Excerpt from Rabbi Rami Shapiro. Embracing the Divine Feminine: Finding God through God the Ecstasy of Physical Love
Wisdom as the Divine Feminine
. According to the book of Job, Wisdom is the means by which God created the universe: “God looked and took note of her” (Job 28:27). In other words, God looked to Wisdom to discover both the form and function of the universe. Wisdom, therefore, is the way nature is nature.
In Latin, the way nature is nature is called natura naturans, “nature naturing.”
What arises from nature naturing is called natura naturata, “created nature.” The capacity of nature to birth humans, for example, is natura naturans, while any specific human is an expression of natura naturata.
Natura naturans is similar to the Chinese notion of Tao: “For Tao is itself the always so, the fixed, the unconditioned, that which “is of itself’ and for no-cause’. The Tao that can be trodden is not the enduring and unchanging Tao. The name that can be named is not the enduring and unchanging name. (Conceived of as) having no name, it is the Originator of heaven and earth; (conceived of as) having a name, it is the Mother of all things.
The Tao without a name is natura naturans, the creativity of the universe. The Tao with a name is natura naturata, creation itself.
A parallel understanding of this in Hinduism is the relationship of Nirguna Brahman, ultimate reality without form, and Saguna Brahman, ultimate reality with form. In Christianity, the same idea is expressed in the Prologue to the Gospel according to John:
In the beginning was Logos, and Logos was with God, and Logos was God. This one was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Logos, and apart from Logos not one thing came into being that has come into being. In Logos was life, and the life was the light of humanity. (1:1-4)
Natura naturans informs natura naturata; Nirguna Brahman informs SagunaBrahman, the Unnamable Tao informs the nameable Tao, and God informs Logos. In the Hebrew Bible, the same dynamic exists between YHVH and Chochmah, the ultimate reality beyond name and form manifesting as the reality of name and form.
Most English translations of the Hebrew Bible render YHVH as “Lord.” While this translation is terribly misleading, it has its origins in ancient Rabbinic tradition. The early Rabbis prohibited the pronunciation of YHVH and substituted the Hebrew Adonai instead. Adonai does mean “Lord,” which explains the use of “Lord” in our English Bibles, but substituting Adonai for YHVH actually inverts the true meaning of YHVH.
Adonai is a masculine noun suggesting and enforcing the patriarchal hierarchy
of power and privilege enjoyed by the Rabbis themselves. Rabbis were men, and exclusively so; therefore YHVH was male, and exclusively so. Rabbis were the pinnacle of power in Rabbinic society; therefore God was the pinnacle of power in creation. The Rabbis literally created a God in their own image who would, not surprisingly, support their own status and power. No wonder they read the Song of Songs as a celebration of themselves. But YHVH has nothing to do with any of this.
YHVH isn’t a noun, but a verb: a form of the Hebrew verb “to be.” As a verb,
YHVH supports no hierarchy or power structure.
Indeed, when Moses asks for the meaning of YHVH in Exodus 3:13-14, the Hebrew Bible defines YHVH as Ehyeh asher Ehyeh, not the static “I Am What I Am” of so many English translations of the Hebrew Bible, but the dynamic “I Am Becoming What I Am Becoming” of the Hebrew itself.
YHVH is an activity, be-ing itself rather than a being or even a supreme being.
To borrow from Saint Paul in the book of Acts, “God is that in whom we live and move and have our being” (17:28). YHVH is natura naturans, Nirguna Brahman, the Tao without a name, God. From YHVH comes natura naturata, Saguna Brahman, the Tao with a name, Logos, and Wisdom. And because Wisdom comes from YHVH, Wisdom can lead us back to YHVH or, more accurately still, awaken us to our ever-present unity in, with, and as YHVH.
Who Is Lady Wisdom?
I am the deep grain of creation,
the subtle current of life.
God fashioned me before all things:
I am the blueprint of creation.
I was there from the beginning,
from before there was a beginning.
I am independent of time and space, earth and sky.
I was there before depth was conceived,
before springs bubbled with water,
before the shaping of mountains and hills,
before God fashioned the earth and its bounty,
before the first dust settled on the land.
When God prepared the heavens,
I was there.
When the circle of the earth was etched into the face of the deep,
I was there.
When the stars and planets soared into their orbit,
when the deepest oceans found their level
and the dry land established the shores, I was there.
I stood beside God as firstborn and friend.
My nature is joy,
and I gave God constant delight.
Now that the world is inhabited,
I rejoice in it.
I will be your true delight if you will heed my teachings.
Follow me and be happy.
Practice my discipline and grow wise
It is with this passage that we are introduced to Lady Wisdom. While the gender of the speaker cannot be discerned in the English translation, the Hebrew is clear: the speaker is Chochmah, Lady Wisdom, and hence all the pronouns and verbs referring to Wisdom in the passage are feminine. The grammar of this and every passage that speaks of, to, about, or for Wisdom always uses the feminine form.
Wisdom is the firstborn of God, and from her comes the ten thousand things of creation. As Proverbs tells us, her way is the way of truth and justice (8:7-8), qualities hitherto associated with God. Her essence is itself pure delight, and she delights in humanity (8:30-31). One who finds her finds life (8:35). Compare this to Jesus when he says, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me'” (Gospel according to John 14:6, NIV). Saint Paul makes the connection between Jesus and Wisdom quite plain: “Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24, NIV). What becomes the male Christ in the Christian Scriptures was originally the female
Chochmah in the Hebrew Bible.
Wisdom is the way God manifests in and as creation. Uniting with Wisdom, as the Song of Songs invites us to do, is a way of uniting with life and the Source from which life arises.
As Hebrew Bible scholar Gerhard von Rad explains:
It is correct to say that wisdom is the form in which Yahweh’s will and his accompanying of man (i.e., his salvation) approaches man. Wisdom is the essence of what man needs for a proper life, and of what God grants him. Still, the most important thing is that wisdom does not turn towards man in the shape of an “It,” teaching, guidance, salvation or the life, but of a person, a summoning I.” So wisdom is truly the form in which Jahweh makes himself present and in which he wishes to be sought by man. “Whoso finds me, finds life” (Prov. 8:35). Only Yahweh can speak in this way.
I cannot emphasize enough the importance of this observation by von Rad that we are not talking about an abstract principle wisdom with a lowercase “w”
but about a person—Wisdom with an uppercase “W.” The personification of Lady Wisdom allows us to become intimate with her in ways we could not if she were merely a set of principles or ethical guidelines for right living.
We personify Wisdom because on a deep and subconscious level we know her to be the “Other” with whom we long to unite. Sheis not an abstraction but our Beloved. She is not to be thought about but physically embraced in a manner that reveals YHVH to us.
