The Baal Shem Tov, founder of the eighteenth-century Hebrew mystical movement called Hasidism, writes that the ecstatic swaying motion characteristic of Hebrew prayer is the swaying androcking of a couple in lovemaking. The Zohar writes that when one prays he must be aroused and become the feminine waters of the Shechinah. Again, the requirement is not for men or women to be sexually aroused when they pray; rather, that
the qualities of the erotic modeled in the sexual find expression in prayer. It’s about Eros, not sex! Prayer is erotic.
We are used to thinking of intellectual pursuits as being somewhat dry. And even if ideas excite us, it is clear that the mind is the primary faculty engaged in the pursuit of intellectual depth. Well, as you might expect at this point, the story masters of Jerusalem had a markedly different idea. For them, the engagement with wisdom was not dry, but a passionate and erotic endeavor.
Source after source uses sexual analogies as a way of describing the erotic nature of study. Elijah of Vilna, the founder of a great Kabbalistic school in the latter part of the eighteenth century, writes that one can study only if one has an ever chai, a throbbing phallus. Clearly, the sage of Vilna did not mean that one has to have an erection when one studies. Rather, he meant an erotically throbbing phallus, not a sexually throbbing phallus. It’s about Eros, not sex! What he was suggesting is what we refer to as the textualization of Eros. That is, after the fall of the temple, the study of sacred text became for the Hebrew masters one of the primary places for erotic expression. So textual study became the place where one experienced the fullness of Eros.
When the temple was destroyed, the masters knew that the holy writ of biblical myth needed to be expanded and deepened. The temple—the archetypal object of erotic desire in biblical writings—was no more. Where was holy Eros to be found? The ingenious and revolutionary answer for the masters, whispered to them from within the folds of the tradition itself, was the textualization of Eros. The sacred text itself became the Holy of Holies in the temple. Every student was potentially the high priest. The text itself was regarded as a living organism whose soul could be erotically penetrated by all who loved her sufficiently. From the inside of the text, the word of God could be heard and a new Torah channeled.
The model for Eros is virtually always the sexual. Mystical sources abound with the ritualized eroticism in the synagogue service. Here is one image that unpacks itself from several Zoharic passages. The Torah scroll is taken out of the Ark for public reading and study. She is undressed. Her lavish coverings are removed, revealing a scroll of bare animal skin. She is then laid on the altar-like reading table and spread open. The reader places a phallic-like pointer on the spread parchment between the two scrolled sides and begins to chant the text aloud. The esoteric erotic mysteries are hidden in the most open of places.
In a tour de force, the Zohar describes a process of study in much the way the twelfth-century troubadours a hundred years before described their flirtation with their loves. In the troubadours’ romantic ideal of courtly love, though, the beloved remained forever beyond reach. In the more hopeful image of the Zohar, the lover ultimately merges erotically with his beloved. The following text, like most medieval texts, is written from a male perspective. New mystical texts need to be written today by women manifesting the Goddess.
The Torah is like a beautiful woman, who is hidden in a secluded chamber of her palace and who has a secret lover, unknown to all others. For love of her, he keeps passing the gate of her house, looking this way and that in search of her. She knows that her lover haunts the gate of her house. What does she do? She opens the door of her hidden chamber but a crack and for a moment reveals her face to her lover, and then hides it again immediately.
Were anyone with her lover, he would see nothing and perceive nothing. He alone sees it, and he is drawn to her with his heart and soul and his whole being. He knows that for love of him she disclosed herself to him for one moment, aflame with love for him. So it is with the word of the Torah, which reveals herself only to those who love her. The Torah knows that the mystic (the wise of heart) haunts the gate of her house. What does she do? From within her hidden palace she discloses her face and beckons to him and returns forthwith to her place and hides. Thus the Torah reveals herself and hides; she goes out in love to her lover and arouses love in him.
Only then, when he has gradually come to know her, does she reveal herself to him face-to-face and speak to him of all her hidden secrets and all her hidden ways, which have been in her heart from the beginning. Such a man is then termed perfect, a “master,” that is to say, a “bridegroom of the Torah” in the strictest sense, the master of the house, to whom she discloses all her secrets, concealing nothing.
The image in this text is erotic, not sexual. The sexual is not only a metaphor but also a model for the fully erotic. To say that the Zohar’s description is accurate is superfluous to anyone who has ever engaged a text in the serious and exciting business of holy amorous play.
To be continued…
A Return to Eros: On Sex, Love, and Eroticism in Every Dimension of Life, from Drs. Marc Gafni and Kristina Kincaid, reveals the radical secret tenets of relationship between the sexual, the erotic, and the holy. They reveal what Eros actually means and share the ten core qualities of the Erotic, which are modeled by the sexual. These include being on the inside, fullness of presence, yearning, allurement, fantasy, surrender, creativity, pleasure, and more.
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