Chag sameach! We have reached the end of our series of eight posts with readings about light – all kinds of light, from the lights of Rebbe Nachman to the lights of secularism. Make sure to check out our previous offerings:
Now we’re upping the ante and not just talking about light, but about lightning!
We picked the following excerpt from Rabbi Jill Hammer’s Return to the Place: The Magic, Meditation, and Mystery of Sefer Yetzirah. This book features an entire new translation of the classic Kabbalistic text Sefer Yetzirah, with chapter-by-chapter commentary, and meditative exercises. The following section covers the expression “the look of lightning” (כמראה הברק) from chapter 1:8.
In the previous passage, we heard that the divine dwelling place is at the center of the sefirot, so that the sefirot reach out in endless rays from the divine. The hollow sefirot and the engraved letters seem meant to conduct divine energy, power, or intention throughout the cosmos. Our current passage tell us that these ten rays are in fact infinite, and that they have the “appearance of lightning.” It seems that they are flashes of energy, or that flashes of energy appear in them, moving back and forth. God’s word, like lightning, flashes from the sacred center, moves through the depths of the sefirot and out into their endless reaches, and returns to the sacred center. Sefer Yetzirah calls this movement “running and returning.”
The use of lightning to describe the sefirot is evocative. Physicist Kared Barad writes: “Lightning is a reaching toward, an arcing dis/juncture, a striking response to charged yearnings.” Lightning arises from “electrical potential buildup and flows of charged particles.” While the physics of lightning may not have been available to the author(s) of this text, the flash of lightning certainly was. The lightning that moves within the sefirot is very much like a flow of charged particles, an electrified reaching toward divine presence.
Ronit Meroz understands this section to be describing the sefirot as a group of angels, similar to the “holy beasts” in Ezekiel who bear the divine throne. Meroz argues that beings that can “bow” before God must be “personified” supernatural beings – angels, in the form Jewish tradition usually understands angels, rather than anything “abstract.” Meroz writes: “It is the angels who always set out on God’s mission, and of whom one may therefore say that ‘his word is in them.’” Meroz asserts that the sefirotic angels have “humility and reverence” for God – they are entities capable of having a personal attitude toward the divine.
Yet are the sefirot truly personified? God’s word in these beings does not “command,” but rather “runs and returns” – the sefirot are conduits, not servants. Perhaps we might call them angels, but they are also hollow endless entities, and the divine word runs and returns in them like an electric current through a charged wire. They may be conscious, but they hardly seem like Michael or Gabriel. It may be that the sefirot bow not (or not only) because they are reverent in a personal way but because they are channels sensitive to the movement of divine creative power. The bowing of the sefirot is a theotropism of the whole universe.
The sefirot act as a collective – they are a multiplicity with a single purpose. They move together after God’s word, and they bow together before God’s throne. These multiple forces are channels for one “singular master.” Yehuda Liebes indicates that many of the sections of Chapter 1 start with multiplicity and end with oneness, as if to show the reader how all is drawn toward the One.
Thank you for following along with us, and we hope we managed to bring a little additional light into your life!
Chag sameach! We hope you had a great Shabbat and now we are also back with our light-themed Chanukah series. This time around, we opted for something that examines light from an abstract perspective – discussing Jewish enlightenment. No, not the Haskalah (not this time at least!), but rather spiritual enlightenment.
This excerpt is from rabbi and LGBT activist Jay Michaelson’s Enlightenment by Trial and Error. (If you’ve been following our Twitter account, you might also know him as the author of a certain popular poem about David and Yonatan 😉 )
Also make sure to check out our previous instalments:
What’s Different About Jewish Enlightenment? (Excerpt)
Earth’s crammed with Heaven And every common bush afire with God – Elizabeth Barrett Browning
“Enlightenment” is sometimes regarded as a purely “Eastern” concept, foreign to the Western monotheistic religions. Yet the most important book of Kabbalah takes its name (Zohar) from the prophet Daniel’s (Daniel 12:3) prediction that “the enlightened (maskilim) will shine like the radiance (zohar) of the sky.” Who are these maskilim? The Zohar says that the enlightened are those who ponder the deepest “secret of wisdom” (Zohar 2:2a). What is that secret? The answers vary from tradition to tradition. Sometimes the secret is the substructure of reality, the human, and God, organized in the sefirot. Other times it is that the Torah’s literal meaning is not its true meaning. And sometimes, the deepest secret is nonduality: that, despite appearances, all things, and all of us, are like ripples on a single pond, motes of a single sunbeam, the letters of a single word. The true reality of our existence is One, Ein Sof, infinite. The appearances of separate phenomena–you, me, the book, the table–are just temporary arrangements of the letters of the alphabet, momentarily arrayed into words–and then, a moment later, gone.
