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Embodied Spirituality: 'The Body Is the Glory of the Soul'

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Jomo Kenyatta led Kenya to independence after years of colonial rule. When asked to explain what he saw as the central dynamic of modern African history, he said, "When the Europeans came to Africa, the Africans had the land and the Europeans had the Bibles. Then the Europeans taught the Africans to get on their knees and to pray with their eyes closed. When we opened our eyes, the Africans had the Bibles and the Europeans had the land."

President Kenyatta's pithy observation reminds us that many perceive there to be a split between being concerned with the realm of the spirit (prayer while kneeling, eyes shut, clenching a Bible) and concern with more material objects (bodies, land and possessions). That split goes to the very core of western civilization, toward the earliest assertion of a dichotomy that perceived something incompatible between spirit and body, between an essence of soul and an essence of physical carnality. That chasm affects us to this very day, when we are bidden by many voices to be more introspective and more spiritual. Religious observance of spiritual practices, such as the new interest in meditation or in fasting, underscores an attention to our interior life, to examine the state of our souls, to do the kind of tough inner work that a life of spiritual discipline demands.

In our age, many identify a spiritual life precisely with an otherworldly attitude, one that looks upon physical things as somehow destructive, one which evaluates biological bodies as somehow less significant, and one which understands the core action to be in the realm of spirit, somehow distinct from physicality. We owe this division in large measure to the Greek philosopher, Plato, and to his student, Aristotle. It was Plato who taught us that the ideal can not be physical. A physical chair, while related to all other chairs on some level, is always faulty -- it gets scratched, it breaks, it doesn't balance perfectly. But the concept of the chair, the idea of the chair -- that's where chair perfection is to be found. Plato believed in that platonic ideal, that somehow if one could distill the essence of something beyond its mere physicality, we would encounter its perfect exemplar. Plato believed in the reality of ideas. For him, ideas actually exist, not physically, but real nonetheless. And physical objects, while necessarily imperfect, reflect, in whatever merit they may possess, the glory of the ideal.

For this viewpoint, the realm of spirit is actually more real, more worthy, than its imperfect, physical shadow. That notion, that to be physical is degraded, that somehow the spirit partakes of the universal while the body partakes only of the particular, and, therefore, is inferior -- is to be found not only in Western philosophy, not only in Eastern meditation, but also in many Jewish articulations as well. From no less a guide than the Rambam (Rabbi Moses Maimonides) we learn:

It was necessary that men's very noble ideal, which is we have explained as the image of God and God's likeness, should be bound to earthy, turbid and dark matter. Which calls down upon man every imperfection and corruption; God granted it -- I mean the human ideal -- the soul, power, dominion, rule and control over matter in order that it subjugated, quell its impulses, and bring it back.

Make no mistake, says Rambam, "you have the potential to greatness, your soul, which is incorporeal knows only the Divine, but it is placed in a body which is turgid, and dark, and weak with all kinds of carnal desires. It is because of the flesh that you sin, it is because of the flesh that you err."

As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, 19th century founder of modern Orthodoxy, writes to his nephew: "Respect your own body as the receptacle, messenger, and instrument of the spirit." For him, at best, the body is a useful tool to be subjugated, dominated, controlled, but never trusted and rarely celebrated.

Before I critique this spirit/body split, I want to point out three important and valuable insights that we derive from this approach:
  • Thanks to this split of spirit/idea on a one hand, and body/physicality on the other, Judaism has, throughout the ages, always placed high value on ideas, on the life of the mind. Judaism has linked the spiritual enterprise with that of intellectual rigor. This has been a crowning glory of Jewish civilization and one that we ought to continue to celebrate.
  • Because this view tends to assess what is important as the ideal even when it is not the actual example that exists in a world, this is an approach that is very rarely compelled to compromise standards merely because a particular habit is the way it's always been. Plato and the Rambam will be the first to tell you -- the way it's always been is degraded and inferior because it is compromised with physicality. It can always be improved. There is a tremendous optimism to this view of striving toward an elevated ideal.
  • This is a view that understands God as being ultimately transcendent. Meaning God is beyond all physical limitations, beyond all human conceptualizations, the greatness of God looms quite large for those thinkers who live with the chasm between the body and the soul. For these thinkers, then, there is a built in resistance to claiming to have complete knowledge of God or to be able to definitively speak on God's behalf. God's perfection is beyond all human assertion or articulation. This recognition ought to be a goad toward humility and toward making room for pluralism.
Despite these three considerable affirmations that a mind/body split makes possible, ultimately this dichotomy exacts more costs than it confers benefits.

The first drawback of this mind/body split is that if the ideal is only located in the universal, then every particular example is automatically inferior, implying that your deficit is located precisely where you are uniquely different from all other people. Distinction is automatically viewed with suspicion or derision. A view that elevates the ideal is profoundly mistrustful of any individuality, of people being stubbornly not the ideal, of being irreducibly unique and different. It is important also to explicate that if the ideal is perfect and if the physical is degraded, then how much the more so are people who are physically disabled or degraded: How inferior are they! It is easy with the split between body, on the one hand, and spirit, on the other, to create a hierarchy of the more spiritual (elevated) and also a hierarchy of the bodies that best approach the (spiritual) ideal. Those people count more than others.

I believe that splitting body and soul into separate camps also ultimately trivializes issues of social justice: Don't worry that there are people starving, because after all, this world is already a degraded place, and we need to focus on what is spiritually pure. How petty politics becomes when you are promised an eternal life with no corporeality whatsoever.

