observes that, in other verses which speak of various figures having carnal knowledge of their wives, the phrase used is always in the form va-yeda’ peloni et ishto (see, e.g., Gen 4:17, 25), using the verbal form conventionally known as the future tense, but which in biblical grammar denotes the imperfect tense—indicating an incomplete, continuous or ongoing act, whether past, present, or future. Thus, “and Kain knew his wife…” Here the phrase is the opposite, vaha-adam yada’ et hava ishto, phrased in the past perfect, completed form of the verb, meaning “and Adam had known his wife Eve…” Thus, the first sexual act had already taken place some time prior to what is described immediately preceding this verse—namely, the conversation with the serpent, the eating of the forbidden fruit, the punishments meted out by God, and the subsequent banishment from the Garden (thus, Rashi on 3:1 already notes that the serpent had seen the two engaged in intercourse and desired Eve, and therefore devised this plan to cause Adam to die).

This point is exemplary for one of the crucial difference between Judaism and Christianity. In Christian readings of the Garden story, Original Sin is closely linked to sexuality. There are hints in their sources that, prior to eating the fruit, Adam and Eve sported together in virginal innocence, like children; sexual knowledge was the direct result of eating the forbidden fruit, or may even itself have been the “knowledge” alluded to in the tree’s very name.

A classical example of the Christian reading of this passage is that of John Milton in Paradise Lost—namely, that all sexuality ultimately the devil’s doing, a consequence of Original Sin. In Book IX he describes the consequences of eating the fruit of the tree, as follows:

As with new Wine intoxicated both / they swim in mirth, and fancy that they feel / Divinity within them breeding wings / Wherewith to scorn Earth: but that false Fruit Far other operation first display’d, Carnal desire inflaming, hee on Eve Began to cast lascivious Eyes, she him as wantonly repaid; in Lust they burn: Till Adam thus ‘gan Eve to dalliance move. … There they thir fill of Love and Love’s disport took largely, of their mutual guilt the Seal, The solace of thir sin …. (Book IX: 1008-1016, 1042-1044; New York: Odyssey Press, 1962, ed. M. Y. Hughes, pp. 229-230)

Thus, sex in and of itself is both the seal and solace of their mutual guilt—an act of pleasure to compensate for their having disobeyed God.

In Judaism, by contrast, while there does seem to be a certain sexual component to the sin (see HY I: Bereshit), another view sees it as having to do it basically with the discovery of moral choice, the introduction into human life of behirah hofshit. The exercise of choice, the decision to disobey God, or even the very discovery of that possibility, is itself the “fall from grace.” In that sense, eating the fruit was both inevitable and necessary for human beings to become fully mature, morally responsible, to exercise freedom in any meaningful sense. (See on this, for example, Erich Fromm, You Shall be as Gods; as well as numerous midrashim and commentaries from the mainstream of the tradition).

And yet, whenever I read this chapter, I cannot escape the feeling that there is also a certain sexual resonance to the story as well. Note the references to nakedness—first, “and the two of them were naked, the man and his wife, and they were not ashamed/bashful” (Gen 2:25)—and thereafter, “and the eyes of the two were opened, and they knew that they were naked, and they sewed fig leaves…” (3:7). While “nakedness” could be read in these verses as a metaphor for ignorance or moral bankruptcy, they also suggest, indeed, invite, a sexual meaning. Hence, I would suggest a third reading, one that places the meaning of this story somewhere between Milton and Fromm: that clearly, the story has something to do with sexuality, but not it alone.

I would suggest that what they discovered at that moment was the potential for non-innocence in sexuality. Until then (and here we return full circle to the subject with which we started), their sexuality had been an idyllic, Shir ha-Shirim taking of innocent delight in one another. (NB: in Song of Songs innocence is a state of mind, which in no way contradicts full consummation: as in שם אתן דודי לך [Cant 7:13] or לא ידעתי נפשי שמתני מרכבות עמי נדיב [ibid., 6:12].) It is this utterly guileless, conflict-free, almost childlike mutual pleasuring that was the gift of joy they were given in each other by their Creator, alluded to (with nostalgia for the lost Eden? as a living option?) in the nuptial formula כשמחיך יצירך בגן עדן מקדם (“as your Creator rejoiced you in the garden of Eden as of old”).