One common Kabbalistic formulation of this principle is that God “fills and surrounds all worlds”–memaleh kol almin u’sovev kol almin. This formulation is found in the Zohar (for example, in Zohar III:225a, Raya Mehemna, Parshat Pinchas) and other medieval texts, such as the twelfth century “Hymn of Glory” which says that God “surrounds all, and fills all, and is the life of all; You are in All.” For example, Rabbi Joseph Gikatilla, part of the circle of medieval mystics thought by scholars to have composed the Zohar, is recorded as saying “he fills everything and He is everything.” His colleague Moses de Leon wrote that his essence is “above and below, in heaven and on earth, and there is no existence beside him.” Leit atar panui mineha, “There is no place devoid of God” (Tikkunei Zohar 57).
Similar utterances occur throughout Jewish mystical history, particularly in the writings of Lurianic Kabbalah and Hasidism. In the words of the sixteenth century systematizer, Rabbi Moses Cordovero, “Everything is in God, and God is in everything and beyond everything, and there is nothing else besides God.” “Nothing exists in this world except the absolute Unity which is God,” the Baal Shem Tov is reported to have said (Sefer Baal Shem Tov, translated by Aryeh Kaplan in The Light Beyond). A later Hasidic master, Rav Aaron of Staroselye, wrote that “Just as God was in Godself before the creation of the worlds, so the Blessed One is alone [l’vado] after the creation of the worlds, and all the worlds do not add to God (may he be blessed) anything that would divide God’s essence (God forbid), and God does not change and does not multiply in them, and the worlds (God forbid) do not add anything additional to God” (Shaarei haYichud v’HaEmunah, 2b).
Such statements may be quite familiar to followers of other mystical traditions, and students of the “perennial philosophy.” Yet there are some distinct, and related, features of the Jewish conception of enlightenment, both in content and presentation, that distinguish it from others. The one I want to focus on here is that “all is one” is not the end of the spiritual journey, but in fact, precisely at its middle.
Whereas some traditions regard the knowledge of nonduality as the ultimate wisdom – enlightenment is the last stop of the road, so to speak; the final teaching – in the Jewish mystical tradition, nonduality is, in a sense, the beginning rather than the end of the wisdom. Jewish mystics begin with the shocking, and proceed to the ordinary. The Zohar, for example, spends much less time describing Ein Sof than it does with the details of the sefirot (emanations), not to mention angels, demons, and the mythical stories of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his circle. Likewise Cordovero, who devotes many pages to parsing the details of emanation and cosmology. Ein Sof is the basis, rather than the conclusion, of Jewish mystical theosophy. Nonduality is also the ground of religious practice, rather than the culmination of it. Never antinomian except in its heretical movements, Jewish conceptions of enlightenment do not end by transcending the conventional.
Hasidim, in particular, understood the enlightened consciousness not as a ‘steady state’ but what they called ratzo v’shov, literally “running and returning.” This phrase, from Ezekiel 1:14, has come to stand for any number of oscillations in spiritual life – for example, between expanded and contracted mind, being and nothingness. And it was understood that a mystic would have to experience such oscillation, as he (always he) contemplated the highest unity at some times, tended to the needs of his family and community at others. Often, the tzaddik, the leader of the Hasidic community, was expected both to enter the highest states of what we might call God-consciousness, and to provide for the community’s material and spiritual needs.