The Wisdom of Solomon, a Jewish text written in Greek sometime in the second or first century BCE, defines Wisdom this way:
She is intelligent, holy, unique, subtle, flowing, transparent, and pure; she is distinct, invulnerable, good, keen, irresistible, and gracious;
she is humane, faithful, sure, calm, all-powerful, all-seeing,
and available to all who are intelligent, pure, and altogether simple.
She is the mobility of movement;
she is the transparent nothing that pervades all things.
She is the breath of God,
a clear emanation of Divine Glory.
No impurity can stain her.
She is God’s spotless mirror reflecting eternal light, and the image of divine goodness.
Although she is one,
she does all things.
Without leaving herself
she renews all things.
Generation after generation she slips into holy souls,
making them friends of God, and prophets;
for God loves none more than they who dwell with Wisdom.
She is more beautiful than the sun,
and the constellations pale beside her.
Compared to light, she yet excels it.
For light yields to dark,
while she yields to nothing.
She stretches mightily throughout the cosmos and guides the whole universe for its benefit.
(Wisdom of Solomon 7:22-8:1)
Wisdom isn’t limited to the spiritual sphere, nor is her concern with God’s Chosen People alone. She is the mother of all life and is concerned with all life. Like Jesus, she sends her apostles (all women, in the case of Wisdom) to reach out to all humanity and invites us to join her in table fellowship:
Wisdom’s house rests on many pillars.
It is magnificent and easy to find.
Inside, she has cooked a fine meal and sweetened her wine with water. Her table is set.She sends maidens to the tallest towers to summon you. To the simple they call: Come, enter here. To those who lack understanding they say: Come, eat my food, drink my wine. Abandon your empty life, and walk in the way of understanding. (Proverbs 9:1-6)
Wisdom’s goal isn’t to bring you to one set of beliefs or another but to make you wise. What does it mean to be wise?
In the Wisdom of Solomon, the writer
defines it this way:
Simply I learned from Wisdom: the design of the universe, the force of its elements, the nature of time beginnings and endings, the shifting of the sun and the changing of seasons and cycles of years, the positions of stars, the nature of animals and the tempers of beasts, the power of the wind, and the thoughts of human beings, the medicinal uses of plants and roots. These and even deeper more hidden things I learned, for Wisdom, the Shaper of All, taught me.
(Wisdom of Solomon 7:7-22)
But more prosaically, Wisdom teaches us physics, chemistry, astronomy, biology, ethnology, meteorology, psychology, pharmacology, and more. Wisdom reveals to us the explicit and the implicit, the visible and the hidden. How can she do
this? Because she is the means by which the universe came to be.
Wisdom and Shekhinah
Just as the Logos is both with God and God in John’s Prologue, over time Chochmah shifts from being a separate entity who exists with God to being an expression of God: God as we experience God here on earth. The presence of God is called Shekhinah, and she, no less than Chochmah, is feminine. It may be their shared gender that led the two to be understood as one.
In Proverbs 8:22, Wisdom tells us she is God’s daughter, the first of God’s creations, established before the universe. Eight verses later she tells us she is the architect of creation, but in neither case is she synonymous with the Creator. The intimacy between God and Wisdom intensifies but still remains dualistic in the second-century text the Wisdom of Solomon, where the relationship between God and Wisdomn changes from daughter to lover. Solomon says of Wisdom:
She embraces the universe in its infinite power and orders all things for their benefit.
Wisdom I loved and sought after her from my youth, to take her as my bride.
I was intoxicated by her beauty.
She proclaimed her noble birth and that she lived with God, and YHVH loved her.
(Wisdom of Solomon 8:1-3)
Philo (20 BCE-50 CE), the first-century Jewish philosopher and Hebrew Bible commentator, makes the connection with God even more intimate:
And thus the Demiurge [God as Creator] who created our entire universe is rightly called the Father of all Created Things, while we call Episteme/Sophia/Wisdom mother, whom God knew and through this know- ing created all reality, albeit not in human fashion. However, she received the divine seed and bore with labor the one and beloved son … the ripe fruit of this world.
We can see in Philo the beginnings of John’s theology and even a prototype of the later Christian teaching of virgin birth, with Mary taking the place of Sophia/Wisdom. While Philo is willing to follow the Hebrew Bible’s teaching that Wisdom is with God, he is not ready to take the leap that John does to affirm that Wisdom is God. This changes when talking of Shekhinah. While Wisdom is related to God as either God’s daughter or God’s wife, Shekhinah is of God herself. The term is unique to Rabbinic literature starting in the first century BCE.
The Shekhinah is God’s dwelling-not the place in which God dwells, but any place that God dwells. Whenever you find yourself in the presence of God, you are in Shekhinah.
Hence Rabbi Chalafta ben Dosa of Kfar Chanania teaches, If ten people sit together and study Torah, the Shekhinah rests among them… This is also true of five…. It is also true of three… It is also true of two…. This is even true of one, for it says, “In every place where I cause My Name to be mentioned, I will come to you and bless you.”
The Shekhinah is never separate from God, as Wisdom sometimes seems to be.
Indeed, while the gender of Shekhinah is feminine, she is not personified as a woman in the early Rabbinic literature, though as we shall see, this changes over time.
The earliest example of Shekhinah as separate from God can be found in a
Rabbinic commentary to Proverbs 22:29, “A hard worker can stand tall before kings; there is no greater honor than honest labor”:
When the Sanhedrin gathered to strip King Solomon along with three other kings and four others of their place in the world to come, the Shekhinah stepped before the Holy One, blessed be God, and said to God, “Master of all worlds! Don’t you see this hard worker standing before kings [meaning Solomon]? The Court would count him among the damned?” At that
moment a heavenly voice spoke aloud, “He [Solomon] shall stand before kings and not as one of the damned.
What is important to note here is that Shekhinah, like Chochmah is separate from God and this passage and addresses God as a being in her own right. Given that both Shekhinah and Chochmah are referred to in the feminine, it isn’t surprising that they eventually come to be seen as one in the same.
It is in Kabbalah, the teachings of Jewish mysticism, that we see what I take to be the deepest meaning of and connection between Shekhinah, Wisdom, and the Song of Songs.
The essence of the Kabbalistic idea of God … lies in its resolutely dynamic conception of the Godhead: God’s creative power and vitality develop in an unending movement of His nature, which flows not only outward into Creation but also back into itself
God is YHVH, the be-ing of all being. God is intrinsically creative, indeed is creativity itself. Yet, God is more than observable reality. God is also the source of that reality. The metaphor I find most helpful is that of the relationship between an ocean, the waving of the ocean, and the waves that arise from that waving. Speaking metaphorically and not scientifically, God as Source is the ocean, God as Wisdom is the waving of the ocean, and God as Shekhinah is the wave that arises from that waving.
