Recently I was reading through the winter/spring issue of the Lehrhaus Judaica catalog, which includes such topics as “Transformative Power of Dialogue,” “Catalysts for Change,” “Realizing Your Potential” and “Writing Your Ethical Will,” to name a few. These topics sounded very interesting at first glance. Yet, when I read the course descriptions, I had a nagging feeling that something was missing. I found myself wanting something deeper and more compelling.
Aside from the briefest mention of Julie Emden’s “Embodied Jewish Learning” as part of the annual Lehrhaus at the Beach retreat, there was no mention of our individual or collective Jewish bodies as vessels for learning.
How might we engage, reflect on and experience embodied knowing? I long to wrestle with our sacred texts somatically and spiritually, not merely intellectually. Aren’t we the God-wrestlers? Wrestling is not just a process of wrapping our minds around an idea; it is also a physical relationship with another, and taking something to the mat with our bodies.
To listen and study with our skin and cells, to breathe into these teachings with our whole selves, and to intentionally en-gage our Jewish minds, bodies and souls in the experience of Jewish learning.
For example, in his work with Ayeka, the Center for Soulful Education in Israel, founder and director Rabbi Aryeh Ben David is creating an opportunity for “soulful education,” and his tagline is “because Jewish wisdom is more than information.”
Jewish institutions are still striving to reach unaffiliated and alienated Jews (as evidenced by the recent Pew study on American Jews). To do so, we need to offer meaningful, relevant, enlivening programming “from the neck down,” i.e., that engages people somatically and spiritually as well as intellectually. There can be a stronger feeling of resonance and relevance when Jewish learning invites people to bring all of who they are into their learning experience.
Too many people have had the experience in Jewish educational institutions of being treated as if (or directly told) that all of who we are isn’t welcomed, and that there is a “right way” of learning or understanding that is intellectual, academic and logical. For some people, learning is not only intellectual but also a creative, body-centered process that values our lived experience with regard to gender, culture, race, sexual orientation, physical ability, class background, national origin and religious/spiritual practice.
Jewish learning from the neck down is also likely to especially reach those Jews who are going elsewhere seeking — and finding — this kind of embodied, soulful engagement, as well as those of us who live, work and daven together in the Jewish community.
Being a catalyst for change is something that can be felt and fueled in the body, and realizing your potential can be embodied with sacred texts through yoga, prayer, meditation and other practices. If we are going to engage people in Jewish learning not only for its own sake, but for the important work of tikkun olam, then transformative dialogue is not just about communicating head to head, but also heart to heart, body to body and soul to soul.
Karen Erlichman, LCSW, has a private practice in San Francisco, where she provides psychotherapy and spiritual direction. She is a community faculty member at UCSF in the OB/GYN department. Her website is www.karenerlichman.com.