From the Academy: Kissing Kabbalists

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?

For the mystics, kissing is treated as a metaphor for devequt, mystical union. The classic location for a kiss serving as a medium of devequt is in the Babylonian Talmud where we read that Moses, Aaron, and Miriam all died by a kiss as it is written about them [that they died] “by the mouth of the Lord�.

Maimonides expands the category so that anyone who has attained intellectual enlightenment in this lifetime will attain mystical union upon death, when the soul sheds the body. Receiving a kiss from God for Maimonides, is a metaphor that alludes to the actualization of the human intellect. When one turns to the kabbalistic material, we see that receiving a kiss from implies blissful unification with Divinity.

The metaphor of kissing, mouth-to-mouth, signals a connection without mediation. In this way the text mobilizes erotic energies in the service of divine worship and human love.

Another kind of kissing are those of paternal affection. These occur primarily from master to disciple, when the latter delivers a particularly insightful teaching. Most interestingly, there are also kisses of approval that the angels plant upon worthy prayers, offered by Israel below. The sincerity of prayers has always determined whether they would be acceptable before God; here, the prayers are welcomed and accompanied on the previously lonely journey.

Analogously, according to the Zohar, when the Israelites stand at Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah, a voice descends upon each Israelite asking him for acceptance of “the good parts and the hard parts.� When the Israelite affirms his unwavering commitment, the voice kisses him on the mouth, joining the spirits of divine voice and human voice.

Kisses take place among the members of the mystical fraternity as well. Thus in one encounter we read: “R. Pinhas came forward and kissed R. Shim’on. He said, ‘Let us kiss the mouth of the Lord which is aromatized with the fragrances of its garden.’� This type of kisses is significant because it indicates a mystical style of social relationship in which interpersonal rendezvous entail mystical experience. This is perhaps most easily understood, as well as being most familiar, when two people who love each other kiss.

In one mystical homily, which I quote, we see how the Zohar interprets the verse mentioned above, “He shall kiss me with the kisses of his mouth.�

“’He shall kiss me’ — this is the cleaving of love, of spirit with spirit. For there are four spirits that join together and become one: one gives his spirit to his fellow and takes the spirit of his fellow who is cleaving to him. Thus his spirit and the spirit of his friend make two; and the same is true for his friend Thus there are four spirits that are united as one with these kisses. ‘With the kisses of His mouth’: from those supernal kisses that He had kissed before. For there is no love and enjoyment unless they come from the kisses of the Supernal Spirit [to those] below.â€?

While the metaphysical mathematics are somewhat unconventional, what emerges is the sense that when one expresses love to another with a kiss, one is participating in the much larger project of love that Divinity shares with the world.

For me, this topic is moving because it invites the reader to participate in its vision of love, in which one transcends the mundane realm and is transported to the realm of myth and mysticism.

Previous installments of “From the Academy�: Dr. Howard WettsteinDr. David ShneerDr. Judith Hauptman

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