The poisoned fruit came into play in the introduction of elements of power and competition into the relations between man and woman. Many years ago (HY II: Bereshit), I wrote a kind of “creative midrash” on this theme, suggesting, somewhat fancifully, that the traumatic event was, or might have been, the first rape. But more recently, I realized that the textual proof of this motif had been staring me in the face all along: in the verse where God administers curses or punishments to the serpent, to Eve, and to Adam—which are really no more than the sad facts of life in the new post-Edenic world. For the woman, these involve two things: first, that pregnancy and childbirth will be filled with pain and difficulty; second, ואל אישך תשוקתך והוא ימשל בך—“To your husband/man shall be your longing, but he shall rule over you.” No longer do we have childlike, spontaneous sexuality, but a framework of domination, of imposition of the will of one over the other.

Of course, the Shir ha-Shirim aspect of sexuality still exists. It is that of which romance is made, the stuff of delight-filled love affairs; it is the source of the hope and joy that make weddings such special events. For a fortunate few, it may even be the dominant mode of their marriages through a lifetime (I have a friend, now 92, who always refers to his wife as “my good wife”). But if so, it always exists in an uneasy truce with another, second theme, a sort of counterpoint in a minor, even dissonant key, which is also very much part of human life. The Bible seems to present two basic archetypes of human sexuality: on the one hand, the idyllic one of the Garden and Song of Songs; on the other, the poisoned fruit found in the curses at the end of Genesis 3, the proscriptions of Leviticus 18 and, even more so, the fulfilled-desire-turned-into-hatred of 2 Samuel 13:15 (Amnon and Tamar).

All this brings us back to the broader issues of free will, of the freedom of choice to do what one wants as implying both good and evil. That one makes choices on the basis of impulse, reason, conscience, intuition—i.e., the whole gamut of human faculties—but no longer simply as obedient, innocent children of the Almighty father-God.

III. “And They Shall Be One Flesh”

After the first Woman was taken from the side of the first Man (it should be noted that Adam is not a personal name, but simply the generic term for man; throughout Genesis 1-4, he is consistently referred to by the definite article: ha-Adam, “The Man”; similar, until Gen 4:1, his partner is not called “Eve,” but “The Woman,” ha-Ishah), he exclaims, “This time, [she is] bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for she was taken from Man” (Gen 2:23). Unlike the animals and beasts, who were brought before him in vv. 19-20, and whom he feels to be alien to him, she is of the same stuff as he. The Bible (in narrative voice) then continues: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife, and they shall be of one flesh” (v. 24). Rashi comments here:

“One flesh.” The fetus is formed by both of them, and in it their flesh becomes one. (Sanhedrin 28b)

The phrase “one flesh” may be understood in several ways. A literal, common-sense reading, might easily see in this phrase a graphic, concrete, even earthy description of man and woman engaged in the sexual act—an act during which, at least for a few moments, their flesh is in some sense literally one (“the creature with two backs”). Certainly, this reading comes aptly to the modern reader, living in a culture for which the moment of sexual union and pleasure tends to be the focus and center of what we think of as sexuality.

In the ancient world, this phrase was read in a slightly different way: not the sexual act as the manifestation of being “one flesh,” but the sexual act making the two into “one flesh” in the legal sense: that is, that marriage and/or sexual union creates an indivisible union. Thus, according to Prof. Aharon Shemesh, the Judaean Desert or Dead Sea sect believed that the initial sexual union between a man and a woman (even without formalized marriage!) created an unbreakable, quasi-biological bond between them, which is seen as having been predestined (A. Shemesh, “4Q271 3: A Key to Sectarian Matrimonial Law,” Journal of Jewish Studies 49 (1998) 244-63).

Early Christianity similarly held that marriage was indissoluble—a position continued in principle by the Roman Catholic Church to this day, although in practice the Church today uses the instrument of annulment to deal with the widespread problems of marital incompatibility. Or, in the words of Jesus quoted in the Gospels, “What God has joined together, let no man put asunder” (Matthew 19:6). Interestingly, at least one midrash on our verse mentions an ancient tradition in which, among the non-Jewish peoples, marriage was for life.

