Rabbinical School Student Blog genesis-2.21

Origin of Woman, Origin of Love: The Paradox of Desire in Genesis 2:21-24

(21) And the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; and He took one of his ribs, and closed up the place with flesh instead thereof.  (22) And the rib, which the LORD God had taken from the man, made He a woman, and brought her unto the man. (23) And the man said: ‘This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.’ (24) Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh.  — Genesis 2:21-24, JPS 1917

The second chapter of Genesis recounts the creation of Woman by way of a tale of the separation of one being into two separate beings, followed by the reunion (or attempted reunion) of those two beings through love.

When we think of the image of one being shedding a bit of its flesh in order to produce a second being, the first association that arises is pregnancy (or perhaps parthenogenesis).  In fact, the account here in Genesis 2 is a sort of “male pregnancy” narrative, in which the first Man gives birth to the first Woman. However, the more common association with the story in Genesis 2 is the idea of the romantic soulmate, “my other half,” the “bashert” (a Yiddish word meaning “destined”).

Two midrashim from Bereishit Rabbah offer two narratives about the relationship between the creation of Woman and the nature of romantic desire.

1. Desire is an attempt to restore a destroyed unity (to negate separateness).  

Rabbi Jeremiah ben Elazar said: When the Blessed Holy One created the First Man, He created him androgynous, as it is written, ‘Male and female He created them’ (Genesis 1:27).  Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachman said: When the Blessed Holy One created the First Man, He created him two-faced.  He split him [in two] and made for him two backs, one on each side [i.e., one back for each of the new beings]. (Bereishit Rabbah 8:1)

Although a different account of the creation of Woman is cited here (the account in Genesis 1), this midrash shares the theme of Genesis 2:21-24 (the division of one being into two). If you like Ancient Greek philosophy or if you have seen the movie “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” you probably recognize this narrative from Aristophanes’ speech in the “Symposium” of Plato. Aristophanes describes the halving of the original two-faced human as the origin of romantic love, a sort of mythical model for the concept of the soulmate — two halves of an original single being which desire to reunite to become one. (However, in Aristophanes’ version, not all pairs of soulmates are heterosexual — not all of the original four-legged beings were androgynous.) In any case, this idea of the soulmate, or bashert, also appears in Jewish sources. For example, in Sefer HaEmunah vehaBitachon, the Ramban (Nachmanides) writes:

The Blessed Holy One made the soul divided. He separated it into two parts and put the first part in one body and the second part in another body. In the union between the two bodies, primordial love awakens. (Ramban, Sefer HaEmunah vehaBitachon, 24)

2. Desire is predicated on separateness/difference.

A woman asked Rabbi Yossi, “Why [did God take the rib from Adam] in secret?” [i.e., why did He put Adam into a deep sleep first – see Genesis 2:21]? … She said to him … “I was supposed to be married to my mother’s brother, but because we lived together in one house as I grew up, I became ugly in his eyes, and he went and married another woman, who is less beautiful than I.” — Bereishit Rabbah 17:7

This midrash seems to imply that God puts Adam to sleep before creating Eve from his rib in order to decrease Adam’s awareness that he is Eve’s very close blood relative. Aside from reflecting anxiety about the incestuous aspects of the narrative in Genesis 2:21-24, this midrash also emphasizes the idea that closeness, or sameness, can be a deterrent to sexual attraction — that separateness and difference actually promote sexual desire. This idea also appears in another one of Plato’s dialogues, the “Gorgias,” in which he argues that it is only possible to experience pleasure and desire in the absence of their fulfillment — in other words, desire only exists as long as there is separation between the one who is desiring and the object of that desire.

These two narratives are not mutually exclusive — in fact, they are complementary. Taken together, they depict the great paradox of love. On the one hand, love (whether romantic, familial, platonic or religious) strives to close the distance between lover and beloved. However, part of what gives love its sweetness and determination is the unbridgeable separation between lover and beloved.

Considering these midrashim, I find myself reading Genesis 2:21-24 not as the story of the origin of Woman, but as the story of the “Origin of Love” (inspired, of course, by the song of the same title from “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” It is worth thinking about how this paradox between the desire for union on the one hand, and its sweet impossibility on the other, describes the dance we perform in our intimate relationships — the dance between separation and connection. How do we relate to the reality that complete connection is never possible, and longing (for the lover, the parent, the friend, the Divine) is a permanent facet of the human condition?

I want to invite you to explore this question as it applies right now in your own life. In what relationship do you currently feel the tension between separateness and connectedness most acutely? Can you imagine the possibility that you and your beloved (or friend, or family member, or even God) may have once been two halves of one body, or of one soul (using whichever one of the above texts speaks to you the most)? How does that image affect your understanding of or feelings about your desire for union with the other? What does it mean to try to cleave to another, all the while knowing that the fusion can never be complete?

What comes to you? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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