DEBORAH STARR: Welcome, everyone. Thank you very much for joining us. I'm Deborah Starr. I'm the Director of the Jewish Studies Program at Cornell. Cornell Jewish Studies is very happy to sponsor this event. I would like to acknowledge our co-sponsors, the Department of Near Eastern Studies, the Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, along with the LGBT studies program.
I do want to let you all know, we're really excited about this format, about a panel discussion about a book. And we're so excited, we have another one coming up next week. We hope some of you will be able to join us. On Wednesday, November 10, at 4:30, we will be hosting a digital book talk and discussion with Sonia Gollance about her new book, It Could Lead to Dancing, Mixed-Sex Dancing and Jewish Modernity.
And Sonia will be in dialogue with two colleagues here from Cornell. Sonia is based at University College London. The Cornell interlocutors will be Juan Manuel Munoz, from Performing and Media Arts, and Jonathan Boyarin, from Anthropology, Near Eastern Studies, and Jewish Studies. So I hope some of you will be able to join us for that event.
Today, I am very pleased to introduce our panelists. Our guest of honor is Professor Marla Segol, an Associate Professor and the Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of Global, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University at Buffalo. She is the author of Word and Image in Medieval Kabbalah-- the Texts, Commentaries, and Diagrams of the Sefer Yetsirah.
And she's also the co-editor of Sexuality, Sociality, and Cosmology in Medieval Literary Texts. And of course, we are here to discuss her newest book, Kabbalah and Sex Magic, a Mythical-Ritual Genealogy, which was recently published by Penn State University Press, and I will be sending around a link to purchase the book along with a discount code for anyone who's interested in purchasing a copy.
We are joined also by Sara Warner, associate professor in Performing and Media Arts at Cornell. She is the current director of Cornell's LGBT Studies program. And she is the author of the award-winning book, Acts of Gaiety, LGBT Performance and the Politics of Pleasure.
I am also delighted to introduce my colleague, Jason Mokhtarian, who is the Neuman Professor of Jewish Literatures. He's in the Department of Near Eastern Studies and Jewish studies. And I'd like to draw particular attention to his forthcoming book entitled, Medicine in the Talmud, Natural and Supernatural Remedies Between Magic and Science.
Just a few housekeeping matters. This is obviously a webinar format. Unfortunately, we can't see you, but we do hope that many of you will have questions about this exciting topic. So if you do, please use the Q&A option to post your questions.
We're going to start off with Marla talking a little bit about her book, followed by some comments and questions by Jason, and then followed by some comments and questions by Sara. And we hope this will be a lively discussion between and amongst them. And again, please do post questions so we can then insert them perhaps near the end of this conversation.
So thank you all for joining us. And thank you, Marla. I would love to hear more from you about your book, Kabbalah and Sex Magic.
MARLA SEGOL: Thank you for that wonderful introduction. And thank you so much for inviting me. I am so delighted to be here. And I'm going to say it now, and I'm going to say it again at the end, I am really moved and inspired by the amount of thought and engagement that everybody here has put into this conversation, and I'm very honored, so thank you.
So now I'm going to tell you a little bit about the book. So this book tells one key part of the history of Western sex magic. There are a number of popular books, and thanks to Sara, I know that there are so many articles now on sex magic. And it's practiced in many different settings.
It's practice in Meetup groups, at retreats, by members of the Kabbalah Centre, and even within the structures of traditional orthodox marriage-- Jewish marriage. But what is sex magic? And what does Kabbalah got to do with it?
As it's understood here, sex magic is ritualized human sexuality meant to access divine power for good. So there are all kinds of sex magic that are not meant to do that. They exist and I don't care about them-- or at least, not today.
So its ritual practices were based in conventional religious feelings of love between human and divine, but they add to that by imagining this love erotically. The erotic dimension of human divine love is actually based in the Bible and its commentaries, and that includes the Song of Songs and other biblical narratives of divine creation by sexual reproduction, like in the Book of Job.
And these were also quite common in ancient Middle Eastern myths. And although they're not always acknowledged by later interpreters, they are present just the same. So these early myths were developed over time and space, and together they laid the groundwork for medieval and modern practitioners to imagine sexuality as a powerful tool for accessing divine creative power.
So that said, I kind of-- I want to share with you that I did not write this book on purpose. I began the project on the heels of my last book, Word and Image in Medieval Kabbalah, which focuses on diagrams of the fifth to seventh century Hebrew work, The Sefer Yetsirah, or The Book of Creation, and also its commentaries.
So this book is sort of an alternative creation story. It describes the creation of the universe by numbers-- well, by the 22 Hebrew letters and by the 10 sefirots, which are unnamed and undefined in this text. So according to this story, God carved the letters out of God's own body and then use them to make the human body.
Once it became clear that people and God shared the letter substance of their bodies, for me, at least, some big history of religion questions came up. Like if people thought that humans and God are made out of the same thing, what is the human body? Did they really think that God had a body? And what was the relationship between those two bodies?
And if they really thought that, if they really believed in divine embodiment, why don't we still know about it? So I set out to write a book on human and divine embodiment with a boring title like God's Two Bodies or Kabbalah's Two Bodies. But appropriately enough for my global, gender, and sexuality studies department, everything changed with a rainbow.
As I was beginning my research, I encounter this passage from the Shi'ur Qomah which is the-- it's like the measurement of the body-- the divine body. And it's a fifth to seventh century text that literally provides the names and the measurements of the divine body head to toe, or rather loins to toe and loins to head. Even more, it links this knowledge to power. So I thought it was a good place to start thinking about God's body.
And so now I'm going to give you a little sample from that. So again, it describes the divine body part by part and names every part and measures it.
