The Gemara on Amud Aleph tells us a fascinating practice from the Temple era:

⁦How is this so? The staves of the Aron protruded and stuck out against the curtain toward the outside, and appeared like the two breasts of a woman pushing against her clothes. As it is stated: “My beloved is to me like a bundle of myrrh, that lies between my breasts” (Song of Songs 1:13). For this reason the Ark of the Covenant, where the Divine Presence rests, is positioned so that its staves protrude through the curtain, like the breasts of a woman.

⁦Continuing the previous discussion, Rav Ketina said: When the Jewish people would ascend for one of the pilgrimage Festivals, the priests would roll up the curtain for them and show them the cherubs, which were clinging to one another, and say to them: See how you are beloved before God, like the love of a male and female. The two cherubs symbolize the Holy One, Blessed be He, and the Jewish people.

It is unclear how sexual this embrace was, but we have a few hints.  Obviously, the Cherubim were not wearing clothes. Also, the rabbis did say “like the love of a male and female”. But finally, the Gemara goes on to tell us:

⁦It means like a man joined and clinging to his livaya, his partner, i.e., his wife. In other words, the cherubs appeared to be embracing one another. Reish Lakish said: When gentiles destroyed the Second Temple and entered the Sanctuary, they saw these drawings of cherubs clinging to one another. They peeled them from the wall, took them out to the market, and said: These Jews, whose blessing is a blessing and whose curse is a curse, due to their great fear of God, should they be occupied with such matters, making images of this kind? They immediately debased and destroyed them, as it is stated: “All who honored her debase her because they have seen her nakedness” (Lamentations 1:8).

Given the gentiles' reaction to the image of the Cherubim it would seem that they were not merely hugging each other, but actually in a sexual embrace.  Of course, this was only dirty in the eyes of those who think and behave dirty.

There is quite a degree of erotic imagery over here. It is important to understand the Sages respected and understood eroticism as a powerful force that was meant not merely as a metaphor for the connection of God to the Jewish people. It was beyond metaphor. Because they realized how powerful sensual and erotic longings were, they could not imagine that such a powerful and strong force could possibly be introduced into the world by God unless it had a deeper meaning as well.

There is a fascinating story and idea brought down in Reishis Chochma (Shaar HaAhava 4) quoting the great mystic Rav Isaac of Acco (1250-1340):

A man was smitten by the sight of a beautiful princess.  He called out expressing his deep wish to be with her.  She told him, “We will be together at the cemetery.”  He thought she meant she would meet him there for a romantic interlude.  However, of course, she merely meant that only in the world to come would there be a possibility of the two ever requiteing their love, as only there, are there no boundaries of rich or poor, royalty or peasant.

In any case, he misunderstood and waited, day and night, night and day.  He spent his time meditating on her beauty and anticipating when she might finally join him.  In time, the faculties of his intellect and imagination developed to such an extent that he began to transcend his physical existence.  In fact, in time, his soul became so refined, he gave up his original love object and now became attached to God.  This man eventually became a great holy man, and people from far and wide sought his blessings, because he had profound abilities of prayer. This story comes from Rav Yitzchok de-Min Acco who commented on this:  One who felt no desire for a woman is as if he were a donkey -- or less than that.  This is because through experiencing feelings, we can then truly discern what is the way to serve God.  [Meaning, by understanding experientially human love we can then begin to fathom how we must intensely love and cleave to God.]

How can we understand the esteem the rabbis had for erotic love, properly expressed. Let me put it this way. Imagine a savage seeing the flashlight function of a smartphone. As handy a tool the flashlight may be, especially for a savage, we (of course being civilized at least in one sense) know that a smartphone is so much beyond that particular feature. Only a fool would attribute the value of this sophisticated technological piece of equipment to be merely a flashlight. Only a fool would see the immense power of eroticism and sexuality as a mere tool or biological function.

So too, the rabbis understood that sexuality, sensuality and eroticism were so powerful that they could not merely be relegated to a human function. It had to symbolically and even actually represent the longing of Man and God to achieve connection. It was not merely a metaphor, it was a living and loving enactment.



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Translations Courtesy of Sefaria