Celebrating the Jewish Body: Exercises for Body and Soul

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June 4, 2010

“Celebrating the Jewish Body” is reprinted from Zeek’s Spring 2010 issue, The Spirituality of Healing, available for purchase here. Zeek thanks the Bay Area Healing Center for guest-editing this timely and significant issue on spiritual care.

“To create is sacred, because it’s all we know of God.” Tennessee Williams

“And if anything is sacred, the human body is sacred.” Walt Whitman

The very first thing the Torah tells us about ourselves is that we are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. What does this mean to us today, as contemporary Jews in search of wholeness and healing? Do we honor these words in our daily lives, or do we dismiss them as poetic metaphor? What would our lives be like, what would our physical, psychological, and spiritual health be like, what would Judaism be like, and what would the world be like – if those were the words that we enshrined as the watchwords of our faith, b’tzelem Elohim, rather than the Shema?

When you come to the end of this paragraph, put down this magazine for a few minutes, close your eyes, and lovingly begin to massage one hand with your other hand. Touch yourself with the delight and curiosity of a new lover caressing you for the first time. As you do, say this to yourself: “I am created in the image of God. The hand that I massage is the living image of God. The hand I am massaging myself with is the image of God.”

When you finish massaging that hand, if you are in a private space, or feel comfortable doing this in public, continue to massage your arm, then your shoulder, and slowly go on until you have massaged your entire body from head to toe, wherever you can reach. If you are not physically able to do this, imagine that you are massaging yourself. As you do this, continue to say to yourself, “I am created in the image of God.” Give yourself at least five minutes to do this, focusing on any areas that feel tight or stiff or painful or numb, massaging yourself wherever you are able to reach, physically or energetically, until your body begins to soften and relax because of your loving hands, because of your gentle and attentive care.

As you massaged yourself, what thoughts and feelings came up? Did you actually massage yourself? If you didn’t, what prevented you, what thoughts or limitations, physical or emotional? What did your massaging hand learn about your other hand and about the rest of your body if you massaged it? How does the hand that was massaged feel right now? How does the rest of your body feel, if you massaged it all? When was the last time you massaged yourself? When might you do it again? When was the last time anyone massaged you, touched you, made love to you, and are you comfortable with your answers to those questions or would you like to make changes in your life because of them?

The very second thing that the Torah tells us about ourselves is that we are created in the image of God, male and female. Clearly the text is telling us two important things – that God Itself is both male and female, and that we are too, if we are created in Its image.

Take a few minutes now to sit quietly with your eyes closed. Say these words to yourself: “I am created in the image of God. I am both male and female. I am both female and male.” How do you feel saying these words to yourself? Do they make sense to you? Do they please, irk, puzzle, or amuse you? As you say these words, move through your body and sense the unique and marvelous ways in which female and male are woven through you, along with qualities and attributes that may not be labeled as either of those. How can you bring your full humanness into your physical life and your relationships? Imagine going to work, to dinner, to the gym, a doctor’s appointment, or to your physical therapy appointment as the holy image of God’s female maleness?

Are some parts of your body/mind more female than male, more male than female? Are there aspects of you that are not gendered at all? And what are your judgments about your body and its gendered/non-gendered nature? Are you comfortable as your body? Are there things that you can do to massage your relationship with your sacred body so that you move in the world in a more fluid and comfortable way? What would you have to let go of that limits you now, in your own divine nature, and what will you have to embrace about it, in order to be a full human being, alive in God’s image?

Our history as a particular people begins in Torah when God says to Abraham: “Lech lecha,” – Walk! Go. Go find yourself by walking.” Archaeologists tell us that camels were not yet domesticated in the time of Abraham and Sarah, so they probably walked from Mesopotamia to Eretz Canaan, as did every generation of our ancestors, to and from Egypt and in and out of exile, down through history. Since the invention of automobiles, we human animals have been walking less and less, but walking is an innate part of being human. We walked out of Africa. Babies respond to being rocked at a pace that is identical to that of a slow migrating walk. Not rushing to get somewhere, but walking at a slow even pace is what brings simple aliveness to our sacred bodies.

Put down this magazine after you’ve read the above paragraph, and if you are able, go for a slow, easy walk for between ten and twenty minutes. For the first few minutes, play with your pace. Walk very quickly, and then very slowly. Alternate the two and feel where you are most comfortable moving between fast and slow. Do you have any physical or emotional issues that influence your walking? Notice how your legs move, how muscles contract and expand to support your movements. How do your arms swing? Do they move from side to side or cross in front of your body as you walk? Are your arm movements coordinated with your leg movements? How do your feet touch the ground? How is your breathing as you walk? What are you observing around you? Slow your pace again, and notice if and how your senses respond — sight and hearing and smell.

