Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth,
for your love is better than wine.
(Song of Songs 1:2)

Early during the 17th-century Enlightenment, an uprising of scholars and sundry quillmen with ink-stained fingers from across Europe and America confederated to form a borderless, virtual society known as the Republic of Letters (Respublica literaria). As the citizens Scholars and quillmen formed a borderless, virtual societyof this “republic” spent most of their waking hours preoccupied with eyeballing and manipulating the letters of the alphabet, notably in reading and in writing books and intellectual correspondences, they came to be known as the belletrists, or “men of letters.”

In a far a less elitist, far more populist sense, this may serve as a rather apt epithet for the Jewish people. The Jews are the people of the Alef-Bet.1 Ever since they stood at the foot of Mount Sinai, when the cloth of heaven was yanked down from its infinite recess above the celestial sphere and stitched to the fabric of the earth with the inky metaphysical thread of the Hebrew alphabet, the Bibliophile Nation has been busy reading this holy seam known as the Torah, “turning it over and over again and growing old in it” (Pirkei Avot 5:21). A full Jewish life is a life full of reading. A Jewish home, according to a basic rule of interior design once outlined by the Rebbe, is a home full of books.

Is it any wonder that when a given citizen of this Alef-Bet Republic finishes reading something handed down to the generations by its venerable founders, he or she will kiss it, as a matter of second nature, before placing the wad of pulp and ink down on the table or back up on the shelf? Is it a wonder that Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz has even gone so far as to define “what it means to be a Jew” in terms of kissing books? But in order to appreciate the metaphorical logic of this deeply ingrained custom, this symbolic gesture, and also in order to dispel suspicions entertained by anyone held under the spell of comparative religion that this kissing of books is some kind of fetishism of dubious implications, it is helpful to consider each of the two elements at play separately. In the immortal words of ’70s pop star Gilbert O’Sullivan, it must be asked: “What’s in a kiss? Have you ever wondered just what it is? More perhaps than just a moment of bliss. Tell me, what’s in a kiss?”

That’s the second question that needs to be asked. The first question is: What’s in a book? Or, to be more precise, since Jews don’t kiss romance novels, calculus textbooks, aquarium pump instruction manuals or any other type of book that stems from human wisdom, the question pertains specifically to sefarim, “holy books,” books stemming from Divine wisdom. Sefer is a library classification that applies first and foremost to “Torah” in the narrowest sense of the term: the great scroll containing the Five Books—the Pentateuch or Chumash—dictated by G‑d to Moses. Beyond that, though, the classification includes all the books that have grown organically from the Torah like branches from a tree, including the smaller branches on the larger branches, all drawing sap and life from the tree, and serving the tree in turn, photosynthetically as it were, with the light-energy of fresh readings. The category of “holy books,” in other words—“Torah” in the broadest sense of the word—includes the books of the Prophets, Mishnah, Midrash, Talmud, rabbinic literature, kabbalistic literature, etc.

What’s in a sefer?

What is the Torah in its essence? Why does the great master of metaphors, King Solomon, for example, reach all the way back to the Garden of Eden in order to invoke the “tree of Life” (Proverbs 3:18)2 as the most felicitous metaphor for the Torah?

To give a proper definition of the Torah is probably impossible. But one essential and succinct To characterize the Torah as a “book” misses the pointcharacterization of it is offered in the midrashic-kabbalistic tradition: The Torah is the will and wisdom of G‑d.3 It is G‑d’s great communication of the cosmic desideratum to be attained in the human dimension: the mitzvot. For the mitzvot, the essential content of the Torah, constitute “the innermost dimension of the Supreme Will and the true Desire of G‑d.”4

