Episode 51: Embracing the Feminine Through Kabbalah with Jay Michaelson
Woman: This program is intended for mature audiences only.
Monique DeBose: Hello, everyone. I'm Monique DeBose and this is “A Taste of Sex: Guest Speakers” series, coming to you from One Taste Urban Retreat Center here in San Francisco. Each week on the show, we host eminent people whose work challenges the status quo of a mainstream culture, real trailblazers. So tonight we're exploring Kabbalah and sexuality.
Jay Michaelson: Now, today, because of sort of Madonna and things like that, Kabbalah is taught pretty widely. But certainly, when I was growing up, this was not the Judaism you learned about in Sunday school. As we'll see over the next few minutes, it's still not the Judaism you hear about in Sunday school. It's almost anarchic, it is very charged with eroticism.
Monique DeBose: So I'd want to introduce our guest, Jay Michaelson. He is a law professor. He is a Ph.D. candidate right now working on his dissertation, studying Kabbalah in Israel. He's written quite a few books and he's actually currently in the process of writing a new book right now. So I wanted to ask you if you could give us a little bit of a background, a quick snapshot of what Kabbalah is and then we'll get moving.
Jay Michaelson: Sure. Kabbalah is the Jewish mystical and esoteric tradition, so mysticism is really about the direct experience of ultimate reality. It's not reading about it in a book or having someone else tell you about it, but actually having some experience of it directly yourself. In the Jewish tradition, that’s often done through texts, so it looks like we're actually interpreting a text. But a lot of times, the way that text is read is seen as an experience in and of itself.
So, the word Kabbalah literally means “receiving,” and it can be defined in two ways. The sort of superficial way of defining it is that this is a tradition that’s received, it's passed down from master to disciple. It's an esoteric tradition, until the last century, it's not found in books that you could get at a bookstore. Of course, now you can get lots of books at the bookstore, but until the last century, you really couldn’t. It is a secret tradition, and that’s what's meant by Kabbalah – received from master to disciple. You can also defined the word on an esoteric level, a secret level, and Kabbalah allows you to receive more of the Divine. It's a way of actually bringing feminine energy into the masculine. Kabbalah is a literature written by men for men, again, until the last hundred years.
So traditionally, this was a male-centered literature that invited men to be more feminine, which for them meant being more receptive and being more open. So just that little example of how you could define the word in two ways is itself a very Kabbalistic thing to do. There is the surface level, which gives you some fact and there is the deeper level, which gives you some insight.
Monique DeBose: What brought you to Kabbalah?
Jay Michaelson: I think for me, it was the fact that there was a spiritual tradition within the Jewish world. I was raised a nice Jewish boy and feel very comfortable with that language. I sort of assumed, like a lot of people, that I needed to look in other traditions for a direct experiential, spiritual path. It was around when I was in college that I actually discovered that such a path existed within the Jewish world.
Now, today, because of sort of Madonna and things like that, Kabbalah is taught pretty widely. But certainly when I was growing up, this was not the Judaism you learned about in Sunday school. As we'll see over the next few minutes, it's still not the Judaism you hear about in Sunday school. It's almost anarchic, it is very charged with eroticism, and it can be a little bit destabilizing actually for traditional Jewish life. So I was very surprised to discover that this existed.
I studied that academically for about ten years, just as someone might study beautiful poetry from any tradition. I just thought it was beautiful, weird, and interesting. It actually wasn’t until I took on a serious meditation practice that I almost had sort of the answer key. I now actually realize this was more than really fantastic literature but it was something which could actually speak to us today, not in an uncritical way because there's a lot that’s really troubling actually in the Kabbalah.
There's a lot of not quite sexism but sexual essentialism, masculinism, feminism. There's a lot of ethnocentrism, Jewish and non-Jewish [xx]. There's just a lot of theology which I don’t think we could really most of us would want to buy into today. So I don’t approach Kabbalah on critically as some do. But I think if we keep our critical lens on and we don’t forget what century we're living in, there is a lot of wisdom within this tradition.
Monique DeBose: So you're saying that some people do take it literally, [xx] Kabbalah.
