Romance and the Divine

Romance and the Divine

Wherever intimacy as a mitzvah is found – there the Shechina dwells.

 “R’ Banaah entered the Ma’arat HaMachpeilah (the burial place of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs) and saw Avraham sleeping in Sarah’s arms and she was looking fondly at his head.” The Maharal explains: “When it says that ‘she was looking fondly at his head,’ it means that every joining of a man and woman denotes a union of the man with the woman. When the Gemara states that he was sleeping in Sarah’s arms, this indicates Avraham’s unification with Sarah. And when it says, ‘she was looking fondly at his head,’ it indicates Sarah’s unification with Avraham, that is, her strong desire and atractiontowards him. Therefore, we may deduce that Sarah also unites with Avraham until both are merged – he with her and she with him. And with this the union is complete in all its respects.”

 “And that which the Talmud says regarding the Jewish women in Egypt: “they had relations between the fields,” demonstrates that they loved their husbands so much that due to their dire circumstances they made use of any available opportunity for intimacy.”

 “And when you are able to understand the words of wisdom of the Kabbalah, you will realize that when there is unity in marital relations – like the connection and unity that existed in Egypt as a result of the women’s longing – then there is in the union a Divine aspect. Because separation denotes the physical and unification is purely a divine quality.”

 “know my children, that there is no holiness of all the types of holiness comparable to the holiness of marital intimacy if a person sanctifies himself in accordance with the instructions of our sages.” The Shloh Hakodesh’s statement is dramatic. In essence, Rabbi Yeshaya Horowitz is saying that the holiness of marital intimacy transcends the holiness of the Shofar on Rosh Hashana, the prayers on Yom Kippur and the sanctity of the Shabbat.

 These ideas appear to conflict. In terms of the maile-female relationship, the term love conjures up images of togetherness, intimacy and romance. Passion, touch, an inner connection – these are all terms which we associate with the concept of love.

Holiness, on the other hand, conjures up images of devotion, separation and sanctity. Sanctity conjures up images of untouchable and the divine. We are tempted to think of holiness in terms of ascetics, separation and distance.

 Indeed intimacy and holiness appear divergent, possibly irreconcilable. The dichotomy of the two concepts receives prominence in numerous religious writings. The Christian view of life demands a denial of physical indulgence, condemning it as a submission to the evil and animal desires contained within the sinful human soul. There is no synthesis of the physical ad spiritual. Instead, they present as opposites of each other.

 The centrality of intimacy in Judaism is demonstrated by the fact that only two mitzvot are repeatedly referred to throughout the Talmud and Rabbinical literature as “mitzvah”, simply “the commandment.” Those mitzvot are the obligation to procreate, Pru U’revu, and the husband’s obligation to satisfy his wife’s desire for marital intimacy, Onah. Pru u’rvu and onah are the paradigm mitzvot because they reflect the uniquely Jewish approach of sanctifying the physical world through the observance of Mitzvot. These Mitzvot are the most dramatic examples of the phenomenon of elevating the physical world to the heights of the spiritual.

 Judaism teaches that only someone who has learned to experience and appreciate the pleasure of this world will be capable of fully appreciating and praising G-d’s greatness. In that regard, the marriage relationship represents the ultimate synthesis of the spiritual and physical, a gateway to heaven like none other.

 Indeed, a study of the Talmudic, mystical and rabbinical texts which relate to marriage, presents a very romantic and intimate picture of the marriage relationship. These writings instruct the marriage partners to ensure that their mutual intimacy takes place when they are not clothed. The Zohar adds that at the peak of their intimacy, the husband and wife should be kissing. It adds that this is a time for quietness and that the spoken word is forbidden. And the room should be darkened.

 What is the deeper meaning of this apparent emphasis on the sensuality and romance of marriage? How does one reconcile this seemingly physical imagery with nothios of sanctity and spirituality?

 The Torah tells us that marriage represents not only the coming together of two people here in this world, but also the uniting of their two souls in the heavens above. Furthermore, this union was planned and predated the birth of the two partners. In fact, it is the coming together of the two souls above which translates into the physical union of the two people here in this world. In other words, the source of the physical union in this world is the spiritual union which mirrors and precedes it in the world above. Thus the attraction of man and woman often reviled as a weakness associated with base carnal urges actually stems from the soul’s innate desire to reunite with its soul mate.

For that reason, the Torah tells us that the physical relationship which the couple enjoys, must mirror the spiritual relationship above. Yes, it is possible to interpret the instruction of the rabbis to be unclothed, to kiss and to be silent in romantic terms. In fact, the source of these instructions is spiritual. The perfect union involves the fusion of both the spiritual and the physical in the union of man and wife.