The Kabbalists resorted to the expedient of differentiating between two strata of the Godhead: one, its hidden being-in-itself, its immanence in the depths of its own being; and another, that of its creative and active nature, thrusting outward toward expression… The former stratum is designated in the language of the Kabbalists as Ein-Sof, the undifferentiated unity, the self- contained Root of Roots in which all contradictions merge and dissolve. The latter substratum is the structure of the ten Sefiroth, which are the sacred names–i.e., the various aspects of God-or the ten words of Creation (logoi) by which everything was created.
In the kabbalistic model of the sefirot, Shekhinah is the final manifestation and culmination of the divine activity: God as “simultaneously mother, bride, and daughter.” In what is perhaps the earliest book of Jewish mystical teaching, the
third- or fourth-century Book of Creation (Sefer Yetzirah), we find the following tale told by historian and philosopher Gershom Scholem:
This is like a king who was in the innermost chamber of his apartments, and the number of rooms was thirty-two, and there was a path to every room. Did it behoove the king to allow everyone to enter his rooms by these paths? No! But did it behoove him not to show his pearls and jeweled settings and hidden treasures and beautiful things to all? No! What did the king do? He took his daughter and concentrated all paths in her and in her garments [i.e., her manifestation], and he who wishes to enter the interior must look at her. And she is married to a king, and she was given to him as a gift. At times, in his great love for her, he calls her “my sister,” for they come from one place; sometimes he calls her “my daughter,” for she is his daughter; and sometimes he calls her “my mother.”
Wisdom as Shekhinah
As Jewish thought works toward the unification of Wisdom and Shekhinah, it does so by reimagining Shekhinah as the feminine attribute of God rather than the presence of God.
The final Sefirah descends to the earthly realm in the guise of Shekhinah mentioned in the Talmud and the “Wisdom” of the Bible. She is no longer God’s presence, but is now a specific factor in His self-manifestation.
Beyond Scholem’s observation of the unity of Shekhinah and Wisdom, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (1194-1270), better known as Nachmanides or the Ram- ban, identifies Shekhinah with the “bride of the Song of Songs” and sees her as that in which “everything is in-gathered.
The kabbalists referred to the manifestation of the Shekhinah in the world as “in everything” (ba-kol). She is “the light that emanates from the primal light which is Chochmah. She is the same below as she is above; that is, she permeates the manifest world and the unmanifest Source from which and in which the manifest arises.
In this, Scholem tells us, she resembles the Hindu goddess Shakti, the active energy of Shiva (God) manifesting as the externalized creation, Chochmah in her purest form is, in the minds of some kabbalists, Koach Mah, the potentiality of all creation-as yet unmanifest creativity, natura naturans.
When Wisdom shifts from natura naturans to natura naturata, the unmanifest to the manifest, God without form to God with form, we speak of her as Shekhinah. In this sense the Divine Feminine permeates all reality, material and spiritual, physical and mental. She is imminent in, with, and as the world, binding all things together in her infinite being.
Back to the Garden
From Eve to the Shulamite
The medieval kabbalist Joseph Gikatilla (1248-ca. 1305) identified several women in the Hebrew Bible with the Shekhinah: “The Shekhinah in Abraham’s time was called Sarah, in Isaac’s time Rebecca, and in Jacob’s time Rachel.”! I would add two more to Gikatilla’s list: in Adam’s time she is called Chavah (Eve), and in Solomon’s time (by which I mean the time portrayed in the Song of Songs) she is called the Shulamite, the Woman of Wholeness and Peace featured in the Song itself (Song of Songs 7:1).
Making this claim is part of the allegorical reading central to this book. So central, in fact, that one can read the Song of Songs as completing the Garden of Eden story told in the third chapter of Genesis. That story ends with humanity exiled from the Garden; the Song of Songs tells us how to return. To understand how this works, we have to retell the story of Eve in the context of Wisdom. Because the Garden of Eden story has traditionally been read in such a way as to place the burden of evil coming into the world on Eve and through Eve on all womankind, my reading of the story may appear a bit shocking. It is, however,
more true to the actual Hebrew text than the conventional reading.
Let’s begin with the creation of woman in Genesis 2. God sees that “it is not good that adam [“earthling,” from adamah, “earth”] is alone; I will make for adam an eizerk’nego, a helper of equal worth” (Genesis 2:18).
This phrase “a helper of equal worth” is a bit awkward in English, but not so in Hebrew. Eizer means “helper.” K’negdo means something like the loyal opposition. The role of the woman is to stand in loving opposition to the man and in this way overcome the aloneness God seeks to avoid.
It is this aloneness, this sense of separation, that will prove pivotal in the exile of the man (but not the woman) from the Garden
Prior to the creation of woman, God fashions all the animals of the earth and brings each to adam to see if any of them can overcome adam’s aloneness. Sexual union was the means by which aloneness was to be overcome, but according to the Rabbis, no animal completed the human. Only after the failure of the ani- mals to overcome adam’s aloneness does God put adam to sleep, and from adam’s side (the Hebrew is tzeila, “side,” not “rib”) God draws out woman (ishah) (Gen-esis 2:21-22). When adam awakes (from having slept with this new creation?) things price different this time. “This time it is none of my bone and flesh of my flesh This shall be called ishah [woman] for from ish [man] was she taken” (Genesis
Despite the claim that ishah came from ish, that woman came from man, the
Hebrew text actually reveals that both ish and ishah came from adam, the singular human. The words ish and ishah are used here for the first time; neither comes before the other. Man and woman both come from adam and are aspects of adam, and only when they unite with one another can they achieve the unity from which they originally derived.
In Genesis 1:27 we learn that adam, though grammatically masculine and singu- lar, is both masculine and feminine. While the simple reading of this text, rein- forced in Genesis 5:2, is that God created two sexes from the very beginning, this reading becomes problematic in light of Genesis 2:7, when God forms a single earthling (adam) from the dust of the earth.
To harmonize the two stories, the ancient Rabbis imagined adam as androgynous or as conjoined twins: “You have formed me front and back” (Psalm 139:5). Rabbi Jeremiah ben Eleazar said, “When the Holy One, blessed be He, created the first adam, He created it with both male and female sex organs, as it is written, Male and female He created them, and He called their name adam (Genesis 5:2).” Rabbi Samuel ben Nahmani then said, “When the Holy One, blessed be He, created the first adam, He created him with two faces, then slit him and made him two backs a back for each side.
The unity of adam was lost with the splitting of adam (earthling) into ish (man) and ishah (woman). The result of that lost unity is portrayed in the Garden of Eden story.
