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Erotic Representations of the Divine

Summary and Keywords

Erotic representations of the divine occupy a pivotal place in religious myths, poetry, liturgy, and theology. Reading eros as a category of religious love highlights its ubiquitous presence in sacred literary sources; moreover, it renders the nexus of erotic love and the divine critical to comprehending religiosity as an immanent and embodied phenomenon, rather than as an abstract idea. As an embodied phenomenon, religious love is subject to an investigation of topics such as gender and sexuality, and its multiple cultural meanings and contexts. Western philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, (Pseudo-)Dionysius, and the Neoplatonist renaissance thinker Leone Ebreo, delineate a hierarchy or a “ladder of love” differentiating lesser and higher subjects and objects of love from love of the particular, to the universal, cosmic, and divine. An interrelated distinction is ascertained between “desire” as a state of lack often seen as a lower state, and “love” as the higher state, in which fulfillment and joy of the union with the object of one’s love is achieved. Love and desire as marked yet interrelated emotions are contextualized in religious phenomena cross-culturally, most obviously in theistic frameworks in which a personal and intimate relationship with the divine is an ideal. Poetry and autobiography are the most common genre of depicting the intimate and passionate encounter of human and divine. Despite the prominence of male voices in the sources, the contributions of medieval Christian and Muslim women mystics to this literature are significant. Key base-texts from which mystics and philosophers are inspired and draw upon to elucidate their own personal experience of yearning for the divine, include the biblical Song of Songs, Bhagavata Purana (Book 10), and the Gitagovinda. Although the yearning for the divine, associated with an emotional, embodied state and therefore seen as problematic from a rational perspective, this yearning is also a cherished state, even for rationalists such as the medieval Jewish thinker Moses Maimonides. The significance of erotic love for the divine is confirmed, not only by Sufi and Hindu bhakti poets such as Rumi and Jayadeva, but also by philosophers such as Ibn Arabi and Rupa-Goswami. The idiom of erotic desire and love for God is particularly poignant and integral not only in poetry but also in theology, as exemplified in Hindu bhakti and Christian theology. Exploring the meanings of erotic love in religious poetry, theology, liturgy, and the history of religion more broadly offers a rich scholarly and personal medium for contemplating the reality of human and divine nature.

Keywords: divine love, desire, eros, allegory, poetry, Song of Songs, Gitagovinda, embodiment, bhakti, Rumi, St. Theresa of Avila

Erotic representations of the divine have been molded by the dualistic thinking that shapes our notions of human and divine love. Dyads and hierarchies such as mind/body, male/female, reason/emotion, and spirituality/sexuality have long informed religious discourse. Cross-culturally, social and religious norms have dictated and exerted control of desire and sexuality. Worldly desire has been perceived as a hindrance to spiritual progress and, at the same time, if directed toward spiritual goals, as a profound state through which one can transcend carnality. Erotic speech in sacred literature accentuates the paradoxical phenomenon of religions’ perception of the sexual drive as a threat to authority and tradition, while employing erotic and sexual symbolism to convey the human relationship to the transcendent.

Erotic desire is a feature of the metaphysical imaginary, whether a tradition considers celibacy to be the ideal path to the divine or endorses fertility and sexual pleasure.1 In much recent scholarship of sexuality and religion, the phenomenon of the erotic in mystical and spiritual experiences has been theorized, among other ways, in terms of how the biological body and mating behavior might influence religious symbols, or explaining a celibate’s erotic spiritual experience psychologically in terms of sexual sublimation. Instead, the focus of this essay is on elucidating the linguistic ways in which erotic desire has been employed interchangeably with “love” in representation of the divine. The selection of texts includes scriptures as well as philosophy, theology, mysticism, and poetry. Some of the texts use explicitly sexual metaphors while others are subtle and suggestive. Some authors view desire as more embodied and therefore an inferior spiritual state; others conceive of desire as representing a higher spiritual realization. Regardless, the trope of “desire” is integral to love, whether human or divine. Erotic representations of the divine, whether attributed to a god, a goddess, or the human encounter with the sacred, illustrate the richness as well as the limits of language to describe the transcendent.

While eros in everyday parlance conveys an explicit sexual desire, erotic desire can be broadly understood as the quest to abandon and transcend ourselves for an experience of “otherness.” Religious traditions often speak of human desire for intimacy with an “Other” such as a god or a goddess. In some traditions, erotic figuring of the divine is integral to the concepts and images of gods and goddesses who are depicted as erotic beings embodying and symbolizing the fecundity of love. Sexual passion personified as a god or a goddess is a common feature in ancient religions. In Greek mythology for example, Eros and Aphrodite are god and goddess of sexual desire and fertility; in Hinduism, Kama and Rati are god and goddess of erotic love, while Lord Shiva alternates between eros and asceticism. In numerous mythological writings, divine couples are depicted as sexually passionate, active, and promiscuous, qualities that contribute to the expansion of the divine family.

In theistic traditions in which God is either conceived of in an embodied form or is imagined as disembodied and transcendent, we find accounts by religious adepts of their personal experiences of a mutuality of erotic love for and with the divine. The theology undergirding such religious views is the belief that God loves us. Such divine love in turn elicits our devotion and attachment. This notion of the divine can engender a variety of relational models, such as parent/child or lover/beloved. In romantic relationships, a dynamic of separation and union is common and is illustrated in emotions such as joy and ecstasy, as well as frustration and longing for the other. As we shall see in our selection of sacred poetry, human–divine love often follows this dynamic and embodies passionate desire in similar albeit culturally distinct metaphors.

“Desire” and “Love” in Western Philosophical Writings

The earliest thinking in the West on the notion of desire is found in the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle. For Plato, eros is neither purely human nor purely divine: it is something intermediate that he calls a “daimon.” In the Symposium, Aristophanes narrates a myth of human origins that explains sexuality and the yearning for a “soul mate.” Later on in the Symposium, Diotima teaches Socrates about the ascent of eros from earthly to heavenly forms of love. She delineates the steps on the ladder of love from love of an individual body that is love that is subject to pain; moving up the ladder, one shifts from the body to the inner qualities of the individual. Continuing the ascent, one reaches the ultimate love—love for the Good and the Beautiful.

Aristotle in De Anima says, “It is manifest, therefore, that what is called desire is the sort of faculty in the soul which initiates movement.”2 The soul is the essence of every living thing, and desire is the soul in motion. Yet desire implies incompletion and inferiority, even when it is a necessary means toward the form of the Good. For Plato, the gods do not love because they do not experience desires, inasmuch as their desires are all satisfied. They can thus only be an object of love, not a subject of love.3Eros leads humans to divinity, but not vice versa. Likewise for Aristotle, imperfect mortal beings desire and love God, yet God, the Unmoved Mover, has no desire for humans.