 The union of the souls in the world above is total. Only two spiritual bodies can really be united as one. If the relationship in this world is to resemble that spiritual union, it too must be close in every possible sense of the world; hence the necessity for the couple to remove their clothes in order to be together as one.

Quoting from the sentence in the Torah where G-d instructs the master who keeps his maidservant to look after her, the Talmud says that the master should not behave like the Persians who are intimate while they are clothed. In a similar vein, the Ritva says, “even if he does remain clothed out of a desire to be modest, this is not the loving, affectionate way of being intimate.”

The Torah speaks of the physical union in the loftiest of terms. The sanctity of the union of husband and wife is compared to the sanctity of the highest of the four spiritual worlds – the world of  Atzilut. More specifically our rabbis have drawn a comparison between the union of husband and wife and the famous vision of the prophet Yechezkel in which he refers to the image of four animals. Each animal had four faces and four wings. The mystics point out that these four wings are represented by the four combined lips of husband and wife during their intimacy; hence the kiss which elevates mand and woman to the highest of levels.

Furthermore, the act of kissing represents the ultimate act of mutual love. It is unique in that both parties are giving and receiving simultaneously. “Whereas speech reflects the revealed connection between husband and wife, kissing manifests their hidden connection, their shared secret.”

We find the moving story of Chana in the Book of Shmuel. In contrast to her sister, Pninah, Chana was barren. She sought refuge in the Tabernacle in order to plead with G-d about her plight. She spoke meaningfully and softly. “Her lips moved but there was no voice.” G-d heard her crying and blessed Chana with a child, Shmuel. One of the reasons why the Amidah prayer is recited quietly is because its sanctity is comparable to that of Chana when she was praying to G-d at that time. So, too, is the sanctity of intimacy and it is for that reason that the couple should not talk during that time.

On a cosmic level, the relationship between man and woman mirrors the dynamics of man’s spiritual connection with G-dliness. The nature of man as the “giver” and the woman as the “receiver” has already been referred to earlier. The ability for man to give spiritual delight to the higher worlds and the divine attributes is regarded as the male element. The ability for man to receive spiritual sustenance from above is regarded as the female element of this spiritual dynamic.

 Ultimately, the Torah calls for a relationship between husband and wife which allows for the fullest expression of their love in a passionate bond. In turn, that relationship and its expression reflect a  union above and an awareness which draw the couple together not only physically and emotionally but spiritually as well.

 Tamar Frenkiel writes: “Romantic love is egotistical, seeking one round after another of pleasurable feelings, but with no further aim. Even extended “relationships”, which go beyond mere romance are founded primarily on the desires of the partners for companionship and security – essentially self-centered aims.”

 Rabbi Avraham Friedman speaks of a fundamental, irreconcilable difference between the nature and quality of intimacy performed “for his own pleasure” and intimacy performed as honoring an obligation to another. He explains that in the former, the emphasis is on the oneself, while in the latter, the concern is for another. “In the former, intimacy is an exercise in greedy self-interest and gratification; in the latter it is a glorious opportunity for selfless concern and altruistic benevolence. In the former, he is the taker, in the latter, he is the give.”

 The Torah provides us with a penetrating insight regarding the physical spiritual interface in Judasim. At the time of the building of the Tabernacle following the exodus from Egypt, the Jewish people were instructed to contribute the materials required for the construction. The women chose to contribute their mirrors which they had carried with them when they left Egypt. The mirrors had a special significance; while in Egypt, the women would use the mirrors to make themselves attractive to their husbands so that they could bear children and continue the future of the Jewish peple.

 Rashi explains that the angels questioned the decision to use these mirrors for the Tabernacle, considering they had been used for enticement. G-d responded by saying that “there contributions are dearer to Me than all the others.” Significantly, the laver in the Tabernacle was formed from these mirrors in order to restoe peace between husnbsd and wife by giving a woman suspected by her husband of infidelity to drink from its waters.

 There are numerous religious which preach celibacy and asceticism. They look upon the sexual drive as a human weakness. The leaders of these faiths are taught to overcome these urges by refraining from any forms of physical intimacy. Other faiths and many cults teach promiscuity and licentiousness as a means to obtaining spiritual enlightenment. Judaism rejects both extremes. Torah offers its adherents a profound and meaningful synthesis between the physical and the spiritual and a means by which each medium complements the other.

The inclusion of a spiritual and sanctified approach to the relationship introduces a quantum change as the couple transcends their own egos, needs and desires as the relationship reaches far higher and touches the divine.

Excerpted with permission from Spirituality and Intimacy by Rabbi Raphael Aron. Click here to purchase


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