Alternative MethodsConventional Methods

March 29

Circle in the Square: Studies in the Use of Gender in Kabbalistic Symbolism

Virgil Howell
Core Spirit member since Dec 24, 2020
Reading time 9 min.

This is a companion-volume to the same author’s Along the Path: Studies Kabbalistic Myth, Symbolism and Hermeneutics (1995) and also to Through a Speculum that Shines: Vision and Imagination in Medieval Jewish Mysticism (1994). These are studies in Jewish mystical thought and symbolism, from ancient times up to the present but tend to focus on the Kabbala of the Late Middle Ages, the Renaissance and also the 18th century (Hasidism), which represent an impressive achievement for this original, learned and daring scholar, who is also Professor and Director of Graduate Studies of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University.

This intense and absorbing study of Jewish gender and sexual arrangements may offend and provoke some readers, that is “press some buttons”, although I think for very good reasons. Wolfson’s writing, though articulate, and inventive is also scholarly and academic, while the documentation might be just a little on the fanatically comprehensive side (the note pages, and in smaller type, well outnumbering the text ones), as if because of its shocking novelty, the author wanted to anchor his work solidly enough to withstand even an earthquake of reaction!

The Circle, bluntly, in Circle in the Square represents the female, the rounded shape or ‘hole’ of her reproductive organs, while the Square means the line of the penis. The Circle is within the Square, that is symbolically and effectively ruled by the male, even where metaphysically (for instance in the medieval cosmogony where the encircling ether or sky is female, while the encircled fountain represented by the Hebrew letter yod is male), or materially (during coitus, or while pregnant) she seems to surround and contain the male; for her purpose for being is in nourishing and setting off the glory and power, and to serve, and ultimately, “when she is good”, to become the crown of, the male organ or as Wolfson explains, the woman’s highest pride would be to inhabit the very corona of the circumcised penis!

Premature or at least short-sighted then would be any calculation such as the eminent founder of modern Kabbala studies, Gershom Scholem made, followed also by his students Joseph Dan and Isaiah Tishby, as by feminist scholars and critics, or even the late and still revered ‘messiah’, the Loubovitcher Rebbe Schneerson that Kabbala promotes the dignity of women. True the Kabbalists, especially the “authorship” (principally Moses de Leon) of the compendious, magisterial and beautifully written mystical commentary on Torah, the Zohar or Book of Brightness, which, created in Spain of the late 13th century, has dominated the study, history and practice of Kabbala ever since, were more explicit about the sexual nature of the divine congress and union between the masculine and feminine aspects of God than ever before (and maybe since) in the history of Jewish mysticism; but, according to Wolfson, that which is made explicit is the very domination of women that had been only implicit in the older texts and traditions.

Circle in the Square collects four intensely-researched, meditated and documented studies developed over a period of ten years (roughly 1984-94), where gender and sexuality are a primary focus. One sees here the author is learning, not only in the range and depth of what he knows but in his way of learning the lessons and drawing the conclusions his findings lead him to. These conclusions become progressively more outrageous and extreme. Wolfson starts out with a comparatively tame excursus, “Female Imaging in the Torah,” of a tradition that the Torah is the Shekinah: God’s female aspect or emanation that the kabbalist unites with. This union becomes progressively more explicitly sexual as Kabbala evolves from 11th century Provence and Eastern Europe to modern times where, in a story of S. Agnon , “Tale of the Scribe,” Torah becomes the bride herself. A similar evolution toward explicit sexuality appears in Wolfson’s book as well. In Wolfson’s next chapter, “Circumcision, Vision of God and Interpretation” we find that Torah can only be penetrated by a circumcised gaze (for symbolically penis means eye), that indeed the primordial mark or inscription, was this carving or that marking of the head of the penis, the crown or corona through which alone we see into the ultimate mysteries. In the ingenuity of this interpretation Wolfson deconstructs Bible in a style similar to that of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction of speech and writing; while in the symbolism of the penis Wolfson has adapted a fundamental notions of the French-Freudian theorist Jacques Lacan, for whom the “phallus” represents precisely the penis not as physical organ but in its vastly more meaningful and controlling symbolic, psychological and political functions.