The Relationship between of Ish and Ishah
To understand the relationship between ish and ishah, we must unpack the meaning of the two words. As taught to me decades ago, the word ish (aleph-yud-shin), “man,” is derived from eish (aleph-shin), “fire.” What differentiates “man” from “ire,” ish from eish, is the letter yud, which is the first letter of the divine name YHVH (Yud-Hei-Vav-Hei) and which stands for yada, “unitive knowing.” As long as a man is informed by the unity of God, woman, man, and nature, he is an ish, a holy fire if you like, bringing light and warmth wherever he goes. Awakening the yud is part of a man’s spiritual practice, and since yada is also a euphemism for sexual intercourse, one way of achieving unity consciousness is through sexual union. As we shall see, the Song of Song speaks directly to this practice.
In Hebrew, ishah (woman) is also composed of three letters aleph-shin-hei. Ishah lacks the letter yud and instead ends with the letter hei. Does the absence of the yud in ishah mean that woman lacks this intimate knowing? In a way it does: woman doesn’t have wisdom; woman is wisdom.
The vowel sound ee, made by the presence of the letter yud between the aleph and the shin in ish (man) is not absent in ishah but internalized and integrated to the point of not needing to be marked by a separate letter at all. This point will have great importance as our story progresses.
Because ishah has internalized the yud of YHVH and yada (knowing), ishah con-
tains the letter hei, the second and fourth letters in the divine name YHVH, and the second letter of the divine name Yah, yud-hei (as in hallelu-Yah, “praise Yah, praise God”). When ish (with the yud) is united with ishah (with the hei), the fully realized divine, Yah, manifests. The union of the woman and her lover in the Song of Songs is the union of hei and yud. The union of Wisdom (the femi- nine principle) and the seeker of Wisdom (the masculine principle) in our spiri- tual practice is the same. In both cases we have the possibility of realizing God through ecstasy.
Furthermore, when the letter hei appears at the end of a word as it does in ishah, it often denotes direction. While ish (man) is a holy fire, he lacks direc- tion. Ishah, on the other hand, includes both the holy fire of yud and the directional activity of hei. So ishah implies not only that the woman has internalized unitive knowing and the wisdom that comes with it, but also that she uses that knowing to offer direction to ish, who lacks it. It is in doing so that she becomes eizerk’negdo, the helper of equal worth.
Both man and woman have the potential for unitive knowing, but only the woman knows how to use it, which may explain why it is that the man leaves “his father and his mother and clings to his woman in the way of becoming one flesh” (Genesis 2:24) and why it is that the woman in both the Garden of Eden and the Song of Songs directs the man to Wisdom.
To fully understand what the Bible is saying, we have to make a shift from “male” and “female” to “masculine” and feminine”from physical sexes to psycho -spiritual archetypes. Adam, the original human of Genesis 1:27, is both masculine and feminine. The parable of the Garden of Eden speaks to the separation these two forces. The parable of the Song of Songs speaks to their reunification. Both texts use the image of a woman and a man to tell their story, and both should be read more deeply if their spiritual meaning is to be revealed.
With this in mind, let’s go more deeply into the Genesis story.
The Naked Truth
Chapter 2 of Genesis closes with the observation that both the man and the woman were naked (arumim), and neither was ashamed (2:25). Chapter 3 opens with a description of the serpent as the most arum of any creature God had made (3:1). While it is common for English translations to render the Hebrew arum as “naked” when referring to the humans (arumim is the plural of arum) and as “cunning” or “devious” when referring to the snake in the very next
verse, doing so is arbitrary and blinds us to the true meaning of the story.
The humans and the serpent, alone among all creatures, are naked. What can this mean? How is a serpent naked in a way that corresponds to how humans are naked? I suggest we read “naked” in the sense of “innocent.” The serpent was innocent and not devious.
In fact, playing with gematria, Hebrew numerology, a common tool of Rabbinic interpretation of the Hebrew Bible, we discover that the Hebrew word for “serpent” (nachash in Hebrew: nun  + chet + shin  = 358) has the same numerological value as that for “messiah”
(mashiach: mem  + shin  + yud  + chet  = 358). The rules of gematria allow the reader to substitute words sharing the same numerical value: the snake is the messiah disguised as a serpent!
But the messiah wouldn’t seek to trick the humans into sinning, so some other goal must lie behind the serpent’s efforts to get the woman to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The goal, I suggest, is to open the eyes of the man and the woman and to move them beyond their childlike state into adulthood. To achieve this goal, the messiah takes on the shape of a serpent, the most innocent and thus trustworthy creature in the Garden, and seeks out the woman to carry out his plan.
Again we have to wonder why, in what is usually considered a patriarchal myth, does the serpent seek out ishah rather than ish, the woman rather than the man?
Traditionally the answer has been that the woman’s will is weaker than that of the man, and it is this reading that has become foundational to so much misogyny over the past thousands of years. But this isn’t the only reading of the text.
The messiah/serpent sought out the woman rather than the man because the woman ishah-is the one with the potential to realize the internalized yud, the unitive knowing that is at the heart of Wisdom, and then take action (the externalized hei) to move humanity in the direction of Wisdom. The serpent seeks out not the person most vulnerable to sin, but rather the person most capable of realizing Wisdom—-the woman.
To Eat or Not to Eat, That Is the Question
The serpent urges the woman to eat from the Tree of Knowledge and to become like God, but she refuses (Genesis 3:5). She will not be cajoled into doing what she believes is forbidden.
Then the Hebrew Bible tells us, “The woman perceived that the tree was good for eating and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable as a means to Wisdom, and she took of its fruit and ate” (Genesis 3:6).
We tend to read this dawning realization as a single happening: the woman sees that the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge appears delicious, beautiful, and eye-opening. But this is not the only way to read the verse.
Think of these as three clauses representing three distinct encounters with the Tree of Knowledge.
First, the woman is attracted by the lusciousness of the fruit and the desire to
consume it, but that isn’t enough to make her do so. She masters her hunger and moves on without eating the fruit.
Sometime later she passes by the Tree again and this time perceives that the fruit is beautiful, and she desires to possess it. But beauty also fails to move her, so she again masters her passion and moves on without plucking the fruit.
Only on a third encounter with the Tree does she sees that the Tree will make her
wise, and only then does she consciously and deliberately eat of the Tree of Knowledge.
It isn’t that she has rationalized away the commandment to not eat of the Tree, but that she is willing to risk her very existence for the sake of Wisdom. In other words, her innate capacity for internalizing Wisdom is realized in her act of eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.
Now think in terms of the woman in the Song of Songs. Just as the woman in the Garden broke the sole rule for living there, the woman in the Song breaks the customs of her day and makes love to her lover outside the boundaries of marriage. Just as the woman in the Garden eats the fruit of the Tree, the woman in the Song eats the fruit of her lover (Song of Songs 2:3). And just as the woman of the Garden offers the fruit of Wisdom to her man, so the woman of the Song offers the fruit of her body to her man. The difference between these women isn’t their desire to feed their men, but the ability of their respective partners to properly accept what is offered.