… [Even] illicit intercourse acquires [i.e., creates a marital bond] among the children of Noah. And from whence do we know that they do not have divorce? R. Judah in the name of R. Simon, and R. Hanin in the name of R. Yohanan said: [either] they do not have divorce [at all], or the two of them divorce one another. (Genesis Rabbah 18.5)

This is reminiscent of Rambam’s concept of pre-Sinaitic marriage (Ishut 1.1-4; and see HY V: Vayeshev): as an essentially private arrangement between a man and a woman, without any societal involvement or formal solemnization: if the two of them wished to do so, he takes her into his home, has sex with her, and she becomes his wife. But unlike this midrash, he sees the option for divorce as open, with the same simplicity as marriage (see Hilkhot Melakhim 9.8). But Rambam also recognizes, it being as old as the hills, the existence of casual sex/harlotry – a man and woman desire each other for the moment, for an hour, and then part ways. Thus, in Maimonides view sex per se does not constitute an indelible bond. His is thus a very realistic, down-to-earth approach—one that frankly acknowledges what might be called the dual nature of sex, corresponding in turn to the dual nature of man: freedom and determinism, biology and consciousness, lust and love—in brief, that sex as such is fraught with ambiguity.

The idea that sex per se constitutes a powerful bond, is also reflected in the Rabbinic saying אינה כורתת ברית אלא למי שעשאה כלי —“a woman does not create a covenantal bond except with the one who made her a vessel” (Sanh. 22b); that is, that sexual initiation, whether or not in the context of marriage, is a powerful, central life experience, that leaves a powerful mark and in some sense a unique bond between the woman and her first lover. And, thus it is implied also by our midrash, all this is a kind of law of nature.

Leaving the mystique of defloration aside, the implication is that monogamy is seen as the natural state, a kind of archetypal way of behavior implanted in all human beings (whether or not realized in practice). Hence, it is seen as part of the Seven Noachide commandments, which I read as a kind of Jewish counterpart to natural law (see HY V: Noah).

Several medieval Jewish commentators, such as Sforno, Hizkuni, Radak, offer what might be called a modified version of this view, explaining “one flesh” as a psycho-social-mental unity—the sexual act itself serving to unite them, through pleasure, into a long-standing union. Ramban, commenting on this verse, sees it as referring to the emotional component of the marital/sexual union. Unlike the animals, a human male, “Because the woman is ‘flesh of his flesh, bone of his bone,’ and she was in his bosom like his own flesh, he desires that she be with him always constantly; there is thus implanted in man the desire for the male to be attached to their females. They leave their father and mother and see their wives as if they were one flesh with them.” He goes on to explain the etymology of she’ar basar, used in Lev 18:6 etc., to refer to those relatives forbidden because of consanguinity, as also reflecting this.

All of which is a long, roundabout introduction providing the background to Rashi’s somewhat surprising reading here: that they are united in the flesh of their child, which is formed from both of them. (This is certainly a psychological reality: even in the event of divorce, the now-separated parents remain united through their connection with the children: rejoicing at weddings or the births of grandchildren; or feeling anxiety in times of trouble—e.g., regarding their children’s safety upon hearing of terrorist attacks.) Philosophically, Rashi here engages in teleology: the ultimate telos of the union of man and woman is offspring, who embody the fleshly, physical reality of the two parents in a concrete way. He thus places the union of man and woman in the larger perspective of procreation of the next generation: an obvious enough point, and very much part of traditional Jewish thinking, but one that in today’s pleasure-oriented, individual-oriented world, is often forgotten, with the almost exclusive emphasis on equating sexuality with the pleasure-giving act alone—which is, in a certain sense, a very male view; for women, sexuality clearly includes gestation, childbirth, nursing, etc.

IV. “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.

V. The DaVinci Code, Haeros Gamo, and the Zeitgeist: Sex as Spirituality

The following essay was begun in the summer of 2004. During the course of my visit to the United States, I noticed that there was a copy of Dan Brown’s book, The Da Vinci Code, in every home I visited. Subsequently, following the making of the movie, there was a public controversy, involving the Catholic Church, particularly over the historicity of the portrayal of the Priory of Zion order, and the belief that Jesus was married. Some rabbis responded that, from a Jewish viewpoint, married sexuality was of course the Jewish ideal and there was no reason to be upset at the book. But it seemed to me that something basic was missing from the discussion…. .

