What Is Embodied Judaism?

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The idea of “embodied Judaism” came to me when I first began to engage with Judaism in a deep way back in 2009.

Having made the plunge, I got the distinct impression that the study and practice of Judaism revolved exclusively around intellectual engagement, leaving the rest of our being – in particular the physical, the emotional, and sometimes, unfortunately, even the spiritual – out.

In the meantime, having traveled the journey that many Jews end up traveling – the route of yoga, meditation, and study of holy scriptures from other traditions, I could see that our own traditions and rituals, not to mention the language of prayers, were clearly supposed to engage the heart and the spirit – in other words, a worshiper’s whole self.

I began to explore deeper these practices, paying particular attention to their underlying spiritual meaning. One of my favorites is the ritual of immersion – the mikveh, which is one of the most “embodied” practices we have. Yet most mikveh users hardly ever think about its profound spiritual meaning.

Another example is the use of fragrant herbs. Did you know that if we could “smell” the Bible, we would be overwhelmed by all the beautiful and spiritually elevating fragrances of the fragrant plants it mentions?

Having previously studied the properties of aromatic herbs and essential oils, I could immediately appreciate this: the sense of smell is one of the most powerful (yet least appreciated) senses, wired as it is right into the lymbic system of our brain. It connects directly into our emotional centers, the deeply visceral parts of us that bypass language.

Yet, most people, even those who had spent years and decades studying the Torah, simply glided past the names of these herbs, never asking themselves: why did God guide us to use frankincense with our burnt offerings? Why is the Song of Songs filled with a symphony of fragrances, from myrrh to frankincense to the Rose of Sharon? Why does Psalm 51 refer to hyssop when it talks about spiritual purity, as in “cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me and I will be whiter than snow”?

I had possible answers to these questions but I wasn’t sure anybody wanted to hear them. Still, I began sharing the information, bringing a few bottles of fragrant essential oils – the essences of aromatic plants – with me to services as specific parshiot called for them. Many people reported powerful experiences when their prayers were enhanced with those. Then I began to teach classes about it.

I also started wondering about movement. Why do we traditionally shukle during prayer? Why do hasidim dance? What stepping forward and backward during the Amidah, bowing at various places, prostrating at High Holy Day services?

The truth is that  Judaism is unabashedly physical, expressive. Miriam and King David danced ecstatically for God. The Psalms speak of singing new song to God. Our offerings are nothing if not physical.

I see it as my mission to help my fellow Jewish worshippers to rediscover deep spiritual meaning in these practices: help them acquire a new meaning and become a new doorway for further spiritual exploration.

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