While the woman in Genesis eats only after mastering her passions, her man acts very differently: “And she gave also to her man who was with her and he ate” (Genesis 3:6). The man eats without thinking. He blindly consumes; he acts from eish-fire, passion, and compulsivity-rather than from the yud of ish, the yud of yada, unitive knowing.
The mistake the woman makes is to assume that the man, who, after all, was right there with her, had reached the same level of consciousness that she had. She offers him Wisdom before he has mastered his baser instincts to consume and possess. Unlike in the Song of Songs where Wisdom and her lover are equally eizer k’negdo each to the other, working with each other to bring each other to the fully embodiedecstasy of awakening,the ish in Genesis is incapable of fully realizing the gift offered him by the ishah. This is why there is no fear, punishment, or exile in the Song of Songs as there is in the Genesis story.
At the moment the woman and her man eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, their eyes are opened and they realize they are nalked (Genesis 3:7). Notice that their nakedness evokes nothing but a desire to cover themselves. No shame is mentioned. But all that changes when God confronts the man in the Garden.
Hearing God approach, the two of them hide. God then calls to the man alone. Why? Because only the man poses a problem for God. The woman has fulfilled her nature as the embodiment of Wisdom; she has internalized the yud of uni- tive knowing and manifested the hei of holy action: she partook of the fruit of awakening to Wisdom, and she offered it (albeit prematurely) to her man. She is ready to lead. The man, on the other hand, is in a very different state. Put bluntly by the fifth-century church father Saint Augustine, where the woman is guided by Wisdom, the man is now ruled by his penis:
These members [the penis] being moved and restrained not at our will, but by a certain independent autocracy, so to speak, are called “shameful.” Their condition was different before sin … because not yet did lust move those members without the will’s consent.. But when [Adam] was stripped of grace .. there began to be in the movement of their bodily members a shameless novelty which made nakedness indecent.
Saint Augustine imagined that before eating from the Tree of Knowledge, the man could have impregnated the woman “without the seductive stimulus of passion, with calmness of mind, and with no corruption of the innocence of the body… It would have been possible to inject the semen into the womb through the female genitalia as innocently as the menstrual flow is now ejected.”
And while tradition has blamed all of this on the woman, it is important to note that
the Hebrew Bible does not. God calls to the man, who blames his hiding on the fact of his nakedness (Genesis 3:10). The man doesn’t confess to eating the fruit, only to feeling fear over being naked. When challenged, the man blames the woman for his situation, and the woman blames the serpent. God punishes all three: the serpent must crawl on its belly, the woman must endure the pain of childbirth, and the
man must toil mightily to bring forth the bounty of the earth (Genesis 3:14-19).
Immediately after this, Genesis 3:20 says, “The man called his woman Chavah
[Eve], because she had become the mother of all the living” (Chavah means “living one” in Hebrew). This is an odd verse, and there is no reason for it. It doesn’t move the story forward or even make sense. What it does is link Chavah to Chochmah, Eve to Wisdom, for the way Chavah, the helpmate, is the mother of all the living isn’t that she births them into life but that she births them into
Wisdom-the wisdom her man could not internalize.
The story resumes, and God worries aloud, “Now that the man has become
k’achadmimennu, knowing good and evil, he might reach out and take also of the Tree of Life, and eat and live forever!” (Genesis 3:22). In standard English translations of the Bible, the Hebrew phrase k’achadmimennu is rendered “like one of us”-in other words, “like a god.” But if this were the case, the Hebrew would be k’echad mimennu. Achad means “unique,” and a better reading of the Hebrew would be this: “The man and not the woman-–has become unique, no longer one with us, but separate from us, alienated from us, and hence fearful of us,
and a danger to himself. If the man were now to eat of the Tree of Life and attain immortality, he would be locked into this state of psycho-spiritual exile forever.”
The fact that God is concerned only with the man and not with the woman suggests that God recognizes that she has internalized Wisdom and reached her potential as ishah, while the man is dangerously close to being permanently condemned to eish, a consuming fire. It is for this reason that God exiles the man, but again not the woman. The Hebrew and the English are equally clear: “So God banished him from the Garden of Eden” (Genesis 3:23). Him and not her.
Eve is not exiled at all.
Following the man’s exile from the Garden, God places fierce cherubim with an ever-turning sword of fire “to guard” (lishmor) the way to the Tree of Life (Genesis 3:24). While it is customary to understand the cherubim as defenders of the Tree, empowered to keep the man from returning to it, the text itself is far less clear on this matter. The Hebrew lishmor simply means “to protect.” One could read the Hebrew Bible as saying that the role of the cherubim with the flaming sword is to protect the way back to the Tree so that when the man is
ready to return the way will be lighted and cleared for him. When will the man be ready to return? When he has achieved what the woman has achieved: the internalization of Wisdom.
Wisdom isn’t a late addition to creation, but the way creation is created. Wisdom is intrinsic to all reality. What Lady Wisdom of Proverbs, the mother of all the living of Genesis, and the Woman of Wholeness and Peace of the Song of Songs offer is the awakening of this innate Wisdom.
While the ishah in Genesis is called Chavah, mother of all the living, this is more a title than a name. Similarly with the woman in the Song of Songs. She, to0, has a title but not a name: the Shulamite (Song of Songs 7:1). It is the woman’s lover who calls her this, just as it is Adam who names Eve, so these titles may reflect the perspective of the seeker rather than the woman herself. The meaning of Chavah as “mother of all the living” is explained in the story itself, but the meaning of Shulamite is left for us to uncover.
In Hebrew the root letters of Shulamite sh–m-are the same root letters as the name Shlomo, Solomon. Some commentators take this as a poetic way of linking the woman to the man in the Song, who they take to be King Solomon. Reading the male lover as Solomon, however, is a stretch. While Solomon is mentioned in the Song (1:1, 8:11-12), he is never directly linked to the male lover. Yet, I think the root letters of Shulamite do tell us who she is.
The letters sh-l-m are also the root letters of the Hebrew words shaleim and shalom, “wholeness” and “peace.” If, as I am positing in this book, the female Beloved in the Song of Songs is Chochmah, Lady Wisdom, and Lady Wisdom, like Chavah, is the mother of all things -the way nature natures-then we might understand the Shulamite as the Woman of Shaleim and Shalom, the Woman of Wholeness and Peace. The same title could be given to Chochmah in the book of Proverbs, for it is through her that the whole of creation happens, and “all her paths are peace” (3:17).