While I of course concur with Rabbi Benjamin Blech’s statements about Jesus’ humanity and the Jewish affirmation of sexuality and family life insofar as it goes, I see a far more problematic message in the book. This message, possibly reacting to the other-worldliness and asceticism of historical Christianity, does not pose as an alternative the kind of healthy-minded, middle path taught by Judaism, but goes to the other extreme—that of a kind of neo-paganism. Let me explain. But first, two side comments:

First, whether or not Jesus ever married, whether he married Mary Magdalene, whether they had offspring, and whether any individuals living nearly one hundred generations later can trace their ancestry back to that couple, is virtually impossible to prove, and must rank as a “just-so story.”

Second, while the Priory of Zion is a real order, it bears little resemblance to that described in the book. It is nowhere near 1000 years old, but closer to 150 or 200 at most. And all the stuff in the book about Leonardo da Vinci, Isaac Newton, etc., being members is almost certainly a-historical, or the result of an elaborate hoax.

What is significant about this book is that it is symptomatic of a certain kind of reaction of contemporary Western culture against the anti-sexual and body-soul dichotomy spread by Christianity. It is nothing less than an attempt to create an alternative religious myth or model—that of the female body as the holy grail (viz. the pentacle symbolism) and the sexual act as a kind of sacrament. Consider the following, to my mind rather extraordinary passage:

… Hieros Gamos had nothing to do with eroticism. It was a spiritual act. Historically, intercourse was the act through which male and female experienced God. The ancients believed that the male was spiritually incomplete until he had carnal knowledge of the sacred feminine. Physical union with the female remained the sole means through which man could become spiritually complete and ultimately achieve gnosis—knowledge of the divine. Since the days of Isis, sex rites had been considered man’s only bridge from earth to heaven. “By communing with woman,” Landon said, “man could achieve a climactic instant when his mind went totally blank and he could see God.”

“Orgasm as prayer?”…. Sophie was essentially correct. Physiologically speaking, the male climax was accompanied by a split second entirely devoid of thought. A brief mental vacuum. A moment of clarity during which God could be glimpsed. Meditation gurus achieved similar states of thoughtlessness without sex and often described Nirvana as a never-ending spiritual orgasm.

Sex begot new life—the ultimate miracle—and miracles could be performed only by a god. The ability of the woman to produce life from her womb made her sacred. A god. Intercourse was the revered union of the two halves of the human spirit—male and female—through which the male could find spiritual wholeness and communion with God. … (Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code, pp. 410-411)

This passage is followed by remarks about ancient Judaism involving ritualistic sex—sacred sex in Solomon’s Temple, Raphael Pattai’s notion of “the Hebrew goddess,” men “seeking spiritual wholeness” by visiting priestesses in the Temple, etc. This would no doubt also be seen as symbolized by the (naked?) embrace of the two cherubim (which Brown doesn’t mention, but which is a popular symbol among some Jewish New Agers), plus a spurious etymology of the Tetragrammaton as being derived from “an androgynous physical union between the masculine Jah and the pre-Hebraic [sic!] name for Eve, Havah.” (He doesn’t even know to spell properly in Hebrew!) What he neglects to mention is that, in Chapters 8-9 of the book that bears his name, the prophet Ezekiel hits the roof about what may very well have been these selfsame practices. Portrayal of “greater abominations than these” being performed within the Temple—so horrible that he can only hint at them. “The women weeping the Tammuz.” The passage continues:

… “For the early Church… mankind’s use of sex to commune directly with God posed a serious threat to the Catholic power base. It left the Church out of the loop, undermining their self-proclaimed status as the sole conduit to God. They worked hard to demonize sex and recast it as a disgusting and sinful act. Other major religions did the same….” (p. 411)

This is an excellent description of the pagan perception of the motif of the Sacred Mother. Worship of the feminine, not as a perversion or excuse for licentiousness, but as a coherent approach. Nevertheless, it is a form of paganism, what we call avodah zarah—a variation of Canaanite cults of Baal and Ashtarte. Sacred prostitution is, at least in the ancient Canaanite case, also a form of sympathetic magic: a kind of prayer-in-action that the rain may fertilize the earth, as the man fertilizes the woman. Judaism rejected them then, and must reject their like now.

