The Song of Songs: Abulfaia and the Alter Rebbe
Volume 3 , Issue 5 (April, 1990 | Nisan, 5750)
In many synagogues, specifically those which follow the Ashkenazic rite, it is the custom to read Shir ha-Shirim, the Song of Songs, on the intermediate Sabbath of Passover (Shabbat Hol ha-Mo'ed Pesach). As the adage goes, "In the spring, a young man's fancy turns to thoughts of love." On a national, collective level, the heart of Israel returns to the romance of its youth, recapturing the zest of the love affair with the Holy One. "I have remembered to you the kindness of your youth, the love of your nuptials, your going after Me in the desert, in unsown territory." (Jeremiah 2:2) In the lines which follow, we are exposed to Jewish attitudes to erotic love through the ages. The hypothetical relation of Chabad Chasidism to Abulafian mysticism - is a popular digest of a lengthy article, quite technical in nature, due to appear shortly in an Israeli journal.
??All the songs are holy; the Song of Songs is Holy of Holies? (Yalqut, beg. Shir ha - Shirim). The Rabbis recognized in the erotic realm the most consecrated element of human existence. The relation of the two lovers, Shelomo and Shulamit, is a living metaphor for the give-and-take which is the mystery of creation.
This strikingly positive attitude towards earthly love was amplified by the medieval kabbalist:
The conjugal relation between husband and wife is a sacred matter. Let a man not think that in the proper sexual relation there is something ugly or distasteful, God forbid. Not for naught is this connection called "knowing" in the Bible...It is not as Maimonides supposed in the Guide for the Perplexed (III,8), when he praised Aristotle for having said, "the sense of touch is a shame for us." God forbid! It is not as the Greek has said. This statement contains hidden heresy, for if the Greek believed the world was created with a purpose, he could not have uttered such words. We people of Torah believe that God created all with wisdom, and he created nothing ugly or distasteful. If we were to say that conjugal relation is obscene, that would mean that the reproductive organs are obscene, and how can that be, when God created them?!
This is the secret of the Cherubim which were interlocked as male and female. If this were something repulsive, the Master of the Universe would not have commanded to place them in the Holy of Holies. When the conquering Ammonities entered the Temple and beheld the spectacle of the Cherubim, they mocked: "Look what the gods of the Jews are!"
Iggeret ha-Qodesh, Pseudo-Nahmanides; published in Chavel's Kitvey Ramban (Jerusalem, 5724) II, 323-324.
Of all the sermons of Rav Shneur Zalman of Liady, affectionately referred to as the Alter Rebbe ("the Old Rabbi"), perhaps the most beautiful are those recorded on Shir ha-Shirim, the Song of Songs. In particular, I have in mind the one which begins with the verse Simeni ka-Hotam 'al Libekha - "Place Me as a Seal on Your Heart."
The "seal" is meant by way of parable. When sealing in wax, there are two types of seals. If the letters on the seal are sunken, the letters on the wax will protrude; if the letters on the seal protrude, the impression in wax will be sunken... All this is symbolic of the ascent of the worlds, likened to a protruding image (hotam bolet) below, which produces above a sunken stamp (hotam shaqe'a), for "You have no known justice, nor any other attributes," but by the arousal below, "Whoever studies Torah, the Holy One studies opposite him," the infinite Light is clothed in intellect... This may be pictured as a "sunken stamp" above, for the Light of the Infinite to be clothed in attributes, is a kind of "sinking"... However, the second type of seal, which is recessed below, symbolizes... the loss of self in the Infinite Light... This generates above a protruding stamp... This is alluded to in the verse, "If a woman is aroused and bears a male," and our Rabbis commented, "If the woman is aroused first, then she shall bear a male." That is to say, when the ascent from below is in the manner of sinking, with the "female" receding... then a "male" is produced, above there results a "protruding stamp."