"So the name of his right knee is Setamnegatz. And the name of his left knee is Pedangas. The name of the right thigh is a Vihmai, and the name of the left thigh is Partmai. From his thighs until his neck is 240 million parasangs, and the name of the innermost part of his lines is Asasnigiyahu.
Even more, the recitation of this liturgy transforms the operator, for the text make some very big promises to those who recite it daily. It promises a shining face, a handsome body, the fear of others, a good reputation, peaceful dreams, a good memory for Torah, prosperity in this world, entrée into the next-- a good one-- forgiveness for the sins of one's youth, freedom from the evil inclination, and safety from all sorts of demons, wild beasts, and scorpions."
So these names clearly have power-- protective power, but other sorts as well. And now we come to our global gender and sexuality studies rainbow.
So the middle part of this text, it says his body resembles a bow. And the bow is something like the semblance of fire forming a house around it. And then later in the text it says, between one lightning bolt and another is the gateway of hashmal, power. And above our spirits, and thunderbolts, and thunderclaps, and lightning bolts, and the folds of the rainbow, and ropes of the divine seal ascending and descending in it.
I thought, great. This is a text about God's body. And then I thought, why is there a rainbow forming a house around it? And then I realized that the word for body here is often a euphemism for penis. And that house functioned the same way for wife and vagina.
And so then when I saw that the rainbow had folds and that it was sitting over the body, something definitely began to click. Namely, there's a tradition of not only divine embodiment, but since this one clearly has genitals, also divine gendering-- and bi-gendering, to boot.
Even more, that there's a tradition of intradivine sexuality. And as the text tells us later, humans and angels watch. And even more still, those who know this and recite the text daily get special powers, like a handsome face and freedom from scorpions. So this then was the end of Kabbalah's Two Bodies and the beginning of Sex Magic.
So at this point I'm going to give you a tiny taste of the book. And I hope I don't go too long. And if I do, you must stop me because that's how it is. So I'm just going to read you a couple of samples from the texts and then we'll go from there.
So the first text we've just read from is the fifth to seventh century Shi'ur Qomah. The next is the 10th to 12th century Sefer Bahir, The Book of Clarity, which always makes me laugh because it's really not clear at all. And the 13th century Zohar, The Book of Splendor, and Moshe Cordovero's 16th century prayer of Moses. And then if we have time, we'll talk about the thoughts of Sheri Winston, who is a contemporary teacher of sacred sexuality.
So for the first sample, we'll return to the Shi'ur Qomah, and we'll examine a section that demonstrates the power of human observation of divine coitus. And so this is what happens in this text.
The text describes how the operator has studied, memorized, prayed, recited a litany of divine names, and a series of astronomically large measurements of the divine body all memorized. He arrives at the highest heaven finally to witness with overwhelming emotions of awe and wonder, a celestial prayer service that ends in intradivine coitus. And it's marked with a declaration, the throne of glory is glistening.
It's quite an image. And so despite its unusual centerpiece, the service shows a surprising resemblance to the earthly one in the description. But so if the-- like if the practitioner can get this right, if he says these things every day, he's promised grace, beauty, knowledge, all these good things.
But the main thing is, like could this be-- could it be that this happens every time that anybody says their prayers since they're almost exactly the same above as below? And what if it does? What if every time you say your prayers, God has sex with God's self, right?
Next example-- and I'll put you in the shoes of the operator. Imagine this-- you are a tenth century mystic asked to smash your consciousness to smithereens through imagining and thereby participating in an incestuous an relationship between God, his daughter, Wisdom, his son, Solomon, and thou. Not only that, this incestuous relationship is key to wisdom and to connection with the divine. And I'll read you something from the text.
"In the beginning, God created the heaven in the Earth, Bereishit [INAUDIBLE] Bereishit. The word [NON-ENGLISH] sheet is nothing other than wisdom. It is thus written, the beginning is wisdom the fear of God. Wisdom is a blessing. It is thus written. And God blessed Solomon. It's furthermore written, and God gave wisdom to Solomon." This resembles a king who marries his daughter to his son. He gives her to him at the wedding and says, do with her as you desire.
So this human-divine incest narrative is meant to blur the boundaries of social and cosmological categories. And when this happens between human and divine, so that at least imaginatively, human beings interact sexually with the divine.
This is the first example that includes non-divine participants in the act. So are we meant to try this at home? Maybe.
Next example comes from the 13th century Zohar, that's Zohar 3:337b. Now picture this-- there is a kabbalist at midnight imagining the sexual reunion of two painfully separated sefirots, or aspects of the divine. Tiferet and Shekhinah, a married couple that represent the masculine and feminine aspects of God. And I'll read you the text.
"When a man cleaves to his mate and his desire is to receive her, he worships before the Holy King and arouses another union. For the desire of the Holy One blessed be he is to cleave to the community of Israel. We learned that as a result of the King's cohabitation with the assembly of Israel, large numbers of the righteous come into their sacred inheritance and a multitude of blessings are bestowed upon the world."
So imagine-- putting yourself there again-- imagine that their trepidation as the Kabbalist and his wife-- maybe they're both kabbalists-- begin the holy project of ending the exile of Shekhinah, bringing her home and into sexual union with her husband, Tiferet. At the end, God again will be made whole, and maybe, just maybe, blessings will once again flow freely to humankind.
So here I guess we are meant to try this at home. And maybe we're meant to save the world through ritualized sex-- the whole cosmos, even. I'm going to skip Moshe Cordovero because he simply elaborates on this. And if people want to ask about it or talk about it later, we can.
And I'm going to move to Sheri Winston, who I interviewed in 2018. And she is a teacher of sacred sexuality. And she has imagined the ritual to-- like she's kind of developing her own rituals as she goes. And usually they go like this.
