In Judaism, we appreciate the human body and soul-- together. The soul animates and provides direction to the body. The body provides agency to our souls in this world. This stems from the first creation stories where first God molds the first human Adam from the clay of the earth-- and then breathes life and soul into it.
In our daily liturgy, we thank God for each. The Asher Yatzar thanks God for giving us bodies that have parts that are open where they should be open and are closed where they should be closed (think of your heart valves for example)-- which, if they were disturbed in any way, we would not be able to praise God. And, right after the Asher Yatzar, the Elohai Neshamah prayer expresses gratitude for our God- given souls which are pure. BODY and SOUL, together.
Far too often we are seen as our bodies. And bodies alone.
The billboards along Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood make this abundantly clear. Perfume and underwear ads use bodies to convey a message. Beauty pageants and military contests glorify a particular physique.
We learned from the Black Lives Matter movement that society tells us some bodies are more valuable than others.
This is why bleaching skin and straightening hair is a thing.
This is why some Asian women seek out eye surgery to put folds in their eyelids.
This is why some aging women use wrinkle cream and some aging men apply hair thickeners.
And I can’t even begin to describe the insensitive and intimate and personal inquiries that people make about Trans bodies to Trans-identified people. I mean, imagine people approaching them and asking specific medical procedures in their most intimate body parts. In what world is this okay? Sometimes I fantasize about a world where we could all just simply relate to one another as tender, precious souls, one to the next. You know, like in the afterworld.
Tonight, Jewish communities around the world will read the Megillah on Purim. In it, King Achashverosh instructs Vashti to dance for him, presumably because of his obsession with her body. Yuck!
Awhile back, I was changing channels the other day and came across a pregnant Kim Kardashian’s birthday party-- her family didn’t want to make her feel too big and ugly for her birthday, so they all wore pregnancy bellies at her party.
What happened to pregnancy being a beautiful thing? Or black being beautiful? Or wrinkles representing wisdom? Etc, etc.
But, is denying the existence of our bodies the solution? A Talmudic story explores this idea:
Rabbi Shimon was an extremist in this ideas-- he loathed the physical world-- and when the Roman Government who represented the epitome of physical adornment got wind of his viewpoints, they wanted him dead or alive. Rabbi Shimon eventually went and hid in a cave with his son, which was probably better anyway because there, he could give up his physicality almost completely and study Torah all day. They did so buried up to their necks in sand as if to completely ignore their bodies altogether, only emerging three times a day for their daily prayers, at which time they would also eat of a single carob tree to barely sustain them. Later, when they were finally able to emerge from the cave, they had grown so haughty in their perspective that the soul trumps the body that they scathed at every physical representation they encountered and thereby destroyed them. The heavenly voice then banished them back to the cave for another year until they could strike a better balance between acknowledging how the physical and the spiritual must work in concert with one another.
When they were through with their sentence, they re-emerged and Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai went to a bathhouse, of all places, with another rabbi named Pinchas. As Rabbi Pinchas was rubbing Rabbi Shimon's flesh, he wept at how concave and shriveled it was on account of him denying bodily needs including nourishment for 13 years-- but Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai replied to the contrary, he should rejoice in this withering of his flesh as it is what allowed him to study Torah and sharpen his scholarly skill.
A bizzare story, right? It is found right there in the Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Shabbat 33b –34a. It underscores the difficult human tension -- to what extent is the body necessary for the soul and vice versa? Afterall, the soul needs to be nourished by the body and the body needs to be sustained by the animation of the soul.
So, rather than burying ourselves up to our necks in sand, how shall we balance the two?
Judaism teaches us the idea that, in this world at least, we treat the body with the utmost respect and honor as it houses the precious soul. Perhaps this is why, in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa, the people are instructed to wash the feet before entering the Temple Mount. The status of the body is a reflection of the status of the spirit.
This is why last week, we read about God instructing the high priest to wear robes of blue, hemmed with pomegranates of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, all around the hem, with bells of gold between them... Aaron should wear fringed tunics and headdresses of fine linen and sashes of embroidered work while officiating...services to God.
What if we were to relate to our OWN bodies in this sacred way-- to appreciate that our bodies allow us to stand and bow and sing our praises and frustrations to God. As instruments created for divine service to God. And as physical tools that help us to do God’s work in this world- to visit the sick and comfort the bereaved and rejoice at simchas.
What if we were to refrain from applying secular standards of beauty and virility to others here, but rather to praise one another for the stamina, focus, or strength our bodies give us to be of service to God and to the community?
May we build places of comfort for every soul and every body. Amen.
The above is a reflection by Rabbi Heather Miller on this week's Torah portion, Parashat Ki Tisa, Exodus Exodus 30:11 - 34:35. Please visit rabbiheathermiller.com to subscribe and follow on social media.