In Our Bodies


Let’s take a moment to connect with our bodies.
Beginning with the breath.
Connect to your feet, planted on the ground,
and work your way up through the body…

This past weekend,
at the Jewish Communities of VT Shabbaton and Summit,
I attended a workshop entitled Torah text, Torah Sex.
The workshop was led by Merissa Nathan Gerson,
a freelance writer and thinker.
She argued that for too long,
we have taken on the mantle of the People of the Book.
But as we have developed our intellect and mind,
it has come at the cost of focusing on our bodies.
She claims that Judaism has long been a disembodied religion,
and I happen to agree with her, to some extent.

I learned this hard truth mostly at Rabbinical School,
pouring over pages of Talmud each day,
my eyes squinting to see the words and understand the meaning.
There is a cost to academia when we do not also attend,
physically and spiritually, to the body’s needs.

But we have not always been a people without a body.
Sometimes for better, sometimes for worse,
priestly Judaism, Temple Judaism, was highly embodied.

Indeed, this week’s priestly Torah portion, Tazria, is all about bodies,
all about the physical, and where the physical and spiritual meet.

It is this week that we learn
about a period of days after a woman gives birth,
where the woman is considered tamei,
physically, spiritually and ritually impure.
For 33 days after giving birth to a boy, or 66 days for a girl,
a woman is unable to come to the Temple or touch sacred foods.
We are told that she must sit on her “blood purification” for that time.
And after this, she is to bring a lamb and bird,
and offer them as a sacrifice before G-d, with the help of the priest,
to ritually cleanse her.

Why did they sit for longer for giving birth to girls?
Why were women considered physically unclean to begin with?
Though there are rightly many questions — and perhaps skepticisms —
that relate to ancient cultic practice,
what is clear is that the physical was not divorced from the spiritual
in the same way that it often is
in our broad, modern day American Judeo-Christian culture.

In fact, the priests acted as part spiritual leaders, part doctors,
what we might understand as medicine men.
In their roles, they diagnosed and cured people
in their times of greatest vulnerability.
They used ancient ritual to make expiation and to make a person clean.

This is also true for those in the next part of our Torah portion,
whose bodies were struck with a swelling, a rash or a discolouration,
which turned into the disease known as tzaraat,
often misinterpreted as leprosy.
This skin disease was thought to be caused by gossip.
In fact, it was Miriam who was struck by this disease
after she spoke ill of Moses behind his back.
Again, the psycho-spiritual and physical realms affect each other greatly.

The Torah states, “The priest shall examine
the affection on the skin of his body:
if hair in the affected patch has turned white
and the affection appears to be deeper than the skin of his body,
it is an affection of tzaraat;
when the priest sees it, he shall pronounce the person tamei, unclean.”

The priests would quarantine the person afflicted,
so that the disease might not spread to others.
And after seven days, the priest would check in on the “patient”,
and if the person no longer had the skin disease,
that person is pronounced clean.
At times, our Torah portion reads more like a medical textbook
than an ancient guide of wisdom.

This week, after seven months of studying one page per day,
I finished Masechet Eiruvin,
a Talmudic book that deals with
in what circumstances it is permitted or prohibited
to carry and travel on Shabbat.

The study itself was intensely gruelling.
For one, this is not a topic that I am particularly fascinated by,
but it was the next book
in the series of books in the Talmud that I am reading.
But also, the writing in Masechet Eiruvin
is highly intellectualized and specific in its language.
It may be one example of a disembodied Judaism.
But I persevered and am proud of that accomplishment!

At the same time, the book is not all intellectual.
In one section of the masechet,
the writers veer off topic, as is common in the Talmud. (Eiruvin 54a-b).
Here they quote several allegories to the Torah itself.

The first analogue goes as follows:
Rabbi Hiyya Bar Abba said that Rabbi Yohanan said:
What is the meaning of that which is written in Proverbs (27:18):
“He who guards the fig tree shall eat its fruit”?
The Talmud asks: Why were matters of Torah compared to a fig tree?
It’s answer: Just as this fig tree,
whenever a person searches it for figs to eat,
he finds figs in it,
as the figs on a tree do not ripen all at once,
so that one can always find a recently ripened fig,
so too, with matters of Torah.
Whenever a person meditates upon them,
he finds in them new meaning.

Here the Torah is likened to a fig tree,
and how the figs are found and eaten by us humans.
Have you ever eaten from a fig tree
and noticed how some parts of it ripen before others?
This is also true with Torah learning and wisdom.
When when we take the time to meditate, to reflect on the Torah’s meaning,
to digest its words, we can find wisdom.

The Talmud then continues with another analogue:
Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahmani said:
What is the meaning of that which is written, also in Proverbs (5:19):
“A loving hind and a graceful roe,
let her breasts satisfy you at all times,
and be you ravished always with her love”?
Here the Talmud asks: Why were matters of Torah compared to a breast?
It’s answer: Just as with the breast,
whenever a baby searches it for milk to suckle,
he finds milk in it, so too, with matters of Torah.
Whenever a person meditates upon them,
he finds new meaning in them.

Here the Torah is likened to, of all things, a breast,
and the child who seeks it out for food.
Just as a child finds its food replenished through the breast,
so too through the Torah,
we might find new meanings in it at all times.

Now, we can understand this analogue as embodied or disembodied.
On the one hand, the initial intent of the verse is sexual.
The previous verse says: Find joy with the wife of your youth.
Her breast is meant to satisfy the man at all times.
One is to be “ravished always with her love”.
The rabbis take this verse and take the sex out of it,
likening it to a child suckling.
On the other hand,
their understanding of Torah, though different from the verse,
is deeply embodied.
It is counter-cultural, even radical, that they chose this particular verse
to analogize with the sacred Torah.

In the end, it is not only the priests, but the rabbis,
the great lovers of Torah,
who are deeply embodied in their Judaism
and in their appreciation of Torah text.
In these analogues of the fig tree and of the breast,
they liken Torah to the essentials of an embodied life,
beginning with food and the source of physical life,
from a mother to a child,
but also making the leap to spiritual sustenance,
by way of following our wisdom path of Torah learning.

Here we learn that Torah learning need not be exclusively intellectual.
In fact, it can be deeply embodied,
as we learn to practice our values through action,
through acts of lovingkindness,
through a deeper connection to food and its Source,
through finding ritual that empowers us to connect with our bodies,
as much as with our minds.

This was the essence of last weekend’s Shabbaton and Summit,
entitled: “Mind, Body and Soul”,
and this is the wisdom that we seek to integrate into ourselves at all times.
For when we individually and communally
express all of these parts of our selves at once,
we find we are each beautiful, embodied people,
we are collectively, a beautiful, embodied people.
And through this lived wisdom,
we come closer to the Divine.