The late-5th-century Christian Neoplatonist (Pseudo-)Dionysius synthesizes Neoplatonist and Christian ideas of love. In his Divine Names, he describes eros as a cosmic, unifying force of all relationships, human and divine.

“Love, whether we speak of Divine, or Angelic, or intelligent, or psychical, or physical, let us regard as a certain unifying and combining power, moving the superior to forethought for the inferior, and the equals to a mutual fellowship, and lastly, the inferior to respect towards the higher and superior.”4

He further explains the concept of “yearning” for union with the Good and the Beautiful and locates the movements of ascent and descent of love in a Christian context: “Divine Love is ecstatic, not permitting (any) to be lovers of themselves, but of those beloved. They shew this too, the superior by becoming mindful of the inferior; and the equals by their mutual coherence; and the inferior, by a more divine respect towards things superior. Wherefore also, Paul the Great, when possessed by the Divine Love, and participating in its ecstatic power, says with inspired lips, ‘I live no longer, but Christ lives in me.’ As a true lover, and beside himself, as he says, to Almighty God, and not living the life of himself, but the life of the Beloved, as a life excessively esteemed” (ibid). For Dionysius, then, eros as ecstatic passionate is a most appropriate term for comprehending Christian divine love.

In the writings of the Neoplatonist Renaissance philosopher Judah Abrabanel, better known as Leone Ebreo, desire and love are highlighted as distinct emotions. In his magnum opus, Dialoghi D’Amore, he describes love as the principal source and goal of the universe, as love strives toward the union of the beautiful and the good in the beloved. While he discusses human love, his main emphasis is metaphysical love. Abrabanel offers a definition of these two distinct yet interrelated concepts: “Love is the desire to enjoy in union an object recognized as good; desire presupposes the absence of its object . . . even when the good exists and is ours, we may yet desire, not indeed possession thereof, (for that is achieved already) but enjoyment of cognitive union with it . . . Such desire we call love; a desire to possess things we lack, or desire to enjoy in union those we have obtained; both of these may be properly called ‘desire,’ but the second more accurately-‘love.’”5 This distinction suggests that desire and love are modes of being and becoming in which love is the state for which we strive—to be with the object of our desire and thus its fulfillment. Love then is a state that is dependent upon desire. Abrabanel maintains a transcendental conception of the Godhead, and with it the notion of divine love as the urge to come nearer to God.

Erotic Desire and Divine Love in the Torah (Hebrew Bible)

The Hebrew Bible offers us multiple notions of eros and love. These include explicit terms for desire, allusions to the human inclination toward sexuality, commandments to love, and an imagery of God in union with the nation of Israel.

Taavah and tshukah, Hebrew terms for eros, occur in the story of Adam and Eve: “the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight [taavah] to the eyes”; once she disobeys, desire is part of her punishment: “And your desire [tshukatech] shall be for your man.”

The Torah offers the path to increase the yetzer ha-tov, or the desire for the highest good, through the fulfillment of all the commandments. Love of God is commanded in these terms:

Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one! “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. . . . (Deuteronomy 6:5)

A distinct way to manifest love of God, in addition to prayer and other practices, is through the teaching and studying of the Torah. The function and metaphors assigned by the rabbis for Talmud Torah (rabbinic learning practice) suggest that “love of God” is manifested when the Torah becomes one’s “object” of desire.

The prophets’ imagery of divine love is the union of Israel and God, derived from the historic event of b’rit (covenant), encompassing mutual promises and obligations. This relationship is hierarchical and shaped by gender roles that advance male authority and female subservience. An alternative relational model for the bond between God and his chosen nation is provided in Song of Songs, which depicts sensuous love between young lovers. Rabbi Akiva ben Yosef (50–135 ce) establishes the status of the Song by proclaiming its holiness in the debate in the Sanhedrin regarding its inclusion in the Bible: “For the entire world was never so worthy as on the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel, since all of scripture is holy, and the Song of Songs is holy of holies!”6

Since its inclusion in the Bible, Song of Songs has become a base-text for spiritual contemplation among Jews and Christians. The love depicted in the Song is contextualized in a romantic relationship and celebrates a series of spontaneous and passionate moments that produce joy and ecstasy, however fleeting. Fulfillment of this love relationship is yearned for, yet never fully obtained. For centuries, rabbis, philosophers, theologians, and mystics commented upon and explicated verses of the Song employing allegorical exegesis to convey the intimate relationship between God and the community of Israel, and between Christ and the church. Mystical texts that elucidate its theological underpinnings underscore the intimacy between God and an individual soul. Mystical commentaries on the Song often signify personal embodied experience. In another mystical vain, the Kabbalistic theosophy of the sefirot (the ten creative forces that mediate between the Ein Sof—the infinite and unknowable God—and our created world) reveals the Song’s meaning in terms of the dynamics of God’s inner life.7

Erotic desire and the vicissitudes of separation and union permeate the Song’s poetry, as philosophers such as Abrabanel delineate. The separation of the two lovers and their longing for the consummation of their love is a recurring theme. The suspense of the lover’s whereabouts increases the passionate desire for him: “Swear to me, daughters of Jerusalem! If you find him now, you must tell him I am in the fever of love.”8 Their passionate desire for each other is given the following profound expression about the nature of love: “love is as fierce as death, its jealousy bitter as the grave. Even its sparks are a raging fire, a devouring flame.”9 The lovers’ frequent separation generates the longing for sustained intimacy: “Bind me as a seal upon your heart, a sign upon your arm . . . Great seas cannot extinguish love, no river can sweep it away.”10

In contemporary scholarship of the Song that draw upon the categories of gender and sexuality, the binary of human and divine love that results from traditional interpretations has been questioned. Scholars have underscored the amplification of the woman’s voice that is stifled in the vast majority of biblical texts. Some even speculate that a woman or a group of women may have composed this collection of poems, given the first-person voice and pivotal role of the female in the Song. For feminist thinkers, the Song has engendered notions of positive sexuality and an egalitarian relationship, focusing especially on the portrayal of the woman lover who asserts her emotions and desires.11

At the same time, it is important to underscore the nuances of desire in the Song in terms of gender. The female is more often than not portrayed seeking her lover, whose presence is ever evanescent; thus she is depicted in a lingering state of frustrated and anguished desire, suffering perhaps from a depressive melancholy. The metaphors she employs to communicate her desire for him often connote pain and suffering. These include her multiple references to being “love-sick.” Her desire for him is manifested not only in her attraction to him during their meetings, but even more so, in the vacuum he creates in his absence from her. Whereas male desire is expressed in terms of the joy of their union, female desire conveys her vulnerability and the power struggle in their relationship. Thus, questions of hierarchy and egalitarianism remain topics for debate.