They consist of calling the four directions, drawing a sacred circle on the ground. And she says, well, if you want to try this at home, maybe you would build an altar of seashells, flowers, or another object. Or maybe you're alone, maybe you're with a partner.
But the main point is to create this sacred space, to put in the ritual objects that are meaningful to your intention. And then you're supposed to state your intention. And for her, those usually fall into categories of healing your own sexuality, to heal a relationship that's damaged, or to transform harmful social narratives about gender in the body, or to right social wrongs.
So the idea is that this ritual acts on the self, it acts on human relationships. But its version of saving the world is actually remedying harmful social narratives about embodiment and about sexuality. So I guess my question again is like, do we even need religion for this? Is this a religious ritual anymore? I don't know.
But it is the end of the line-- or at least it's the current stop, anyway, for the development of sex magic ritual. So all of these things that we've talked about, there's sex, power, and magic. And together, they teach us a lot. Like the early examples show us just a little bit about the stages of development of sex magic.
And they show that in the kind of eroticized androgyny of the divine, and they show it in kind of elaborating myths of creation by means of intradivine sexual reproduction. So those early myths show us that. And as time goes on, we see that there's more and more room for human participation until it's almost entirely a human affair.
So we see then that this sort of magic, sex magic, has a history. It's tied to our views of the world and how it works. And that as our conception of the cosmology changes, like what we want out of the ritual changes, too. And finally, we see that a closer look at the history of sex magic can show us how myths and rituals are constructed and how they change. So that's the story of my book and I'm so excited to talk to you about it.
JASON SION MOKHTARIAN: OK. I think it's my turn. Thank you so much, that was great. So first of all, allow me to congratulate Professor Segol on writing such an interesting and important book, which I really do encourage everyone watching to buy and read. You won't be disappointed.
It's really rare to find an academic book like this, that is, accessible and well-written while at the same time being so thoroughly researched, and innovative in its ideas. And in terms of subject matter, I must confess, I've never read anything quite like this before. And so for all these reasons, I'm delighted to be able to offer some thoughts and questions with you today.
So this book is a sweeping history of the development of sex magic in the history of Judaism from antiquity to the present. Traversing a vast and impressive range of Jewish magical, mystical, and medical sources, ranging from late antique Persia to 21st century America, the book explores how Jewish thought ritualized human sexuality as a means to access divine power and to achieve mystical union with God.
Of course, love of God and Torah is not a radical notion in Judaism. But what is less obvious is the eroticization of the human divine attachment. As Professor Segol notes, the origins of the idea of Jewish sex magic can be found in the Song of Songs, an erotic love poem in the Hebrew Bible.
Jewish interpreters have always found creative ways to interpret this idiosyncratic work, which if taken literally, is a love poem between a man and a woman. For instance, rabbinic tradition maintains that the Song of Songs is a narration of what God and Israel said to each other at Mount Sinai.
Indeed, one of the most important sages, Rabbi Akiva revered this text to such an extent that he's quoted in the Mishnah as saying that all the ages are not worth the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel. And he calls the book the Holy of Holies. And centuries later, some Jewish mystics interpret the Song of Songs as a love encounter between God and an individual soul.
So building on these ideas in her book, Professor Segol skillfully finds threads of continuity of a subversive sub-tradition within Judaism that endorses sex magic by zooming in on carefully selected texts from different time periods. So my personal favorite of these sources is the measure of God's body, which she read from.
And she argues it, in the book, is a magical text depicting the divine body as an eroticized and powerful object, operating on late night conventions of effectiveness and activated by feelings of erotic desire. This text describes God's bodily measurements, such as the length from his ankles to his knees, being 190 million parasangs, a unit of measurement that's about four miles.
And in addition to this fascinating work, the book also examines the 6th century work, Asaph's Book of Remedies, Solomon Ibn Gibirol's Improvement of the Moral Qualities, written in 11th century Iberia, the multilayered medieval Book of Brilliance, and many others, culminating in contemporary new age self-help versions of sex magic, such as Kabbalah, Book of Sex, written by the former co-director of the Kabbalah Centre, Yehuda Berg.
The goal of comparing all these sources is to demonstrate how later authors remythologize and reinterpret earlier sources according to their own historical and cultural context, Jewish sex magic is, in other words, not a stable or static tradition in Judaism, but it evolves over time in unique ways.
Among the book's main insights, it describes how the Jews of antiquity and the medieval period construct a tripartite microcosm, namely of the human body, of an embodied God, and of the cosmos. Jewish texts envision God's body in various ways, including as an eroticized and sexualized magical object, with powers that a Jew can access through the performance of rituals, or the learning of specialized knowledge, or in the medieval period, the self-cultivation of specific feelings and the power of the senses.
More specifically, in the 10th to 12th centuries, Jewish thinkers refashioned and ritualized some of these earlier ideas with an emphasis on the notion that feelings specifically hold power. And this is in part a response to rationalist critiques of medieval philosophers. These medieval authors thus generate new myths and rituals that relocate the human resemblance to the divine in cognition and affect as well as in power and speech.
So in the final chapter of the book, Professor Segol turns to modern new age self-help literature, with a particular emphasis on the changes in audience and media, and the impact of capitalism, and well-known publications such as Yehuda Berg's Kabbalah, Book of Sex and Shmuley Boteach's Kosher Sutra.
Professor Segol shows how these latter books engage the rampant feelings of alienation caused by late capitalism by integrating Kabbalistic and medical discourses as well as new age ideas like the law of attraction as a way to explore how human sex can richly emulate the divine process of creation, and thus cause a merger between human beings and the divine.
