The Secret Sex Life of Hebrew Letters

This series began as an unpacking of some controversial translations of Biblical texts I offered in an Op-Ed in The New York Times, “Is God Transgender?. I argued that the Hebrew Bible is filled with gender-bending language, all intended to hint at an Israelite priestly / scribal tradition that God is “dual-gendered” - “male” and “female.”

In Kabbalah, we see this tradition of sexualized and gender-bending language taken down to the granular level. In the Zohar, not only are there “male” and “female” words, but there are “male” and “female” letters, and even parts of letters — this jot and that tittle.

In the Zohar on Song of Songs, the letters of the Hebrew alef-bet are depicted as having a love life: alef (male) mates with bet (female); gimel (male) mates with dalet (female). And then the pattern reverses: the next letters up, heh and vav, are not male and female respectively, but rather female and male. Ultimately there is no differentiation between the letters at all. “A single mystery,” as the Zohar on Song of Songs concludes. “All letters… fashioned into one body.”

What’s to account for this very intense interest in the Hebrew letters on the part of the Kabbalists? Professor Joel Hecker explains:

“Since God spoke the world into being, the world is composed of letters.” (The Zohar: Pritzker Edition, Volume XI, Translation and Commentary by Joel Hecker, General Editor, Daniel C. Matt; Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2016, page 375, note 65).

The “masculine and feminine letters” are to the Kabbalists nothing less than “the fundaments of reality.” (ibid, p. xii)

One needn’t endorse the Kabbalists’ world-view in all respects to be awed by how much of our scientific world-view they intuitively got right. Scientists now tell us that the universe burst from an incomprehensibly small point which they call the “singularity.” The Kabbalists called it the “reishit.” Science explains the constituent parts of a living being as composed of DNA. In a strikingly similar way, Kabbalist Abraham Abulafia wrote “Know that all of your body’s limbs are combined in the same form as the combination of letters, this one with that one.” (ibid, pages 514-515, note 460)

Tzarich iyyun — This is worthy of more investigation.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

The Secret Sex Life of Hebrew Letters

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