Nathan Lopes Cardozo
Nathan Lopes Cardozo
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Encountering the Divine in prayer and sexuality

The experience truly cannot be expressed in words. It takes us out of ourselves, and yet allows us to connect most powerfully
Silhouette of a couple at sunset. (iStock)
Silhouette of a couple at sunset. (iStock)

I am often asked whether I actually experience moments of God’s Presence.

This is a difficult question to answer, because it relates to something that cannot be verified by conventional means. It touches on something that does not fall within the parameters of any other experience. Hence, I am fully aware of the risk of sounding arrogant and even offensive (as I will explain) when answering this question.

I answer this question because so many people ask me about it — I do not want to evade the issue solely because I am afraid of it and may, perhaps, be viewed as somebody who has flashes of unreal imaginations or has improper thoughts concerning prayer and sexuality. I will have to take this risk, even though I may pay a price.

Let me try to describe what sometimes happens to me, even though I am unable to fully articulate the precise nature of what this consists of. It is ineffable. And it in no way suggests that I am in any way better or more “religious” than anybody else. The truth is that I still believe that I am not really religious, but that I am merely attempting to be thus (it is nearly a hopeless undertaking!). I just try to be very honest and to give an authentic account of what sometimes happens to me.

There have been moments when I feel a complete stranger, totally alone in the extreme. A sensation of being dropped in the world without any awareness of where one is coming from or going to. One does not see anything in the conventional sense of the word anymore; everything is radically different. Nothing appears or dissolves. What one experiences is totally new and there is no way to describe it. All is seen with an inner eye and is completely incomprehensible. This is also true of one’s self. You are not “there” in the conventional sense of the word. You say to yourself: “I am who I am, but who, and where, am I?” There are no names and all labels are removed. Language comes to a standstill. You see everything for the first time, as a newborn child.

And then something highly unusual happens. The concept of time falls away. You become spiritual and infinitely larger and broader. You become so large that everything unites with you. Suddenly you become aware that hidden behind all worldly matters is another world where all of “it” really happens. You realize that where we live now is only the external façade, a kind of a garment which surrounds “das Ding an sich” — the “thing-in-itself.” Suddenly you “understand” — but not in the conventional sense. This is what philosophers call the “existential,” non-quantifiable world opening up. There is a deep feeling of bondage and commitment to the eternal. But now it is as if a hand is taking you and moving you to a different level you have never encountered before. This hand is real, not an illusion and you “know” that another Being is involved. A Being that surpasses all description.

But, as I wrote above, this experience cannot be fully explained by human words, and consequently when described to others, it runs the risk of being understood as the result of an unsteady mind. I fully understand this reaction, but for anybody who has had such an experience there is no doubting its authenticity.

I believe that this negative reaction by those who believe that this experience is illusionary is the result of a limited human condition set up by the human mind and its surroundings. But for the person who experiences this, it is a revelation that has no equivalent; it is undoubtedly an encounter with the Divine. The likelihood that it is the result of one’s imagination is no longer a possibility — for the experience is far too genuine.

In most cases, this experience takes place only for a moment, because our everyday education suppresses it, telling us that it cannot be true and automatically creating a boundary between us and the experience. The reason for this is that our very conventional self is afraid of it, especially owing to the radical consequences it can have for our day-to-day life; our self does not want to be confronted with surprise and does everything to keep matters under “control.” (This is also true of me, which explains why I only have this experience sporadically.)

We are too deeply steeped in the “normal,” the common, to be willing to be confronted with the “ab-normal” and the extraordinary. Such unusual experiences hurt, disturb, bring unbalance in our lives and move us from what we desire most: The comfortable and easy life. Instead of seeing the uniqueness of the moment that outdoes everything else, we prefer the commonplace.

Therefore, this lofty experience also manifests itself in genuine prayer, which is very difficult to attain, since real prayer also hurts and disturbs and throws us off balance. Real prayer demands a whole new approach to our lives, an encounter with the Divine of the highest order. The same happens with “marital intercourse,” which is perhaps the most divine experience a human being can have — but since this is of such high intensity and sanctity, it may be violated easily.

Prayer and the sexual encounter

Earlier, I discussed — and attempted to describe — what I believe to be a Divine encounter, an encounter I see as an absolute reality. I commented that prayer possesses a similarity with marital intercourse. I would like to elaborate on this point.

Lately, I “experience” God more and more when I pray on my own. This is because, when we are alone, we can “dwell on a single word,” concentrate on only one line in the prayer book and “meditate.”

This type of prayer opens a new world where one is taken out of the present and encounters another realm.

It is most revealing that in Hasidic writings, the experience of prayer is compared to the sexual act — a moment of ecstasy that cannot be described. This act is an encounter with God emanating from the meeting of two people, each representing God to the other. This act is a moment when one surpasses the limitations of the body by means of the body. It is a holy encounter with the Other, i.e., with God and also with one’s marital partner.

