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Gender Sexuality And The Body In The Zohar Religion Essay

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The Zohar (literally translated as "splendor" or "radiance") is the fundamental work of Jewish Mysticism, which contains extensive commentary on the Torah. This group of books was published in Spain in the 13th century by Moses de Leon who ascribed the authorship to rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (2nd century). The evident sexual symbolism of this work makes it relevant to analyze the aspects of gender and human body within its structure. In this essay I will argue that God is both male and female, and that the Zohar implies that the worship of God in fact includes a form of Paganism. Then I will discuss that man's main purpose in life is to find his soul mate in order to be complete.

To begin with, it is essential to explain the system of the ten Sefirot, which are found in the Zohar. The vigorous interaction between the Sefirot reveals God's will. Each Sefira symbolizes a different attribute of God, comprising both of male and female. The ten Sefirot are usually depicted in the form of the "cosmic tree growing downward from its root above" (Schäfer 119). As a matter of fact, the Zohar barely depicts the sefirotic system. Moreover, the very term "Sefirot" is usually substituted with images "lights", "levels", "links", "roots", "garments of the King" and the like (Matt 33). The Sefirot are the "mythical paragons of the human being, our archetypical nature" (Matt 31-32).

The ninth Sefirah is called Yesod ("foundation"), and it is the embodiment of masculine potency and male sexual energy. It symbolizes the procreative power of the Universe, thus, it is a phallic symbol (Dan 141). Yesod is also often referred to as the axis mund ("the cosmic pillar"). It also personifies sexual purity and is often referred to as "the Righteous One".

The tenth Sefirah is called the Shekhinah. It is the feminine potency and it is the lowest divine emanation. Zohar is the most elaborated work in terms of the Shekhinah's representation. Among the most widespread symbolic names of the tenth Sefirah one should mention "Earth", "Moon", "Garden of Eden", "Holy Apple Orchard", "Throne of Glory", etc. Notwithstanding the fact that Shekhinah is located at the bottom of the sefirotic hierarchy, her position is of great importance. Shekhinah, or Matronita, is a mediatress between human beings and God, between heavenly and earthly realms. The Shekhinah is located at the crossroad of the divine and earthly worlds and belongs to both them simultaneously.

Hence, "she bridges the heavenly and earthly realms … the feminine potency is the key, through her God enters the world" (Dan 139).

Therefore, through the tenth Sefirah mankind can reunite with God (Schäfer 125-134). Shekhinah is described as the heart (lev) of God and also as the "vessel" (shiddah) in which all the upper Sefirot converge. Since she concentrates the forces of all the Sefirot, the Shekhinah is also often depicted as the ocean incorporating all the rivers within her (Schäfer 128-129). Thus, the dominant influence within the sefirotic framework belongs to the feminine potency of the Shekhinah.

The union of these two last Sefirot triggers the accomplishment of the sefirotic hierarchy. "The Grand Lady of the cosmos" becomes impregnated with the divine energy and gives birth to the lower worlds, including both angelic beings and human souls" (Green 63-98).

The Zohar states, that the human body is created in the image and likeness of God (1:27). Thus, every man is the likeness of the divine body and his limbs correspond to the divine Sefirot: Keter - "crown"; Hokhmah - "wisdom"; Binah - "understanding"; Hesed - "mercy"; Din - "judgement"; Tieferet - "splendor"; Netzah - "triumph"; Hod - "majesty"; Yesod - "foundation"; Malkhut - "kingship" (Tishby, 1: 313-318). This is actually the Judaic idea of primitive Adam's body.

Since Adam was made in the image of God, he was initially androgynous either on a physical or spiritual level. God then pulled Adam's rib and formed a woman. Adam kept certain attributes that were later defined as "masculine". The woman was given the attributes that were later defined as "feminine". God is depicted in Scripture as a perfect balance of masculine and feminine attributes. His masculine attributes include creativity, administration, initiative, perseverance, and protection. His feminine attributes include responsiveness, gentleness, receptivity, and nurturing. Therefore God is both male and female.