Jay Michaelson goes on to explore differences and similarities further, but we will stop here for now. Our last excerpt for the holiday goes live tomorrow (G-d willing). Thank you for following along! Also make sure to check out our buy 2, get 3 holiday sale – there is still some time…
Day 6 of Chanukah arrives with a prose poem from our forthcoming retrospective, The Missing Jew: Poems 1976-2021 by Rodger Kamenetz. If you’ve read and enjoyed his poetry (or his nonfiction!), or if you’re new to it, it will bring light into your life – quite literally.
Before we start, you can also take a look at the earlier updates:
And now, let’s read this poem inspired by the Rebbe Nachman of Breslov!
To Add Light to a Name by Rodger Kamenetz
— after Rebbe Nachman Sichos HaRan #44 “On the topic of a person’s name”
Am I a misspelling? Perhaps there are too many versions for any to be convincing. In one version you will bless intricacies. I see in the fey of rafael a dangling yod. And a white bet traced in black which meaning calls house. I will bet on a hidden bet the b-b-b-b of first creation. Letters inside letters spell hidden lives. The rebbe said I will take your name and permute —do not say it is a trick. Do not say this! It is a great work to add light to aname.
Or in a dream to seal a body in light to brave a darkened door. To wrap wings of presence around trembling shoulders. Every word has secret doors. I will find levels in my name or stumble through a trap. There is a trope in your name rebbe. You drew me into yours and we fell together in the Nameless Who says I kill and I make live.
All around me I saw live the light in every name.
Thank you for reading! We will be back after Shabbat 🙂 Shabbat shalom, chag sameach and chodesh tov!
Chag sameach! For the fifth day of Chanukah, we have a story from one of our children’s books, An Angel Called Truth & Other Tales from the Torah. The authors, Rabbi Jeremy Gordon and Emma Parlons retell stories about each Torah portion and the holidays for a middle-grade readership, with Pete Williamson’s fun illustrations! This full-color book is great for the whole family, with discussion questions that will also make parents think.
We’d also like to remind you that our holiday sale is still ongoing! Get 3 books for the price of 2. And make sure to check out our readings for the previous days around the theme of light:
Around 2,200 years ago, the King of the Seleucids, Antiochus, began to persecute the Jews. He ordered a statue of the Greek god, Zeus, to be placed in the Temple, and that pigs should be offered as sacrifices on the altar (both of which were completely forbidden to the Jews). The king’s behaviour resulted in a revolt against the Seleucids, led by Judah the Maccabee. The Maccabees won. And so began a process of cleaning up the Temple, making it ready to be dedicated again (the Hebrew word chanukah means ‘dedication’). We have imagined a tale told by a young boy who has been working with his father on the clean-up project.
“Silence please! Please do sit down. We’ll begin in a few moments.” Dad’s trying to get the crowd to settle, so we can start the dedication ceremony. But everyone wants to congratulate him, and he can’t help being the chattiest person around. “Oh yes! It does look good doesn’t it? Thank you, thank you. It was a team effort really. My boy, yes that’s him over there, very helpful!” He nods in my direction. I swell with pride. “It was a mess, filthy; pigs roaming around, idols everywhere. I wasn’t sure we’d ever get it back to where it is today. Yes, yes, oh, do please settle down, settle down.”The past two months have been amazing. My back hurts from hauling away rubble. My arms hurt from scrubbing. My legs hurt from all the ladder-climbing. But it’s been great fun and the temple looks amazing; everything is shining, there’s not an idol to be seen. Today is going to be great.
Dad is in charge of lighting the Ner Tamid, the everlasting light. He deserves it; he’s worked harder than everyone. As a hush settles over the crowd, he swells with pride.
“Bring forth the sacred oil,” Dad calls out. Nobody moves. We all wait. “Who has the oil?” He calls out again, this time starting to sound a little anxious. Still silence.
Then I realise that no one has remembered to get hold of new oil. We are all in big trouble. No oil, no everlasting light, no dedication. And the oil presses were a four-day donkey ride away – four days there, four days back. Then I remember I have seen a tiny flask of oil, with the sacred seal still attached. Everything else has been thrown out. I push through the crowd to get to the store cupboard and scramble through everyone back to the front of the crowd as quickly as I can. “Dad, we’ve got this,” I say, opening my hand and showing him the tiny vial of oil.