Lady Wisdom calls us to share a feast with her in the book of Proverbs (9:2-5). Lady Wisdom as the Shulamite is the feast in the Song of Songs. The Shulamite is called a garden in the Song of Songs (4:12), and hence union with her is returning to the Garden from which Adam was exiled. This is to say that the Song of Songs completes the story of Eden by showing us the way back to the Garden.
Union with Wisdom is presented to us in the Song of Songs as sexual union because it is through sexual intimacy (yada) that one achieves unitive knowing (again, yada).
The full splendor of sexual experience does not reveal itself with a new mode of attention to the world in general. On the other hand, the sexual relationship is a setting in which the full opening of attention may rather easily be realized because it is so immediately rewarding. It is the most common and dramatic instance of union between oneself and the other. But to serve as a means of initiation to the one body” of the universe, it requires what we have called a contemplative approach. This is not love
“without desire” in the sense of love without delight, but love which is not contrived or willfully provoked as an escape from the habitual empty feeling of the isolated cgo.
In other words, love must be spontaneous and unrestrained, and sex must be no less so. This is the love the Shulamite, Lady Wisdom, the archetype of the Divine Feminine, shares with her lover in the Song of Songs.
Through My Flesh I See God
The Song of Songs as Jewish Maithuna
Maithuna is a Sanskrit word meaning “sexual union” and is often spoken of in the context of yoga. Yoga is the Sanskrit word for “union,” more specifically the union of the self with the AIl, or Atman with Brahman. Maithuna is one way to celebrate this union. In the case of the Song of Songs, “eroticism becomes worship in the context of grace.“
The union of self and other and of self and All is a given. You are at this very moment part of the infinite singularity that is reality. You may call this Brahman, God, Spirit, Tao, Mother, or any number of other names, but the simple fact is, as the Chandogya Upanishad, one of the great texts of Hindu philosophy, put it over twenty-six hundred years ago, Tat tvam Assi: You are That.
If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either. So we can say that the cloud and the paper inter-are.
“Interbeing” is a word that is not in the dictionary yet, but if we combine the prefix “inter-” with the verb “to be,” we have a new verb, inter-be…
If we look into this sheet of paper even more deeply, we can see the sunshine in it. If the sunshine is not there, the forest cannot grow. In fact, nothing can grow. Even we cannot grow without sunshine. And so, we know that the sunshine is also in this sheet of paper. The paper and the sunshine inter-are. And if we continue to look, we can see the logger who cut the tree and brought it to the mill to be transformed into paper…. And the logger’s father and mother are in it too..
Looking even more deeply, we can see we are in it too…
“To be” is to inter-be. You cannot just be by yourself alone. You have to inter-be with every other thing. This sheet of paper is, because everything else is.
Maithuna is not a way to achieve interbeing, it is a way to celebrate inter-being. The Song of Songs is not a method whereby one achieves union with Wisdom incarnate as the Shulamite, the Woman of Wholeness and Peace, it is a way of awakening to that union. What the Shulamite offers the seeker in her garden is what ishah (woman) offered ish (man) in the Garden of Eden: the opportunity to awaken to the union of opposites. Where the man was not ready to fully embrace this gift in the Garden of Eden, the seeker is led through a careful cultivation of ecstasy that allows for the awakening of Wisdom in the Garden that is the Shulamite.
In the practice of maithuna, the female partner takes on the role of Shakti, the active, immanent, creativity of the Divine, and the male partner takes on the role of Shiva, the transcendent aspect of the Divine. The union of the two is a slow process of awakening through the body. In the Song of Songs this entire process is directed by the woman, by Wisdom, breaking the taboos of the times.
The woman plays a sexually aggressive role; she violates boundaries by searching in the streets for her beloved; she also uses a bold, incestuous metaphor as she addresses her love: “If only it could be as with a brother, as if you had nursed at my mother’s breast; then I could kiss you when I met
you in the street, and no one would despise me” (8:1). But the watchmen who find her in the street beat her, as if to control her unconventional behavior (5:7), much as her brothers force her to guard their vineyards (1:6).3
In the context of the Song, the command of the Shulamite to the daughters of Jerusalem not to wake or disturb the lovers until they have reached the consum- mation of their union (2:7, 3:5, 8:4) could be read as a warning to neophytes not to mistake the maithuna of the Song for simple human coupling, as Adam mis- took eating the fruit offered him by ishah for the simple act of consuming. Maithuna is a spiritual practice that employs the body but still requires concentration of mind.
In the context of Jewish mysticism, maithuna may be likened to reunion
(tikkun), awakening to the non-dual nature of reality. When they [ish and ishah] are joined they appear as one actual body. From here we learn that a man alone appears as half a body … and similarly the woman. When they are joined as one, everything appears as one actual body, Thus, when the male joins with the female, everything is one body, and all the worlds are in joy for they are all blessed from the complete
The image presented by this practice mirrors that of yab-yum (Tibetan for “father-mother”), with the male deity sitting with his female consort on his lap. The male in this setting symbolizes karuna (compassion) while the woman embodies prajña (wisdom). In Hindu iconography the couple embracing is Shiva and Shakti.
According to Hindu scholar Ananda Coomaraswamy, the significance of the
union of Shiva and Shakti is threefold. First, it represents “Rhythmic Play as the Source of all Movement within the Cosmos”; second, it releases humanity from the illusion of separation at the heart of our suffering; and third, it reminds us that this union, while taking place at the center of the universe, is taking place In your own heart as well.
Lest you imagine I am imposing Indian sexual union imagery on Judaism, the Talmud tells us that once a year during the festival of Sukkot, the priests of the Temple would open the curtain that covered the Holy of Holies and reveal to the people two cherubim, one male and the other female, in sexual union. The priests would then cry out, “Look! You are beloved by God as the love between a man and woman!”
Let me go one step further, however, and suggest that the Song of Songs, like the image of yab-yum, can be a map for a spiritual practice of sexual union as well. As the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidic Judaism, taught, “Prayer is a form of intercourse with Shekhinah.” The opposite, too, can be true: sex is a form of prayer. Rabbi Baruch of Kosov taught:
I once heard a modest man bemoan the fact that it is human nature to have physical pleasure from sex. He preferred that there be no feeling of pleasure at all, so that he could have sex solely to fulfill the command of his creator.. Later, however, God favored me with a gift of grace, granting me understanding of the true meaning of sanctification during sexual intercourse: that it comes precisely from feeling physical pleasure. This secret is wondrous, deep, and awesome.
Which leads me to this question: is the Song of Songs for straight women and men only?
Toward a Holy Androgyny
When speaking of the creation of adam, the first earthling, in Genesis l:27, the Hebrew Bible says God created adam “male and female.” The logical way to read this is to say God created man and woman at the same time. The problem with this reading is that just prior to telling us that God created “them,” the Hebrew Bible says God created “him.”
