We believe that God is beyond gender and sex, so it is startling to see rabbinic sources use sexual terms to depict the kirvah (closeness) that is the ideal result of korbanot (sacrifices). For example:
[The ark’s poles] protruded through the curtain, looking like a woman’s breasts. As it says (Song of Songs 1:13): “My lover is like a sachet of myrrh lying between my breasts.” Rav Katina said: When the Jews ascended to the Temple in Jerusalem for the festivals, [the kohanim] would roll back the curtain so everyone could see the intertwined keruvim (cherubs), and would proclaim, “Look! The love between you and God is like the love between a man and woman.” (Yoma 54a).
The ketoret (incense) is like perfume, and the korbanot are like kisses and consummation (Ibid., 1:2:1).
THE FOUR STAGES OF LOVE
Writing in Tradition, Dr. Russell Jay Hendel cites these sources and adds to the metaphor:
[W]e can divide the general phenomenon of love into four phases:
(i) the general state of love
(corresponding to which we have the general commandment to love God);
(ii) the performance of concrete actions by each of the lovers to provide and fulfill the wishes and desires of the other (thus humanity performs the commandments and God reciprocates by granting us protection);
(iii) dialogues expressing mutual love, common i
nterests and commitments (thus we have prayer from humanity to God, and Torah and prophecy from God to man); and
(iv) sexual relations (korbanot) – specific procedures involving physical objects whose purpose is to induce a psychological state wherein it is conducive to feel closeness. The ultimate goal is true love and commitment. This, however, does not negate the indispensability of certain means toward these goals.
In other words, the male-female relationship and the God-human relationship can be compared such that their culminations are, respectively, sex and the sacrifices.
IN DEFENSE OF KORBANOT
Two Israeli teachers suggest that this comparison can help us deal with a common contemporary challenge to korbanot: Don’t they seem primitive and b’diavad (non-ideal)? Why should we pray for the Temple to be rebuilt, anyway?
Rav Yuval Cherlow responds (Hebrew) as follows, slightly paraphrased:
Korbanot aren’t b’diavad, in the same way that the physical relationship between a man and a woman who are in love isn’t b’diavad. We humans don’t want platonic love! We want our romantic relationships to express ourselves fully. So too with religion. . . . Korbanot are ideal because when we are bursting with religious fervor and the desire to be close to God, we need to express it with every fiber of our being. . . . The deep emotional relationship with the divine can best be expressed when all of our parts work together in harmony.
[L]ove between a man and a woman must begin with spiritual contact, with falling in love. But it must then continue to a physical relationship. . . . One of the most basic obligations of a husband to his wife is to maintain proper sexual relations. . . . Spirituality is not enough. The link must be anchored in the world of actions. Sacrifices [too] are an anchor that establishes the link between the Almighty and human beings.
WHERE THE ANALOGY BREAKS DOWN
Nevertheless, as with any analogies to God, there is a caveat. Rav Gordin calls it a “significant difference between the two types of love”:
The Almighty has no need for our sacrifices. “Why do I need your many sacrifices?” (Isaiah 1:11) As opposed to human [relationships], the Almighty [is “nourished” not from] the results of the sacrifices but only the actions themselves.
This can be compared to a father . . . when his young son offers him to share a snack from a bag that the father just gave him. The father is overjoyed to see that the child gives up some of his own snack. The act of giving the snack is what makes the father happy, not the taste of the snack.
The Almighty does not need our sacrifices. But when we offer to Him part of the snacks which He gave us, we feel more closely aligned with Him – and He becomes more closely linked to us.
With this caveat in mind, we are permitted to compare sexual relations and the sacrifices. Next week we will address sacrifices in the future.