To characterize the Torah as a “book,” therefore, is as meaningful as to characterize one’s husband or one’s wife as, say, a living organism belonging to the species Homo sapiens. The characterization is certainly not false. Nor can it be said to be inconsequential. After all, if someone’s spouse were to cease being a member of the said species or of the class of living organisms, heaven forbid, there would be no easy measure to that person’s grief. Nevertheless, such a characterization misses the point. It entirely misses the total, horizon-embracing intimacy embodied in a spousal relationship. Similarly, to call the Torah or any sefer a “book” misses the fact that this “book” opens up the possibility of profoundest intimacy with an author who not only wrote this extraordinary text, but who also happened to write the entire universe, to write it into being. A Torah “book” is really not a book, therefore. It’s a tear in the spatio-temporal continuum. It’s a time portal through which the reader is transported to the foot of Mount Sinai, the site that uniquely served as a gate built into the architectonic of time and opening onto the expanse of eternity. To open a sefer is to sit beside Ezekiel by the river Chebar under a sky unfurled like a scroll: ‘The heavens were opened, and I saw visions of G‑d’ (Ezekiel 1:1).5 And just as Adam, upon seeing Eve, immediately came to the conclusion that a man “will cleave to his wife, and they will be one flesh” (Genesis 2:24),6 a Jew who grasps the significance of a sefer trembles in its presence, in the seismic recognition that it contains nothing less than the opportunity for deveikut, an impassioned and tender “fusion,” with its great and awesome Author.

The Zohar sums up this mysterium tremendum in a pithy, radical equation: ‘The Torah and the Holy One, blessed be He, are one.’7

Are one. Unified. Are one. Existentially, essentially. Cutting through all the nice and sensible metaphysical distinctions that are typically drawn between the Divine Author and His magnum opus—after all, we don’t say that Shakespeare is Hamlet, that Herman Melville is Moby Dick, etc.—the Zoharic proposition bravely plunges into the heart of the matter. The Torah is G‑d.—But how can that be? Isn’t there more to G‑d that just a text, however awesome and holy this text may be? Doesn’t G‑d keep busy with other things as well, for instance with creating and continuously sustaining the universe?

The prosaic difference between the Holy Book and its Holy Author, which is more palatable to common sense and common parlance about G‑d and the Bible than the highly poetic affirmation of their unity, is certainly confirmed throughout midrashic and kabbalistic literature. Another much-quoted teaching of the Zohar, with many counterparts in Midrash, Isn’t there more to G‑d than just a text?for example, is that G‑d “looked into the Torah and created the world.”8 And since God sustains the universe by constantly re-creating it each and every moment,9 G‑d must be constantly looking into the Torah each and every moment.10 Ever since the composition of the ancient Sefer Yetzirah, the kabbalistic tradition has regarded G‑d as the primordial “man of letters” who creates the universe by means of the Alef-Bet.11 What this teaching implies, logically, is that G‑d and the Torah are in fact two distinct, separate realities. “G‑d looked into the Torah” does not suggest, at least not immediately, something like “G‑d looked into a mirror.” The gap between the two is especially underscored by the way that G‑d is cast in the passive role of reader rather than author.

On the other hand, could we abide by the logical conclusion to which this second Zoharic teaching would lead were it read as a line of rational argumentation, namely as an affirmation of cosmic dualism in which G‑d and the Torah are equiprimordial divine realities?12 Is there really any room for the possibility, as one philosopher has coyly put it,13 of “loving the Torah more than G‑d”? G‑d forbid! Cosmic dualism—what the ancients called Gnosticism or Zoroastrianism and what we call Star Wars, where the cosmic “Force” is divided into dark and light “sides”14—is the most rudimentary type of idolatry. On the basis of G‑d’s relentless denunciation of idolatry throughout the Torah, not to mention the preeminent position among the Ten Commandments of the repudiation of “other gods” (Exodus 20:3–6 & Deuteronomy 5:7–10), it is necessary, for the sake of a coherent view of the Torah, to resist a reading of the Zoharic teaching that “He looked into the Torah and created the world” as one that is ultimately true. Kabbalistic and midrashic teachings are poetically charged intimations of various truths, or of truth in various phases and faces. On the most prosaic level, the level of Cosmic dualism is the most rudimentary type of idolatrysober rational theology, G‑d and Torah are two distinct realities. Ascending a level into the poetic dimension, midrashic teaching is not afraid to indulge in the suggestive anthropomorphic imagery of G‑d reading the Torah. A midrash operating on more or less the same level tells us, for example, that G‑d wears tefillin.15 However, the poetic potency of even such metaphors is only of penultimate importance by comparison with the frustration of the metaphor in the still more powerful suggestiveness of the advisedly paradoxical statement, “G‑d and the Torah are one.” The equation is no longer a metaphor at all. It’s simply designed to make the mind snap.