"And God created man in His image; in the image of God He created him; male and female. He created them. And God saw all that He had made, and behold it was very good, and it was evening and it was morning, the sixth day."(Genesis 1:27-1:31)

The bible uses both masculine and feminine attributes to describe God but man has both good and evil in him, which man has to struggle with everyday until one can over comes the other. There are both positive and negative elements in the universe and these " opposite charges" need one another.

The Zohar also elaborates on the Song of Songs, which is one of the overtly mystical Biblical texts for the Kabbalah that gave esoteric interpretation on all the Hebrew Bible. In the Zohar, the intradivine drama is powerfully depicted, as indeed the Song of Songs is now re-read as an allegory of love and longing within a divine realm of extraordinary complexity. The feminine Shekhinah symbolizes and identifies with the woman in the Song of Songs. Her beloved was identified with the male sephira Tiferet, the "Holy One Blessed be He", central principle in the beneficent Heavenly flow of Divine emotion. In the body, this represents the male torso, uniting through the sephira Yesod of the male circumsitzed organ of procreation. Through beneficent deeds and Jewish observance, the Jewish people restore cosmic harmony in the Divine realm, healing the exile of the Shekhina with God's transcendence, revealing the essential Unity of God.

The Zohar is the first Jewish work that overtly uses sex gender themes, especially in descriptions of relationships between God and the world. The image of the Shekhinah is explicitly sexual, since she is referred to as "the bride of the Godhead" and "the bride of Israel" (Green 41-45). In Kabbalistic texts she is also depicted as the heavenly mother and as the divine daughter.

Sex with another is considered sex with God. The Kabbalists speak of this, that a man should make love to his wife thinking of the Shekhinah. In a dualist universe, this is an awful and selfish act, to think of God instead of the wife or lover. But in a nondualist consciousness, sex with another is sex with God, with no separation or denial of the other's uniqueness. It is union with a manifestation of the One, in the unique form of the Other. "I look into his eyes, and I see Yours."()

In general, the Judaic views on sexuality are much more positive than in Christian thought. In fact, sexuality is not considered "an evil part of humanity" at all (Feher 48-73). The Zohar also extensively discusses the relation between the body and soul. As a matter of fact, The Zohar "first presented the concept of male-female dualism within the divine realm and thus created the mythology of sex and gender" (Petry 118).

The union of the sefirotic energies in the tenth Sefirah explicitly expresses the definite sexual imagery. Elliot Wolfson suggests that such prevalence of sexual elements in Kabbalah may have a conscious and deliberate anti-Christian intention in the context of the polemic with simple celibacy (Cohn, Silberstein 189). If that is the case, the Kabbalistic sexual imagery was a kind of response to the "sexually barren Christian myth centered on a celibate male born of a virgin" (Cohn, Silberstein 190-191).

The Shekhinah stands for the innermost divine essence, the Written Torah, while in the human world it is represented in the form of the Oral Torah (Dan 131). Thus, God enters the earthly world in the shape of his daughter, the Oral Torah, or the Shekhinah (Dan 130-132). Israel's fulfillment of the Torah leads to the "reunion of the natural light with the primordial light, the Oral Torah with the written Torah, the Shekhinah with Understanding" (Tishby, 1: 309-313).

At times, though, the Zohar identifies the lower Shekhinah with evil and the demonic, precisely because it represents the point at which divine energies threaten to separate from their higher sources. Moreover, and contrary to some of our modern assumptions, the "right" side of the sefirotic structure, that which gives unstintingly and in kindness, is consistently characterized as masculine and the left side, of judgment, passivity and limitation is correspondingly characterized as female.

The Zohar is also remarkable for containing references to Lilith. Lilith is described as "female of Samael", she is referred to as "the snake", "a wife of harlotry", "the end of all flesh" and "the end of days" (Tishby, 2: 538-539). Samael and his female are inseparably attached to one another.