Dad looks unimpressed. “It’s not enough, son – there’s no point.” I refuse to give up. “Go on, Dad,” I say. I’m out of breath and embarrassed, but after everything we’ve been through, I’ve got to believe it’s worth a try. “Don’t quit now. Let’s burn what we have.” And, somehow, it was enough.
Have you ever held yourself back from doing something because you thought you didn’t have ‘enough’?
Do you believe in miracles?
Chanukah doesn’t appear in the Bible. Why do you think it’s such a favourite festival?
Thank you for reading! Next time, we are planning on showing you… prose? poetry? Hmm, how about some PROSE POETRY?
Today we have something from Here is Our Light: Humanistic Jewish Holiday and Life-Cycle Liturgy for Inspiration and Reflection– Celebrating 50 years of the Society for Humanistic Judaism, edited by Miriam S. Jerris and Sheila Malcolm. Humanistic Judaism approaches Jewish tradition from a non-theistic perspective, so that people who do not believe in G-d can also feel included in community observances. The book surveys major Jewish lifecycle events and holidays, and features rituals, songs, blessings (strictly non-theistic ones!), readings and more.
Light: Energy, Emblem, and Expression (Chanukah) by Rabbi Denise Handlarski
The theme for this evening is light: energy, emblem, and expression. Light is not only a form of energy, but one of the reasons to light lights at this dark time of year is to restore our own energy. Similarly, the energy of our community is restored with the contributions and new energies that new members bring.
Lights are an emblem – of both Shabbat and Chanukah, of tradition (many of us associate the glow of candles with our own Jewish upbringings or home celebrations), of community – as lights are often lit in the company of others, and of continuity. We light candles to signify a passing of the torch l’dor v’dor from generation to generation. We mark traditions and celebrations through the sharing of light.
Lights are also an opportunity for expression. In the Humanistic Jewish tradition, we not only offer a blessing on lights, but we also offer a dedication – a wish or an intention for each candle to represent our hopes, yearnings, or thoughts. The word Chanukah means dedication, and so as we dedicate the candles we will dedicate ourselves anew to our Jewish community, heritage, peoplehood, and our commitment to Tikkun Olam – repairing the world, and respect for all people.
…New members are a source of light to us. They provide us with light as energy, emblem, and expression. They are the new energy that continues to make Oraynu Congregation dynamic, stimulating, and fulfilling. THey are the emblem of our continued success in finding a Jewish home for those who want to live culturally, meaningfully, and authentically as Humanistic Jews. And they are the expression of our hopes that our community, movement, traditions and celebrations will continue long into the future.
Chag sameach! Today we’ve reached Day 3 of Chanukah, and our light-themed holiday highlights from books we published. Make sure to take a look at previous instalments and also peruse our holiday buy 2, get 3 sale!
Today we picked something Kabbalistic – a chapter from Rabbi DovBer Pinson’s Thirty-Two Gates of Wisdom: Awakening Through Kabbalah. This book goes through introductory Kabbalistic concepts in a gate by gate format, and also explains how each concept relates to our everyday lives and interpersonal relations. These days people talk a lot about boundaries, but how do boundaries relate to the endless light? We can find out…
Gate 2: Ohr Ein Sof – The Endless Light
There is no way to relate to Essence, for we are of Essence. There is nothing outside of Essence, nor any division within it. Relationship suggests duality; essence is singularity. What begins with essence ends with essence, and there are no-things in between to obstruct that singularity.
Yet – and this is the supreme mystery – we are relational beings. Our brains are built to project definitions and distinctions, to compartmentalize and contextualize, and to relate to apparent separations as if they actually exist. Binary oppositions dominate our perception in our daily practices. This is like bening awake, yet day-dreaming that we are asleep.
Our brains are hard-wired to break life into projects. Our consciousness is an instrument created to negotiate a three-dimensional universe, which encompasses definitions. Without the ability to make distinctions, the mind has a hard time grasping what we call reality. Because of this, we feel separated from our Essential Source. The yearning to awaken to our Source is the fuel behind everything we do.
The kabbalistic ladder of metaphors, worlds, gates, and practices is the path to our gradual awakening to our true state: Unity.