In a context that is more rationalist than poetic (or midrashic-kabbalistic), Maimonides comes to express a very similar equation, at the limit of rational thought, and specifically on the same basis of a vigilance to the pitfalls of dualist or pluralist idolatries.

He does not know with a knowledge that is external to Him, in the way that we know, for we and our knowledge are not one. [ . . . ] Were He “alive” with a life, or were He to know with a knowledge, external from Him, there would be several divinities: He, His life and His knowledge. But the matter is not so. Rather, He is one from all sides and angles, in all manners of unity. Thus you will find it said: ‘He is the Knower, He is the Known, and He is the Knowledge itself.’ All is one. [ . . . ] He does not recognize and know created things by virtue of created things, as we know them. Rather, He knows them by virtue of Himself. Thus, because He knows Himself, He knows everything, for everything depends on Him for its existence.16

Within the term “knowledge” as it is used in this text, Maimonides evidently means to include the divine omniscience and providence that knows everything that happens in the universe. It is thanks to R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi that the general insight of this Maimonidean text is applied “specifically” to the primordial Knowledge, the Knowledge that preceded the creation of the universe and on the basis of which the universe was originally designed, the divine Knowledge that is the Torah.17 G‑d knows everything because everything is designed on the basis of the Torah. And G‑d knows the Torah because He knows Himself. An interpretation of Anochi, the “I” in “I am the L‑rd” (Exod. 20:2) says: “I give My soul in the text.”18 In giving us the Torah, it is “as if He had given us His very self.”19

“The Torah and the Holy One, blessed be He, are one.” It is a straightforward consequence of this simple, tremendous equation that to kiss a sefer is to kiss the Holy One, blessed be He.

Literally? Well, naturally, the physical sefer constructed of parchment or paper, A book is not just a physical thingof ink, of binding materials, etc., is also, like every object in the universe, a trickled-down manifestation of the Divine. But the tangible reality of a nicely bound book is the end product of a long series of formidable tzimtzumim, contractions of the infinite Divine light (or ein sof) that curdle the light’s transparency, contraction after contraction, into the opacity of the material world. The physical book in our hands is a highly “congealed” form of divinity. But a book is not just a physical thing. Its physical existence can very easily be traded in for a pixelated version legible on a computer screen or someone reading it out loud. Indeed, the true identity of the book lies in the meaning of its words, its narrative, its logic, its message. And in this respect, the Torah is very much the infinite wisdom of its Author manifest in uncongealed, highly limpid form.20 Just as it is possible to know a person who lives across the ocean much more intimately by reading a heartfelt e‑mail than by sitting side by side with him in dumb silence in the same room, a much closer intimacy with G‑d can be attained by reading the Torah than by any kind of mystical or miraculous but contentless experience of divinity.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman proffers a simple and bold metaphor for the essentially virtual way that meaning operates. The object of the Supreme Will, as mentioned above, is the mitzvah that the human being does in the material world. As the desideratum of the divine Will and intention, the mitzvah is the true meaning of the Torah. The material circumstances of the mitzvah, of course, obstruct any possible experience of the Torah in its “nudity,” being a layer of materiality. Nevertheless, meaning, like the movements of a living body under layers of clothing, is something that renders even the thickest layers into permeable membranes.

Although the Torah has been clothed in lower material things, it is like embracing the king, metaphorically speaking. There is no difference with regard to the degree of intimacy and attachment to the king between a situation in which the king is wearing a single garment and a situation in which he is wearing several garments, so long as the royal body is in them.21

Correspondingly, when a human being kisses a leather-bound sheaf of paper, the loving essence of the gesture penetrates into the realm of the incorporeal. The kiss reaches deep, beyond all corporeality, beyond paper and ink, into the meaning of the words in the sefer.

