By Joel Hecker
Studies in Jewish Civilization, Vol.15: “Love – Ideal and Real – in Jewish Civilization”, Creighton University Press, 2008
Introduction: In an afterword to The Kiss in History, English historian Keith Thomas comments that the kiss can express “deference, obedience, respect, agreement, reverence, adoration, friendliness, affection, tenderness, love, superiority, inferiority, even insult. There is no such thing as a straightforward kiss.” In religious literature, writers have also been drawn to the image of the kiss for its polyvalence, but have developed its intimacy and erotic suggestiveness particularly as a model for the relationship with the divinity. Thus from the opening of the Song of Songs, “O, let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth” (Song 1:2), allegorically understood by the rabbis to depict the love between Israel and God, to the kiss of peace in the early Christian rite, to the Talmud’s assertion that Moses, Aaron, and Miriam died by a gentle kiss, to Bernard of Clairvaux’s use of the kiss to describe the mystic rapture that Paul experiences upon his ascent into the heavenly realm, religious imaginations have deployed the motif of the kiss as a model of mystical union.
In the literature of the Zohar, medieval Jewish mysticism’s crown jewel, the gesture of kissing bears a wide variety of motives and meanings. The questions that I address in this paper center on the issue of hierarchy in the relationships between persons involved in the kissing exchange. If the exemplary kiss occurs between God and the mystic, will all kisses bear the imprint of that clear hierarchical interaction, a “kisser” and a “kissee,” as it were? Or can we find a different model of interaction, one between equals, specifically, between a man and his fellow? Or, and this would be more significant because of the culture’s patriarchal structure, between a man and his wife? What will emerge from my inquiry is more than a mere taxonomy of the various uses of the kiss: I believe that this metaphor of exchange and communion will help us think more deeply about central concerns of the zoharic kabbalah, specifically mystical union, embodiment, and gender, within the larger rubric of power. Can we imagine mystical union and gender freed from conventional medieval hierarchies and binaries, or must even the most surprising of kabbalistic texts ultimately be enfolded back into a vertical axis? While most of the Zohar’s kisses obtain between master and disciple, signifying approval of a well-wrought homily, or between man and woman, two reliably hierarchical relationships, I will argue that sometimes the zoharic kabbalists subvert the linearity of gender and power relations. Though their medieval mindset immerses them in patriarchal hierarchies—masculine subordinating feminine, master subordinating disciple—nonetheless, they find avenues of reciprocity and equality in the meeting of one human and another across the bridge of lips.
We thank Joel Hecker for allowing us to publish this article