So for Yehuda Berg, for instance, male orgasms are described as a divine act in themselves. And sex, at least for men, enables ascension to the divine realm. So this chapter, which was actually my favorite of the book, contains many fascinating ideas about how the late antique and medieval traditions of sex magic get manipulated in both positive and negative ways by contemporary rabbis and teachers.
So while there's a lot more that I can obviously say, I'd like to just conclude my remarks with three questions that I hope will generate a productive discussion about the book. The first question is about anthropomorphism, the second about Jews who reject sex magic as an idea, and the third about the impact of non-Jewish thought on sex magic.
So the first question I have is about the anthropomorphic tendencies in Judaism, which are already found in the Bible, where God is described as having limbs and eyes, and walking, and even sitting on a throne like a human king. And in rabbinic literature, we see how this tendency continues where God is described studying Torah or wearing phylacteries, medieval philosophers and mystics themselves often discuss these portrayals as well.
And so the basic question in the history of Judaism about these depictions is, of course, whether the authors and later interpreters of them understood them literally as a statement about God's actual nature or whether they were taken to simply be metaphors. That is to say, that one just simply accepts that this is the only way, even if it's flawed, that human language can describe God.
So this debate has always existed in Jewish thought. And so in light of this, it's always fascinated me how and why pious individuals throughout history, especially Jews, would find it acceptable to not only describe God and anthropomorphic terms, but to even go so far, as you elucidate so well in the book, as to describe God as possessing a sexualized erotic body with which human beings using their own sexuality can engage.
So my question to you is, how do you explain this aspect of religious imagination? In other words, what is the impulse deep inside human beings that drives us, and perhaps drives Jews specifically, to creatively imagine themselves engaging in various forms of sexual union that allows them to access divine power or brings them closer to the divine realm?
And do you think that the authors of the text that you study in your book took such ideas literally? Or were they intended to simply be metaphors or symbols for mystical union?
So my second question is a bit shorter and it's related to the first. My question is basically, to what extent is the tradition of sex magic marginalized in the Jewish tradition by normative Jews-- if we want to use that term-- including, but not limited to the rabbis of late antiquity, the medieval rationalist philosophers, contemporary orthodox Jewish communities. And so what are the countervailing traditions that reject this notion of sexualized encounters with God?
My last question is about the outside influences on Jewish sex magic. And throughout the book, numerous times, and in your presentation, you refer to the influence of outside cultures on the formation of sex magic. You talk multiple times in the book about the impact of Greek ideas of embryology, for instance. You've mentioned multiple times now, the ancient Near Eastern myths about sexual reproduction as a tool for accessing divine creation, and among other examples.
And so I guess my question to you is, how do you think about the Jewishness of Jewish sex magic, right? What specifically is Jewish about it? And what is borrowed into Judaism? And how would you explain that phenomenon?
So those are the three questions that I have. And you're welcome to engage in them in any way, obviously. And so now thank you-- thank you so much for listening. And I'll now turn it over to Professor Warner.
SARA WARNER: Do you want to answer those, Marla? Or do you want to just pile the questions on? What do you prefer?
MARLA SEGOL: I would prefer to answer them now, but I feel flexible, so.
SARA WARNER: Please go ahead.
MARLA SEGOL: OK. Well, OK, first of all, thank you-- like those are such good questions. And so I'll take them in order. And thanks for that really good reading.
So I want to talk about anthropomorphism first just as a concept. I think that it is a projection backwards. Meaning, I don't think that the people who were reciting the Shi'ur Qomah, or composing it, or editing it, I'm not sure they would have thought of it that way.
And I'm not sure they would have thought of metaphor in the way that we think of it maybe in this situation. And I guess what I mean by that is that I think their conceptions of the divine are rooted in ancient and late antique traditions of iconography. So they existed in a visual world that we don't really have access to. We have access to some material remnants of it.
And I think throughout the ancient Middle East and late antique Middle East, it was quite conventional for people to represent the divine with really big statues. And there are people who theorize that the Shi'ur Qomah is actually-- it's actually a recitation of a poem of praise about one of these statues. That's like one theory about it.
And so the interesting thing about these statues is that they were understood to be representations of the divine, but they were also understood to be animated by the divine, and to participate in the divine. So on the one hand, they had this idea that like God was like a person, but ever so much bigger. But also so much more, right?
And so the idea then is that these-- what we're calling anthropomorphic representations, I mean, this is really just an ekphrasis. It's an ekphrasis of these statues, or it's an ekphrasis of-- like it's an ekphrasis of what people imagine to actually be the divine body. And it is a body, but it's so much better and more than ours.
And in some ways, this kind of figures into the conflict that most religions have, which is the tension between experiencing and imagining the divine as radically eminent, like just right here in your body, and radically transcendent as well. And so I think in a way it's not an anthropomorphism, right?
It's more like-- it's like a super body, like an ultra body. So I think that's partly my response to your question. And then I guess the other is kind of what metaphors do. Like one of the things that metaphors do is they combine terms that-- I mean, our definition is that they're unlike, right?
But the point is to fuse something that's new. And once you fuse these terms to make something new, that doesn't go away. And so it's not a metaphor that you would use to point at something and then throw it away. It's a metaphor that would that like would sort of put things together to create the thing that you wanted to refer to.
And then of course, myths consists of more and more of these that accumulate. So-- let me see if I answered your question. I want to make sure I did. Like what do you think? Did I?
JASON SION MOKHTARIAN: Yeah. That was very helpful. Definitely a reframing. I like what you said at the beginning, how it is a projection backwards. I mean, I think that you're right about that.
It's difficult sometimes for us to separate our own categories, our own ways of thinking from the way that they did. And I think in this case in particular, that's absolutely true. So that was-- yeah, that was brilliant. Thank you. That was very helpful.
MARLA SEGOL: But then I think for us-- that long explanation, that doesn't replace that term, right? Like we need a better one. Like if you have any ideas, I'd like to hear. But we really do. Yeah.
