The mystical erotics of aging

The mystical erotics of aging by Mordechai Gafni

In the mystical tradition of Isaac Luria, the great Tsfat Kabbalist, the erotic, the holy and the elder are of the same essential quality. Of course, erotic in this context refers not to the sexual but to the state of being of which sexuality is only one manifestation. This state is referred to in Hebrew as the state of Zohar, or in English as the state of Eros.

To be erotically engaged is to be holy on the inside. On the inside means that there is no separation between myself and my action. I am no longer a jogger who is painstakingly running, watching him or herself from the outside; I have merged with my activity, I am the running. Any activity in which I merge fully with the experience is in this sense a sacred and “erotic” act. The Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem is the ultimate religious symbol of this state, and it is referred to in mystical sources as “the inside of the inside.”

In this context, the Kabbalist Nachmanides solves what he calls the mystery of the cherubs, who stood above the Ark in the Holy of Holies in Jerusalem. Entwined in intimate embrace, they were a surprising image to find at the fulcrum of the sacred. But by being there, Nachmanides explains, they taught us that redeemed sensuality models the holy. The goal of holiness is to expand the realm of erotic engagement from the sexual to all facets of life, whether exercise, prayer, professional involvement or conversation.

According to that same Kabbalistic tradition, the ultimate role models for this holy Eros are not baby cherubs or youthful adults, but the elderly. Mystics refer to the Holy of Holies as atik yomin, the ancient of days – a mystical appellation for the archetype of the elder. Indeed in mystical understanding, the secret of the cherubs and the secret of aging are one. The aged man and woman personify the deepest forms of redeemed Eros.

There are 10 distinct erotic qualities that are primary characteristics of both the holy and the sexual, and which find their highest expression in the life of the successful elder. One of these is best explained in an obscure passage by the Chasidic master Mordechai Lainer, the Rebbe of Ishbitz.

Rabbi Lainer offers a unique interpretation of the Talmud’s assertion that Jacob never died. In his view, it means that Jacob never experienced the horror of death, for the pain of death stems from the sharp transition it marks from fleeting temporality to the infinity of eternity. Jacob never underwent this painful transition, for he was already able to taste eternity in his old age. Successful old age, implies Lainer, is the time when we are able to experience the eternity that resides in a moment.

At this point Lainer asks a seemingly unrelated question. Why does the very next passage in the Talmud – after the claim that Jacob never died – discuss Rahav, the famous harlot from the time of Joshua? The passage states that anyone who knew (carnally) Rahav, even if it was many years past, would have an involuntary emission at the mere conjuring of her name.

His implicit answer: because both passages are about the same topic: Eros, which is understood by the text to mean the ability to access the eternity that resides in a moment. The spiritual work of life is to be able to experience the full infinity of every moment.

Our youthful lives make this extraordinarily difficult. We can barely remember what happened to us yesterday; moments blur into each other, their unique qualities obfuscated by the torrential flow of time that threatens to sweep us away. But old age is intended to slow the flow of time and allow us to go back and collect the moments of our past, to connect the dots of our lives in order to form a picture that we can understand.

Before reaching our later years, however, there is one experience that models for us while we are young the spiritual living that is our goal: sexuality. This is virtually the only arena in which, for all of us, time stands still. Eternity is present in the fleeting moment.

Moreover, the moment does not get lost. If someone knew Rahav once, he can recover the eternity and glory of that moment even many years later. The Talmudic text, illuminated by Lainer, teaches that in old age, the erotic shatters the boundaries of the sexual and spills over into every facet of being. Jacob didn’t even have to “die.”

A major characteristic, then, of both the erotic and the holy is the ability to be fully available to the present, to experience time standing still, to access the eternity that resides in a moment. In that moment of present eternity, all past and future moments are paradoxically gathered as well. I can begin to make sense of my story, the sacred text of my days.

The spiritual master who invites us to the experience of eternity is none other than the atik yomin, the ancient of days, the elder – who according to mystical tradition is the symbol of the Holy of Holies, seat of sacred Eros, where the two cherubs lock in intimate embrace.

Rabbi Mordechai Gafni is head of the Melitz Beit Midrash in Jerusalem, author of four volumes of New Jewish Theology, and author of the recently acclaimed Soul Prints (also the subject of a PBS special). His last article in OLAM was “Words that Kill.”

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