The highest gate, the ultimate metaphor for Reality, is ein sof, ‘No End’ – Infinity. The ohr ein sof – Light of Infinity – metaphorically shines within Essence like a beginningless, endless light within the orb of a boundless sun.
Within the orb of the ohr ein sof there is no shadow, color, or limitation. There is nothing to bind the infinite light. In ein sof anything with even the semblance of a sof, an ‘end’, is ein, ‘not.’ Ein means ayin – absolutely no-thing. In Hebrew ayin and ein are spelled the same.
In personal terms: When we are fully engaged in expressing our endless selves, there is no room for a relationship with others. Relationships can only exist with boundaries. Without boundaries, our light would pour forth, leaving no room for anyone else.
To enter the gate of ein sof is to become One with the Infinite Divine Light. All we need do is stay true to what we subconsciously already know: I am no-thing. I am not an independent, separate I and the ein sof is within Everything.
Thank you for reading! Tomorrow we’re going to share something from a radically different Jewish movement…
Chag sameach! To celebrate the festival of lights, every day we are posting an excerpt from one of our books with the theme of light. There will be poetry, prose, nonfiction from multiple Jewish movements, Kabbalah, and more. Please see the previous entries:
Today we are going to feature a segment from R.B. Lemberg’s upcoming poetry memoir Everything Thaws. This book discusses the author’s childhood in the Soviet Union, migration, climate change (the title is very literal), and Jewishness. There is also an ice dragon!
This part is about the northern lights, and as such quite fitting for the occasion – even though it deals with difficult topics like violent antisemitism.
The excerpt is from Chapter 1 (not directly from the beginning):
When I came back to Ukraine after a year in Vorkuta I drew the northern lights to show my classmates. I drew myself dragging a little sleigh, head up to the vast shimmering road in the sky. It was my road that showed me the way when I was six – white, wide, stretching across the black winter sky in complete silence, under the immovable permanence of the cold.
“You’re lying,” my classmates yelled, and later the whole class trapped me in the school attic and beat me, screaming that I was a Jew who believed in G-d (remember, these were Soviet times and believing in G-d was forbidden) and that I was lying about the northern lights I saw in Vorkuta.
They had never seen the Northern lights, but they knew what a Jew looked like.
A Jew looks like me. A Jew looks like this person with too much curly hair and an eating disorder and too many academic degrees and too much change, less than a model immigrant from too many places to too many places, never believing that I will be heard because people have trouble believing that things exist that they have never seen.
Every time I open my mouth or flex my fingers to write I am putting a brave face upon the thawing permafrost.
I am not lying. I am just constantly changing languages, idioms, continents, genders, homes, and I am not even sure how to mourn from this vantage, let alone perform any other human activity let alone be a good anything: a good child, a good immigrant, a good parent, a good spouse, a good writer (only if I’m silent) (squeezing my lips shut so tightly) (clenching my fingers) (trying to fit) (always trying to fit) (remembering that where I’m from, a Jew cannot be good by definition, a Jew must become a person instead, become a Jewperson and then simply a good Soviet citizen but secretly a rootless cosmopolitan
who never speaks anything but the purest Russian who eats no herring or raw garlic under any circumstances before going out, because everybody knows that Jews stink of those two things.
This is the one permanent axis of my identity, that I am a Jew: that is a rootless cosmopolitan at home nowhere in no language, in no country, not even among other Jews, eating herring and garlic with a sense of deep satisfaction that comes with the hope that, living in the Midwest, nobody’s going to surreptitiously sniff me for that telltale stench of a Jew which cannot be spoken of in polite society, cannot be uprooted, cannot be forgotten or forgiven; only silenced.
Thank you for reading! Tomorrow we’ll follow with the Kabbalistic mysteries of light…
Every day of Chanukah we are going to post something for you to read! (G-d willing, but we’re working on it.) We begin with something from a book we are announcing just now (though if you follow our Twitter account, we hinted at it here and there…). You can also take advantage of our Chanukah sale!
Chapters follow many themes: from disability inclusion to the theme of light inspired by Dr. Prouser’s name Ora, from women’s issues to public theology and Bible scholarship, they all relate in some way to Dr. Prouser’s work and life.