So and I guess the next thing-- let's see-- I wrote down your questions and I want to make sure that I have them right. Uh-oh-- please forgive me. Oh that you're interested-- you want to hear about the rejection of sex magic by modern groups, right?
JASON SION MOKHTARIAN: Yeah, just is there-- presumably this is not accepted by all Jewish communities today and throughout history, and that there have been some critiques, or rejections, or marginalization of these ideas. And so it's just interesting for me to hear from you about, where does this fit in the larger picture of normative Judaism? And who's rejected it and why? So it's just an interesting part of the story I think.
MARLA SEGOL: Well I think if Saadia and Maimonides could have, they would have they would have absolutely rejected this. But I don't think that they-- I mean, like their reactions to the Shi'ur Qomah, like Saadia Gaon said, people say that the rabbis wrote that but they didn't really write that. This is a forgery. Fine, it's a forgery. But then what?
And so of course both Saadia and Maimonides are really devoted to the idea of divine in corporeality. And Maimonides, of course, was at first-- like he was-- very early in his thinking, he was really very interested in the Shi'ur Qomah. And then later, of course, he came to reject it utterly because he's rejecting this idea of divine corporeality.
And what's interesting to me is that Maimonides' ideas met with a lot more resistance than early Kabbalistic ideas did-- and even later ones. And so my reaction to that is that people were very upset with Maimonides for trying to take away something that was very dear to them. And what was dear to them was this intimate and embodied relationship with the divine that wasn't just a form of cognitive mysticism.
So I think what happens ultimately is that, again, we have another series of projections backwards. So at the time that Saadia and Maimonides were writing, like we have French clergy in the 9th and 10th century who are complaining about the Jews who really did believe that God had a body. And considering that they believed in Jesus, who did have a body, they were actually scandalized by the Jewish belief in the human body.
So I think at the time that they were writing, they were writing against the grain-- Saadia and Maimonides. And what happens later is that with the Haskalah, with the Jewish Enlightenment, they came to embrace Maimonidian ideas. And so they rewrote Jewish theology to exclude these sorts of materials, or to denigrate these materials, when in fact, they were very much a part of the texture of daily life.
And one of the ways that we know this, I think, is if you read the collections of women's prayers, like tehines, the early modern women's prayers, these casually refer to a Kabbalistic cosmos they casually refer to-- as they're about to go into labor, for example, to their opportunity to meet the [? Shekhinah, ?] right?
And so I think the Kabbalistic cosmology upon which sex magic is based is actually a part of daily experience. So just like if you go into a classroom or if you go into any group of people, and you ask them, so tell me, how did the world come to be? Many people will have several different narratives that coexist together in their minds. And just depending on the situation, they're going to give you a different one.
And so I think this Kabbalistic cosmology was one of those narratives and was one of those ways of understanding the body. And I think the radically transcendent model of the divine coexisted with that one. And that the Enlightenment thinkers rewrote the tradition to really privilege this disembodied model of the divine and of our experience of it.
And so I don't think they did reject it. I don't know if they quite practiced sex magic, but if you actually read the descriptions of it, if you read Cordovero's description, if you read the description in the Zohar, it's pretty tame. Like they're not doing anything that they wouldn't normally do except sanctifying the experience and hoping for redemption.
And I have to say that based on the tiny bit of fan mail that I was so delighted to receive, some of it came from like Hasidic writers, like Hasidic authors. And I was like, oh, I thought they might be a little mad, but they're not. That's good.
So I guess my answer is, I just don't think they really did. I mean, I don't know. Have you heard anything?
JASON SION MOKHTARIAN: No, not at all. I mean, I think that maybe that was just an assumption that I had, that this was somehow a subversive strand of tradition within Judaism. But obviously, you're correcting that for me.
And I hear you. I mean, I think that you're right. It does seem to have really penetrated many different communities. So thank you for that. Thanks for that. I think we're going to now move on to Professor Warner, just because we're aware of the time. So thank you so much for engaging those questions. That was great.
MARLA SEGOL: Thank you.
JASON SION MOKHTARIAN: Sure.
SARA WARNER: Well, I'm delighted to be part of this panel. And thank you for the invitation. I have known Marla since graduate school when we were both in the comparative literature program at Rutgers. And my specialty is not medieval Jewish mysticism, but contemporary feminist and queer performance.
And well, Jason gave us a beautiful and erudite reading of this fantastic work and his questions ask us to look back. My remarks are interested in moving us forward and talking about the interdisciplinary resonances of this very rich material.
So Marla's work reminds us that religion has, at no single moment in its history, been a unified monolithic doctrine, but has always been layered, plurally authored, multiply motivated composites full of fascinating mysteries, contradictions, and radical indeterminacies.
Gaps and inconsistencies play a thematic and performative role in scripture. There were fault lines in sacred tomes are evidence that narratives and histories have not fully settled, texts and the rituals that give them life can be remade and reformed, which is key to both their conservation and survival, and to the Utopian potential engendered by their capacity for change and transformation.
In her new, book Marla revels in a kind of paradise of polysemy, to borrow a phrase from my dissertation advisor, Alicia Ostriker, tempting readers with a capacious and provocative exploration of the life-giving and world-making power of Kabbalistic sex magic.
And I had so many thoughts reading this book that took me all over. And I'm going to group those into three areas. The first, Marla started this project-- or the project came to her with a rainbow. And rainbows obviously have many resonances in different traditions.
And in one of my cultures, the queer culture, it's a symbol of diversity and pride. And indeed, a queer hermeneutics informs the analytics here and in Marla's earlier work as well. So my first question is, what specifically do you find in queer and trans theory as an aid in analyzing Jewish cosmologies, And in turn, what does your work offer to queer and trans studies?