And, finally, understanding God's perfection to be of another world, this mundane and ephemeral world need not occupy much of our attention. The fact that we are melting the ice caps and incinerating the ozone layer, that species are becoming extinct in an accelerated rate, need not occupy our attention. From the perspective of a physical/spiritual dichotomy, these unfortunate events constitute corporeal trivia. Focus instead on eternal salvation! The view that the physical is inferior ultimately contributes to ignoring that we live in a remarkable and beautiful world.. Ignoring the laughter can be fatal.

We need not be chained to this toxic split. Instead, let us heed a different voice within Jewish tradition. One that, from the inception, long before Plato, advanced a different case for the spiritual life. Rather than understanding that there is the conflict between body and soul, rather than assuming that one can separate out the two, this stream of Jewish thought has always insisted that the spiritual manifests precisely through bodies, that people are not disembodied spirits; we are basar ve-dam, flesh and blood, an inextricable fusion that constitutes God's crowning glory. These sages taught that body and soul are interlocking aspects of a full mature human living and that both of them are necessary vehicles for holiness and godliness in the world. As transcendent as aspects of God may be, much of God is also immanent. God is to be found in each and every flower, in every breath of air you take, in the people who are sitting next to you, and in a world that God has made for us. "The world laughs in flowers," says Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Let's think about some of the bounty of a spirituality that is embodied, a spirituality that is unafraid of the fact that we are human beings, that we occupy a physical world, and that this expansive, physical creation is the place in which good and evil, holiness and profanity work out their ongoing struggles. It is said in the Tractate Ta'anit in the Talmud, "Rabbi Elazar said, a person should always see himself as if holiness resided within his intestines." Imagine how the world would be and how we would treat our bodies if God were encountered not only in immaculate cleanliness, but in a really earthy objects through which we live their lives. What if we trained ourselves to value the holiness of our intestines?

I note that often the scholars who separate spirit and body into an airtight dichotomy are men. Many men don't always realize that the real advances of life occur exactly in those messy spots that need to be wiped and cleaned, in those soft bundles that need to be dried and kissed, caressed and held. Holiness, ask any mother, is packaged in squirming, little bodies. It is precisely in the physicality of babies, in the love we have for each other, in our embrace, that God is to be found.

Let us then treat our bodies and each others' as the centers of holiness that they are. We are taught in the Talmud's Tractate Eruvin, "If your learning is arranged in all your two hundred and forty-eight limbs, then it is secure. If not, it is not secure."

However much knowledge we have, our body also has a knowledge of its own. If our conceptual knowledge never becomes embodied knowledge, we don't truly posses it. Our body possesses tremendous wisdom, and the people who tell us to ignore our body's wisdom are telling us not to listen with that inner voice that is our truest counsel. But it is there! The still small voice speaks, and training ourselves to hear what it is that our bodies are telling us is the essential component to learning within creation. The body has tremendous wisdom to heal and to nurture, if we would but teach ourselves to listen to the wisdom of our bodies.

Deeds of Holiness

It is the crowning glory of the Torah, and of the rabbis (who were not themselves students of Plato, and therefore weren't really aware of this dichotomy), to focus Jewish life not in people thinking together, but in deeds of holiness. It is what we do in a world that presents the venue for God to enter the world. Suffering is not an interesting theological problem; it is a call to action. Do you know someone who is hurting? Help them. Do you know someone who is lonely? Welcome them.

Because bodies are sacred and because the world is as physical and solid as it is, that physical presence is where God is to be found.

Each moment offers us an opportunity for deeds of sanctity and holiness through which to transform that world into a place in which the love of its Creator is that much more apparent. The Talmud, Tractate Yevamot, reminds us, "the Sabbath is an obligation of a body." Can we learn, finally, to see that the holiness of our bodies means that the holiness of other peoples' bodies is just as pressing an obligation? Which means than that doing good for each other becomes a vessel for bringing spirituality into the world. Our ethical obligation starts with the searching eyes of another human being. Our willingness to take their needs seriously is our willingness to let God in.

Please don't misunderstand me. I am not claiming that the search for spirituality is intrinsically bad. It need not be. There is much productive inner work to be done and much we have yet to learn from Rambam and Plato and others. But in maintaining this dichotomy between body and soul, in which bodies are fetid and souls are sublime, we obliterate the essential genius of Jewish tradition, which is to refuse to sever the two.

Judaism is a religion for people who live in actual bodies, a religion for hearts that are broken, for people who are yearning, for stomachs which are hungry, for those in pain. The Torah reminds us in so many ways that in uniting the body with the soul, in celebrating them for the unity that they are, we are then inspired to transform -- rather than reject -- the world. This ancient Jewish view is one that valorizes a life of holy deeds, that rejoices specifically in a concreteness in which we are each unique and individual, recognizing that God doesn't create redundancies, and that the aspects in which we are different are for a reason.

This is a more integrated view which understands that the world around us is not nearly a source of degradation and temptation, but, in fact, one of God's greatest gifts to us. We are invited to delight in the senses we have been given and in the world into which we have been born. And because of that wonderful gift, this integrated view of embodied soulfulness urges us to recommit ourselves now and throughout the years to the renewal of God's creation, to the repair of a broken world -- one body at a time, one person at a time. Says the medieval Rabbi Yehuda Ben Balam: "The body is the glory of the soul in the same way that a necklace is an ornament to the neck." This summer, I tell you, appreciate the shine in God's jewelry, hug a baby, smile at a child, greet each other warmly, celebrate the beauty of the body you have been given.

And then, give back.