Jay Michaelson: Sure, yes. For example, if you really believe that the central text of the Kabbalah, the most important one is this book called the “Zohar: The Book of Enlightenment or Radiance.” If you really believe that this was written in the second century by a very important rabbi and that every word of it is true, you're lead to some troubling conclusions about the nature of - Jews and non-Jews is a really good example. Every literature of the medieval period was outrageously ethnocentric. Almost every nation thought that it was the chosen one and that everybody else was wrong.
You know, that’s a part of the Kabbalah that, I think, if we look honestly, it's there and it's actually an important part. It's a part that when we look at it today, when we're extracting where the wisdom is, then we might want to just recognize as a product of its place and time. I'm unable to do that because I see the text as a product of its place and time. If I believe that this is a time was text that’s divinely inspired and it's absolutely true for all times, that would lead one into a kind of a troubling place, I think.
Monique DeBose: So, let's go a little bit deeper or a lot deeper into the male-female energy. I was reading that, basically, Kabbalah says that we have both energies in us. Each individual has both male and female energy regardless of gender.
Jay Michaelson: That’s right, and not only each of us but God him/herself does as well. It's often startling for people who are used to the mean old, Western God, the Old Man in the Sky with the beard and stuff. Yes, that guy. To discover that in the Kabbalah - and this is not Jay’s 21st century take on it, this is right in the “Zohar” and other classical texts of the Kabbalah - that God is multi-gendered, that God has masculine and feminine parts, that the feminine is the divine feminine. God has actually the part that’s the most accessible to us.
Traditional Jews do a service called “the welcoming the Sabbath bride” every Friday night. They might do so a little bit unreflectively. “Who is the Sabbath bride and why we're welcoming her? I mean, what is this?” But really, that derived from the Kabbalah, that derived from the idea that one of the great tasks of a spiritual being is to unite the masculine and feminine within God. One of the ways that we do that is uniting the masculine and the feminine within ourselves.
So that can be done either Kabbalah is, usually not always, pretty have a normative discourse, so it can be done between man and wife in the act of sexual union which is seen as the holy of holies. It can be done in one’s own self, coming to terms with one’s own masculine and feminine energies. It can also be done in our other relationships in the world. So for example, at any moment, the masculine is seen in the divine as that which gives and spreads out. It's the act in the sense of giving.
Now, the feminine is seen as also act, that’s why it sort of move away from active and passive, but the feminine is that which receives, encloses, gives birth to, and incubates. Those dynamics are around us all all the time. In any relationship, regardless of our gender, there's a moment which more masculine energy might be needed from one partner, more giving, more putting out. There are moments where there might be a little bit more feminine energy – more boundary, more holding back, more restraint.
Interestingly, a lot of the Kabbalah’s masculine and feminine talk doesn’t map on to our stereotypes about what we think masculine and feminine are. So for example, one of the masculine attributes of God and of ourselves is called “chesed,” loving, kindness. It's feminine counterpart is “gevurah” which is strength and judgment also. Normally, I think in our culture, we think of women are the loving ones and men are the strong, judging ones. That’s not the Kabbalahs way of seeing it at all. It can be understood in an anatomical sense of giving and receiving and in terms of containing and drawing boundary. The feminine is that which draws boundaries, the masculine is that which wants to spread out and cross all boundaries.
Monique DeBose: That makes sense.
You said you can see that energy within yourself, the male and female. How does one go about balancing that energy? Is that something that is important in Kabbalah – the balancing of those energies?
Jay Michaelson: Sure. That's a life long practice. Interestingly, one of the teachings of the Kabbalah is that it hates celibacy, they couldn’t stand it. They think it's really the worst thing and the cause of evil actually. Part of the reason for that is that the masculine and feminine don’t come together and one side doesn’t sweetened the other side. There is something that happens in the sexual encounter that is transformative both to the masculine and to the feminine. Again, I'm saying masculine and feminine not male and female. So just that act when approached with a mindful perspective and with an understanding of the energies in play, can itself be transformative.
In Judaism, more generally, we don’t really have an idea that things themselves are either sinful or wonderful. Things themselves and also acts and things which we can do or seen as neutral and as seen what energy do we bring to it. So a knife is really very important when you're trying to carve something and it can also be an instrument of destruction and of murder. In sexuality, it's the same way. Sex is certainly not a necessary evil or a sinful thing which we have to do in order to reproduce in the Jewish tradition.