While many English translations avoid the confusion by changing “him” to “them,” the Hebrew leaves us without any such wiggle room. How can God create adam singular (he) and then plural (them)? Problems such as these are ripe for interpretation. Indeed, Judaism thrives on such textual difficulties, using them to expand the meaning of the Hebrew Bible far beyond the plain reading of the text and into the furthest reaches of Rabbinic imagination. To take but one example apropos to our discussion, Rabbi Jeremiah son of Rabbi Eleazar claims that God created the original earthling androgynous. Rabbi Samuel son of Rabbi
Nahman disagreed, saying that adam was not androgynous but “double-faced,” and joined along the back, what we today would call conjoined twins.
My own reading of Genesis posits the original earthling as bisexual physically, psychologically, and spiritually. Adam is the sacred androgyne, to use religious
Scholar, Andrew Harvey’s term, who actualizes the inter-being of feminine and masculine and who longs to be born in your body.
This oneness heals all divisions and fuses all “separate” powers and brings into the union of Sacred Marriage all the “male” and “female” powers of the self, unites and fuses intellect and divine love, imagination and ecstasy, the spirit and the body, the lavws of the heart and the structures of mind, the
light and every breath, gesture, thought, and emotion lived in its truth. What is born from this fusion, this Sacred Marriage of all the “separate” powers of heart, mind, body, and soul is the Sacred Androgyne, the one who in his or her being realizes the total interpenetration with the Christ of all normally “opposed” or “contradictory” qualities.
This Sacred Androgyne- birthed in what early Gnostic writings such as the Gospel of Philip and the Acts of Thomas call again and again the “bridal Chamber,” the place of fusion between “male” and “female” is a divinized human divine being free of all normal categories of “male” and “female” because it exists in a unity that contains, absorbs, “uses,” and ecstatically transcends both… This Sacred Androgyne… is the new Eve-Adam reuniting in his-her own being the Adam and Eve that we separated at the “Fall.” In such a being, “heaven” lives on earth: through such a being the divine radiates divine grace and power directly.
David White, a scholar of medieval Indian religion, takes this idea in a direction quite in line with my own:
Here [in the subtle body] all humans were viewed as essentially androgy- nous with sexual intercourse an affair between the female serpentine nexus of energy, generally called the kundalini, and a male principle, identified with Shiva, both of which were located in the subtle body. ‘
The “subtle body” refers to that dimension of awareness that embraces the physical in the spiritual. It is the place of ecstasy where the union of opposites takes place, or, more accurately, the always unified opposites are revealed as such. This is your own personal pilgrimage to the Holy of Holies, seeing the unity of masculine and feminine in the sacred sexual union of the two cherubim.
Again, there is no process of unification since the interbeing of all being is a given. What there is, and what the Song of Songs celebrates and awakens us to, is the unification that is an ever-present but oft overlooked reality.
To understand the deepest meaning of the Song of Songs, we have to move beyond its heterosexual trope and into the larger realm of what might be called polymorphous perversity. Sigmund Freud coined the term “polymorphous perversity” in his discussion of infant sexuality. It means that one’s entire body is open to pleasure and delight, and not simply those parts of the body sanctioned for such delight by adult society.
Thus Freud’s doctrine of infantile sexuality, rightly understood, is essen- tially a scientific reformulation and reaffirmation of the religious and poeti- cal theme of the innocence of childhood… Freud takes with absolute seriousness the proposition of Jesus: “Except ye become as little children, ye can in no wise enter the kingdom of heaven.” As a religious ideal, the innocence of childhood has turned out to resist assimilation into the rational-theological tradition. Only mystics and heretics like St. Francis and Jacob Boehme have made Christ’s ideal their own. Poets like Blake and Rilke have affirmed its secular validity. Rousseau attempted to grasp it in
philosophic-rational terms. Freud formulated it as an indispensable axiom of scientific psychology.
I am proposing this as an achievable state through sexual ecstasy as well. The body we are talking about isn’t male or female; the sex we are talking about isn’t straight or gay. We are simply using the bodies we see to realize the greater body we don’t see.
Baruch Spinoza, the seventeenth-century Jewish philosopher, argues that
enhancing the body enhances consciousness as well and longs for a “body fitted for manythings. Spinoza recognizes the “body fitted for many things” as the bodily counterpart of the intellectual love of God:
“He who possesses a body fitted for doing many things, possesses the power of causing all the modifications of the body to be related to the idea of God, in consequence of which he is affected with a love of God which must occupy or form the greatest part of his mind, and therefore he possesses a mind of which the greatest part is eternal.” Spinoza’s intellectual love of God is identical with Freud’s polymorphous perversity of children.
This understanding of Spinoza, Freud, and polymorphous perversity is simply another way of saying what Job said millennia ago: “By means of my flesh I see God” (Job 19:26).
The Song of Songs, as I am reading it here, is a celebration of sacred sexuality: the union of the human seeker, represented by the male lover, with divine Wisdom, the Woman of Wholeness and Peace. The heterosexual trope of the Song of Songs is a product of its time and should not be mistaken as a limitation on who can partake of this mystery of union. Despite this, however, as a reader you will have to deal with the limits of language and transcend them for yourself.
Whenever the sex act is performed with holiness, with God being present, then there is a reenactment of the creation of the first couple. That is why in our Jewish wedding service, the liturgy says, “May You cause the bride and groom to rejoice as You did in Your creation in the primeval Garden of
Neither Genesis nor the Song of Songs makes any mention of bride and groom. They speak of female and male, woman and man. The relationship between the lovers in both books is outside any formal marriage contract. So let us not impose a marriage where none exists and simply affirm that “when a man and a woman truly unite, all is one body and the cosmos rejoices for it becomes one complete corpus.”
I would go one step further and say that whenever two people, regardless of
gender, “truly unite,” they, too, become a single body and in so doing participate in the singularity, or non-duality, that is Ultimate Reality itself. Doing so is Wis- dom, and embracing Wisdom is seeing God through one’s flesh. Scripture considers the sexual experience as knowledge; sexual experience coupled with love and desire will penetrate not only the mystery of sexual ity but inevitably will draw one into the mysteries of existence,!?
The key here is what it means to “truly unite.” According to Jewish scholar Byron Sherwin, “For the Jewish mystics, the procreative act is a paradigm of the ultimate religious experience.”l I would amend this slightly and say that sexual union as an expression of religiosity becomes a means for the ultimate religious experience. Intention is essential. If you embrace your partner for physical pleasure alone you may well miss the sacred dimension such union offers.
Adam and Eve, the first to be created, were originally one. Now they are two. They try to restore the status of old. Male and female are essentially part of a single whole. And though two bodies were separated, the two half- bodies are in constant search for cach other. There will never be complete
fulfillment until the male and the female are rejoined in a new unity.!