Erotic Love for God in Rabbinic and Kabbalistic Literature

Both in rabbinic Midrash and in the Kabbalistic exegesis to the Song of Songs, the physical body of the lovers and their sexual desire are displaced. In rabbinic Midrash, sexual desire is transformed; sensuality is replaced with textuality, and the desire to reveal the multiple layers and meanings of the Torah becomes the primary objective of the rabbis. The environment of rolling hills and fragrant gardens shifts to the walls and study tables of the yeshiva. In Shir Hashirim Rabbah (Midrash Rabbah Song of Songs), two themes are dominant. The first is the intimate love between the community of Israel and God. The kisses desired by the female in SS, 1:2 now represent the commandments, who are the speakers of this verse, and their speech is directed to each of the Israelites. The intimacy spoken of here is in the context of a past event that is understood as a public, national revelation, and it follows closely the biblical narrative of the Sinai event. The second theme is the intimacy between the Torah scholar and God. This is an important turn, as meaning is shifted from the Sinai event to the continued process of uncovering and receiving the wisdom of the Torah. Knowledge of the Torah is likened to a kiss insofar as it was fixed or planted in the receiver at Sinai. What is remarkable in this analogy is the temporal and temporary sense applied to the kiss as well as to knowledge. At present, the rabbis are the kissers of God as they engage in Talmud Torah.12

The Torah for the rabbis of the Midrash is the embodiment of the divine, which constitutes the ultimate object of their desire.13 Additionally, as some scholars have observed, the yeshiva, like the monastery, provides a homoerotic environment, which further contributes to embodied spirituality. While rabbinic Midrash of the Song of Songs avoids explicit erotic language, such images in the theosophy of the Zohar abound. Erotic desire is transformed in the Zohar as sod-ha-emunah or “the mystery of faith,” meaning in the processes taking place in the Godhead, invoking the symbolic framework of the sefirot, which forms the core system of the Zohar’s theosophy.

As characteristic to the Zohar, sexual desire is spoken of symbolically as the relationship, influence, and confluence of the sefirot, and the parallels and intersections of the upper and lower worlds.14 According to the Zohar, the lovers in the Song represent the male and female sefirot. The sefirah Tiferet is the primary male attribute of God, and Malchut (Shekhinah) is his feminine attribute. Whereas the other sefirot are attached to each other continuously, the sefirot Tiferet and Malchut come together from time to time after periods of separation. Therefore the Shekhinah is called bride, when the king is ready to have her after periods of separations. After the period of separation, the king is prompted by a strong urge, and their union is always like the first contact between bridegroom and bride. They are called lovers (dodim) because desire captures the dynamics of their relationship. They represent the supernal image of a pair of intermittent lovers, caught up in the entanglements of desire. This meaning of male and female coupling retains the mystery and passion of the lovers in the Song.

Since the 16th century, with the inspiration of Kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria (the Ari), who incorporated the Song into the ritual of welcoming the Sabbath, it has also played a performative and liturgical role in the weekly recitation by Kabbalists and Sephardic Jewish men on the eve of the Sabbath. Other occasions of the Song’s recitation include the last day of the spring holiday of Passover, and in weddings.

The philosophical distinction between love and desire that Plato and the Neoplatonist Abrabanel theorized is made abundantly clear in the following statement by Bachya Ben Asher, a 13th-century Spanish Kabbalist and Torah exegete: “In the case of love, one can occasionally forget the object of his love when he is preoccupied with other matters, but this is not so in the case of desire which is all consuming even when the individual is asleep . . . In order to emphasize the merit of desiring [God], David compared his longing for God . . . to that of a person thirsty for water. Thus he exclaims, ‘my soul is thirsty for you, my flesh longs for you, in a dry and weary land where no water is.’ (Psalm 63:2) . . . To further accentuate the superiority of desire over that of love, the psalmist said, ‘because He has “chashak” (desired or clung affectionately to) me, therefore I will deliver him’ (Psalm 91:14).”15

In this statement, Bachya Ben Asher reverses an accepted philosophical hierarchical approach to the relation between love and desire where desire is a more emotional, embodied, and erotic in nature and love a loftier and mental state. Instead, he privileges desire as a superior spiritual state where the intensity of desire, rather than love, connotes a greater intimacy and cleaving to God.

Erotic Desire and Divine Love in Christian Writings

Love is identified with God in Christian scriptures, narrated not only as a story of love but also as a fundamental theological doctrine—God is love.16

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.17

Christian theologians and saints, like their rabbinic counterparts, offered their insights into God’s love through the allegorical interpretation of the Song of Songs or Canticle. Among the first Christian thinkers to compose a commentary to the Song is Origen (c. 185–254 ce). Two primary Christian views on reading the Song suggest that (a) the male lover is Christ and the female beloved is the church, and (b) the more mystical one according to which the Song describes the relationship of an individual soul to Christ as bridegroom.

For the early Christian theologian St. Augustine, desire is the emotion that is the manifestation of love. Like Plato, he distinguishes between lower and higher desires; he also sharply discerns between love or desire for God and the desire or love of self. Augustine believes that because humans are creatures of desires, divine grace can infuse and direct human desires toward the good that is God.

Both Origen and the Neoplatonic mystic Plotinus can be said to have initiated what has become known as “bridal theology,” which reached its climax in the writings and sermons of Bernard of Clairvaux (c. 1090–1153). Another mystic, Gregory of Nyssa, offers a commentary on the Song of Songs that emphasizes this erotic dimension of lover and beloved. Though the Greek text of the Song of Songs uses agape for “love” and for being in love, in Gregory’s commentary, eros, and not agape, best describes love of God as intense yearning, at once painful and blissful, which leads one to union with God. At one point in his commentary, Gregory notes, “For heightened agape is called eros.”18

For 5th-century Neoplatonist theologian Dionysius, eros is integral to divine creativity, which flows toward us. We desire God because God desires us. This rhetoric of divine love persists among mystics and theologians throughout the Middle Ages. Erotic desire for God becomes an important trope especially for women contemplatives. 19 Mechthild of Magdeburg (1207–c. 1282/1294), a beguine and mystic, speaks about the divine lover in profoundly erotic terms:

  • you are my softest pillow,
  • my most lovely bed,
  • my most intimate rest,
  • my deepest longing, . . .
  • a stream for my passion.20

She develops the metaphor of the bedchamber further with an explicit reference to the sexual act, depicted in third-person pronouns: “He gives himself to her, and she to him.”21

The tension between asceticism, especially virginity and celibacy, and erotic spirituality as represented in the writings of monks and nuns in the middle ages is particularly striking. Abbot and mystic Bernard of Clairvaux is known for his bridal theology stimulated by the Song of Songs, and the impact that his sermons exerted upon pious and committed Christians, especially women.22 There is a significant body of literature contemplating God by nuns, beguines, and women saints, whether through the Song of Songs directly or through sermons on the Song delivered by male mystics such as St. Bernard of Clairvaux.23 Furthermore, women contemplatives were also familiar with troubadour songs and courtly love poetry. Such imagery of romantic love informed their spirituality, thus developing a greater attachment to and intimacy with the humanity and physicality of Jesus.