Beyond Kabbalah, even just on the mainstream Jewish tradition, sex is powerful. It's neither good nor evil. It can be used for great good or, according to Kabbalah, also for great evil. If it leads to more unity and more connection and things like that, it's to the good. If it leads to more separation and more alienation, it diverts power which could be used for divine integration and hands it over to the forces of separation.
Monique DeBose: So this is blowing my mind because I was raised Catholic by an Irish Catholic mother.
Jay Michaelson: You seem to have recovered well.
Monique DeBose: Thank you. It's been a long journey. The way I was raised with sex was something that was quiet, not talked about. It wasn’t something that you brought into your spiritual practice. So I just want to hear a little bit more about this piece in terms of - I'm going to stick with Kabbalah – but how is Kabbalah viewed just from the research you’ve done, in terms of other religions. Is it looked down upon in that sense for that piece?
Jay Michaelson: When you talk about a secret tradition - and let's just talk about pre-1950 or something like that - that raises all kinds of suspicions. The word “cabal” comes from Kabbalah and it's a sort of nefarious, sinister, secret society. If you look at how Christians in Europe viewed Kabbalah, that’s a lot of the time how it was viewed. So now, a lot of understanding. Sometimes, it was viewed by some Christian esotericists as actually the secret and you can use Kabbalah to prove pretty much anything you want. So the Christian Kabbalahs, which did exist, would adapt the reasoning of the Kabbalah to Christian theology. So it varied in how it was received and understood by other traditions.
Kabbalah itself has a mixed record on how it regards other traditions. Sometimes it sees the other, there's wisdom everywhere. Other checks and other traditions see it as dark magic or dark things, so it's all over the map, and this is true of Judaism. Generally, also, there is no one book called “This is the Kabbalah” this book says everything that Kabbalah says. Different sources will say different things.
Monique DeBose: Right. We're going to take a break. This is “Taste of Sex: Guest Speaker Interviews.” We'll be back in a few minutes just to hear a little bit more from Jay Michaelson.
Monique DeBose: Welcome back to “A Taste of Sex: Guest Speaker” series. We're here with Jay Michaelson who's taking with us about Kabbalah and sexuality. I'm just curious, since Kabbalah deals with so much male and female energy, what we're just talking about before the break, you run an organization called “Nehirim.” Is that correct?
Jay Michaelson: That’s right.
Monique DeBose: Yes, and the point of the organization is to create authentic spiritual community for the GLBT community. So, with the male and female energy, what's that piece about?
Jay Michaelson: I think, as mostly [xx] and approaching Kabbalah, it's largely a question actually of how we read and that’s through, in general, how we understand our spiritual traditions. So for example, if you have a tradition that talks a lot about the value of sexuality in a marriage - presumably had a normative married sexual relationship or emotional relationship - you can either read that as just being about that relationship. Or, you can understand that that relationship was the form of emotional and physical intimacy that existed at that time. It was the only sanction form of intimacy that existed at that time. Then, translate those teachings to our time in which we have a lot of forms of intimacy which may or may not be monogamous, may or may not be heterosexual and so on.
So I think it's a larger question of how we understand our religious traditions, regardless of what tradition that is. It's certainly true, East and West and North and South, it's not just a Jewish or Christian problem. So I choose obviously to read it in a way that can be translated to my own experience and I ask for a very open place and a critical place of what does this tradition have to say to me. Some of the things it has to say are just not going to speak to my experience.
Monique DeBose: Does that mean you’ll ignore them?
Jay Michaelson: It means I see them and I understand that this particular teaching is just not really reaching me. I think that’s what a mature, spiritual person does when they encounter or something in their spiritual tradition. I don’t pretend that it's not there and I don’t pretend that when I'm in a salad bar where I'm just going to pick the ingredients that I like. But obviously, some pieces are going to speak to me more than others. Again, let's go back, away from this sort of the masculine and feminine, just the Jew and un-Jew. I'm not really interested in a tradition that tells me that my ethnic group is better than every other group. It doesn’t mean that I wave my hands and pretend that it's not there, “No, I see it's not there.” I see that it's there but that’s not a foundation of my practice.