By the same token, indeed, the reach of the kiss also transcends the corporeality of the very lips that do the kissing. The kiss, this gesture of the lips in relation to the color-stained leather cover of the sefer, is, like the embrace of the king, a mere symbolic token of affection. For during the process of actual reading and immersion in Torah study, when the incandescent meaning of the words lets the physical reality of the book fall away into a dim and irrelevant background, “besides the intellect being enclothed in G‑d’s wisdom, behold, G‑d’s wisdom enters into it,” into the human intellect. Well beyond a kiss, this constitutes a “wondrous union, which is like no other union, and nothing commensurable can be found in the corporeal world, a unification of utter fusion and exclusivity from every side and angle.”22

What’s in a kiss?

Once the identity of the Torah and G‑d is grasped as something that takes place in the realm of language and meaning, in the realm of intimacy born of communication, the metaphorical significance of a kiss falls into place within the same realm. The human being, it should be recalled, is defined as ha-medaber, ‘the speaking one,’23 as a matter of essence rather than of accidental characteristic. Adam’s very first task in Eden was to identify the exact alphabetical elements and hence the Hebrew word through the metaphysical collusion of which each life form had been created, so that “whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof” (Genesis 2:19).

A kiss is an action done with the same mouth that breathes and speaks. Speaking, in a sense, is a highly disciplined and choreographed form of breathing. This is true in a very prosaic sense. As breath wells up from the lungs and passes through the windpipe, its flow is channeled and compelled to dance through the five organs of verbal articulation—larynx, palate, tongue, teeth and lips—in order to produce unique sounds. At the same time, breathing also bears a poetic connection with speech. An esoteric connection: “the secret of breath that exits from the mouth is transformed into voice.”24 Breath is Breath is the mark of lifethe mark of life. But what is prosaically a mark of life in all animals that possess lungs attains in the human animal the special status of spirituality. (The Latin word spiritus, in fact, means breath.) Thus in Hebrew, as in most other languages, the words for “soul” are derived from, synonymous with or related to terms denoting breathing: nefesh, ruach, neshamah. Breathing thus comes to symbolize the innermost principle of vitality and identity. This is true of the “living” cosmos in general: “By the word of the L‑rd were the heavens made, and all the host of them by the breath of His mouth.” (33:6) It is true in a very special way of the human race, the first member of which was ready-to-go when G‑d “blew into his nostrils the soul of life” (Genesis 2:7). In his comment on this verse, Nachmanides explains that this metaphor is an allusion to the “foundation and secret” of the human soul within G‑d Himself. And he cites two biblical verses that evidently connect the phenomenon of breathing with the highest cognitive faculties in the human being: “For the L‑rd gives wisdom: out of His mouth comes knowledge and understanding” (Proverbs 2:6); “But there is a spirit [ruach] in man, and the breath [nishmat] of the Almighty gives them understanding” (Job 32:8). These verses indicate that the human soul is itself divine. “For when someone blows into the nostrils of another,” says Nachmanides, as if describing the first-aid procedure of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, “he gives him of his own breath.” R. Schneur Zalman makes the profoundly inward dimension of this transfer of vitality still sharper: “As it says in the Zohar: he who exhales, exhales from within. Meaning: from his inwardness and his innermost, for it is the inward and innermost vitality in a human being that he emits in exhaling with force.”25 “Originally [Adam’s] breath was contained in its source and root, meaning, in [G‑d’s] being and essence.”26

The various actions that convene, on the physical plane, in the mouth thus provide a powerful metaphorical nexus in which three spiritual phenomena are braided together into a three-ply cord, and “a three-ply cord is not easily broken” (Ecclesiastes 4:12): breath-soul-speech, or, what amounts to the same, vitality-identity-intelligence. But the braid is so tight that each of the three strands cannot be considered in isolation from the other two. Thus, when a person speaks, his speech is simultaneously an expression of his vitality and identity as well as of his intelligence. The breath that his mouth uses to speak is the very same breath that is the substance of his life and soul. Likewise, when G‑d creates the universe by means of Ten Utterances,27 this creation is tantamount to an infusion of vitality, not just existence, so that even seemingly inanimate things like rocks, dust and water are in fact innervated and trilling with divine life.28

And it is to this convergence of actions done with the mouth and to its correlative nexus of metaphors that a kiss must be included as a fourth phenomenon if its metaphorical significance is to be unpacked.

