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23.04.03 Segol, Kabbalah and Sex Magic

23.04.03 Segol, Kabbalah and Sex Magic

Judaism is one of the world’s oldest monotheistic religions, yet Marla Segol shows that henotheistic forms continued well into the Middle Ages and anthropomorphized the deity in ways that would alarm those who favor a more conventional approach. She analyzes core kabbalistic texts and their ritualized expression that aimed to enable practitioners to access divine power and positively impact the cosmos, the community, and the self. Segol makes the esoteric accessible in her analysis of these marginalized mystical works and brings them into dialogue with popular and New Age approaches to “sacred sexuality” in the United States today.

The first chapter focuses on Shi‘ur Qomah (The Measure of the Body), an early medieval Hebrew liturgical text “that describes the divine body in detail, providing the name and measurement of each part, likening its proportions to those of the human form” (21). It draws on non-Jewish as well as Jewish sources and even Maimonides’ scathing denunciation did not prevent it from attaining considerable popularity and influence. It envisions God as the head of a pantheon as it also evokes panentheism, with the divine infusing and transcending all of creation. It encourages adherents to scrutinize the divine body to gain profound wisdom that saves and protects, with God’s body a kind of amulet for the practitioner, while Israel and the world also act as an amulet for God. The text sexualizes and genders the entire cosmos, with “sexualized exchanges between elements gendered male and female, male and male, and between all of them at once” (39). Through the liturgy of the Shi‘ur Qomah, practitioners themselves attain transformative ecstasy, culminating in a possession that evokes impregnation. It draws on scripture, especially Genesis 1:27 and the Song of Songs, “to ritually activate the power achieved by means of an intimate, aestheticized, and sexualized relationship with the divine” (52).

Segol’s second chapter examines the sixth-century Persian Sefer Refuot (Book of Remedies) by Assaf Ha-Rofeh and the Sefer Yetsirah (Book of Formations), which, like Shi‘ur Qomah, dates from fifth- through seventh-century Byzantium or possibly Persia. Assaf’s work, the first known Hebrew medical text, draws on Greek myths along with scripture and “adopts a microcosmic model in which the human body is created in the image of the cosmos, and human beings imitate God by harnessing the divine power to heal” (56). It also integrates astrology, yet strenuously differentiates its approach from magic, as its healing miracles come from the Jewish God. The Sefer Yetsirah shares core similarities with the Sefer Refuot, including astrological elements, but seems more typically kabbalistic, drawing on the ten sefirot and the letters of the Hebrew alphabet to explicate the wonders of creation and enable practitioners to merge with its mysteries. As with Shi‘ur Qomah, the Sefer Yetsirah genders and sexualizes its components, but in a more fluid and feminine-positive way. The sefirot are gendered as both male and female, depending on the verse, and the primary letters are celebrated as “mothers, from which all else is born” (73).

Two texts from eleventh-century Iberia, Solomon ibn Gabirol’s Tikun Midot HaNefesh (Improvement of the Moral Qualities) and Bahya ibn Paquda’s Torat Hovot haLevavot (Duties of the Heart), along with the Sefer Hakhmoni (Book of Wisdom,) written by Shabbetai Donnolo in Byzantine Italy in 946, stand at the center of the third chapter. As with the earlier texts, these works combine Judaism with Greek myth and provide pathways for practitioners to emulate God and access divine power, impacting the cosmos itself. The human body and the divine again mirror each other, with the human body a microcosm of the world itself. These texts “provide a blueprint for a new mode of ritualizing that allows the microcosm to work on the macrocosm; [...] they flip the model, opening a two-way street between human and divine, with the body as the way and the means” (101).

These books blur the boundaries between human and divine so that the human better approximates divinity or, according to Bahya’s work, is recognized as an eternal fetus in the divine womb, perpetually cared for and empowered by God. The focus of the fourth chapter, the Sefer Bahir, draws upon them all in even more transgressive and discombobulating ways. Its first layer was likely composed around 900 in Byzantium and its second among an Ashkenazi community in twelfth-century Provence. The first layer especially frustrates those who attempt to impose order upon it, due to “the instability of its imagery, its nonbinary genderings, and its good-natured confounding of cognitive categories” (111). Rather than the intellect, the first layer of the Sefer Bahir might best be approached through alternate modes of perception that transcend dualistic thinking. “It gains its power from undoing social prohibitions based on hierarchies, on distinctions between group and individual, and on distinctions between self and other. [...It] also models access to the divine by sexual relationship with a woman who is simultaneously married to the reader and to God. This in turn lays out a model for sex magic” (119). The text takes a sharp turn in its later layer. “Here, the worshipper achieves union with the divine not by undifferentiated sexual relationship but by punishment” (121). It advises practitioners how to purge themselves of sin, which separates humanity from God, through studying the Torah. Despite their divergence, the two layers are best understood in dialogue with each other; the first dissolves dualistic boundaries, while the second better enables practitioners to ritually enact the text’s teachings.