Feel in your human animal body the millions of years of primate history. Feel in your sacred Jewish body the thousands of years of walking encoded in you from our shared past. Feel as you walk that you are created in the image of a God who, Genesis tell us, went walking in the Garden of Eden, the Garden of Delight, at the breezy time of the day. And if walking is a challenge, how you do move? Do you travel the world on wheels? Does someone push you? Feel this movement through the world and know that it, too, is holy. And if you are bed-bound, feel in the pulsing of your blood, in the beating of your heart, the step-by-step journey of lech lecha surging through all of your cells.

Many verses of the Torah are devoted to the building of the tabernacle and the creation of the priestly vestments, guided by Bezalel, the son of Uri from the tribe of Judah, and Oholiab, the son of Ahisamach of the tribe of Dan. What we learn from this is that space is sacred and the work of our hands is sacred when we create with sacred intention and devote the work of our hands to sacred purpose. Thus did God create the first person from the dust of the earth in the second creation story – dust, soil, earth, clay – shaping and molding it into a human figure. To create is sacred, we are reminded by Bezalel. To create is a sacred function of being embodied.

Make something – music, a drawing, a scarf, a bookcase. Make love; plant seeds; make breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Wash the dishes with sacred intention. Take out the trash knowing that you are doing holy work, participating in tikkun olam, the repair of the world. Use your holy body to create something that is rooted in the world but that did not exist before. If you cannot use your hands, tell a story. Allow yourself as your body to do something that is physical and that you define as sacred, as a holy act of one who is created in the image of God. Give yourself time to sit with colored pencils, paint, or at a piano. Use your camera, or create something new in any way you are drawn to, doing it in a prayerful, meditative way, an exuberant way, meditative and joyful, not solemn or with seriousness. Create with pleasure, as a child creates, allowing creative energy to flow through you, in whatever way you feel called to do.

After the Israelites crossed through the parted waters into freedom, escaping from Pharaoh and his pursuing horsemen, Moses and the people sang a song to God and Miriam picked up a timbrel, a tambourine, a hand-drum, and led the women in a dance. Imagine that joyous celebration. The Hebrew word for a festival, “chag,” comes from the same root as the word for pilgrimage, a sacred walk, which we also see in the Arabic word “haj,” the pilgrimage to Mecca. The ancient Semitic root may go back even further to mean “a sacred dance” or a circle dance, perhaps the earliest ritual that brought our ancestors together.

Put on your favorite music and dance. Be it hip-hop, Aretha Franklin, a Japanese koto, or Bach, let go and let your sacred body move with the music. Some people have been told that they can’t dance. There’s an old African proverb: “If you can walk, you can dance.” And there is no such thing as dancing badly. As Thoreau said, each of keeps step to the beat of our own drummer. Let the music enter your cells. Allow the music to dance through you. Surrender to the music and let it dance you, move you, throb and pulse and move through you. If you are in a wheelchair, can you turn and spin and move with the music, finding your own comfortable pace? If you cannot dance physically, if you cannot get up on your feet and dance, what music do you enjoy and what can you do to let music pulse through your body? Can you rock, can you sway, can you feel the beat of the music drumming inside you?

What if our experience of Judaism wasn’t grounded in verbal liturgy, words accented from time to time by our standing and bowing and sitting down again? What if our experience of prayer was grounded in physical liturgy? What if every place where we met with other people became a sacred space, a tabernacle? Can you imagine a Judaism in which we gathered together each Shabbat, not to pray in words but to massage each other’s shoulders, hands, feet, and backs, all the while whispering to each other only these words, “You are b’tzelem Elohim. I am b’tzelem Elohim. All of us here are b’tzelem Elohim. All of humanity is b’tzelem Elohim.” Could there be war in a world that taught those words and embodied them? Could we destroy a planet that we knew was the sacred soil from which our own bodies were created and replenished? Could such a Judaism offer the ultimate healing of poverty, war, and pollution?

Can you imagine yourself part of a Judaism in which the Barechu, the call to worship, is a call to stretch and feel your body moving? How would you, could you, move in a Judaism where the Amidah isn’t spoken but danced, in eighteen different movements of praise, gratitude, and petition? What music would you contribute to a danced Aleinu, held perhaps beneath the sky? Can you imagine a walking Kaddish, a danced Adon Olam? What kinds of healing would we find here, in our bodies, minds, and emotions, and what kinds of spiritual transformation would we find here, in an embodied Judaism of the flesh? What if we went back to the very first things our tradition tells us about ourselves – that we are all created in the very image of the divine – and took this seriously, with joy and not solemnity, and created new ways of incorporating this spiritual truth into our embodied, physical, sacred Jewish lives?

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