The kiss, as a beatific The kiss is thematized most exquisitely within biblical literaturephenomenon, is thematized most exquisitely within biblical literature by Solomon in his Song of Songs. The word “kiss” occurs only twice in the text. But the first time is in the opening verse of the song, and its deep gong resonates throughout the rest of the verses.

Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!
For your love is better than wine. (Song of Songs 1:2)

As the entire Song of Songs is an allegory for the intimacy between the human and the divine (for why else would the austere and G‑d-intoxicated Men of the Great Assembly have included it in the biblical canon but for its power as a sublime allegory?29), the kiss in particular proved to be a compelling anthropomorphic metaphor in kabbalistic literature. Thus the Zohar attributes the verse “Let him kiss me” to the community of Israel as whole,30 who sings it in reference to G‑d.

Why [does Israel say] “Let Him kiss me”? She should have said, “Let Him love me”! Why “Let him kiss me”? Because, as we have been taught, kisses are a cleaving of spirit/breath [ruach] to spirit/breath. This is why it is done with the mouth, for the mouth is the aperture and the wellspring of the spirit/breath.31

What did King Solomon see when he introduced words of love between the Upper World and the Lower World, and when he began his praises of the love between them with “Let him kiss”? But this is how it has been established: there is no love that is a cleaving of spirit/breath to spirit/breath without a kiss. And specifically a kiss on the mouth, for it is the wellspring of spirit/breath and its aperture. When two people kiss, the spirits/breaths cleave to one another and become one. Hence they become one love.32

It is to this divine love felt by G‑d in the Upper World for His people in the Lower World that the Tanya attributes G‑d’s descent into Egypt. And the purpose and consummation of the descent is characterized specifically in terms of Torah learning.

The Holy One, blessed be He, in His glory and His essence descended there, as is written: “And I have come down to deliver them, etc.” (Exod. 3:8), in order to bring them near to Him in true nearness and unity, in a true coupling of the soul belonging to the category of mouth-to-mouth kisses, to utter the word of G‑d, namely the halachah, and the fusion of breath/spirit to breath/spirit, namely the comprehension of the Torah and the knowledge of His will and wisdom, all of which is truly one.33

King Solomon’s sublime metaphor of the kiss was to become a theme coursing through the entire kabbalistic corpus. It climaxes in such seminal chassidic teachings as Basi le-Gani, the “swan song” discourse of R. Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, in which the whole of human history is conceptualized in terms of G‑d’s love for Israel and Israel’s reciprocation of that divine love through the only genuine signs of affection, the mitzvot. G‑d’s love for Israel is like “coals of fire” that “many waters cannot quench” (Song of Songs 8:6–7). And the mitzvah reciprocates this passion. It is an outward manifestation of the elemental fire that ascends from the heart to form breath and word. Commenting on the verse “For the L‑rd your G‑d is a consuming fire” (Deuteronomy 4:24), Rabbi Schneur Zalman notes the alphabetical-elemental affinity of “breath” (הבל), “heart” (הלב) and “flame” (להב): “Speech emanates from the element of fire, for it rises from the breath of the heart through a pipe; and the heart is the root of the element of fire.”34 Breath and speech are thus Breath and speech are thus expressions of a fire expressions of a fire blazing in the core of a Jewish heart, the natural passion of which, as evidenced in the upward surge of a flame,35 is to become reunited with the “consuming fire” that is G‑d. “For in the nature of the divine soul of the Jew there are flashing flames of love for G‑d which can be compared to the supernal fire that waters cannot quench.”36

Is it any wonder, then, that Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz dared to define “what it means to be a Jew” in terms of so seemingly trite and quirky a Jewish custom as that of kissing books? The definition falls into place rather felicitously within the cosmic love story first told by King Solomon once it is appreciated what’s in a kiss and what’s in a sefer. A kiss is a swirling amalgamation of breath and breath, spirit and spirit. And a sefer is, so to speak, the lips of G‑d.