R. Shneur Zalman of Liady, Liqqutey Torah (Brooklyn, 5733) V, 45a-45d.
This germ of a thought would be almost incomprehensible, were it not for the subsequent clarification, assumed to be provided by the author's grandson, R. Menahem Mendel of Lubavitch (called by the title of his halakhic work, Zemah Zedeq):
There are two types of service of God: a "protruding seal" (hotam bolet) and a "receding seal" (hotam shaqea). When one impresses a protruding stamp on wax, it leaves in the wax a recessed image. So, through a human arousal below which resembles a "protruding stamp," when one brings one's self to bear (when one is caught up in the "I love" syndrome), above is generated a recession, i.e., the lights are forced into vessels. This is not the case regarding the second type of divine service, the "receding seal" below. In this case, above is generated a "protruding seal," that is to say, the unclothed Infinite Light. To draw from the Infinite, which is beyond Ten Sefirot, is possible only through bittul, a sort of "sinking below," which results in a prominence above. This is alluded to in the words, "If the woman is aroused first, then she shall bear a male." When the relation from below is "recessive," as the female anatomy, then a male is born, above there emerges a "protrusion." On the other hand, "if the man is aroused first," meaning below, there is an obtrusion, a selfish love, "then she shall bear a female" above, a sinking of lights into vessels.
(Liqqutey Torah, ibid, 46a-46b).
In this highly complex discourse, Man is symbolized by "woman," interacting with a "masculine" God. If woman is aroused and opens herself to man, the product of such a union will be masculine, resembling the male lover. If, on the other hand, the woman is unreceptive and unrelenting, the child will be conceived in her image, female. Psychic posture - receptivity (openness) verses unreceptiveness (closure) - is the prerogative of woman. Coupled to this rabbinic theory of sex determination, we have the metaphor of receding and protruding seals. The erotic imagery is employed as a springboard for human-divine interaction, but certainly the model is instructive in its own right, as a guide to enhanced interpersonal relationships.
How often does our "love" of the other cramp the loved one's style, reduce his or her elan, and circumscribe that individual's activities to behavior which we approve and designate "appropriate?" Unfortunately, this kind of mutual manipulation is the undoing of many a marital relation. Parents, too, tend to project onto their offspring. Ofttimes a parent (in blatant disregard of the Proverb [22:6] "Educate a child according to his way,") will attempt to fit a child into a mold, though it be all wrong for the child, given his or her innate abilities. The higher, altruistic love - as opposed to selfish love - requires at time suspension of definition, ?receding? into the background, distancing and perhaps even absenting oneself, in order to allow the other to manifest and "shine." When the referent is transposed from an "other" to the Wholly Other, we are startled by the boldness of the idea. There actually is a form of piety, well-intentioned as it may be, which the Infinite One finds obtrusive, literally "pushy." Sometimes it requires considerable self-effacement on the part of the zaddiq or righteous person to allow the Master of the Universe to conduct affairs as He sees fit, not as our preconceived notions of what is correct would have it.
The trope of "concave/convex" relations vis-a-vis God is certainly very broad and may ramify in several different fields of human endeavor. Here we have an application to the domain of Political Science:
We must immerse ourselves in the building of our people in the Holy Land and not make light of anything. We must chastise men of small faith who would restrict the hand of God according to conceptions of their own imagination. Just as the Ba'al Shem Tov said one must serve God in all ways, so one must anticipate the salvation - which is one of the essentials of divine service, concerning which one will be questioned on the Day of Judgment - in all ways.
R.A.Y. ha-Kohen Kook, Iggerot Rayah, I,142
Rav Kook felt that some of the zaddiqim of his generation who dismissed out of hand the possibility of redemption coming about through the unforeseen agency of secular-oriented Jews, were guilty of narrowing God's options. (Of course, one could argue the very opposite, that Rav Kook by focusing divine attention on the vehicle of Zionism, was actually engaging in such a constricting. From a purely logical stance, the point remains moot).
Similarly one finds applications of this theme in the area of Ethics:
"All my commandments" (Numbers 15:40) - True remembrance is when one remembers all the commandments, not merely as Man valorizes God's commandments, but rather as God valorizes His commandments for us. Thus, all "My commandments!"
R. E.E. Dessler, Mikhtav me-Eliyahu (B'nei Beraq, 5725) I, 132
Rav Dessler is addressing the problem of a seemingly repetitious text in "Parshat Zizit." Two verses: one enjoins us to "remember all the commandments of God," the very next, to "remember all My commandments." Resolution: "The commandments of God" are not identical with "My commandments." In the former, we have a human conception of a divine mandate; in the latter, we have the primacy of a divine imperative.
The applications of the trope are legion, certainly too numerous to be contained in the present article. (One wonders aloud how the confirmed mitnaggid, Emmanuel Levinas, author of Totalit) et Infini_ would respond to this Chasidic discourse.)
