How Important Is the Body in Jewish Spirituality?

Today’s Jewish practice all too often seems to favor a highly intellectual approach. Opportunities to express spiritual connection in physical ways are few, and where they do exist, their deeper meaning is often lost.

In fact, the few practices that do engage our bodies – the mikveh (immersion), the laying of tefillin, the shuckling during prayer, or davening, – are often the province of the more observant worshipers, leaving members of liberal communities with few resources to express their spirituality physically.

But the physical plays a critically important role in our spiritual experience. It’s through the body that we experience God’s presence in our lives.

Jewish liturgy has numerous specific references to various parts of our bodies: from kol atzmotai tomarna (“all my bones shall praise you”) to references to God examining and knowing all our inner parts (kidneys are referenced some five times, e.g. in Psalm 26:2).

At the beginning of the Amidah, we ask God to open our lips and let our mouths declare His praise; at the end we ask Him to keep our tongues from speaking evil and our lips from speaking deceit. We talk about lungs expanding with the praise of God (Psalm 34:1).

And, of course, there is the blessing in which we thank and acknowledge God for the miracle of the body, recognize all the many open passageways and enclosed organs that our bodies contain, and that if even one thing went wrong with even one of them, we would not be able to survive.

In fact, the examples of full-body engagement are too many to mention: from King David’s very  physical ecstatic dance before the ark, to King Saul’s witnessing of a group of men prophesizing in motion, to Miriam leading women in dance: what we learn from the Torah and the liturgy is that prayer is a very physical business.

Yet this connection is mostly absent in today’s synagogues. In fact, the very atmosphere of today’s communal worship seems to discourage any physical expressions of an inner spiritual state.

The early Hasidim, in fact, paid significant attention to the body, realizing that the physical is the vehicle for the spiritual. This wisdom, which we are just starting to rediscover in our modern world through advances in mind-body medicine, was a given among the spiritual seekers of 18th century Eastern European shtetls.

Much of this knowledge has vanished with the disappearance or breakage of lineages in Hasidic dynasties during the Shoah. It is up to us to revive it and reclaim that which is ours.

When I lead meditation during services or in classes, I intentionally try to help bring awareness to the body. I will often offer guidance to focus people’s attention on a specific part of their body, such as the heart. Here, again, Jewish liturgy offers an endless source of inspiration. We are asked to love the Lord our God with all our heart; to purify our hearts so that we can serve Him; we are asked to walk before God and be wholehearted.

I have found the meditations that help people visualize the opening, expanding and repairing of their hearts to be meaningful for many. Meditations that remind one of the connection between our higher soul, neshama, and the neshima, our breath, which God used to breathed the soul into us, can also be powerful.

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