When it comes to sexuality, I think one thing that’s tremendously valuable for queer people is to see that, “Here’s a spiritual/religious tradition which understands that gender and sex are different, which understands that male people may have masculine or feminine energies predominant. In fact, there's some texts in the Kabbalah which really talk about men who have a predominance of feminine energy and why that happens and what does it mean and so on. Not that everything it has to say are great but there's a visibility there. I see myself in that text. I see myself as privileged to be able to embody masculine and feminine energies. That’s not connect to being gay - straight people can do that, too - but I think it does have a unique flavor for same sex couples.
I appreciate that within the Kabbalah, there are resources for working with that. I appreciate that within the Kabbalah, there's an idea that men are not complete until they are in some way feminized. I do that, at the same time, as I recognize that there's enormous misogyny and essentialism within the Kabbalah also. It's not like that within the Kabbalah has these answers. I'm not someone who believes that the ancients had all the answers and we're just sort of groping to recover them. I think that the ancients had a lot of wisdom and that we take that wisdom to what we know now. We are building a future which will be something that they wouldn’t even have understood but which can be really informed about what they had to say.
Monique DeBose: How is your take on Kabbalah received by other practicing people in the tradition?
Jay Michaelson: Sure. I think, there's probably let's say three or four camps and they receive it differently. One are the sort of Orthodox Jewish mystical folks for whom that act of translation that I just talked about just absolutely does not resonate. It says what it says, it's timeless, it's important, it's there forever. For them, I'm probably doing a disservice to the Kabbalah even talking about it.
Monique DeBose: But they are practicing that male and female energy is important.
Jay Michaelson: Yes, sure, but within a particular kind of relationship, within a particular religious context, with all kinds of rules around it, so in a particular kind of container. I think they would say that outside of that container, it's completely invalid. That’s the first camp. The second camp are sort of the rationalistic Jews and Christians who think that this religion that we're practicing is really all very rational and it's about being an ethical person, first and foremost. “What is this nonsense that you're talking about different energies. What the hell is an energy?” So for those people, I am the Orthodox Kabbalist together are just way too weird and it's not really computing in any particular way.
Then there's a third camp which is a fairly large camp of people who are dedicated and curious, open-minded, spiritual practitioners from a variety of disciplines. Their stuff is important and celebrated. Different takes on Kabbalah, women’s takes on Kabbalah that we don’t know what practices women had, if any, within that Kabbalah until the 20th century. Practically, there are only a couple of tiny exceptions. We really don’t know. So women’s Kabbalah is a very new thing. If you're interested in the growth of this tradition, it's a very exciting thing. Now, here's a whole array of voices which we’ve never heard before. So, there's really a lot of celebration of that.
I guess, the fourth camp that I would just mention is the largest purveyor of Kabbalah right now is the Kabbalah Center, which really is actually blending Kabbalah with a lot of other traditions. I have a lot of differences with in my approach and I've written about that before in some articles that have been published. I think it's always careful when you're looking to find a teacher to follow the money and hold a little bit and to see where they're coming from and to see if they can kind of point to texts and point to traditions that underlie the teachings that they're giving. I don’t want to cast any aspersions on the Kabbalah Center directly, but everyone should ask those kinds of questions.
Monique DeBose: So I want to take you back to sex because that turns me on. So in the practice of Kabbalah, how does sex actually play into your direct experience? Are you and your partner – I'll just get really [xx] - having sex in a spiritual way?
Jay Michaelson: I hope so.
Monique DeBose: Sometimes.
Jay Michaelson: Yes. I think there are a few answers to that question. One of them for me is very simple. It's found in the Kabbalah and in a lot of other traditions. A simple understanding that we exist on multiple levels – physical, emotional, mental, spiritual. You can have that on to [xx], you can have that on to the way that the Kabbalah maps the divine energies unto our body. Kabbalah has this idea of the four worlds, that there are four levels of reality going on on any particular moment. A lot of different systems for that but it's a very important insight.
I think for me, it's been a liberating insight to see how I play and how I dance on each of those four different levels. Sometimes a little bit more on one, and sometimes a little bit more of the other and celebrating on its physical and not particularly emotionally connected. Celebrating where the spiritual is really plugged in and sometimes when it's not actually plugged in and when it's purely a dance and the emotional connection between two people. So that’s one type of one example.
