Cherubs and Gender Harmony

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April 1, 2011
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Irit Koren

I often wonder about the metaphor of the cherubs at the end of the Adam and Eve creation story. This image of the cherubs in Genesis is a key symbol to the understanding of creation. In this essay, I will focus only on the second story of creation. After man is created, God identifies the loneliness of the adam, person, as the first flaw in God’s creation plan. Surprisingly, it is God, not adam, who is able to articulate this problematic existence, hence God wishes to create an ezer kenegdo. It is the ambiguity in this term, kenegdo, that enables us to understand the story. The word kenegdo can be understood either as “opposite” or as “against.” God gives us the potential to decide how the interaction and gender relations will ensue. Will the first couple be able to see each other as two subjects who are standing in front of each other, facing each other? Or will each see the other standing in opposition?

After the woman is created from the adam, he recognizes her existence and proclaims, “This one shall be called ‘woman’ (‘isha’).” (Genesis 2:23) His naming of the woman — like his naming of the animals earlier — demonstrates his superiority and a hierarchy in the world order.1 According to Anne Lapidus Lerner, when the man names the female creature “woman,” he defines his authority over the woman as fundamental and binding. It is clear that name-giving in the ancient world was “a powerful activity, a symbol of sovereignty.”2 Hence, the adam chose to view the woman as standing against him, creating hierarchical relations of a dominant one and a submissive one. The adam has made the choice to “shift from differentiation to domination.”3

It is also at this moment that the process of gender alienation begins. Adam refers to the woman in the third person, “because from man [ish] was taken this [zot].” (Genesis 2:23) It is not surprising that from this moment until the end of the story, the adam and the woman never once talk to each other directly — a tragedy of noncommunication of the first two gendered beings.

After this creation story, we are introduced to the “fall” of man and woman and their “punishment” for the forbidden act of eating from the tree. After their expulsion from the Garden of Eden, two symbolic objects are put behind them at the entrance of the garden: “the cherubim and the fiery ever-turning sword, to guard the way to the tree of life.” (Genesis 3:24 author emphasis).

The cherubs are seen not only as guardians of the sacred garden, but also as a quasi-guidepost to a new way of life. The Talmud states the following with regard to the cherubs:

Rabbi Katina said: Whenever Israel came up for the festival, the curtain would be removed and the cherubs were shown to them, whose bodies were intertwined with one another, and they would be thus addressed: ‘Look! You are beloved before God as the love between man and woman.’4

What the people of Israel saw on the holiest day in the holiest of places was not winged sphinxes, but rather a male and a female intertwined with one another in what might be understood as sexual intercourse. What might this image represent and why is it placed, according to the talmudic source, in the holiest of holies? Moreover, what impact does such an image have on our understanding of the creation myth?

This interpretation of the cherubs is indeed relevant for the creation narrative, and, furthermore, provides insight into the deep and complex notion of one’s relation to God and to his or her spouse. One can argue that the psychological state of mind needed to connect to God is the same state of mind that one needs to connect intimately to one’s spouse. Such connection necessitates the ability to go beyond oneself, to reach beyond one’s own boundaries, and to connect to another. The biblical word used to describe intercourse is “to know,” which is the same verb used to describe actual knowledge. In order to connect, one needs to know one’s spouse not only physically, but also emotionally.

Returning to the story of Adam and Chava, we understand the symbol of the cherubs in a new light. Adam was given the possibility of choosing to create an equal, mutual, loving, and reciprocal relationship or one that was dominating, hierarchal, and painful. The male image of the adam, upon seeing his spouse, chose to create a relationship of hierarchy and, thus, one of alienation.

But the intertwined cherubs remind us that gender power relations can be redeemed. The potential for a relationship of mutuality, in which both sides are subjects, is still an option. The cherubs as guidepost — protecting the way to Eden — stand to remind Adam and Chava and, therefore, the rest of humanity, of this potential. Hence, God’s declaration to the adam and the woman — that the adam shall dominate the woman — is not an existential necessity, but rather a description of a fixable situation. By viewing the symbol of the cherubs this way — a moral sign, a potential, a reminder — the story contains its redemption within the text itself.

The potential for harmonious gender relations is always possible, symbolized by the intertwined cherubs guarding the garden. The implicit message reveals that until one learns to stand facing his or her spouse, rather than viewing him or her as an object in opposition, the way to Eden remains closed.

1 Phyllis Trible, Overtures to Biblical Theology, 92, 96.
2
Anne Lapidus Lerner,
Eternally Eve: Images of Eve in the Hebrew Bible, Midrash, and Modern Poetry, 182. Here I disagree with Trible who claims that the act of calling the woman “isha” is not an act of dominating power but rather an act of recognition, as opposed to the act of calling the animals by name which is an act of power. Rather, I see the act of naming, in both instances, as an act of domination.
3
See Jessica Benjamin,
The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and the Problem of Domination (New York: Pantheon Books, 1993), 51.
4
BT Yoma 54a. This translation is based on the online Judaic Classics Library. Emphasis added by author.

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Irit Koren has a PhD in gender studies from Bar-Ilan University. Her research focuses on the intersection of socio-anthropology, Jewish studies, gender studies, and Israeli society. She is the author of Aron Betoch Aron (Closet Within a Closet: Stories of Religious Homosexuals). Koren’s forthcoming book, You Are Hereby Renewed Unto Me: Gender, Religion and Power Relations In the Jewish Wedding Ritual, is to be published in Hebrew by the Hebrew University Magnes Press. Koren has taught at many institutions, including, most recently, Rutgers University and Columbia University.

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