Long-time readers of Hitzei Yehonatan will remember my passionate and intensely negative reaction to Mordecai Gafni’s proposal for creating a synthesis of “paganism and prophecy, eros and ethos” some years ago—a reaction confirmed by the subsequent revelations about that man’s own scandalous behavior. One of Gafni’s erstwhile colleagues, Ohad Ezrahi, experimenting with similar ideas of discovering spirituality through eros, opened a commune near the Dead Sea with workshops teaching both “theoretical and practical” aspects of this idea. Unfortunately, this mélange of religious and sexual ecstasy is an idea that is in the air today, far beyond these two gentlemen. There are people who describe themselves as worshippers of Gaia, or Mother Earth, for whom sex, preferably pluralistic and non-possessive, is a sort of sacrament. The current atmosphere is also one in which many “political-correct” people see anything that is pro-female, that celebrates women, as “feminist,” and therefore fail to see its deeper implications (see, e.g., Newsweek’s cover story about Brown’s books celebration of Mary Magdalene as a model for feminist religious leadership).

For me, such schools cross a line that is fraught with danger and, to use a word a tolerant, pluralistic soul like myself hesitates to use, heretical from a Judaic perspective. The basic problem in the above is the concretization of the divine. This is also, on another level, the Jewish objection to the Christian doctrine that God was made incarnate in a human being, in Jesus, in man. This is, if anything, ten times worse! As I’ve said other times: just as we don’t see sex as a dirty, demonized act, disgusting and sinful, nether do we see it as intrinsically, automatically holy. Like almost every other human act, it is itself neutral, with a potential for both good and evil (albeit perhaps greater, in both directions, than almost any other human act!).

At this point, someone one may well be asking the question: what about sex in the Kabbalah? Many books and papers, both academic and popular, have been written on this subject over the past decade or two. Marital union on Shabbat evening is not merely onat talmidei hakhamim, but in some sense a sacred act. But, to the best of my knowledge, it is not viewed as an attempt to gain mystical gnosis, but at most an acting out below of the union that takes place above (this is, perhaps, a plausible interpretation of a line in the passage from Zohar II:135a-b recited by Hasidim at Kabbalat Shabbat, “just as there is union above, so is there union below”). Similarly, pseudo-Ramban’s Iggeret ha-Kodesh speaks of carnal knowledge (da’at) as a union of hokhmah and binah. But it is a long way from being a short, sure-fire recipe for religious enlightenment, as implied here. (In any event, such gnosis in Judaism is not the main goal, but no more than a possible by-product of religious acts.) Basically, coition on Shabbat is a mitzvah which serves as a kind of tikkun. Gnosis can only come after a long process rooted in cognitive knowledge, practice of mitzvot, learning Torah, moral purification, etc. (Interestingly, the specific scene of Hieros Gamos in the Da Vinci Code turns out to be an act of coitus involving a couple who, though living apart and in different countries, were secretly married, thereby dulling the shocking edge of the act; moreover, they are linear descendants of the “holy couple” of Jesus and Mary Magdelene — uva letzion goel)

One last question: what is the nature of consciousness during sex, at the moment of orgasm, as cited in the above passage? In what was for me perhaps the most striking and strangest sentence in the entire book, Brown writes: “the male climax was accompanied by a split second entirely devoid of thought. A brief mental vacuum. A moment of clarity during which God could be glimpsed.” The moment of orgasm may well entail a kind of blanking out of all conscious thought, and specifically of the object-subject distinctions of everyday life in which we live and at the same time observe ourselves living (by the way, the above statement seems impossible to verify, as it would seem to require maintaining a portion of one’s brain in observer-mode during orgasm—an interesting but somehow unappealing mental exercise). And there is the idea in Judaism, and other spiritual traditions, that God is above all human thought (leit mahshava tefisa beih kelal), and that knowledge of God is only possible through a mystical “blacking out” of thought, a kind of trans-conscious merging of mind with other one. Nevertheless, there is a simple logical fallacy here: the fact that A and B (in this case, sexual orgasm and mystical experience) both share a common feature, C (cessation of normal thought) does not make them identical or equivalent. Ultimately, sex, pleasurable and at times even ecstatic as it may be, belongs to the “earthly garden of delights,” not to the supernal realm of the transcendent.


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