The excerpt we chose is from Michael Kasper’s essay “Light and Peace in Our Daily Liturgical Declarations.” It connects light to peace, specifically peace in the home, and relates these concepts surprisingly also the birth of Moses!
Jewish wisdom has it that shalom bayit, peace in the home, is an idea so important that it deserves to be used as a Rorschach for how to live together in community. The Otzar haMidrashim—Midrash haGadol 42—helps to explicate rabbinic thinking about the relationship between peace and light.
. גדול השלום שלא התחיל הקב״ה לברוא דבר בעולמו אלא בדבר שהוא שלום ואיזה זה האור שנאמר ויאמר אלהים יהי אור. ומנין שהוא שלום שנאמר יוצר אור ובורא חושך עושה שלום (ישעיה מ״ה ז׳). מכאן אמרו חז״ל נר ביתו וקידוש היום נר ביתו עדיף משום שלום ביתו. פירוש האור נקרא שלום לפיכך מקדימין הנר שהוא אור ושלום ליין.
Great is peace that the Holy Blessed One did not begin to create anything in God’s world other than something that is peace—and what is this? The light, as it says, “And God said ‘let there be light.’” And from where do we know that [light] is peace? As it says, “forms light and creates darkness, makes peace” (Isaiah 45:7). From here our sages of blessed memory said, “[When one has a choice between] a lamp for their home and [wine for] sanctification of the day, the lamp for one’s home is preferable because of peace in their household.”
Our understanding is that light equals peace and, therefore, candles are more important than Kiddush wine. Our sages understood that the value of peace was so great, so primary to all that followed, that if one had to decide whether to buy candles to illumine the room or wine to sanctify the meal, the choice was decidedly in favor of light, for light which is shared brings peace to the home.
Other cultures understand the relationship between light and creation in similarly essential ways. In Spanish, to give birth is called dar a luz, to give to [the] light. The phrase is the same in Portuguese and only slightly different in Italian: dare al luce. All mean the same, to birth a child. All point us toward the inescapable idea that the fact of existence, the fact of humans roaming the planet, the fact of community, all these are shown to us by the magic of the sun. By the magic of light. By the magic of peace.
None other than Rashi, 15 writing in the latter half of the eleventh century, makes a similar point about the goodness of light. Commenting on Exodus 2:2 he sees a connection between the words Jokhebed uses upon seeing her son, Moses, (ki tov hu—how goodly he is) and the Torah’s own commentary in Genesis 1:4 (ki tov—God saw that the light was good).
וַיַּ֧רְא אֱלֹהִ֛ים אֶת־הָא֖וֹר כִּי־ט֑וֹב וַיַּבְדֵּ֣ל אֱלֹהִ֔ים בֵּ֥ין הָא֖וֹר וּבֵ֥ין הַחֹֽשֶׁך God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness. Genesis 1:4
וַתַּ֥הַר הָאִשָּׁ֖ה וַתֵּ֣לֶד בֵּ֑ן וַתֵּ֤רֶא אֹתוֹ֙ כִּי־ט֣וֹב ה֔וּא וַֽתִּצְפְּנֵ֖הוּ שְׁלֹשָׁ֥ה יְרָחִֽים׃ The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw how goodly he was, she hid him for three months. Exodus 2:2
In fleshing out this connection, Rashi cites Sotah 12a:
וַחֲכָמִים אוֹמְרִים בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁנּוֹלַד מֹשֶׁה נִתְמַלֵּא הַבַּיִת כּוּלּוֹ אוֹר כְּתִיב הָכָא וַתֵּרֶא אוֹתוֹ כִּי טוֹב הוּא וּכְתִיב הָתָם וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת הָאוֹר כִּי טוֹב The verse states, with regard to the birth of Moses, “And the woman conceived, and bore a son; and when she saw him that he was a goodly [ki tov] child, she hid him three months” (Exodus 2:2). And the Rabbis say: At the time when Moses was born, the entire house was filled with light (ora), as it is written here: “And when she saw him that he was a goodly [ki tov] child,” and it is written there: “And God saw the light, that it was good [ki tov]” (Genesis 1:4). Sotah 12a
Reading Rashi, we get a glimpse of the power this creation of light enjoys. God saw the light and called it good, Moses’ mother invokes the language of light to describe her son, and the rabbis posit an entire house, full of light, at the moment of Moses’ birth. Light, Or/Ora, is good!