The Jewish mysticism of the Zohar is saturated with panentheism, the belief that God is both separate from and embodied in the natural world, i.e., that God "surrounds and fills" the universe. Yet the Zohar, steeped in multiple personalized, sexualized, gendered images of Asherah, the feminine deity, does not equate Asherah with Lilith or another demonic figure, Instead, they reread the verse. The Torah wants to tell us that Asherah is a name for the Shekhinah, the feminine Divine presence. The Zohar proves this assertion by connecting the name Asherah to the word asher. Ordinarily, this word simply means the word "which." However, in Zohar-speak, many common Hebrew prepositions like asher and et are regarded as names for God. In this case, the Zohar reads Asher as a name for masculine divinity. The Zohar redefines the word Asherah as the feminine form of Asher: the Spouse of Asher, the Spouse of God. The Zohar does not choose to say that the goddess Asherah is evil or false and that worshipping her is a theological mistake. Instead, it says that the theological mistake would be to assume that Asherah is separate from Shekhinah, when in fact they are one. The Zohar seems to be saying is that the object used to worship (i.e. the altar) God must be single rather than multiple, just as all the faces of the feminine and masculine Divine are ultimately unified. 


The Zohar then quotes a passage related to the biblical queen Jezebel's worship of other gods, and informs us that the priests of Baal and Asherah (male and female deities) are worshippers of the sun and moon. The sun and moon, the Zohar goes on, are really Tiferet and Malkhut, the Holy One (male divinity) and the Shekhinah (female divinity). Baal and Asherah worshippers, the very people whom the Torah rejects as the worst of pagans, are actually worshippers of the legitimate masculine and feminine Divine. The Zohar appears to be saying that pagans and Jews are worshipping the same aspects of divinity by different names. 


The theme of marriage as a spiritual union is also prevalent in the Zohar. It is necessary to observe that the Zohar addresses not only the spiritual questions. It constantly draws analogies between the spiritual and physical worlds. Thus, it also deals with the earthly relations between sexes. Due to its prescriptive nature, the book provides social instructions concerning proper sexual relations and marriage. When two people become married, it is said that the two will become one flesh. Therefore, a man shall leave his father and his mother, and cleave to his wife, and they shall become one flesh." and therefore man and woman become joined into one entity. It's an adage that a man cannot know Torah properly, until he knows his wife.

And man said, "This time, it is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh. This one shall be called ishah (woman) because this one was taken from ish (man)" (Genesis 2:23).

Gershom Scholem suggests that the notion of marriage in the Jewish mysticism in large part rests upon the Plato's idea of human original hermaphroditism (Dan 138-140). This theory can be found in Symposium. According to Plato, the first man was initially created as a bisexual being, an androgyne. As a matter of fact, human body was a binary entity with eight limbs. The Talmudic version of this myth about androgyne asserts that Adam was created male and female at the same time:

"God created man in His own image … male and female" (Matt 34).

Therefore, the Zohar claims that God is inherently male and female, consequently man is also both male and female. However, when God realized that such kind of all-sufficient humans would not reproduce, he divided him into two halves (Petry 118-120). Since God is in fact male and female, worshipping him could be a form of Paganism.

The human body is regarded as a dwelling for a soul. Entering the body, the soul gets the opportunity to find its soul mate and achieve the highest level of development and spiritual understanding. In the Zohar, marriage is considered the union of two souls. The spouses are designated in heaven, and in order to find one's twin soul, one must live a saintly life. Unfortunate marriages happen when the two souls are not matched, when one's proper soul mate is given to another person as a punishment for sins. The process of sexual intercourse is naturally mimetic. It is derived from the procreation of souls by a bisexual divinity. Human wedding stands for heavenly union, the union of the divine couple.

The Shekhinah indwells within a man who has a wife: "Male and female are attached together and are called by one name "Eloha" while a single man will never obtain the "Divine Presence": "A man without a wife is a half body, and the Shekhinah does not rest upon him" (16:7). A man needs the essential complement of a woman, he is insufficient and imperfect without her because God is ambisexual and is only complete with the female tenth Sefirah. The purpose of marital intercourse is "procreation as the act of bringing God into the world" (Dan 140). Meanwhile, sexual relations begun with a twisted mind, summon Lilith who is the Shekhinah's evil doppelganger.