St. Teresa of Avila, Spanish nun, mystic, and writer (founder of the Discalced Carmelite order, 1515–1582; canonized 1622), authored numerous books, including Life, a personal autobiography, The Way of Perfection, a handbook for her nuns, and Interior Mansions, in which she describes the many different steps on the path to mystical union with God. She mediates the spiritual and the sensual in her well-known autobiography, in which she describes her ecstatic experience of sweet pain and pleasure in the midst of her great vision in chapter 29:

It pleased our Lord that I should see the following vision a number of times. I saw an angel near me, on the left side, in bodily form. This I am not won’t to see, save very rarely . . . In this vision it pleased the Lord that I should see it thus. He was not tall, but short, marvelously beautiful, with a face which shone as though he were one of the highest of the angels, who seem to be all of fire: they must be those whom we call Seraphim . . . I saw in his hands a long golden spear, and at the point of the iron there seemed to be a little fire. This I thought that he thrust several times into my heart, and that it penetrated to my entrails. When he drew out the spear he seemed to be drawing them with it, leaving me all on fire with a wondrous love for God. The pain was so great that it caused me to utter several moans; and yet so exceeding sweet is this greatest of pains that it is impossible to desire to be rid of it, or for the soul to be content with less than God.”24

The intersection of aesthetics, sexuality, and spirituality is profoundly embodied in such one singular experience. The physical piercing of her heart that St. Teresa describes has been labeled transverberation—a spiritual wounding of the heart. The references to the beautiful form of the angel, her moaning in the midst of his continuous thrusting the spear into her heart, and the experience of sweet pain is an outstanding portrait of an erotic spiritual moment. The Italian sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s famous masterpiece, “the Ecstasy of St. Teresa,”25 follows her own admission that “the body doesn’t fail to share in some of it, and even a great deal.” Bernini’s sensual artistic rendition of her experience further challenges the distinction between inner and outer senses, and blurs the conceptual binary between physical and spiritual love.

Theresa’s experience of the wound culminates in her union with and marriage to God. Analogously to the Song of Songs, which stirred hearts and minds and engendered numerous new poetic and theological works, the ecstasy of St. Theresa, whether read or gazed at in Bernini’s creation out of stone, inspires the reader and the spectator—stimulating and re-creating ecstatic experiences through the engagement with the erotic aesthetic. Despite Christian theological doctrines that distinguish between divine agape and human eros, visionary experiences by Christian nuns such as Teresa blur such views and further illustrate the complex phenomenon of erotic representations of the divine.

Love and Eros in Sufi Writings

Sufism, the Muslim mystical path, is known for its masterful philosophical and poetic works on love and eros. Sufi adepts, poets, and philosophers such as Rabiah al-Adawiyya, Jalal al-Din Rumi, al-Hallaj, Ahmad Ghazali, and Ibn Arabi deepen the terrain, language, and category of divine love by introducing culturally distinct metaphors and contexts for contemplating its infinite expressions. For Sufis, like their Christian counterparts, seeking the divine and attaining nearness to him is the essence of their spiritual path. As in other traditions and theologies, their Qur’an (holy scriptures) serves as a base-text. Under the influence of thinkers such as Ibn Arabi, the following is the verse from which they derive their notion of love: “God will love them as they will love him.”26 Scholars interpret this verse to mean that human love for God stems from God’s love for humans.

In Sufi writings, ecstasy and joy, as well as pain and loneliness, characterize the spiritual path. Sufis underscore the dynamic of separation from and the longing for the beloved divine. Rumi points out that separation is the crux of love in the very first line of his love epic, the Mathnawi: “Listen to this reed as it complains, telling the tale of separation.” In conveying the vicissitudes of love and the rhythm of separation and union, Sufis employ ishq, a term that denotes passionate love. Like eros, ishq is an obsessive yearning of the lover that is often understood as an illness. This state of longing is described as a fire that God ignites in the hearts of his friends in order to burn in them all worldly preoccupation and egocentric desires.

Such an uncompromising longing for the beloved culminates in a mystical state Sufis term fana fi-llah, or annihilation in God, conveying the elimination of the ego. The projected union with God is sometime referred to as baqa, in which the Sufi reaches balance and stability. This is shown in the Persian story of Layla and Majnun, where the lover is in perpetual state of ishq for his beloved, but ultimately transforms his madness for his woman beloved into the bliss of the divine beloved.

The notion of beauty plays a prominent role both in the theoretical writings and the poetic Sufi tradition. Ibn ‘Arabi points out that since God is both transcendent and immanent, it is valid to know him in all forms, emphasizing that one must have “a heart open to every form.”27 This attraction to beauty in human form renders the experience of God more tangible and relational in Sufi poetry. Rumi declares that his yar (beloved) has come in the human form as the holy man, Shems-i Tabriz:

  • My sick heart, it’s time for your medicine.
  • Take a deep refreshing breath! The time has come.
  • The Beloved who heals the sick hearts of lovers,
  • Has come to our world in human form.28

He identifies Shems-i Tabrizi as his beloved:

  • O Shems of Tabriz more beautiful
  • Than the Garden of Eden,
  • You played my harp
  • With your grace and kindness;
  • I became an organ in the universe of love.29

In addition to celebrating beauty in general and the human form in particular, a frequent metaphor in Sufi poetry refers to wine and the intoxicating experience of mystical love. Wine in Sufi verse is a depiction of an overwhelming state of love. Just as the quality and taste of wine depend on its degree of fermentation, so is the degree of the state of love. Clarifying that this “wine” is not alcoholic wine, Rumi says,

  • You’ll wake up from the drunkenness of this world
  • After a good night’s sleep
  • But the drunkenness from God’s wine
  • Will last until the grave.30

With the metaphors of wine, there is also imagery of the cup, which represents the mystic’s heart, and the wine pourer as the spiritual master. To complete this portrait of drinking wine, the cup and cupbearer, and (sukr) intoxication, is the tavern. The tavern trope, especially the tavern in ruins, represents the path and intimates the impermanence of the world, and the abrogation of the self and its attachments.

In Sufi literature, the ultimate mystical state is where there is no longer a distinction among love, lover, and beloved. We find references to love for the divine couched in so-called profane language and behavior that would be perceived as transgressive in Orthodox Islam. This trend parallels mystical writings in other traditions that once again problematize the dichotomy of sacred and profane, human and divine love.

