Kabbalah and Queer Theology: Resources and Reservations

20 Pages Posted: 29 Nov 2013

See all articles by Jay Michaelson

Jay Michaelson

Hebrew University of Jerusalem; Brown University - Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior

Date Written: July 22, 2012


In the last few decades, Kabbalah has enjoyed an unlikely resurgence, both in popular culture and among feminist and queer theologians interested in alternatives to traditional Western religious discourse. And Kabbalah often delivers: feminine God-language, experiential mysticism and mythic esotericism, and a richer notion of eros than one typically finds in mainline synagogues or churches.

Yet theosophical Kabbalah, particularly during the period of its greatest flowering, between the 13th and 17th centuries in Spain, Provence, Italy, and the Near East, is an extremely heteronormative discourse. The binarism of masculine and feminine, in theosophical Kabbalistic literature, embody, reflect, and actualize the processes of world-maintenance on the one hand and theurgy on the other. Should Kabbalah be left to pop culture, then, and set aside by reflective queer theologians? Or is it possible to attempt queer readings of Kabbalistic text and symbolism that are at once honest with the texts and yet of use to a contemporary queer theology?

This essay proposes three such readings, focusing on Kabbalistic constructions of gender dimorphism. For while such binarism is central to Kabbalistic discourse, the ways in which it is configured may provide fertile ground for queer critiques of some gender categories. The essay begins by noting several important limitations in such an effort, such as the pervasiveness of gender binarism and hierarchy in Kabbalistic texts and the anti-homosexual attitudes of many Kabbalists (except for in the heretical Sabbatean movement).

The first queer reading of Kabbalistic gender dimorphism discusses the constructed nature of gender in Kabbalistic text, in which males may have predominantly feminine genders, all people have both genders within them, and the ideal is not a butch masculine and femme feminine, but a combination of them. To illustrate this point, the essay reads the Kabbalistic understanding of the binding of Isaac in the context of S/M, with Isaac (gendered feminine in Kabbalistic symbolism) taking the role of the “power bottom” in the testing (and forced submission) of the “total top” Abraham.

The second reading discusses the role of yichud, unification, particularly when male mystics take the role of the feminine sefirah of malchut, imitating God, who is, via the sefirot, a multi-gendered, trans-gendering deity wearing the masks of different genders at different times, and seeking partners who do the same. Even when male mystics stimulate the feminine malchut, their aim is a triadic homoeroticism between the men below and the male potencies above malchut which are aroused by her stimulation.

Third, the article discusses the feminization of the male body through circumcision, engaging critically with the now-classic theories of Elliot Wolfson regarding circumcision as the erasure of the feminine and the creation of the ‘male androgyne.’ The claim here is that even within those texts which do "contain the feminine in the masculine" in the mode that Wolfson describes, the ideal of the feminized masculine is both an important disruption in gender dimorphism, and, utilizing a Lacanian framework, an inscription of "negative space" that links Kabbalistic gender play with unio mystica. Building on Derrida and Levinas, I propose that the drama of androgynization can be (re)configured not in terms of totality, but of infinity -- precisely because the phallic pretension to completeness has been circumcised.

Suggested Citation

Michaelson, Jay and Michaelson, Jay, Kabbalah and Queer Theology: Resources and Reservations (July 22, 2012). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2150725 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2150725

Jay Michaelson (Contact Author)

Brown University - Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior ( email )

Providence, RI 02912
United States

Hebrew University of Jerusalem ( email )

Mount Scopus
Jerusalem, Jerusalem 91905

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