Thank you for reading, and tomorrow we’ll offer you some Jewish poetry about light! Specifically, the Northern Lights…
We posted about our sales earlier, but we have some additional deals, and some of them have even taken us by surprise! Amazon has put some of our books on sale, including Monologues from the Makom: Intertwined Narratives of Sexuality, Gender, Body Image, and Jewish Identity edited by Rivka Cohen, Naima Hirsch, Sara Rozner Lawrence, Sarah J. Ricklan, and Rebecca Zimilover – at a breathtaking 70% off! (This is an associate link, which means if you buy the book through it, we get some additional $ too.) We don’t know how long this deal will last, so make sure to check it out.
This book has been called the Orthodox Jewish Vagina Monologues, and it is one of the first volumes to openly discuss traditionally observant Jewish women’s sexuality, from a first-person perspective. Many contributors – some of them anonymous – share their experiences in poetry and prose.
We offer you a sample chapter here, focusing on the author’s difficulty in having penetrative sex with her husband. This is definitely 18+ content, but we really recommend it to our adult readers – even among secular people, there is little awareness of related health conditions.
Growing Pains by Anonymous
We were married for a month before we successfully had penetrative sex. Not for a lack of trying on our part, but because each attempt ended with me in tears, unable to understand why my body wasn’t working the way my kallah teacher had said it would.
That first time, I lay there as my husband managed to achieve full penetration—finally—and tried desperately to hold in the tears of pain. Every few moments, my new husband looked at me and said, “I’m going to stop. It’s hurting you.” And each time I replied, “Don’t. I’m fine. Please.”
I wasn’t fine at all, and the tears swimming in my eyes were all the proof he needed. He stopped.
I bled immediately afterwards, and I kept bleeding. After three weeks, I finally mustered up the courage to go to my gynecologist. She attributed the bleeding to my new birth control and the painful sex as “growing pains.” I tried to explain that my vagina seemed to shut down whenever we tried to have penetrative sex, and that I suspected it was more than “growing pains” but she, a frum woman herself, knew better and sent me on my way with a prescription that read: “Buy a water-based lubricant.”
And so we tried again. We had used lube the many times we tried, but maybe what my body needed was specifically “water-based.” I held on to that hope as I checked out at Duane Reade, bottle of KY Jelly in hand. I texted my husband and told him we had to try it out tonight. The doctor said it would work, that this was what my body needed to work. It had to work.
It didn’t work. I sighed as I said to my husband, “Maybe I’m just nervous. Let’s try again tomorrow.” But the same thing happened the following night. By the third night, I was sobbing into my pillowcase, shaking with anger and sadness at my pathetic, broken body. I emailed my gynecologist and told her that the lube wasn’t working. She wrote back an hour later: “Try more lube!”
I made an appointment to see her the following week. Each night we continued to try, sometimes with success, but always with a pain that felt like my body was being torn apart.
And in a way, it was.
My kallah teacher, my friends, and the frum community that I trusted had led me to believe that my body would know “ just what to do” when the time came. I was promised that by “waiting until marriage,” I’d ensure that our sex life was far more meaningful and sacred than for those who had premarital sex. I was promised that any first-time pain would quickly vanish in the face of heightened joy and ecstasy with my new husband.
The reality of the situation, though, was much different than what I had been led to expect. I was a failure. Every single tear, every ounce of frustration, every whispered apology to my extraordinarily kind and patient husband was a manifestation of the ongoing damage to my spirit. My body failed me. It failed us. With each attempt, I began to believe that I was less of a woman, and certainly less of a wife than I wanted to be.
My return visit to the doctor yielded new information: “Your vagina is atrophied. Basically, it’s shriveled up like a raisin. We don’t usually see that in women until they hit menopause but it’s such an easy fix… I’ll give you an estrogen gel that’ll clear it right up.”
A weight was lifted off my shoulders—finally, an answer! And a cure. I dutifully picked up the yellow and pink boxed medication which cheerfully spoke of all the ways that menopause wouldn’t change my life. I inserted the medication night after night, carefully following their instructions to avoid any sexual contact while using the gel.