Deities, Love, and Desire in Classical Hinduism

Hindu deities represent the ideals and goals of life that depend upon the four main stages of life: the student, the householder, the retired person, and the yogi or ascetic (also known as a sannyasin). Kama (sexual desire and pleasure) is an appropriate goal for householders, but seen as detrimental to the ascetic, whose ultimate spiritual goal is moksha (liberation), which signifies the end of samsara, or the cycle of rebirth.31

Lord Shiva is said to combine the goals of the householder as well as that of a yogi. In the Puranas (Hindu texts that include narratives of gods and kings),32 it is told that Shiva, known as an ascetic, veered away from asceticism once Kama shot arrows into his heart that caused him to develop a desire for Parvati, whom he then marries. Shiva manifests his dual nature as an ascetic who combines the heat of tapas (yogic practices) with the heat of erotic desire. Shiva is often represented in the form of a linga, a phallic symbol of creative energy, encircled in a yoni, a symbol of the womb as well as of his consort, the goddess Devi or Shakti. It is the combination of both extreme asceticism and eroticism that Shiva embodies that has made him a deity that both Hindu celibates and householders worship.

Desire in Hindu texts and worship is also spiritualized and contextualized in bhakti Hindu theology (devotional love for a deity). According to bhakti yoga, as the devotee cultivates a personal relationship with a deity, desire and love for one’s deity are integral to the path and its goals. Thus in the Bhagavad-Gita, Lord Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu, states, “Fill your mind with me, Love me, Serve me, Worship me always. Seeking me in your heart, you will at last be united with me.”33

In bhakti philosophy we find a systematic approach to cultivating an intimate relationship with the divine. Bhakti aesthetics classifies emotions, moods, and tastes that make up the phenomenon of love. A primary example of such a systematic approach to love is the theory of erotic rasa (essence; denoting a mood or an emotion), which dominates Sanskrit drama and poetry. The theory of erotic rasa, while couched in worldly terms of passionate sexual metaphors, is nevertheless a spiritual experience that is integral to the path of devotion.

A central theme in the erotic rasa theory is the designation of viraha (absence or separation) or the phenomenon of “love in separation,” particularly applicable to imagining Krishna as a lover. Erotic rasa dominates the 12th-century Bengali poem the Gitagovinda. This is one of the most important works in Indian literature and a source of religious inspiration in both medieval and contemporary Vaishnavism. This poem offers a paradigm of the rhythm of the intensification of desire—both Lord Krishna and his beloved Radha are depicted in intense states of desire during their separations from each other: “Drops of red lac from her lotus feet wet your sublime breast . . . the teeth mark she left on your lip creates anguish in my heart.”34

Krishna, although a god, presumably because of his initial attraction to and infidelities with the gopis (cow-herding girls and devotees of Lord Krishna), represents the human soul on its tumultuous journey toward union with the divine, which is represented in this song in the figure of Radha.35 In addition to its explicit eroticism, erotic divine love in the Gitagovinda is understood by Krishna devotees in its allegorical meaning.

In contrast with the Song of Songs, which lacks references to God (despite its canonization in the Bible) and where God only is invoked in its allegorical interpretations, the Gitagovinda explicitly describes the divinity of Krishna. Jayadeva, as its narrator, initiates his readers in the complex and multilayered meanings of the poem by instructing them of the celestial identity of the protagonist lovers: “if your mind is passionate in remembrance of Hari (Krishna), if it is curious about vilasakala (the art of love), then listen to Jayadeva.”36 He begins the next part of the Gitagovinda with a description of the ten incarnations of Vishnu. This reminds the reader that Krishna, the carefree lover in the poem, is the transcendent Lord, one among the ten avatars of Vishnu, and that the human story he is about to narrate is simultaneously a divine play. In the second prabandha (canto), the poet moves to a description of Hari and Radha. Although the drama to unfold is described in metaphors that embody terrestrial space and time, in Vaishnava tradition, it is simultaneously primal and divine.

The challenge here, as with other erotic poetry written by spiritual adepts, is negotiating the nexus of the metaphysics and physics of love. As in the Song of Songs, each appellation and metaphor is contextually meaningful at the level of human and divine, as sensual love and also as a paradigm of mythopoesis. In both the Song of Songs and the Gitagovinda, the erotic desire of lover and beloved is suffused in the imagery of flora, fauna, and aromas.37 The yearnings of lover for the beloved dominate the mood and drama of the poems. In the Song of Songs, the female protagonist describes herself as lovesick. She wanders through the streets of Jerusalem at night, risking her reputation and personal safety as she seeks her lover. Radha is distraught over Krishna’s dance with the other gopis; Krishna struggles with his desire for Radha as he faces her anger and jealousy; each is inflicted with deep emotional pain as they are forced to exist in separation from each other, until their ultimate and ecstatic union. With a colossal set of erotic metaphors, Jayadeva describes the drama of their union, but in the last line, he reminds us that the poem is about devotion and bhakti. “Let his poem,” declares the poet, “be in the voice of devotees like sage Prashar.”38 Thus, erotic desire and the language of the senses in the Gitagovinda also serve as symbols of divine love.

This idea that the intensity of the love of God can be accessed by mystical adepts through the direct reading of the lovers’ beauty and attraction to each other in the Song of Songs, or its commentary by Bernard of Clairvaux, Rumi’s intoxicated state of desire for the beloved, or the recitation of the Gitagovinda echo the contemporary literary theory of Hans George Gadamer, especially his notion of the fusion of the horizons of author and reader (or listener). Also relevant here are the reader-response theories of Wolfgang Iser and Stanley Fish.39 For Iser, the literary work is actualized through a convergence of reader and text. The reader to him is actively participating in the production of textual meaning. He sees the reader as co-creator of the work. Stanley Fish makes an even bolder move, where he identifies the reader’s activity with the text.40 It is the reading process that determines the value of literature. This theory redefines literature and meaning not as objects but rather as a sequence of unfolding experiences. The reader becomes an essential source of all significations. These ideas share affinities with the notion of dialogic relation between reader and text that transforms the reader and transcends the text, akin to the performance of sacred literature in religious rituals such as the daily singing of the Gitagovinda in the Jaggannath temple, or the recitation of the on Song of Songs on the Sabbath eve.