Two, in addition to a queer hermeneutics, your work is grounded in feminist theory. Your project challenges patriarchal wisdom and gendered social structures that have occluded and obscured female agency and bi-gendered and fluid representations of divinity. Sex magic was-- and I did not really put it together this way until I read this book. And then I had to rethink everything I knew about '70s performance art and '70s critical theory and theater.
So one of the ways that I could reframe that whole history of second wave feminism is-- or at least a good chunk of it-- is about sex magic. So sex magic was, and continues to be, an important aspect of feminist art and activism.
And I would include here a panoply of polymorphously perverse examples that range from the goddess art of Mary Beth Edelson and Ana Mendieta, the tantric performances of Carolee Schneemann, Betty Dodson's orgasm workshops, critical theorizations as far-reaching as Audre Lorde's Use of the Erotic, and Naomi Schor's clitoral hermeneutics, as well as pornographic publications by self-described pro-sex feminists Ellen Willis, Susie Bright, Honey Lee Cottrell, and Jewelle Gomez, to name only a few.
So my question here is, are the erotics and politics of second wave feminism aimed at accessing the divine feminine in ways that you see are attuned to or related to Kabbalah rituals that you explore in your book? And if so, how?
And three, you conclude the book with a discussion of modern self-help literature and new age practices that traffic with, but aren't necessarily faithful to Kabbalistic traditions-- I had to google-- and in recent months and recent years, the topic of sex magic is everywhere in pop culture, from the celestial spheres of celebrity life-- Madonna and Sting-- to top 40 radio-- there's a song "Sex Magic" by Justin Timberlake, and mass market publications such as Cosmo, an article, "I Used Sex Magic to Grow My Career," and even Teen Vogue is in on this, "How to Use Sex Magic to Manifest Your Best Self."
And not to leave out the queers, and the Gen Xers, and the fluid identifiers here, but there's queer sex magic in Vice and queer and trans magic in Medium. And I could go on and on. There are hundreds of hits, if you google this, from the last 10 years.
So I'm not assuming, Marla, that you're familiar with any of these, and they were all new to me until this week, but my question is, what do you make of these works, and the proliferation of sex magic in pop culture, and of the secularization, privatization, and monetization that often attend sex magic in the current moment? What happens to sex magic ritual that becomes individualized, materialized, and therapeutic rather than messianic and aimed at a collective good?
MARLA SEGOL: Thank you. Thank you for those questions. I want to begin at the beginning, but I also want to say that I googled some of those things, and oh my, did I have a good time. So it was just-- it was really great to read those articles.
And now I'm going backtrack to the beginning. So your first question is about the rainbow and about queer hermeneutics. And so you wanted to know which thinkers were helpful to me and also what this might contribute to, essentially, a queer religious studies, right?
So my first-- I think my starting place is performativity. So the idea that gender is performed-- you know, a la, Butler-- but also that it's positional. So there's the performance of gender, but the performance of gender is fluid based on position and perspective.
So often, your female in relation to those above you and male in relation to those below you, right? But I think another really important essay for me was Jay Michaelson's essay it's on the possibility of Kabbalah for a queer theology.
And for him-- and this was really important to me-- there's a pan-eroticism in the Kabbalistic cosmos. And that pan-eroticism can go any way. So it's not just positional gendering. It is like everything is erotically engaged with everything else. And it's really hard to put your finger on any gendering position.
The other thing that has been important to me was Jeffrey Kripal's attention to the implicit homoeroticism in Jewish mystical traditions. And he argues that in order to get mainstreamed, actually, the Jewish texts start with like a heteronormative eroticism, and then they dematerialize it and make it homoerotic.
And that, of course, is then restored into a regular-- so in that way, pretty much all the elements get to be on top-- like they all get to be male. And so it's a boy thing again. But for me, I'm not really willing to stop there.
And what I think is the power, like really, the queer theological potential of these texts is actually in their juxtapositions. And I'm going to be very concrete about it. So like when you have a homoerotic cosmology, and then-- and so that's one [INAUDIBLE]-- and you tell one story of that.
And then you tell another one that has a different configuration of desires. And then you tell another one that is essentially a pan-erotic generation of the cosmos. What you don't do is you don't reconcile them. And that's what the texts teach us.
And to me, that is the true potential of these sorts of texts for a queer theology or a queer hermeneutics and religious studies. So it's abstract, but I think that's where it goes. What do you think?
SARA WARNER: No, I think that's very-- very interesting. And I know the field of queer religious studies is really growing at this moment. And there's a lot of energy from-- and I think that I want those folks that I in that field to read this book for that reason. And it's just really exciting, what you're-- the questions you're bringing back to us, and I really appreciate that.
MARLA SEGOL: Well, I mean your questions really took me far. So in just in terms of my like imagining things, so I really appreciate that. Your next question is about feminist theory. And you were asking me about Audre Lorde's model, and about Naomi Schor's clitoral hermeneutics, and also about the performance art that I don't know that much about, I'm going to be honest.
But I read an article by Audre Lorde, and one of the things that really struck me is that she was making a point of a self-spirituality, which is something that's really consistent with new age religion. And so rather than locating the power of the erotic in the divine, she was really locating it in the self.
Now most kind of new age theologies imagine that self-spirituality as something that's sacred and something that's transcendent. But it's located here, it's not up there, it's not over there. And so to me, that struck me-- so while both-- like while both locate power in eroticism and they see eroticism as a means of connection, the Jewish texts really see it as a mode of participation in the divine.
And so that's the main difference to me. But I think what she did is really typical of '70s and '80s kind of new age conceptions of eroticism. And then like the clitoral hermeneutics, I loved it. I never read that before-- I loved it.