In the fifth chapter Segol explores more explicitly human dimensions of sex magic, specifically with reference to American popularizers of kabbalah who ostensibly draw on these texts not just for sex but to save the world. Yehuda Berg, the son of the founder of the Kabbalah Center in Los Angeles and its former codirector, identifies selfish sexuality as original sin, separating humanity from God, but his solution seems to deify that sin; “male sexual pleasure is a divinizing redemptive force [...] the physical processes of sex (for the male) both symbolize and facilitate the human ascension to the divine realm” (148). He applies the law of attraction to male desire for money, power, and prestige as well as sex and advocates putting the man’s female partner’s pleasure first, but his history suggests otherwise: he lost his position as the Kabbalah Center’s codirector after a civil court convicted him of attempted sexual assault. “America’s Rabbi,” Shmuley Boteach, seems Berg’s polar opposite, especially when it comes to consumerist capitalism, yet he too centers the male, with the female partner little more than the means through which a man sacralizes his sexuality. He incorporates Tantra and psychology in his kabbalistic rituals, urging male practitioners to deny themselves orgasm so they can harness its energy to transform themselves and the world; as a man restrains himself from sexual release, so should he refrain from consumerism and acquisition in general. Boteach maintains that “the death of eroticism in America has presaged the death of nearly everything else. By jump-starting things in the American bedroom and recapturing erotic excitement, we can energize all the other stuff as well” (quoted on 151). Segol says that Boteach sees the divinity in the female partner as well as the male, but her analysis focuses almost entirely on the male, implying that Boteach’s approach does as well. Apparently only semen serves as the source of life which must be withheld to save the world. Segol surprisingly doesn’t engage much with this disparity. She notes, “For Berg, the focus on female pleasure, grafted onto an assertion of the power of semen, functions to reinscribe a hierarchical masculinity in a novel way. In Boteach’s work, the reverse is true, as his book functions as a limited critique of masculinity as linked to capitalism, and a more sweeping criticism of the socioeconomic structures that generate such masculinity” (153). Yet she doesn’t demonstrate that either of these men actually focus on female pleasure; for Berg, the claim seems little more than a pick-up line and, for Boteach, more like a consequence of a man’s delay and denial of his own climax than a true partnership.

Segol’s last analysis centers four female “sacred sexuality” counselors, most of whom are Jewish and are developing correctives to Judaism’s androcentrism, although one (Robyn Vogel) maintains that women are accorded too much power in the West, which her teachings correct. They take an eclectic approach to spirituality, drawing on shamanism, Buddhism, and other traditions along with Judaism to help their students/clients integrate both masculine and feminine dimensions of their identity to live more holistic and balanced lives. Ruth Pine, a social worker, sees her approach to “sacred sexuality,” which merges Judaism with paganism, as “closer to the spiritual experience of ancient Judaism, allowing her to practice ancient rituals, usually forbidden to women, to achieve a direct experience of the divine” (161). Orgasm becomes a means of healing the world, of performing Tikkun Olam, under the “Make love, not war” banner: “‘I think that anytime that someone gets to orgasm or has beautiful sex’ she says, ‘you are healing the community and the world, not just yourself. If everybody was having sex, not buying guns, we wouldn’t have war’” (162).

Segol’s study has much to commend it. She treats these texts on their own terms without prioritizing normative claims or her own preferences. Despite their abstruse content, she makes them accessible and engaging, and explicates their fluidity with regard to sex and gender without critiquing more normative, androcentric, or patriarchal perspectives. Yet this latter strength also reflects weakness. While Segol offers admirable textual analyses, including of the presumably written responses to the five questions she asked the New Age practitioners, her conclusions are underdeveloped, especially as they relate to larger issues. Every aspect of her research contains significant implications for gender and sexuality; the medieval texts destabilize heteronormativity and hierarchies of all kinds, articulate a sense of gender fluidity far beyond current Western fumbling attempts to transcend the binary, and celebrate females and the feminine on both human and divine levels amid a lamentable paucity of such affirmation. The Americans she considers in her final chapter apparently understand sex purely in heteronormative and binary terms, with the men purportedly using sex to save themselves from selfishness and the women seeing it more as a means to heal from exploitation, oppression, and violence. Segol analyzes their words to better understand their perspectives, but does not engage with their thought or broader social implications. The closest she comes to social commentary is her observation that Berg’s conviction makes it “difficult to consider the ideas expressed in Berg’s book without imagining their potentially violent expression. In real life, divinized male desire may find its expression in assault” (149). Her conclusions at the end of each chapter leave significant aspects unaddressed, partly because of the texts’ richness but also due to the narrowness of her engagement, and the book lacks an overall conclusion, where she might have fleshed out her thoughts more fully. She demonstrates that community commitment lies at the heart of kabbalistic sex magic, which (at least theoretically) isn’t about a selfish pursuit of power but a way of worshipping the divine to better conform the self to God and to partner with God in the ongoing work of perfecting creation. Her own analysis would have been considerably strengthened if it had taken that additional step and reflected further on the relevance for our world. Nevertheless, Segol has greatly enhanced our understanding of these medieval esoteric texts and how they relate to pockets within American Judaism today.