Review of the Literature

The subject of eroticism and the divine has been of increasing interest to scholars in the last several decades. The postmodern turn to the subjective self in turn engendered critical categories such as the body, gender, and sexuality. The proliferation of interdisciplinary scholarship in these categories includes philosophy, anthropology, and theology. In religious studies, scholars have frequently focused on a single text such as the Song of Songs, or have investigated the topic of the erotic representations of the divine in one or two religious contexts.41 In the Jewish tradition, Daniel Boyarin,42 Michael Fishbane,43 David Biale,44 Jacob Neusner,45 Moshe Idel,46 and Elliot Wolfson47 have written extensively on the erotic in rabbinic and Kabbalistic texts. Feminist Jewish scholars who have addressed representations of the divine include Rachel Adler,48 Judith Plaskow,49 Hava Tirosh-Samuelson,50 Ellen Umansky,51 Marcia Falk,52 Lynn Gottleib,53 and Howard Eilberg-Schwarz.54

In Christianity, scholars who have advanced the centrality of the body, gender, and sexuality include biblical scholars such as David Carr,55 Phylis Trible,56 and Cheryl Exum.57 Numerous feminist theologians and historians of religion and mysticism have contributed to the subject of eros and the divine, including Bernard McGinn,58 Catherine Osborne,59 Peter Brown,60 Caroline Walker Bynum,61 Barbara Newman,62 Amy Hollywood,63 and Grace Jantzen.64 Annemarie Schimmel,65 William Chittick,66 Binyamin Abrahamov,67 and Carl Ernst68 are among scholars who have extensively investigated the topic of the erotic love of the divine in Sufism. Scholarship on eroticism in Hindu theory of aesthetics, theology, and poetry is extensive and includes works by Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty,69 Edward Dimock,70 Barbara Stoler Miller,71 and David L. Haberman.72 Literature on the experience of bhakti is growing. Examples of such studies include John Stratton Hawley,73 Graham M. Schweig,74 Hardy Friedhelm,75 June McDaniel,76 Owen M. Lynch,77 and Barbara Holdrege.78

In the comparative study of religion, Yudit Greenberg’s Encyclopedia of Love in World Religions is the first reference book on the subject, providing interdisciplinary and multipronged approaches to eroticism in human and divine love.79 More recently, Jeff Levin and Stephen Post’s edited volume on divine love in the world’s religions offers a diversity of approaches to the subject of love in religion.80 Francis Clooney has advanced the subfield of comparative theology through the practice of interreligious reading of Christian and Hindu texts. In his latest book on Hindu–Catholic theopoetics, he presents the motif of “divine absence” through his examination of the Song of Songs and the Tamil Hindu Tiruvaymoli (“Holy Word of Mouth”).81 Graham Schweig’s article on scripture and contemplation in bridal mysticism and Krishna bhakti, in which he compares the Song of Songs to the Raslila through the lenses of St. John of the Cross, contributes to a comparative reading of sacred texts to which he refers as the “theography” of divine love.82 Michelle Voss Roberts contributes to Hindu and Christian comparative theology with her focus on emotions, especially in the dramatic enactment of and participation in the performances of Raslila in the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition, and applying elements of Hindu theories of aesthetics in the bhakti framework to readings of the Song of Songs by Christian mystics such as Bernard of Clairvaux.83

The Study of the erotic representations of the divine continues to be an active and growing field in theology, comparative religion, art history, ritual studies, gender, and sexuality studies, contributing to the rich dialogue among and across traditions and cultures.

Conclusion: Seeking the Divine Presence

In reviewing our selection of texts from the traditions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism that depict and celebrate erotic representations of the divine, significant cross-cultural parallels can be drawn. Philosophers and poets alike allude to and at times clearly distinguish between passionate desire that is highly sensuous, and a more stable and enduring love for God. There are terms that signify desire and accentuate its distinction from the more general notion of love. The Hebrew term teshukah or the Arabic ishq in Sufism for example are akin to the Greek term eros and connote erotic passion. In some cases such as the theology of bridal mysticism, the adherent’s erotic depiction of the encounter with the divine is framed in a normative context such as marriage; at other times these texts refer to antinomian behavior such as intoxication or sexual promiscuity. Theologically, however, an additional interpretive layer transforms what appears to be transgressive behavior, spiritualizing and transforming eros into allegory.

The writings of rabbis, Kabbalists, Sufis, Christian saints, and Krishna devotees testify to the reality that spiritual adepts from diverse theistic traditions contemplate the divine through notions of human embodiment. Such contemplations depict an intense intimacy of lover and beloved. As lovers of God, they are certainly susceptible to erotic engagement with the subject of their ultimate desire. Thus they succeed in unraveling the dialectical relationship of eros and agape, spirituality and sexuality, and in establishing a harmonious model for integrating human and divine love.

Further Reading

Barks, Coleman. The Essential Rumi. New Expanded Edition. New York: HarperOne, 2004.Find this resource:

    Biale, David. Eros and the Jews: From Biblical Israel to Contemporary America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.Find this resource:

      Bloch, Ariel, and Chana Bloch. The Song of Songs: A New Translation. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.Find this resource:

        Boyarin, Daniel. Carnal Israel: Reading Sex in Talmudic Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.Find this resource:

          Chittick, William C. The Sufi Path of Love: The Spiritual Teachings of Rumi. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1983.Find this resource:

            Clooney, X. Francis. Comparative Theology: Deep Learning Across Religious Borders. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.Find this resource:

              Coleman, Tracy. “Suffering Desire for Krishna: Gender and Salvation in the Bhagavata Puraṇa.” Journal of Vaishnava Studies 10.2 (2002): 39–50.Find this resource:

                Dimock, Edward. The Place of the Hidden Moon. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1991.Find this resource:

                  Ebreo, Leone. The Dialogue of Love (Dialoghi d’ Amore). Translated by F. Friedeberg-Seeley and Jean H. Barnes. London: Soncino Press, 1937.Find this resource:

                    Ergin, Nevit, trans. A Rose Garden. Lake Isabella, CA: Echo Publications, 1997.Find this resource:

                      Ergin, Nevit Oguz, and Will Johnson. The Forbidden Rumi: The Suppressed Poems of Rumi on Love, Heresy, and Intoxication. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2006.Find this resource:

                        Exum, J. Cheryl. Song of Songs. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2005.Find this resource:

                          Farley, Wendy. The Thirst of God: Contemplating God’s Love with Three Women Mystics. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015.Find this resource:

                            Fishbane, Michael. The Kiss of God: Spiritual and Mystical Death in Judaism. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996.Find this resource:

                              Fishbane, Michael. The Exegetical Imagination, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.Find this resource:

                                O’Flaherty, Wendy D. Siva: The Erotic Ascetic. London: Oxford University Press, 1973.Find this resource:

                                  Greenberg, Yudit K. The Encyclopedia of Love in World Religions. 2 vols. Edited by Yudit K. Greenberg. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2008.Find this resource:

                                    Hawley, John S. Three Bhakti Voices: Mirabai, Surdas, and Kabir in Their Times and Ours. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.Find this resource:

                                      Holdrege, Barbara A. Bhakti and Embodiment: Fashioning Divine Bodies and Devotional Bodies in Krsna Bhakti. New York: Routledge, 2015.Find this resource:

                                        Idel, Moshe. Kabbalah and Eros. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005.Find this resource:

                                          McDaniel, June. The Madness of the Saints: Ecstatic Religion in Bengal. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.Find this resource:

                                            Mechthild of Magdeburg. The Flowing Light of the Godhead. Translated by Frank Tobin. New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1998.Find this resource:

                                              Miller, Barbara Stoler, ed. and trans. Love Song of the Dark Lord: Jayadeva’s Gītagovinda. 20th anniversary edition. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.Find this resource:

                                                Newman, Barbara. Gods and the Goddesses: Vision, Poetry, and Belief in the High Middle Ages. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003.Find this resource:

                                                  Osborne, Catherine. Eros Unveiled: Plato and the God of Love. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994.Find this resource:

                                                    Schimmel, Annemarie. Mystical Dimensions of Islam. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975.Find this resource:

                                                      Schweig, Graham M., trans. Dance of Divine Love: The Rasa Lila of Krishna from the Bhagavata Puraṇa, India’s Classic Sacred Love Story. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005.Find this resource:

                                                        Sells, Michael A. Mystical Languages of Unsaying. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.Find this resource:

                                                          St. Teresa of Avila. The Life of St. Teresa by Herself. Translated by David Lewis. Publishing. 2009.Find this resource:

                                                            Trible, Phyllis. “Love’s Lyrics Redeemed.” In God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, 144–165. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978.Find this resource:

                                                              Voss Roberts, Michelle. Tastes of the Divine: Hindu and Christian Theologies of Emotion. New York: Fordham University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

                                                                Wolfson, Elliot, R. Language, Eros, Being: Kabbalistic Hermeneutics and Poetic Imagination. New York: Fordham University Press, 2005.Find this resource:


                                                                  (1.) A similar notion is Charles Williams’s idea of “romantic theology” in which romantic love is the vehicle for understanding God. For a discussion of this notion, see ‘Abd al-Hakeem Carney, “Imamate and Love: The Discourse of the Divine in Islamic Mysticism,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 73.3 (September 2005): 705–730.

                                                                  (2.) Ronald Polansky, trans., Aristotle’s De Anima (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2007), iii 10, 433a31–b1.

                                                                  (3.) Christopher Gill, trans., The Symposium (London: Penguin Books, 2003), 200–201.

                                                                  (4.) The Divine Names in Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works, trans. Colm Luibheid (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), chapter 4, 79–84.

                                                                  (5.) Leone Ebreo, The Dialogue of Love (Dialoghi d’ Amore), trans. F. Friedeberg-Seeley and Jean H. Barnes (London: The Soncino Press, 1937), 49.

                                                                  (6.) Jacob Neusner, The Mishnah: A New Translation (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991), Mishna Yadayim 3, 5.

                                                                  (7.) The trope of erotic desire derived from interpreting the Song of Songs influenced and informed not only medieval Kabbalistic theosophy, but also poets and philosophers such as Judah Halevi and Moses Maimonides.

                                                                  (8.) Song of Sol. 5:8.

                                                                  (9.) Song of Sol. 8:6.

                                                                  (10.) Song of Sol. 8:7.

                                                                  (11.) See for example the scholarship of Phyllis Trible, Judith Plaskow, and Renita Weems.

                                                                  (12.) See Michael Fishbane, “Anthological Midrash and Cultural Paideia: The Case of songs Rabba 1.2,” in Textual Reasonings: Jewish Philosophy and Text Study at the End of the Twentieth Century, eds. Peter Ochs and Nancy Levene (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s, 2002), 35.

                                                                  (13.) Scholem, Wolfson, and others have written on the Torah as an iconic representation of God’s form, and studying the Torah as a means of seeing the divine. See for example Elliot R. Wolfson, Through A Speculum that Shines, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 375–377.

                                                                  (14.) Since the sefirot are not static but always dynamic and always depicted in terms of moving toward and influencing each other, there is an abundance of erotic imaging of heterosexual copulation. The sefirot are formed from the union of abba and imma, or Chochma and Binah, who are father and mother to the forces of emanation, while Tiferet and Malchut are father and mother to the forces of creation.

                                                                  (15.) Bachya Ben Asher, Kad Hakemach, The Encyclopedia of Torah Thoughts, trans. and annotated by Charles B. Chavel (New York: Shilo Publishing House, 1980), 37.

                                                                  (16.) The treatment of the subject of love by Christian philosophers and theologians is vast. Contemporary scholars of love include Pope Benedict XVI, Stephen Post, Anders Nygren, Thomas J. Oord, and Edward Vacek.

                                                                  (17.) 1 John 4:7–8.

                                                                  (18.) Quoted in Steven P. Hopkins, “Extravagant Beholding: Love, Ideal Bodies, and Particularity,” History of Religions 47 (August 2007): 1.

                                                                  (19.) For an extensive study of the poetry of Christian women mystics, see Wendy Farley, The Thirst of God: Contemplating God’s Love with Three Women Mystics (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015).

                                                                  (20.) Mechthild of Magdeburg, The Flowing Light of the Godhead, trans. Frank Tobin (New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1998).

                                                                  (21.) Mechthild of Magdeburg, The Flowing Light of the Godhead, I, 44.

                                                                  (22.) An excerpt from one of his sermons on the verse, “May he kiss me with the kisses of his mouth” illustrates the depth of his theology: “Now, my brethren . . . Let us consider the Word assuming to be the Mouth that kisses; let the Nature assumed be the Mouth that is kissed; and let the Divine Person, subsisting in two Natures, the Mediator between God and man, the Man Christ Jesus, be the Kiss in which both Mouths co-operate. In this sense, none of the saints would ever presume to say, ‘Let Him kiss me with His Mouth,’ but only ‘with the kiss of His Mouth,’ for they reserved the higher privilege to Him to Whom, solely and once and for all, the Mouth of the Word then impressed a kiss when the whole plenitude of the Divinity poured Itself into Him ‘corporally.’ O happy Kiss, marvel of infinite condescension, whereby there is not mere pressure of mouth upon mouth, but God is united to man! The contact of lips signifies the embrace of loving hearts; but this union of natures brings together the divine and human.” “St. Bernard's sermons on the Canticle of Canticles,” available on Internet Archive, website.

                                                                  (23.) The 13th-century Christian mystic Hadewych of Antwerp’s verse is another example of such intimacy: “those who were two, at first, are made one by the pain of love.”

                                                                  (24.) Theresa of Avila, The Life of St. Theresa by Herself, trans. David Lewis ( Publishing 2009), 149–150.

                                                                  (25.) Bernini’s white marble work is in the Cornaro Chapel, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome.

                                                                  (26.) Qur’an 5:54.

                                                                  (27.) Michael A. Sells, Mystical Languages of Unsaying (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 110. Here, Sells quotes and explains the mystical connotations of Ibn Arabi’s poem “the heart that can take on every form.”

                                                                  (28.) Rasoul Shams, Rumi: The Art of Loving (Salt Lake City, UT: Rumi Publications, 2012), 92.

                                                                  (29.) Nevit Oguz Ergin, A Rose Garden (Lake Isabella, CA: Echo Publications, 1997), 42.

                                                                  (30.) Ergin, A Rose Garden, 15.

                                                                  (31.) A central theme in the Upanishads, the Hindu philosophical text.

                                                                  (32.) The Puranas contain narratives about the history of the universe from creation to destruction and the genealogies of kings, heroes, sages, and demigods.