And I loved it because it's kind of-- I mean, what I got from it is the part where she says that clitoral hermeneutics, which has the clitoris co-extensive with detail, and to me, actually, it's the powerful details that make the history. And I had no idea that was actually a method, but I love it. Like it's what I'm inclined to do. So thank you for that.
Yeah. And I think-- like I'm really grateful for that. Like she says, the odd, eccentric, textural details are the key. And like in my own teaching, I call those the WTF moments. And I think that's what reading is all about, is kind of finding those and letting them shake you, and letting them inspire you to ask just ask the most basic questions. So I enjoy that very much.
What about you-- the art? Can you tell us about the art?
SARA WARNER: Well, there was such a suspicion of patriarchal religions, and it was this-- some of it seems rather essentialist to us now, but-- I mean, one might even say that about the clitoral hermeneutics in terms of thinking about gender more fluidly.
But Yoni art, lots of vaginal imagery, performances that involved actual acts of eroticism. And sometimes they were heterosexual, sometimes they were homosexual, sometimes they were even ecosexual. So they were about-- in the environment. And more often than not, these artists would think about the Earth as part of that spiritual communion.
And so it was less about supernatural cosmologies than it was embodied in material cosmologies. And if there was healing to be done, it would be about the planet, not necessarily traditions that some women had found patriarchal and unbearing, or that were trying to work through and to locate, do feminist revision, and find what you're doing in your work, which is like other sources that were then obscured or occluded. But yeah, I mean, the art is amazing from that era.
MARLA SEGOL: So it's like a radical, sanctified, powerful embodiment, and a co-embodiment, right, with, like-- yeah, with the Earth.
SARA WARNER: There's a line from Ntozake Shange's play that says, "I found God in myself and I loved her fiercely."
MARLA SEGOL: Yeah. Yeah.
SARA WARNER: That idea.
MARLA SEGOL: So that actually brings me to both of your last questions. Because Jason I think you were asking-- you were asking about the medical-- like the prominence of medical discourse in both the early sources and the later ones. And you're asking about popular culture and also about embodiment, right, Sara? And also about capitalism.
So I think one of the ways to think about this is, how is it that the body is imagined once again as a locus of power? And part of it-- there's this article by Bryan Turner on the body and medical discourse. I think it's simply called "The Body."
And one of the things that he says that's so interesting to me is that in the ancient world, the body was encoded-- well, I mean he doesn't say it, I say it.
So he's talking about the corporeal turn in scholarship. And in our capitalist economy, the body is encoded for profit. The medical industry is one of the biggest industries in this country-- and even in the world, right?
And so what that means is that knowing the body is -- well, I mean-- well, it's profitable, right? Knowing what the body is and how it works is a way to situate the human body in one of the most meaningful and powerful discourses. And that is a discourse like of capitalism.
But in the ancient world, the body was also encoded. And the body was the site of the intersection of the cosmos and the divine. And they all overlapped and were contained within the body. And so knowing what the body was and knowing what it did was the key to the most sacred and the most important knowledge.
And I think so in both cases, the corporeal-- like the emphasis on the corporeal is key to the understanding of the cosmos in ancient and medieval sources, and is tied to the most powerful discourses that exist right now. So I don't think it exactly answers both of your questions beautifully, but it brings them together.
DEBORAH STARR: Great. We actually have a number of questions from the audience. So I'm going to go to those-- please Jason and Sara, if you want to jump in at any point with followup questions, please do.
So we have one question from Anthony Leoii. To what extent did the tradition of sex magic address the problem of the shattering of the vessels? Was it thought to be a way of healing the sefirots?
MARLA SEGOL: What a great question. And it really gets to the center of it. Yes. So the idea is that because of human misdeeds, the sefirots are separated from each other. And what human beings can do is by having sanctified sex, they can bring the sefirots, out especially [? Shekhinah ?] and [? Tifetet are ?] back together. And in doing that, they're actually healing the divine and allowing blessings to come down.
But they're also healing the cosmos. So yeah. So I think this is a messianic act, and it's really important to point that out.
DEBORAH STARR: Thank you. Federico del Bo has a question, why the book especially addresses a specific portion in the history of Kabbalah from the Shi'ur Qomah and the Bahir, but not with the 13th century Kabbalah-- namely [INAUDIBLE] and the Zohar, just to mention a few. So just Federico wants to know about your choices of texts.
MARLA SEGOL: OK. The first part of the question, would you mind reading that again, please?
DEBORAH STARR: OK. Why your book especially addresses the specific portion of the history of Kabbalah, but not other texts?
MARLA SEGOL: Thank you for that question. One of the reasons that I chose the ones I did is because I saw that they specifically spoke to each other. So I saw-- well-- so Sefer Refuot-- you know, it may be coterminous with the narratives in the Talmud, but it seems to incorporate them and speak to them and to activate them in different ways, even though I didn't really speak so much about the Talmud, right?
So that was important. But I also saw it as kind of-- it was coterminous with both the Sefer Yetsirah and the Shi'ur Qomah, which I saw as companion texts. So that's why they are together. And then the Bahir is the commentary on both of them. So to me, that was quite important.
While Bahya's work and Ibn Gabirol, those two-- and Sabbatai-- like those two are actually continuing the work of Sefer Asaph-- or the Sefer Refuot. And what they're doing is they're placing that medical work in a cosmological context combined with the Sefer Yetsirah.
So what I was just trying to do was follow the conversation as I could find it. There are lots of things that are left out. But I just wanted to make sure that I could see the-- I was following the layers where they were most obvious. And also, everybody is obsessed with the Bahir, right?