I think just the very basic idea that sexuality is “[xx] Hashem” would say in Hebrew, in the service of God. Just that very basic concept is one which you’ll always need to re-learn over and over and over again. That’s true if you grew up Jewish or Catholic or something like that and you were told that this is taking you away from God. It's certainly true if you grew up gay or lesbian and you're told that your form of sexuality is [xx] in some way to the Divine.
It's just the basic stuff is stuff which we really need to learn over and over and over again. Certainly for myself, issues of self-hatred and the guilt and those kinds of things, that’s not something which you get over and you slap your hands and you're all done forever. It's something which just that keeps coming up, you see it, and disappointing that maybe it's still there and you see it as part of the landscape.
So really the very fundamental idea that the erotic is the zone of divine actualization on any number of levels and we've only really scratch the surface. So it doesn’t always have to be about just having sex. Any erotic encounter is an exchange of energies. It's a place where God is meeting God’s self through these various masks. God’s a wonderful, spiritual drag queen constantly pretending that she's us. It's this beautiful act of putting on clothes and taking them off and putting them on and taking them off and really, this moment is nothing other than the divine lovemaking.
Monique DeBose: So this moment right now is divine lovemaking and there's an erotic experience happening between you and I in this moment?
Jay Michaelson: Isn’t it for you?
Monique DeBose: Well, I'm a little turned on.
Jay Michaelson: It worked.
Monique DeBose: OK. That’s good. I'm going to stand up for a second.
Jay Michaelson: Not so much dead air in the podcast for those of you listening at home.
Monique DeBose: I was just adjusting myself.
Let's talk about intimacy, eroticism. Does Kabbalah, in your practice, mean that you need to keep the physical piece with just one partner? I know we just said we had an erotic energy exchange or however you want to describe it. What's your take on that?
Jay Michaelson: Well, again, that really goes back to the question of how you read these texts and how you read these traditions and teachings. There's no question – I just want to be clear – that I'm not aware of any Kabbalistic text or book that says, “Great. Poly[xx]. Fantastic. Have all these exchanges.” I don’t want to represent the Kabbalahs as saying that. In my own personal understanding and in my own personal practice, eroticism comes in all kinds of shapes and sizes. What did Lou Reed say in that “Velvet Underground” song, “And for me to miss one would seem groundless,” something like that. “There are all kinds of love, and for me to miss one would seem to be groundless.” So I see this celebration of erotic energy in a number of different forms.
Within the traditional Kabbalah, you will find a lot of eroticism of things which we wouldn’t necessarily find as certainly erotic. So for example, there are Kabbalistic circles of men who were extremely in love with each other. We have their love letters and compacts and it's really glorious and beautiful. This isn’t about gay hunting. I don’t think they were necessarily having sex on the side, it's not what it's about. What it's about was there were wonderfully juicy erotic connections that they were having in this mystical fellowships. It's almost beside the point whether or not they were consummated in some sort of sexual act.
Monique DeBose: What is juicy erotic mean?
Jay Michaelson: Just really in love with one another.
Monique DeBose: Expressing that verbally.
Jay Michaelson: Yes. Expressing it in compacts and in mystical fellowships and in agreements and in all kinds of permutations. A lot of Kabbalists were similarly in love with text, in love with Thora, in love with the divine. There are many texts which speak of how you should pray, just like to sort of move back and forth when they pray. They bow back and forth. There's a very famous text from the 19th century which says you should do that as if you're making love to the Divine Presence, the feminine, the goddess right there. So you should move your body back and forth just like you're having sex. That’s what the experience of prayer. Does that mean you're supposed to actually have sex while you're praying and have an orgasm or something? No. I don’t think it means that. What I think it means is that we understand our erotic and spiritual selves is closely related.
Monique DeBose: I appreciate that. I'm a little bit closer to understanding my erotic and spiritual self.
Jay Michaelson: In that case, it's been worth it. Thanks for that.
Monique DeBose: I want to thank you, Jay Michaelson for being on with us today on “A Taste of Sex: Guest Speaker Interviews,” hosted by the One Taste Urban Retreat Center. You can find this on the Web at PersonalLifeMedia.com or check us out at OneTaste.us for more information about our lectures and workshops in sensuality and communication and relationship.
I'm Monique DeBose and thank you. We'll talk to you next time. Thanks, Jay.
Jay Michaelson: Thanks.
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