                                                                  (33.) The Bhagavad-Gita, Eknath Easwaran, trans. and intro., chapter 9, verse 34, p. 177 (Tomales: Nilgiri Press, 2007).

                                                                  (34.) Barbara Stoler Miller, ed. and trans. Love Song of the Dark Lord: Jayadeva’s Gitagovinda, 20th anniversary edition (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), The Eighth Part, verse 5, p. 107.

                                                                  (36.) Miller, Love Song of the Dark Lord, The First Part, verse 4, p. 69.

                                                                  (37.) Yudit Greenberg, “The Languages of Love and Desire in the Gitagovinda and the Song of Songs,” Journal of Vaishnava Studies 22.1 (Fall 2013), 69–78.

                                                                  (38.) Miller, Love Song of the Dark Lord, The Twelfth Part, verse 22, p. 125.

                                                                  (39.) Wolfgang Iser, The Implied Reader (Georgetown: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974).

                                                                  (40.) H. Veeser, The Stanley Fish Reader, Aramaic ed. (London: Blackwell Publishers, 1999).

                                                                  (41.) See for example Tod Linafelt, “Biblical Love Poetry (. . . and God),” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 70.2 (June 2002), 323–345.

                                                                  (42.) Daniel Boyarin, Carnal Israel: Reading Sex in Talmudic Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).

                                                                  (43.) Michael Fishbane, The Exegetical Imagination (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998); The Kiss of God: Spiritual and Mystical Death in Judaism (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996).

                                                                  (44.) David Biale, Eros and the Jews: From Biblical Israel to Contemporary America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).

                                                                  (45.) Jacob Neusner, “Divine Love in Classical Judaism,” in Divine Love: Perspectives from the World’s Religious Traditions, eds. Jeff Levin and Stephen Post (West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press, 2010).

                                                                  (46.) Moshe Idel, Kabbalah and Eros (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005).

                                                                  (47.) Elliot Wolfson, Language, Eros, Being: Kabbalistic Hermeneutics and Poetic Imagination (New York: Fordham University Press, 2005).

                                                                  (48.) Rachel Adler, Engendering Judaism: An Inclusive Theology and Ethics (Boston: Beacon, 1998).

                                                                  (49.) Judith Plaskow, Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1990).

                                                                  (50.) Hava Samuelson Tirosh, ed. Women and Gender in Jewish Philosophy (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004).

                                                                  (51.) Ellen Umansky, “Jewish Feminist Theology,” in Choices in Modern Jewish Thought: A Partisan Guide, ed. Eugene Borowitz (New York: Berman House, 1995), 313–340.

                                                                  (52.) Marcia Falk, The Book of Blessings: New Jewish Prayers for Daily Life, the Sabbath and the New Moon Festival (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999).

                                                                  (53.) Lynn Gottlieb, She Who Dwells Within: A Feminist Vision of a Renewed Judaism (New York: HarperCollins, 1995).

                                                                  (54.) Howard Eilberg-Schwartz, God’s Phallus and Other Problems for Men and Monotheism (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995).

                                                                  (55.) David M. Carr, The Erotic Word: Sexuality, Spirituality, and the Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).

                                                                  (56.) Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978).

                                                                  (57.) Cheryl J. Exum, Song of Songs (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 2005).

                                                                  (58.) Bernard McGinn, ed., Meister Eckhart and the Beguine Mystics (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 1997).

                                                                  (59.) Catherine Osborne, Eros Unveiled: Plato and the God of Love (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994).

                                                                  (60.) Peter Brown, The Body in Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988).

                                                                  (61.) Caroline Walker Bynum, The Resurrection of the Body in Early Christianity, 200–1336 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995); and Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982).

                                                                  (62.) Barbara Newman, Gods and the Goddesses: Vision, Poetry, and Belief in the High Middle Ages (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003).

                                                                  (63.) Amy Hollywood, Sensible Ecstasy: Mysticism, Sexual Difference and the Demands of History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002).

                                                                  (64.) Grace Jantzen, Becoming Divine: Towards a Feminist Philosophy of Religion (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999).

                                                                  (65.) Annemarie Schimmel, Mystical Dimensions of Islam (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975).

                                                                  (66.) William C. Chittick, The Sufi Path of Love: The Spiritual Teachings of Rumi (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1983).

                                                                  (67.) B. Abrahamov, Divine Love in Islamic Mysticism—The Teachings of Al-Ghazali and Al-Dabbagh (London: Routledge Curzon Sufi Series, 2003).

                                                                  (68.) Carl Ernst, “Indian Lovers in Arabic and Persian Guise: Azad Bilgrami’s Depiction of Nayikas,” The Journal of Hindu Studies 6.1 (2013): 37–51.

                                                                  (69.) Wendy D. O’Flaherty, Siva: The Erotic Ascetic (London: Oxford University Press, 1973).

                                                                  (70.) Edward Dimock, The Place of the Hidden Moon (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1991).

                                                                  (71.) Miller, Love Song of the Dark Lord.

                                                                  (72.) David L. Haberman, Journey through the Twelve Forests: An Encounter with Krishna (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).

                                                                  (73.) John Stratton Hawley, Krishna, the Butter Thief (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983); and Three Bhakti Voices: Mirabai, Surdas, and Kabir in Their Times and Ours (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

                                                                  (74.) Graham M. Schweig, trans., Dance of Divine Love: The Rasa Lila of Krishna from the Bhagavata Puraṇa, India’s Classic Sacred Love Story (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005).

                                                                  (75.) Hardy Friedhelm, Viraha-Bhakti: The Early History of Kr̩s̩n̩a Devotion in South India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1983).

                                                                  (76.) June McDaniel, The Madness of the Saints: Ecstatic Religion in Bengal (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986).

                                                                  (77.) Owen Lynch, ed., Divine Passions: The Social Construction of Emotion in India (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990).

                                                                  (78.) Barbara A. Holdrege, Bhakti and Embodiment: Fashioning Divine Bodies and Devotional Bodies in Krsna Bhakti (New York: Routledge, 2015).

                                                                  (79.) Yudit K. Greenberg, The Encyclopedia of Love in World Religions, 2 vols., ed. Yudit K. Greenberg (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2008).

                                                                  (80.) Jeff Levin and Stephen Post, eds., Divine Love: Perspectives from the World’s Religious Traditions (West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press, 2010).

                                                                  (81.) X. Francis Clooney, Comparative Theology: Deep Learning Across Religious Borders (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).

                                                                  (82.) Graham M. Schweig, trans., Dance of Divine Love: The Rasa Lila of Krishna from the Bhagavata Puraṇa, India’s Classic Sacred Love Story (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005).

                                                                  (83.) Michelle Voss Roberts, Tastes of the Divine: Hindu and Christian Theologies of Emotion (New York: Fordham University Press, 2014).