Like everybody says, oh how did you get from no Seferotic cosmology to a Seferotic cosmology? Like Scholem writes that it happened out of the blue. Well, nothing happens out of the blue, right? Nothing ever happens out of the blue.
And so I thought, OK, well, what are the steps that led to this microcosmic-- like this tripartite microcosm and supplies the terms for it? So that was how I chose it. They kind of chose me and maybe I left some things out. Yeah.
DEBORAH STARR: Thank you. I'm going to bundle two questions here. Rebecca Lessis asks, for the modern or contemporary practitioners of sex magic, what and how do they do? Is it completely interior, or are there ritual gestures, words that are pronounced, or chanted? And if sex magic isn't active between a couple, what do they do other than actually having sex?
And how is Kabbalistic sex magic incorporated into the contemporary sex magic, which leads to Aiden Kolodij, I think. I'm very sorry about the last name. I really try to pronounce these correctly. Aiden asks, could you expand on Sara's question regarding the popularization and secularization of sex magic? Why now? Why is there so much popular interest in sex magic now?
MARLA SEGOL: OK. Thank you. So I'll start with Rebecca's question. So Rebecca, if you want to know about what they did, you can find lots of instructions in most of Cordovero's work. I can read it to you if you want, but I don't want to take up too much time. But like Cordovero's ritual is like-- there's an awful lot of repentance and meditation.
And I would say, as with the contemporary sex magic rituals, the most important thing is actually ritually preparing, like becoming-- like repenting of your sins, confessing, becoming ritually pure, doing it at the right time-- which is midnight. And quite touchingly, gladdening your wife with words relating to the commandment of sexual reproduction.
So you're not supposed to just like have your own trip, right? Like you're supposed to actually make it nice for everybody, which is good. So there-- I would say the main thing that is different from just kind of workaday sexuality is the preparation, the setting of the intention, and the directing of the energies when you're finished, which in Kabbalistic text, it would be to bring the sefirots together and to bring down blessings.
And then in terms of the modern practice, I think-- so is the question about how it differs? How the modern practice differs? Oh and it's about who can do it, and how important these rituals are-- like these older models are, right?
For some people, they're quite important, and for some people, they're important without being explicitly so. But what's interesting to me is that for many of these practitioners, it is very much about repair. And it's about repair of the cosmos. But the understanding of the cosmos shifts from something that is-- from something that is the structure of the divine to something that's really quite narrative.
So it's about rectifying harmful narratives is about gender, about sexuality, about the body. And they understand the cosmos as being-- like as consisting of human relationships. And Sara, some of the things that I read after you asked that question, like they are very much-- like you can do it solo, you can do it with partners. And it's very much about a self-spirituality.
And I think the existence of a self-spirituality really does shift the focus to healing for yourself, healing for others, right? And it makes solo sex possible as a sacred act. I don't know if I got everything. I hope I did.
DEBORAH STARR: Thank you. I do want to turn back to our panelists and see if Jason or Sara have a followup question that they'd like to ask? No?
SARA WARNER: I have many but I will hold them for--
JASON SION MOKHTARIAN: Yeah, likewise. I see that there's a few other questions actually in the Q&A, so I'm going to read those.
DEBORAH STARR: OK. So Martin Bobrovsky asks, regarding divine bodies and divine sexual union, do you explore the biblical stories of the Nephilim? In medieval times, there appears to be a concept that the Jewish body was different from a non-Jewish body. So I'm wondering if you could perhaps engage with that.
And the question then continues, this raised question for Martin about a woman who was converted and conceived as a non-Jew, but returned to Judaism before giving birth and the status of the child. And so this was a question about-- yeah.
MARLA SEGOL: Well, the story of the Nephilim is really quite important in this Sefer Refuot by Asaph ha-Rofe, because for him, it's part of the genealogy of medicine. And I'm trying to think about-- well, the idea then is that medical law and the ability to act on the human body is both a divine gift, and in some ways, like it's a demonic gift.
So I think-- like that story is important in terms of Asaph's work. I don't know where else it figures in. Jason, you look like you want to say something.
JASON SION MOKHTARIAN: No. I'm just I'm just listening intently. It was an interesting question. So I'm trying to think through myself whether there's any sources that would be relevant. Yeah.
MARLA SEGOL: Yeah. But you know, actually one of my students pointed out very recently that like in those stories of the nephilim, it's those technologies that are associated with beautifying the body that are identified as demonic, whereas the others are happily integrated into the tradition.
So the ones that are like for women, they're like, oh, those are the bad ones. And like science, and technology, and metallurgy, and medicine, those are the ones that are kind of re-assimilated back into the corpus. And I don't know anything about that conversion narrative. It sounds really interesting and I'd like to know more.
DEBORAH STARR: Well-- so I think this-- we've really covered a lot of ground here. And I want to thank Marla, and our panelists, Jason and Sara. I want to remind everyone that you can purchase Marla's book, Kabbalah and Sex Magic from the Penn State University press website. And she has given us a discount code, NR21, which you are welcome to use.
I also would like to invite anyone who's interested in this event and would like to find out more about future Jewish studies events to join us at the Cornell Jewish Studies website and sign up for our weekly newsletter, which will tell you about events digital and in-person.
Thank you all for coming. Thank you very much, Marla. It's been a really wonderful event. And thank you to Jason and Sara as well. And thank you all for coming
MARLA SEGOL: And thank you so much for having me and for those wonderful questions. I really appreciate it.
JASON SION MOKHTARIAN: Bye, everyone. Thank you.
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A discussion with Professor Marla Segol on her recently published book "Kabbalah and Sex Magic: a Mythical-Ritual Genealogy" (Penn State University Press, 2021). Professors Jason Sion Mokhtarian (near eastern studies) and Sara Warner (performing and media arts) will serve as interlocutors for the discussion.