One week later, at my follow up appointment, my gynecologist told me that my vagina was stubborn and that I’d need another week’s worth of medicine. “Feel free to start trying again at the end of this round! If you’re feeling better, you don’t even need to come back. Oh, and if this doesn’t work, maybe you should consider going on Xanax or something to help you chill out.”
I was giddy with anticipation. Each night after I inserted the medicine, I counted down the days until we could resume trying. The last night of the medication, I cheerfully told my husband that the following day was the first day of the rest of our lives. He laughed, happy to see me optimistic.
The following night we tried again. I waited expectantly for my newly cured vagina to give way and let my husband enter me in the way he should have been able to on our wedding night.
“It feels like there’s a wall,” he said, using a description we’d both grown familiar with. It didn’t hurt quite as much, but penetration was near impossible. A few more half-hearted attempts and we gave up. I didn’t even cry. I was so deflated that I just crawled into bed and fell asleep.
My Orthodox friends never spoke about their sex lives, and I wasn’t comfortable asking their advice. But I am blessed with good friends who are not Orthodox, and when they asked how our sex life was six months after our wedding, I shrugged and said we didn’t really have one. I told them I was still having “first-time” pains, and it made it hard to have sex. I told them I figured it’d take a little while but eventually it would get better.
Shortly afterwards, they staged an intervention. “We know you don’t talk about this where you’re from, but this isn’t normal. Go to a new doctor. Find out what’s wrong, because something is wrong.”
I found a new gynecologist. At our first appointment, I sat in the chair and cried: “My last doctor told me that my vagina was atrophied but she gave me meds and they fixed the atrophy but my body still doesn’t work and it hurts so much and I hate myself and my body and I think I should just tell my husband to divorce me because he’s never gonna be able to have a regular life with me. Please can you tell me what’s wrong with me?”
She sat with me and talked me through a battery of exams, both internal and external. She told me that I had vaginismus and vulvodynia, and prescribed a topical painkiller and referred me to a pelvic floor physical therapist.
Armed with a diagnosis, I logged onto my computer and began the first of many Google searches. I learned that vaginismus made the muscles of my vagina contract involuntarily, making prolonged penetration impossible. I learned that vulvodynia was chronic pain around the vulva with no identifiable cause but which lasts for longer than three months. I learned that many thousands of women are misdiagnosed each year, while many more are told that there’s nothing wrong with them.
I learned that these diagnoses are most common in two groups: Indian women and evangelical Christian women. The medical literature is sparse, but what does exist suggests that these diagnoses are more common in populations where sex is treated as something negative and shameful.
Though my teachers would disagree (they did say that sex within marriage was beautiful and husbands were required to sexually satisfy their wives), I spent the first two-and-a-half decades of my life being told that sex—that any touch between the sexes—was bad and shameful. It’s hard to flip a switch on that mentality just because I had a ring on my finger.
I started seeing a pelvic floor physical therapist shortly after that appointment, and began seeing a licensed sex therapist. I knew that the physical problems were largely a manifestation of emotional and mental blockages related to sexuality, and I wanted to address the issues head on.
I loved my physical therapist and our weekly sessions, despite the fact that they caused me tremendous discomfort. Each week, my physical therapist stuck her fingers inside my vagina, pressing down on my muscles to decrease the tightness and teach my body to be comfortable with foreign objects inside me. I had to use a series of dilators, each bigger than the next, to continue this exposure therapy at home. None of this was covered by my insurance, which considers vaginismus and vulvodynia unnecessary problems to treat.
With my sex therapist, I began to uncover the emotional and mental entanglements that made sex impossible for me. In sessions alone and in sessions with my husband, we explored the meaning of shomer negiah in my life, the dictate to “wait until marriage,” the shame I associated with sex, and what it might mean to live a life different than the way I grew up.
Slowly, I began to heal.
Four years later, I’m proud to say that my husband and I have the sex life we were promised in our kallah and chatan classes. My teachers were wrong about many things, but they were definitely right about one thing: sex does mean so much more when you have to wait—and work—for it.
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