Several years ago, when I first discovered this profound piece in Liqqutey Torah, I was awestruck by the power of the imagery and the relevance of the message. I am no less in awe today, yet now when I read it through my scholar's spectacles, I am led to wonder if perhaps another kabbalist hadn't arrived at similar conclusions some five centuries before the Alter-Rebbe - none other than that little understood and much maligned figure, R. Abraham Abulafia.
Professor Moshe Idel has published a mosaic of bits
and pieces of Abulafian arcane (the great majority of
which remain in manuscript) ? The Mystical Experience in Abraham Abulafia (
There are two types of impregnation, i.e., for two forms slightly different but mostly similar, which by conjugation produce a fruit similar to them. If the upper one, the impregnator, is aroused before the lower one, the impregnated, then the offspring will resemble the lower one, possessing the orifice - called neqevah (female), or ishah (woman), who is Eve - for she desired prophecy, and the upper material was forced to impress and imprint itself in its place below, and was rooted and became a stamp for the one following, and the seal was in its form and image, a protruding seal (hotam bolet). And when the lower material reaches it (the upper material) and connects with it, and hugs and kisses it, cleaving to it and uniting with it, warp and woof, like two torches or bolts of lightning, mutually enchanted, then the lower one becomes a receding seal (hotam shaqu`a), its entrance open. This is the maxim: "When this opens, that closes; when this closes, that opens." In the hands of the pair is a magical key, illustrating all, warp and woof. If the activity key, illustrating all, warp and woof. If the activity between the two is alternated, the lower material will conquer the upper, and the names of the creation will be four: Adam, zakhar (male), ish (man), hayyah (living creature). "And no man remembered that poor man." (Ecclesiastes 9:15) And according to the generation between them, so is the generation of prophecy in the two bodies of material: the upper and the lower.
Abraham Abulafia, Imrey
It would seem Professor Idel has done his "homework" quite thoroughly. He has explained that Abulafia's scheme is a takeoff on the saying of the Rabbis (Berakhot 60a; Niddah 31a): "If the woman is aroused first, then she shall bear a male; if the man is aroused first, then she shall bear a female." He has also demonstrated in a lengthy note (Mystical Experience, pp. 216-217, n. 96) that the metaphor of Form or the Active Intellect "stamping" or "imprinting" Matter is not uniquely Abulafian. To the contrary, it may be found in the philosophico-mystical writings of R. Isaac Ibn Latif, Ginzei Melekh and Rav Pe`alim, and in Livyat Hen, an Aristotelian work by R. Levi ben Abraham of Villefranche - both roughly contemporaries of Abulafia. But I believe Prof. Idel would be the first to concede that nowhere else do we find this rhymed couplet or double helix of hotam bolet/hotam shoqe'a, nowhere the interlocking valves of convex and concave seals. Nowhere, but in the writings of the Alter Rebbe, which leads one to speculate...
Is it possible that R. Shneur Zalman of Liady had access to manuscripts of the nearly suppressed teachings of R. Abraham Abulafia? True, R. Shelomo ben Abraham Adret of Barcelona had declared the self-proclaimed prophet and his writings anathema [She'elot u-Teshuvot ha-Rashba I, responsum 548], but also true that they (or at least a portion of the writings) were held in the greatest esteem by R. Moshe Cordovero [Pardes Rimonim_ 21:1-2], R. Hayyim Vital [Sha'arei Kedusha IV (3), published by Rabbi Y.M. Hillel in Ketavim Hadashim le-Rabbenu Hayyim Vital (Jerusalem, 5748)] and R. Hayyim Yosef David Azulai [Shem ha-Gedolim, entry Hayyei Olam ha-Ba], pillars of the Kabbalah which emerged in Eretz Yisrael - men to whose judgment and authority in such matters the Alter Rebbe would naturally defer. Is the sermon Simeni ka-Hotam 'al Libekha in fact an interpretation or attempted explication or (most likely) an adaptation of Abulafia's hypnagogic anagram? And finally - and here we are really thinking ahead - would it be correct to view (as I gather Idel does) the chasidic movement launched by the Ba'al Shem Tov as being, in some sense, a continuation or revamping of the older tradition of ?Ecstatic Kabbalah? developed by Abulafia and his disciples?
Yamim yedaberu. Time will tell.
Rabbi Bezalel Naor served as Rosh Yeshiva of Eshel
Avraham in Qiryat Arba, and later as staff researcher at Yad