An Excerpt from The Mystery of Love by Marc Gafni

Sensuous Study – The Erotic Text

The Baal Shem Tov, 18th century founder of the Hebrew mystical movement called Hassidism, writes that the ecstatic swaying motion which is characteristic of Hebrew prayer is the swaying and rocking of the couple in lovemaking .

The Maggid of Mezritch writes that when one prays he must be aroused and become the feminine waters of the Shechina . Again the requirement is not for men or women to be sexually aroused when they pray, rather that all four qualities of the erotic modeled in the sexual, fullness of presence, interiority, interconnectivity and yearning find expression in prayer. It’s about eros, not sex! Prayer is erotic.

We are used to thinking of intellectual pursuit as a pretty dry kind of affair. And even if it excites 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 myth masters of Jerusalem had a markedly different idea. For them the engagement with wisdom was a more passionate and erotic kind of affair.

Source after source speaks to the erotic nature of study through the use of sexual analogies. Elijah of Vilna, the founder of a great kabbalistic school in the latter part of the 18th century, writes that one can only study 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. It’s about eros, not sex! What he was suggesting is what I refer to as the textualization of eros. That is to say after the fall of the temple, the sacred study text became for the Hebrew masters one of the primary places of erotic expression. So textual study became the place where one experienced:

  • the fullness of presence,
  • the entry into the inside of a text, where student and text merge into one,
  • the yearning for divinity expressing itself in the yearning for deep understanding of the sacred text,
  • and finally the deep interconnectivity of being, realizing that all of reality is somehow expressed in the sacred word.

When the Temple was destroyed the masters knew that the holy writ of biblical myth needed to be expanded and deepened. The temple, which was 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. Contemporary philosopher Joseph Soloveitchik implied but never explicated the ritualed eroticism in the Synagogue service. 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 process of study is described in the Zohar much in the way the 12th century troubadours a hundred years before described their flirtation with their loves. In the 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 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 is it with the word of the Torah, which reveals herself only to those who love her. The Torah knows that the mystic (hakim libba, 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 and the other sources cited above both in regard to prayer and study are clearly erotic and not sexual. That is to say, the sexual is quite literally not only a metaphor for, but as in this last image, 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.

Courting the Sacred

When I sit down to prepare a teaching the process goes something like this. First is the attraction. I generally only teach that to which I am attracted. There has to be an almost unquenchable longing to explore the subject. Second it be fully present in the impassioned pursuit, in the investment of energy and attention, in learning its contours and plumbing its secrets. Finally on the good days, there is the ecstatic merging with the wisdom, when all the disparate piece fall together in an elegantly interconnected whole. I once had such a romance when preparing a series of talks on the topic of laughter.

I had decided to give a lecture series on laughter , a topic that had always fascinated me. To prepare, I gathered my ancient texts into a friend’s apartment in the old city of Jerusalem. I barely emerged from the apartment for three days. I read source after source but somehow it did not make any sense to me. Ancient sources are very much unlike the modern essay. The modern essay is too often ‘a lot that holds a little.’ The ancient Hebrew wisdom sources are koan-like in their quality and are usually ‘a little that holds a lot.’ Moreover you can only understand them if they decide to let you inside. So I danced with them and flirted. They teased me, lead me on, but then demurred, and withdrew. Somehow it wasn’t clicking.

Finally, after three days, I arrived at two in the morning very tired and about ready to give up. ‘No, not just yet – one more time,’ I said to myself, ‘and if not, I am through with this topic.’ And as I slowly, gently read the text for the last time, it was as though light, a soft white light, illuminated the room. The words seemed to read themselves and a single elegant sentence offered herself to me. And then thunder and lightning and wild erotic ecstasy as the text dropped veil after veil until she stood naked before me in all of her sensual splendor. I was on the inside of laughter. All the sources organized themselves in an instant and unfolded beautifully as two distinct forms of laughter distinguished themselves in my soul and mind. Side issues which had troubled me gently untied their knots. And then, not more than six or seven minutes later, it was over. I was spent but happy.

But the story is not quite over yet. Exhausted I gathered my books and after sitting for awhile walked to the old walls of the city to find a cab back to my own apartment. I got into the cab and the driver, Ari, wanted to talk. Truthfully, a quiet ride would have worked just fine for me, but such was not what the universe had in mind.

“So what are all those books about?” Ari asked. I knew I could not share with him the whole story so I said nonchalantly said , “Just books I was studying.”

Undeterred, he pressed on. “Well what were you studying?”

Having little choice I answered, “I was trying to unpack the ontological and existential essence of laughter.”

Now usually that is a conversation stopper. But Ari was undeterred; he went right on. “Laughter – the essence of laughter – that’s easy. My grandmother told me about that.”

At this point, I was both bemused and interested: bemused because I just spent three days in intense erotic encounter with this idea and to think he can just throw out a few word about such a profound topic, well…. And yet interested, because I know that grandmothers are often wise and almost always worth the effort of listening. And to my chagrin, even as I half expected it, he did it. He articulated in different words, in his grandmother’s name, that great sentence of illumination that I had experienced but an hour before. Tears gently rolled down my cheek. It was much more than the affirmation of an idea. I knew that God was in me. I felt completely loved and embraced by the universe.

Everything I have described to you has nothing to do, and yet everything to do, with sex. I promise you that during this entire story, the sexual was absolutely the farthest thing from mind. And yet the process of study was no less than loving courtship leading to intimacy. Sex models the erotic; it does not begin to exhaust the erotic. At least for a few seconds on that night, I was on the inside of God’s face in the Holy of Holies between the cherubs.