The idea that God interacts sexually with human beings may seem utterly alien to modern Judaism, but in this fascinating book Marla Segol demonstrates that some Jews conceived and still conceive of God as a sexual being. However, her attempt to link the late antique and medieval texts she analyzes to the modern sex magic of Yehuda Berg and Shmuley Boteach—as well as to an odd assortment of “Meetup” sex therapists—goes a step too far. There is a yawning gap between medieval and modern sex magic, but Segol makes only a superficial attempt to fill this in. Her discussion of the Zohar (thirteenth century), the most important kabbalistic text ever written, and the Lurianic Kabbalah (sixteenth century), which influenced Berg, is cursory; and the Sabbatean, Frankist, and Hasidic movements are not mentioned at all. It is to be hoped that Segol will investigate these possible missing links in the future because she is clearly an accomplished scholar and the material she presents about antique and medieval kabbalistic sex magic is intriguing.
Segol defines sex magic as “ritualized human sexuality meant to access divine power for good. Its ritual practices are based in conventional religious feelings of love between human and divine, but they add to that by imagining this love erotically” (1). The major source for this idea is the Song of Songs, but there are other biblical texts describing the divine body and claiming those who experience its beauty will be endowed with magical powers. Ezekiel, for example, falls unconscious when he sees the divine loins (a euphemism for penis), but he is assured that “all who know this secret are certain [to acquire] the world to come” (29). The idea that creation occurred through sexual reproduction was common in Middle Eastern myths, and Jews borrowed from these myths to lay “the groundwork for medieval and modern practitioners [of the Kabbalah] to imagine sexuality as a powerful tool for accessing divine creative power” (1). Key to kabbalistic sexual magic is the “sefirotic cosmology” that envisions God creating the world from the ten sefirot, gendered aspects of himself associated with different body parts. Because humans share the same sefirotic structure, they can interact sexually with God and transform the cosmos through sex magic.
Segol devotes her first chapter to the Shi’ur Qomah (The Measure of the Body, fifth to seventh centuries), which she describes as “the most important Jewish esoteric text for the study of divine embodiment and thus for the study of kabbalistic sex magic today” (21). It names and measures each divine body part and describes the Hebrew letters inscribed on them. “Lettered man” seals appear throughout the Middle East. It is therefore not surprising that such a figure appears in the Shi’ur Qomah. What is surprising, however, is that the divine penis is inscribed with the phrase, “Israel is my nation, and I am Israel’s nation,” echoing the Song of Songs 2:16, “My beloved is mine and I am his.” By emphasizing the structural similarities between the human and divine, the Shi’ur Qomah establishes the possibility of a sexual relationship between the two.
In the next three chapters, Segol analyzes six additional kabbalistic texts, explaining how each contributed to or built on ideas presented in the Shi’ur Qomah while incorporating ritual and mythical elements from non-Jewish traditions. The Sefer Refuot (sixth century) integrates Greek medicine and the Greek concept of humans as the microcosm into the kabbalah by stressing medicine as a divine art and its practitioners as divine agents of transformation. The Sefer Yetsirah predates the Shi’ur Qomah but shares the conviction that humans can transform themselves and the world by manipulating Hebrew letters.
The final four texts examined are Shabbetai Donnolo’s Sefer Hakhmoni (Book of Wisdom, tenth century), ibn Gabirol’s Tikun Midot HaNefesh (Improvement of the Moral Qualities, eleventh century), Bahya ibn Paquda’s Torat Havot ha-Levavot (Duties of the Heart, eleventh century) and the Sefer Bahir, a two-part work dating from the tenth and twelfth centuries. A short review cannot do justice to the intricacies of Segol’s analyses of these works, especially of the Sefer Bahir, a text many scholars find baffling. Suffice it to say that she considers them all reformulations of the Genesis myths of human creation as synthesized with the Greek concept of the microcosm. Each text demonstrates the relationship between the human body, the cosmos, and God. Although their interpretations differ, they all describe rituals to enhance the divine image in humans that will provide access to divine powers. Finally, these texts reveal a growing interest in the human personality and the power and moral value of human emotions (82).
These examples lead up to Segol’s final chapter which “shows how Jewish practitioners have acted on these earlier models to generate new rituals” (133). The problem here is that while modern kabbalistic sex magic claims an ancient lineage, the practices and beliefs advocated represent a response to the radically transformed modern world, in which capitalism and the libertarian individualism it fosters prioritize individual sexual fulfillment and pleasure over the common good. Segol recognizes that this disjunction presents a challenge to her overall thesis. Can one really include Berg, Boteach, or the “Meetup” sex therapists she interviews in a recognizable genealogy of kabbalistic sex magic? Or has the legitimate line run out and kabbalistic sex magic parted ways with New Age sex magic, just as Christianity eventually parted ways from Judaism? Hopefully Segol will provide a definitive answer to this question in her future work.