From the Academy: Kissing Kabbalists

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In this installment of “From the Academy,� Dr. Joel Hecker, Chair of the Department of Modern Jewish Civilization and Associate Professor of Jewish Mysticism at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, tells us about some of his recent research and academic work.

hecker_2.gif In a recent article, “Kissing Kabbalists: Hierarchy, Reciprocity, Equality,� I studied the act of kissing: kisses between the masculine and feminine aspects of Divinity in the kabbalistic system, between kabbalists and the Shekhinah, between kabbalists and their wives, and from kabbalist to kabbalist.

My interest in kissing, besides the obvious, stems from issues that I was considering in my book,
Mystical Bodies, Mystical Meals: Eating and Embodiment in Medieval Kabbalah
. In examining the treatment of eating (and thinking about eating) in kabbalistic literature, I wanted to explore the ways in which the mystical encounter with God occurs in and through the body.

While the kabbalists, like all medieval Jewish thinkers privileged the mind and imagination as the arenas in which enlightenment occurs, for the kabbalists, the centrality of mitzvot that demanded the involvement of the body called for ways of thinking about the role of the body in serving and communing with God.

As an extension of an interest in eating, kissing, besides possibly revealing an oral fixation, marks a turn towards the interpersonal and away from the ingestion of inanimate food.

Kisses can express deference, reverence, friendship, affection, love, and even betrayal. Indeed, unlike the words of the song, a kiss is never just a kiss. In the Song of Songs the female lover pants “O, let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth� which Rabbi Akiva famously proclaimed to be an expression of the ecstatic love that exists between Israel and God.

In the Zohar, the apex of Jewish mystical literary output, kisses play a wide range of roles. The questions that interested me were as follows: If the exemplary kiss occurs between God and the mystic, will all kisses bear the imprint of that clear hierarchical interaction, a ‘kisser’ and a ‘kissee’, as it were? Or can we find a different model of interaction, one between equals, specifically, between a man and his fellow or, and this would be more significant because of the culture’s patriarchal structure, between a man and his wife?

Posted on February 28, 2008

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