Friday, May 16, 2008

Rami: Response to Mike 5/16 Post

This was very interesting, Mike, and I learned a lot from it. I’m especially taken with your notion, which you have shared before, that “God works with such fragile and flawed vessels” as us humans and our institutions.

Mainstream Judaism never imagined a Fall (we speak of the Expulsion from Eden rather than the Fall), and for us the universe is, as Genesis says, tov, intrinsically holy and perfectible. Our experience of things, however, is broken. We imagine ourselves to be alien, sinful, cut off from God and creation. We then project this brokenness onto others and on to nature itself. While I think it is a psychological rather than ontological brokenness, working with brokenness and the shadow-side of humanity and our institutions (what Paul calls the Powers perhaps) is vital to a truly redemptive, healing, and transformative spirituality. And part of that healing involves a re-imagining of sexuality, so let’s move on to that.

My Rebbe, (spiritual teacher) Rabbi Zalman Shachter–Shalomi defines sacred sexuality as “recovering our authentic being, which knows bliss beyond mere pleasurable sensations. It is a special form of communication, even communion, that fills us with awe and stillness.”

The first step toward reclaiming this “awe and stillness” is to recognize the universe as God’s body. Creation is an extension of the Creator just as sunlight is an extension of the sun. Seeing the universe as God manifest in time and place, and discovering that our role in creation is to be that aspect of nature that knows life to be divine, is vital to sacred sexuality. Once this is understood, and so far it is only the mystic geniuses of our various religious traditions who seem to get this, every encounter is sacred. The touch, taste, sounds, etc. of lovers and life itself are all part of a sacred sexuality.

I’m not talking about genital sexuality exclusively. The genital reductionism that marks the pseudo–sexual revolution of secular society (say that five times fast) makes sacred sexuality impossible. I’m talking about a sexuality that Sigmund Freud called "polymorphously perverse" (Introductory Lectures 15.209), where your whole body and being is alive to the bliss of life. Again to quote Reb Zalman, “Love is so universal in the world that it even underlies the physical forces of nature. What is gravity but the loving force of attraction between two bodies in space? How marvelous, how basic love is in the universe!”

With the exception of Shir haShirim (Song of Songs), the Torah’s near obsession with sex has nothing to do with the sacred and everything to do with power: men owned and controlled women. But this is genital politics and not sacred sexuality where “sexual love can be a hidden window onto the spiritual reality. At the height of passion or in the fullness of love, we might suddenly feel transported to a different plane of existence where all of our sensations, experiences, and thoughts occur against the peaceful backdrop of an overriding sense of at-oneness.” (Reb Zalman)

When the world is seen as God’s Body the ecstatic glimpse into greater levels of reality is possible through all kinds of sensual encounters: smelling a rose, feeling the bark of a tree, petting a cat, listening to the ocean lap the shore, eating a peanut butter sandwich, etc.

How does this connect to the Bible? I suggest we look to Shir HaShirm, the Song of Songs.

When the rabbis sought to fix the biblical canon, among the books they intended to leave out was the Song of Songs. Rabbi Akiva, perhaps the greatest sage of his day, argued that if the Hebrew Bible is holy, the Song of Songs is the “holy of holies.” Indeed, he argued, the entire Way of God could be derived from the Song of Songs alone. Why? Because it is a celebration of love, sensuality, sexuality and union with God through love of another.

The lovers in the Song are poetic expressions of that level of divine intimacy through this–worldly meeting that Martin Buber called “I and Thou.” When someone is seen as Thou, he or she is seen as a manifestation of God. And the only way a person can see a Thou is if she looks through the eyes of an I, a Self¬–realized or God–realized human being. When I meets Thou, it is God meeting God.

Too often we Westerners, rejecting our Hebraic sensuality for Neo–Platonic asceticism, deny the most precious gift of God’s love: His Body as the world. It seems to me that Christianity, as the religion of Incarnation, could be (I would even say should be) the vehicle for bringing the gift of the ecstatic communion with God’s Body to humanity.

Christianity hasn’t done this because it insists that only Jesus is the Incarnated God, where I would say that Jesus is paradigmatic of one who realizes that the universe itself is God incarnate.

Anyway, I’m rambling. I only mean to use the negative “You shall not commit adultery” as a pointer to the positive, a true sexual revolution rooted in Shir haShirim and the communion of I and Thou as the key to living the Kingdom of God on, in, and through the Body of God, life herself.


MaryAnn said...

Forgive me for chiming in so much, but this dialogue has really got me going. I've spent most of my adult life at this stuff and it gets the juices flowing.
First, I want to say a huge, loud Amen! (Hebrew version) to Rami's post on sacred sexuality. For a "celibate" Christian example, see the classic poems of John of the Cross, a Spanish mystic. They are richly erotic. That's what allows many monks and nuns to live in the convent. The depth and authenticity of their spirituality brings them into this kind of ecstatic relationship with God.
The reason I put in the quotes is that technically the word we want is not celibate, but abstinent. A vow of celibacy actually means one promises not to marry. It's pretty much assumed abstinence goes with it, though. A wonderful old Anglican Franciscan mother superior I know used to say the three knots in their cincture cords stood for "no pay, no lay, no say." (Poverty, Chastity and Obedience.)
I spent more than 30 years as an Anglican Secular Franciscan before converting to Judaism.

Mike Smith and Rami Shapiro said...

This is Mike. Chime in all you wish! We benefit from your contribution.

Thanks for making the distinction between celibate and abstinent. You're right.

Your story about the Anglican Franciscan mother superior is wonderful. It reminds me of some of the annecdotes Kathleen Norris is fond of sharing.