That the symbolic function is clearly paramount was the lesson of the (self) circumcision of the first of the Jews, Abraham, model for the myriad non-voluntary ones to follow, that by excising the foreskin he was cutting out, excluding, excising the demonic.

As Wolfson deconstructs it, circumcision is God’s writing, or from God’s dictation, on the body; and this surgery is the original commandment, on which all the others are based. After circumcision the worshipper becomes at once a (sexual) lover and a writer of the divine (equipped to circumcise others). Wolfson even explains further that amazingly, as legend has it, the Ten Commandments (the quintessence of Torah and so essentially the Torah) were written down before they were spoken. They had in fact to be inscribed, that is, assume material form before they could be penetrated. Wolfson’s view is that God’s commandment to circumcise is in effect the commandment to write, while all the other ways we obey God represent our other markings or writings in the world, but they stem from the original surgery, the cutting away of the demonic or ‘declaration of independence’ from what is conceived as evil, the feminine!

“Interpretation”, or “hermeneutics” is then another way of saying circumcision or writing, for the corona or crown from which the foreskin has been sliced away is also the exegete, the critic, the explainer: this is a he!, for even a she would be a he here, since the meaning of the pronoun, as for Lacan’s “phallus” is virtual and symbolic, not that of physical gender. For Wolfson, following Derrida and Lacan in this, has defined the male, as the one who holds the sword or the pen interchangeably. From this point of view the woman who writes or wounds (they are the same) is a man. He! has inverted the orange, outed the secret, revealed the key and mystery, in a movement from the esoteric or hidden, to exoteric or manifest.

That the direction of these developments isn’t necessarily feminist or liberal is then the thrust of Wolfson’s next dizzying escalation into the realm of modern gender studies. In a dazzling display of intellectual acrobatics that relates as integrally to Greek Philosophy or French theory as it does to medieval Aramaic-Hebrew language, he shows us how from antiquity and in ever more literal and intimate ways the man or penis-as-pen is the aggressor, initiator, final cause, and only really existing being or essence, while the woman remains always the passive, suffering and written-upon, the material, to make a long sad story brutally short.

With an imagination, brio and daring that reach into realms I can only call awesome or surreal, Wolfson shows in this chapter, “Erasing the Erasure/Gender and the Writing of God’s Body in Kabbalistic Symbolism” and in the final and concluding one, “Crossing Gender Boundaries in Kabbalistic Ritual and Myth” that Gershom Scholem would be only partially correct that the goal of kabbalistic sexual mysticism would be the timeless Platonic one of fusion in coitus with a pre-Creation God as a bisexual being, called the androgyne, wherein male and female unite as equals, and halves become whole. Accordingly reconstituting the androgyne represents for the kabbalist as for every other sexual mystic the goal of all (hetero!)sexual intercourse, really a form of prayer. However, what is reunited in the act when performed as indicated in the sex-manual sometimes constituted by the Zohar’s interpretation of Torah are not the two halves of a once-complete being that is “together again”, as Scholem opined, but rather the penis itself which becomes the whole. Wolfson thus reveals what he believes to be a whole hidden, tacit or unspoken, but very significant dimension of Judaism through what he thinks of as the kabbalistic exegesis of biblical circumcision, arguing that Kabbala has incorporated, by the writing-inscription that is an extension of the original circumcision, the female into the crown or corona of the cosmic order of the penis. In this brave new world of Kabbala, sexuality becomes the Midas that turns everything feminine it touches on into penis: from the lactating breasts that amount to the ejaculating penis, to the elongated penetrated vagina that is the extended penis, to the life-supporting breasts of the Shekinah that the Hasidim suck on that are tantamount to nourishing ambrosia from God’s permanently orgasmic phallus; to the dampening of the vagina that the Zohar calls the “rising of the feminine waters” the male must wait to meet with his own descending ones of milky sperm, since the end of female arousal is to arouse the male and incite the birth of a male, for lacking a son a kabbalist is forced into the sad fate of transmigration, or reincarnation, until such time as one is made.