What is true of Adam and Eve is true of you and your partner, and true of the lovers in the Song of Songs as well. We are all originally one, and while we are still in fact one, we have allowed ourselves to be deluded by the illusion of sepa- ration. In reality there is no separation, but the union has to be lived in order to break through the illusion. One way to do this is through intentionally sacred sex: “Adam and Eve were one person. Through coupling they attained fulfill- ment, and when united face to face they symbolize completion of the divine structure.
At the most heightened state of consciousness, the mystical experience has been perceived as an encounter between two intangible entities, namely the human soul and the Divine Reality. In order to express the abstract encounter therefore, the concrete has to be expediently employed. In this context, the paradigms of love between man and woman, in all its myriad aspects, have most often been employed by mystics as a means of expressing this experience.
Sacred Love Stories
The Song of Songs is part of a genre of sacred love stories found in other reli- gious traditions. Three in particular are worthy of mention here: the Islamic Story of Layla and Majnun, and the Hindu Rasa-Lila and Gita Govinda.
In diverse mystical traditions this ontological experience has been given emphasis because mystical union is arrived at only through the stages of a long and arduous path. This path, or journey, is expressed by the portrayal of human love-in-separation, in which the lovers are “torn” from each other.
The separation is characterized by a searching, or quest, an intense longing. This state of affairs symbolizes the consciousness of the human soul of its separation from God, and a yearning to return to its Source.
The Islamic Story ofLayla and Majnun is based on an ancient Arabic poem describ- ing the love between Qays and Layla. In what is perhaps its most famous ver- sion, composed by the Persian poet Nizami in the twelfth century, Qays and Layla meet and fall in love as students but cannot marry due to a feud between their two families. Qays composes poem after poem to express his love of Layla, and so all-consuming is his passion that the villagers give him the title Majnun, “The Possessed.”
To keep the two lovers apart, Layla’s father marries her off to another man, and she moves with her husband to northern Arabia where, perhaps like our Lady in the Song of Songs and Shakespeare’s Juliet, she becomes sick with long- ing and dies. For his part Qays, shattered by the marriage of Layla to another man, flees into the desert to find his beloved. In time, Qays finds the grave of Layla and, after many adventures, dies nearby.
While there is no evidence that Nizami based his version of Layla and Majnun on the Song of Songs, it is interesting to note that Layla, like the Lady of the Song, is associated with a garden:
She was the most beautiful garden and Majnum was a torch of longing. She planted the rose-bush; he watered it with his tears.23
While the Story of Layla and Majnun has been read allegorically to describe the all- consuming love of the seeker for God, the story differs from the Song of Songs in one very important respect: unlike the man and woman of the Song, Qays and Layla never consummate their love. Theirs is a longing for union that is never realized.
Two examples of sacred love songs from India are the Rasa-Lila and the Gita Govinda.
Rasa-Lila, best translated as the Dance (Lila) of Divine Love (Rasa), was composed sometime in the second half of the first millernnium CE as part of a larger work called the Bhagavata Purana and is often referred to as the Hindu “Song of
In a statement reminiscent of Rabbi Akiva’s praise of the Song of Songs as the Holy of Holies, Hindu devotees of Vishnu, who they believe appears in the Rasa-Lila in the form of Krishna, celebrate the Bhagavata Purana as the essence of Hindu philosophy, and the Rasa-Lila as the essence of the Bhagavata Purana, The essence they refer to is the union of Atman with Brahman, the soul with God.
While non-dualistic in its intent, and hence positing an eternal union of Atman and Brahman, the Rasa-Lila in particular and the Bhagavata Purana in general use the longing of the lover for the beloved as the central metaphor for spiritual awakening. Because the non-dual position is one of both/and rather than either/or, refusing to limit one to either the language of union or the language of separation, texts such as the Song of Songs, the Rasa-Lila , and the Story of Layla and Majnun can point toward the realization of non-duality within the
metaphor of the union of opposites: lover and Beloved.
The Gita Govinda, or Song of Govinda, composed in the twelfth century by the
Sanskrit poet Jayadeva, is another Indian love poem with spiritual implications. The Gita Govinda tells the story of Govinda, an incarnation of Lord Krishna, and
his love for Radha, a milkmaid. The parallels with the Song of Songs are not hard to find:
She is visibly excited by embracing Hari [Lord Krishna]; Her necklaces tremble on full, hard breasts… She is weary from ardently drinking his lips… Quivering earrings graze her cheeks; Her belt sounds with her hips’ rolling motion.
Like the Song of Songs and Layla and Majnun, in the Gita Govinda “the garden is central to the rich imagery of wild nature…. The lush natural surroundings convey the sense of pleasure the lovers have in each other.”
In this context gardens function symbolically in referring to particular existential realities, the earthly gardens signifying a worldly reality, which in turn signify a Divine Reality. In other words, the “real,” earthly gardens have a relative reality, and the sacred gardens, an absolute Reality. The connection of the gardens, as the setting of the love stories, with the religious dimension, is thus apparent: it represents a refuge from the world… Furthermore, in many Eastern cultures, the garden is a sexual symbol and a metaphor for woman’s sexual arousal and desire… particularly in the Song ofSongs.
My point in mentioning these other sacred love songs is to make clear that the Song of Songs is not unique and is in fact part of a genre of songs used as lenses through which we can see the union of lover and Beloved, seeker and God or God’s Wisdom. But what are we to do with these songs? Are they simply poetic artifacts to be appreciated, or can they be lived in our own bodies?
If the former only, I would not find the Song of Songs as compelling as I do. It has to be embodied, just as the Beloved has to be embraced. “This love of the divine couple becomes a song, as well as a dance, and the reader is invited to join the celebration,”
For me the Song of Songs offers us a means by which to reunite ish and ishah to once again become adam, and in so doing reenter the Garden of Eden through the Garden that is the Beloved, Wisdom. “In other words, the Song of Songs redeems a love story gone awry.”
In the Genesis story we learn that the woman’s desire is for the man, and that
the man shall rule over her (3:16). But in the Song of Songs “there is no male dominance, no female subordination, and no stereotyping of either sex.”
Male and female first became one flesh in the garden of Eden. There a narrator reported briefly their sexual union (Genesis 2:24). Now in another garden, the lovers themselves praise at length the joys of intercourse.
Possessive adjectives do not separate their lives. “My garden” and “his garden” blend in mutual habitation and harmony. Even person and place unite: the garden of eroticism is the woman.
The meaning I offer in this book is not the final one, but it is a powerful one. I encourage you not only to read the Song of Songs but also to experiment with it; not only to envision the imagery but also to embody it; not only to celebrate the
love Wisdom and seeker but also to realize it in your own flesh.