The Binary & The Spectrum

In this week’s Forward, Jay Michaelson takes Rabbi Shmuley to task over his new book, and examines the spiritual concepts of masculine and feminine energies and their relationship to gender.

“The Da Vinci Code,” the Zohar, and the famous Taoist symbol of yin and yang all share the same central metaphor: that of a universe constituted by the interplay of masculine and feminine energies. In our own lives, these energies are most obviously apparent in the sexes, men and women — but in mystical thought, they go well beyond them. For Kabbalah, masculinity is the line, with history, direction, finitude and purpose; femininity is the circle, in the present moment, encompassing, infinite and ever present. In Taoism, yang is active, outward, material, light and apparently forceful; yin is receptive, inward, spiritual, dark and the true bearer of strength. And in “The Da Vinci Code,” of course, masculinity is the sword, Christ and the male godhead, while the feminine is the grail, the Bride and the suppressed goddess.
The goal, in all three of these systems (and many more besides), is unification: bringing together the Holy One and the Shechinah (the feminine Divine Presence), uniting the upward-pointing triangle of the Star of David (sword, phallus, sky god) with the downward-pointing one (chalice, femininity, earth goddess). Unlike those macho, sexist cultures that denigrate the passive, the gentle and the compassionate, these ancient mystical teachings hold out the promise of integrating that which many seek to suppress. The more one looks for it, the more the binary of masculine/feminine appears, and the more it seems to cohere as a useful map of reality.
But there are also deep problems with seeing the world this way, the most important of which is the conflation of types (masculine and feminine) with actual men and women. The books that are under review — one by a contemporary pundit, another by an obscure but once notorious German intellectual — are two different yet equally fascinating examples of how thinking about gender can go awry.

Read on…

2 thoughts on “The Binary & The Spectrum

  1. smart stuff. i was recently enjoying Alan Moore’s kabbalist journey comic book, PROMETHEA, when it occurred to me that the gender binaries of classical mysticism can be kind of disturbing. the tension was resolved somewhat when i realized, as Jay points out, that “the masculine” and “the feminine” are just sometimes-useful concepts which are not meant to be applied to living, sexed people. sometimes it seems like nearly every problem in the world is caused not by any specific idea or system, but by people trying to make those systems too real.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.