The Zohar does often get accused of near-paganism. The Zohar knows that paganism is forbidden. The Zohar also knows that its mystical impulse to explore multiple simultaneous God-images, gendered deity, panentheism, and embodied divinity is a pagan impulse-perhaps a holy, ultimately God-centered pagan impulse, but a pagan impulse nevertheless. Yet instead of running away from the mythologized, pagan-like aspects of its vision, the Zohar betrays a discomfort with the complete condemnation of goddess worship. It's the condemnation, not the paganism, which is rejected. 

 The Zohar believes that oneness underlies all things, even pagan goddesses. Yet the mystic of the time knows the Jews cannot recognize this.

The Zohar admonishes sexual transgressions, which can drive the Shekhinah away and prevent the Holy One "from dwelling in the world". The gravest delinquency is having intercourse with a women that is menstruating, for "there is no defilement in the world greater than menstruation" (Tishby, 3: 1202-1205). Moreover, this man becomes filthy himself and also causes impurity around everybody around him. Additionally, this uncleanness "remains in every part of his body, he brings grievous illness upon himself and the child he begets" (Tishby, 3: 1202-1205). A man also can corrupt himself and drive the Shekhinah away by wasting his semen.

The Zohar discusses reasons for circumcision. The Zohar implies that only one who has been circumcised can fully commune with or see God. Several central Kabbalistic concepts are based on interpretations of the meanings of circumcision. These include the "inscription" of the name of God in the flesh and the viewing of the Divine Presence or connection to Shekhinah through the physical cutting of the foreskin (berit milah) (Wolfson 189-215).

The Zohar is a source of true and eternal wisdom. The emphasis on sexual aspects and symbolism is one of its most important peculiarities. The writing extensively discusses the aspects of genders as divine emanations and the human body as the androgynous copy of God. Marriage is considered as the integral unit of the two halves. Therefore, the purpose of human life is to find one's soul mate.

Moreover, if goddesses are non-God, then what are we seeing when we look at goddesses? I would argue that we are seeing the same thing that we see when we look at God: both a mirror and a window. All of our God-images, masculine, feminine, multi- and non-gendered, singular and multiple, come from our own repertoire of psychological needs, memories, stories we have absorbed, people we have loved, images we have seen. They are mothers and fathers we need, judges and warriors that frighten us into good behavior, lovers that inspire us. Some of them are flawed, some are wrong, and some will not survive the test of time. There is no way to portray the ein sof; what we hope is that, through some or all of these avenues, some glimmer of Divine truth reaches us.
Our conceptions of God, being partial and imperfect, always deserve critique-we cannot assume any God we see is a true God. There is always the real risk that we will distort the truth and fracture it. Yet if we believe in the panentheistic promise that God can be found anywhere, then we may come to accept the fact that others throughout theological history have felt the same thing. Finding God in a tree and calling Her Asherah, or finding God in the thunder and calling Him Baal, or finding God in the cycle of life and death and calling Her Demeter and Persephone, seems less strange when we think that everything we know about God comes from something we have seen, heard, or felt in a text, in the world, or in ourselves.

God answers to different names all over the world -- even names that invoke God in nature, even names that call God multiple, even feminine names from ancient Canaan. I imagine them slipping this secret knowledge into the Zohar: the oneness of the Divine is a many-named oneness, a oneness that encompasses the earth. Critically, to allow oneself to see God in a new image, to see God as mother or moon or sea or little girl or crone, is not valuable simply because of political correctness, or some feminist ethic of fairness. To do so is a religious experience-and we grow from these experiences. Religious experiences do not neatly conform to philosophical firewalls. If we open ourselves to the feminine Divine, some of us will see goddesses. In a completed world, the Zohar implies, Jews would be able to rejoice in the fact that gods and goddesses can be aspects of divinity. Yet because we are exiled, oppressed, divided from others, we can't let ourselves know it. 




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