I’m part of an online listserv for Jewish progressives that’s in an uproar these days over a rabbinic sex scandal. A spiritual leader repeatedly crossed the line, engaging in secret relationships with women students, whose status in relation to his own should have put them at arm’s length. He lost his post, then announced that he would seek treatment, casting his transgressions as a “sickness.”
Most people who’ve weighed in on the issue feel empathy with the women, as I do. This is not the first time we’ve seen a charismatic male figure use his greater power to exploit those of lesser status or authority. So on the facts, I don’t see much wiggle-room: it was wrong for the rabbi to make use of others in such fashion and I pray he will be able to learn from and repair his misdeeds.
But all that is on the surface. If we were to dig deeper, I’m not so sure I would find myself in perfect accord with others’ thinking. Some people seem to feel that the violation originates in polluting spiritual matters with erotic energy. But to me, the link between Eros and Spirit is strong. The operative ethical distinction concerns different links, that between feeling and action, that between power and exploitation. Let me explain.
In spiritual practice, as in art, the feeling of connection that emerges from experience is a braided cord, twining strands of emotion, insight, and erotic energy. We plug it in, and whatever has been deadened inside us is reanimated. In spiritual connection as in aesthetic bliss as in sexual union, we feel entirely alive.
This is an open secret. If you add up how many Talmudic texts advise on the channeling of erotic energy, it amounts to an obsession. The felt sense of the unity of erotic and spiritual desire is so strong, it persists even in the face of powerful censorious pressure to purify the spiritual of the perceived taint of sexuality. In Catholicism, for instance, which commands clerical celibacy (however often that commandment has been breached), nuns are ordained through a symbolic ceremony of divine marriage.
Many Catholic saints reported visions carrying powerful erotic charges. The testimony of St. Teresa of Avila described the “delectable pain,” the “rapture and ecstasy” she experienced as the “Spouse” repeatedly pierced her breast with a fiery arrow and drew it out, an encounter she analogizes as “Spiritual Marriage.” If you are tempted to dismiss this as a contemporary revisionist reading, have a look at Bernini’s swooningly erotic seventeenth-century statue portraying “The Ecstasy of St. Teresa,” which resides in the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome.
Or read a snippet of perhaps the greatest erotic poem ever written, dating from at least two centuries before the common era, the Song of Songs; this is from Chapter 5:
His hands are as rods of gold set with beryl; his body is as polished ivory overlaid with sapphires.
His legs are as pillars of marble, set upon sockets of fine gold; his aspect is like Lebanon, excellent as the cedars.
His mouth is most sweet; yea, he is altogether lovely. This is my beloved, and this is my friend, O daughters of Jerusalem.
The Song of Songs is recited on Passover; in some Sephardic congregations, part is recited every Sabbath. A couple of millennia ago, an intense debate raged about whether it was too profane to be included in the scriptural canon. In the Hebrew calendar, today is Lag B’Omer, which commemorates a break in a plague that affected the students of Rabbi Akiva, a scholar who took part in the rebellion against Rome around the start of our common era. His view of the Song of Songs carried the day: “[T]he whole world is not worth so much as the day when the Song was given to Israel,” he said. “Thus while all the Ketuvim [writings] are holy, the Song is most holy.”
The thirteenth century Persian Sufi mystic Jelaluddin Rumi wrote that the joining of lovers symbolizes our yearning for ultimate connection, transcending the body and glowing with an illumination that symbolizes the realm of spirit:
is the night.
It’s the creation of that land of eternity.
It’s not an ordinary night,
It’s a wedding of those who seek Love.
Tonight, the bride and groom
speak in one tongue.
Tonight, the bridal chamber
is looking particularly bright.
This open secret, the twinning of Eros and Spirit, confuses us. It seems too dangerous and potent, so we try to put it away. A lot of harm has been done with the puritanical idea that perceiving the link between Spirit and Eros is wrong: so many people, trying to be good in the way they are told they must be, are left hating their own bodies and feelings, believing their very nature to be sinful. Where the open secret is most strongly suppressed, as in the Catholic church’s clerical celibacy–despite the sensuous excess, the prominence of naked bodies, the evocation of flesh and blood in its ritual and iconography–it oozes out in the most distorted forms.
But if we pull back the curtain, it is easy to see that the true violation is one of power, not sex. Consider the most extreme example: criminologists and psychologists say that rape is not driven by sex but by the desire to control and possess, swamping the rapist’s ability to see his victim as equally human and thus equally entitled to care and respect. The membrane between thought and action dissolves as one person uses another as a thing, an object in his own drama of domination.
In hugely exaggerated form, this is what happens when spiritual leaders transgress. When anyone in a position of power and authority–a member of the clergy, a teacher, a benefactor, an official, an employer–uses status to manipulate or coerce another, to exploit another for personal gratification, that is a violation of spirit and often also of law.
And Eros? An innocent bystander, a handy scapegoat, a powerful force, yes. But an unwelcome intruder in the house of Spirit? I don’t think so.