What I have outlined, however is just schematically the argument of Wolfson’s book, which surely hides as much as it reveals; for no more than any other profoundly conceived and sensitively rendered work can Circle in the Square be confused or reduced to its story. This is a book with a surprise and a delight, an interesting, odd provocative idea or ‘trace’ in practically every finely etched line. Through copious allusions to other texts and scholarship and bibliographically scrupulous documentation the author makes it feasible for the reader to blaze his or her own trail. Such a path might lead toward a different direction and other conclusions than Wolfson’s. If for example, Gershom Scholem, was being more the Christian cabalist than the Jewish kabbalist in his notion of the gender-less androgyne that the kabbalist reconstitutes in fucking the Shekinah, and if such a “partnership”, based on equality in the androgyne was Jewish enough for the loving Rebbe Schneerson, why not continue to ‘misread’ progressively, rather than be right, with E.R. Wolfson, on the side of sexist accuracy? ‘Misreading’ is a term invented by Harold Bloom in A Map of Misreading (1975) to convey the idea that there is no one true reading any longer; and Susan Handelman in Slayers of Moses (1982) says that this critical relativism of Bloom’s (and Derrida’s) grew out of a tradition of flexibility of Rabbinical commentary that reaches back to late antiquity: before the Rabbis decided what the Bible meant they took into consideration the ethical effect of their interpretation practicing what another deconstructing literary critic of today, J. Hillis Miller, would call an “ethics of misreading.”

Another trail might start even from a place outside of the book and lead farther away from it, following the arrows of a famous passage which the great Christian cabalist H.C. Agrippa, in a declamation composed in 1509 called “On the Superiority of Women,” cited from the Zohar, one that interprets Eve’s name as being closer to God’s than Adam’s (Hebrew letters have a mystical-mathematical value in Kabbala). Curiously I found no mention of this very solid piece of ‘feminist evidence’ that has been so widely noticed and for so long (for instance, over three centuries later by the 19th century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard in support of the ‘women-defending’ response in Vol.2 of Either-Or to the hedonist misogyny of Vol. 1), in Wolfson’s book, certainly not because he hasn’t heard of it! So if Wolfson has done his bit of misreading, why shouldn’t I be allowed mine all the more so, if in so doing I might be in wiser, but surely kinder company?

However, whatever the ‘correct’ view, this reader’s feeling is that Wolfson has missed out on a certain feminist current hard to find, I agree, of the Jewish mystical tradition, one that Christian Cabala found there, for example, because it was one that had a Christian correspondence and lineage; already strongly flowing, on the Christian side, for example, in Geoffrey Chaucer’s late 14th century Legend of Good Women, as brought out so nicely in Sheila Delany’s Naked Text: Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women (Berkeley, 1994), one of the sources for which was Boccacio’s On Famous Women (De Claris Mulieribus, begun 1356). As traced in Marc Van der Poel’s recent monograph, Cornelius Agrippa, the Humanist Theologian and his Declamations (London, 1997) this line of thought which was to eventually inspire Agrippa’s praise of women then continues with Christine de Pisan’s Le livre de la cité des dames (1404), itself an answer to the misogyny of Jean de Meung’s continuation (Part Two) of the Roman de la Rose (1265), and, in Spanish, in Juan Rodriguez del Padron’s Triunfo de las doñas (1450, French trans. 1460).

It was this Christian feminism, which Wolfson either won’t notice or underrates, part indeed of a medieval and Renaissance debate over women, as brought out, for instance in Diane Bornstein’s anthology, Feminist Controversies of the Renaissance (NY, 1980), of which misogyny, though solidly entrenched, was merely one of the poles; while it was that other feminist one which in turn sensitizes Jewish kabbalists through direct or indirect influence (as well a those they inspired to write, for ex.: Leo Hebreo the poet) to women-enhancing phases and places they were able to find in their own holy books and traditions for instance in the Sophia figure, the sexual Shekinah, The Book of Ruth and The Song of Solomon, the latter especially very much loved by Christian mystics too.

So I would make a case for tonic influence of religious synergy on the ‘eternal question of women’, which made it into a much more temporal and conjunctural one, since the great monotheisms were conditioned by each other as surely as fighters in a ring who learn from each other through significant struggle: a dialectic, in short…


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