Through a Reflective Speculum: The Gynecological Kabbalah of R. Isaac b. Shimon of Gerona
R. Isaac b. Shimon of Gerona (fl. late 13th century) was a polymath. One of the translators in the court of King Alfonso X “el Sabio” of Castile, he was part of the team who rendered Ibn Sina’s voluminous medical classic Qanun fi’l-Tibb into Latin, as well as the lesser known and lost treatise by Isaac Israeli (9th Century physician of Qayrowan) On the Loathsome Parts of Women. Specializing in feminine ailments, R. Isaac served as the physician to the ladies of the royal family both under Alfonso X and his successor Sancho IV (r.1284-1295).
Yet, Rabbi Isaac had grown up among the mystics of Gerona prior to his departure for a medical career, and remained in contact with them throughout his life. Deeply influenced by the kabbalistic idea of matrimonial conjugality theurgically inducing sexual congress between the female and male parts of the Divine, Isaac discovered what he thought to be the reason for Israel’s downfallen state, its Diaspora and servitude among the heathen nations: the Shekhina, or feminine part of God, was on Her period. Contra the other Gerona kabbalists, who in the their work The Zohar advocated frequent marital relations to stimulate Divine Happiness, R. Isaac advocated abstention, as one does not approach one’s wife for pleasure when she is menstruating. His prescription instead is for kind words, sympathy and songs of praise for the Deity and for the readers’ wives, and to look forward in joy to the day the Shekhina goes to the ritual bathhouse to wash Herself clean and restore relations with Her beloved Israel.
Wolfbane’s study illuminates the thought of this long forgotten kabbalist with a close phenomenological and eroticized reading of R. Isaac’s epistles. He concludes with a poignant analysis of the failure of movements of sexual asceticism among Jewish mystics.