In two most remarkable — and, for some people, perhaps shocking — statements, we find:

This is from the Baal Shem Tov, may his memory be for a blessing: “From my own flesh, I behold God” (Job 19:26). Just as no child can be born as a result of physical copulation, unless this is performed with a vitalized organ and with joy and desire, so is it with spiritual copulation, that is the study of the Torah and prayer. When it is performed with a (spiritual) vitalized organ and with joy and delight then does it give birth (Keter Shem Tov, reprinted in Jerusalem, 1968).[1]

And:

Prayer is copulation with the Shechina (God’s indwelling). Just as there is swaying when copulation begins, so too, a man must sway at first [“shockling” in Yiddish], and then he can remain immobile and attached to the Shechina with great attachment (in prayer). As a result of his swaying, man is able to attain a powerful stage of (spiritual) arousal. For he will ask himself: “Why do I sway my body? Presumably it is because the Shechina stands over against me.” And as a result he will attain a level of great enthusiasm.” (Tzava’at Ha-Ribash, Jerusalem, p.7b; Likutei Yekarim, Lemberg, 1865, p. 1b; Sefer Baal Shem Tov, Satmar, 1943, vol. 1, p. 145, note 65).(1)

At first glance, these observations seem to be obscene. However, they are great examples of how Judaism elevates a physical act to the heights of a religious experience, and consequently to the world of genuine prayer. The latter should be as intensive as the marital act, which clearly is to take place under the conditions that Judaism demands from husband and wife, thereby turning the act into a prayer attained with one’s body. Thus, as reported in the name of the Baal Shem Tov, both experiences can and must be done with joy.

This should not surprise us. Even the austere philosopher and halachic authority Maimonides uses erotic imagery to interpret Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs, as a dialogue between God and the human soul. (See Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuva, 10:3.) See also Rabbi Akiva’s famous teaching that Shir HaShirim should be deemed “Holy of Holies” (Yadayim 3:5, Eduyot 5:3).

Wasting Seed

This is the reason why it is preferable for the sexual act between the male and female to take place in absolute holiness. Just like the religious experience of prayer must take place between man and God in absolute holiness. In absolute joy!

This has become an immense problem for “modern man.” When seed is “wasted” outside the framework of the bond between husband and wife, Judaism sees it as a false religious experience, for it lacks the Other.

To the extent we adopt “secularity” as the framework in which we live, feel and think, so our religious experience loses authenticity. It also becomes egocentric. It is false, and yet the experience as such still belongs to the world of the sacred; however, it has been violated.

In modern times, “religion” has failed to rouse man to remain authentic and to maintain a strong inner life. Instead, religion has become overly dedicated to the external, physical life of man, and therefore cannot maintain its sanctity in all spheres of human life. Religion confined God to synagogues and other houses of worship where liturgy and symbols became the dominating factors, and consequently, God was exiled.

There is nearly no way back; “wasting seed” is almost without remedy.[2] To prevent the wasting of seed requires a kind of discipline that can only be achieved when one lives in a world where God, “Das ding an sich” (“the thing-in-itself”) stands at the center of one’s life.

The failure of religion to live up to this challenge has brought halachic authorities to confront a reality where they have to deal with something that has escaped the world of religion. It cannot be contained by religion or Jewish law, and so, religious authorities wriggle to find a solution, not realizing that their efforts are almost always in vain. All their well-intended efforts to try to get young people to restrain themselves from wasting seed are probably doomed to fail. Organizing massive summits to encourage youths not to visit certain websites will not work and may even be counterproductive.

After all, the naked human body is a reflection of God’s “splendor,” and we are therefore drawn to it. Nobody is able to explain this “beauty.” For what is objectively beautiful about a female or male body? We are clearly conditioned with these feelings from the moment we are born. No doubt an extraterrestrial being would not see anything beautiful in the human body, it may indeed appear to them as unattractive and even ugly.

The fact that for a human being the human body is so attractive and striking is ineffable. Its beauty is beyond comprehension just as God’s “splendor” is. However, when the beauty of the body is used for the wrong reasons it becomes vulgar, and the inner Divine beauty is exposed and violated.

Notes:

[1] See also Hassidic Prayer, Louis Jacobs, The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, Schocken Books, NY, 1973, Chapter 9.

[2] The root of this prohibition is altogether mysterious. It is derived from the event of Onan who spilled his seed by way of “coitus interruptus” so as to prevent offspring. Consequently, God punished him and he died (See Genesis 38). In other words, it was not the spilling of seed itself which led to his death, rather it was the deliberate intention to prevent the conception of human life. How this has led to a general prohibition, far beyond the act of Onan, is a matter with which many commentators struggle. It is in kabbalistic sources that this prohibition took on a life of its own and became a major transgression; not all halachic authorities agree. Some believe it is only a rabbinical prohibition expressing an intuitive feeling that it is the wasting of something that could create human life and now does not bring about an encounter with the Other, as explained above, that is the problem.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo is the Founder and Dean of the David Cardozo Academy and the Bet Midrash of Avraham Avinu in Jerusalem. A sought-after lecturer on the international stage for both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences, Rabbi Cardozo is the author of 13 books and numerous articles in both English and Hebrew. Rabbi Cardozo heads a Think Tank focused on finding new Halachic and philosophical approaches to dealing with the crisis of religion and identity amongst Jews and the Jewish State of Israel. Hailing from the Netherlands, Rabbi Cardozo is known for his original and often fearlessly controversial insights into Judaism. His ideas are widely debated on an international level on social media, blogs, books and other forums.
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