Thursday, January 30, 2014 | return to: views, opinions


Let’s get physical: using our bodies to engage our spirit

by karen erlichman

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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.

9_Verlichman_avatar_withnameAside 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


Posted by catattack
01/30/2014  at  04:59 PM
Really?! Have you taken any Lehrhaus classes

I find it hard to believe you’ve taken any of Lehrhaus’ classes, yet you feel obligated to slam them.

“Writing Your Ethical Will,” by the way, is taught by Rabbi Steven Chester. Why don’t you actually attend? I dare you to criticize Rabbi Chester’s teaching style.

And Rabbi Adar’s classes are terrific.  You won’t find anything “missing” there.

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Posted by msnyder701
01/30/2014  at  10:45 PM

So let me understand this.  You take a pop psychological concept-du-jour like “somatic wrestling”, and then use it to denigrate four Lehrhaus courses because they don’t include it?  I fail to see the logic in this.

Sometimes—just sometimes—we can, in fact, have profound learning experiences without the yoga mat.

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Posted by Laurie Leiber
01/31/2014  at  09:38 AM
Are you offering a class...

..or just criticizing those who do?  I agree we should attempt to engage the entire person in Jewish teaching.  Maimonides thought so too.  Since you don’t like what is on offer at Lehr haus, where are you teaching?

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Posted by wendiel
01/31/2014  at  09:48 AM
Can't we be open to different needs in our community?

I’m disappointed in my fellow Jews have to be so negative and attacking to this article’s author. What makes you afraid of someone needing something different than you? I didn’t hear Ms. Erlichman attacking Lehrhaus courses, just that she was looking for more embodied ways to Jewishly engage. 

I have taken courses at Lehrhaus and even taught there AND I agree with Ms. Erlichman, we could use more embodied offerings. Yoga studios, meditation halls, community recreation departments are enticing to Jews who don’t find those offerings within their Jewish communities. Fortunately more opportunities than ever that incorporate body awareness are making their way into our Jewish institutions. This newer arena of Jewish learning isn’t for everyone but we should welcome those that do want to engage their bodies in their Jewish learning with offerings like Torah Yoga, Stretching Shacharit, Jewish Mindfulness Meditation, and Wilderness Torah.

The Asher Yatzar morning prayer invites us to be grateful for the wisdom in and of our bodies. I am one that proudly is engaging in that quest and looking for and bringing to my community more opportunities to engage the body in our learning, prayer, and wisdom.

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Posted by msnyder701
02/02/2014  at  02:19 PM
Just to be clear:

Just to be clear:  what part of “Yet, when I read the course descriptions, I had a nagging feeling that something was missing” isn’t criticism?

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Posted by Jan
02/05/2014  at  11:28 AM
Great article

I read Ms. Erlichman’s article and found it very very refreshing. It really spoke to me. I’m Jewish and none of the traditional ways of connecting with Judaism have ever spoken to me. This did. In fact, I found it quite exciting. Thank you! P.S. for those of you who could only focus on what Ms. Erlichman was (or was not saying)... I think you were missing the point.It seemed to me that she was just using this as an example and if you et that go you might find the bigger message in the article.

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Posted by msnyder701
02/05/2014  at  11:40 AM
OK, let me try again:1.

OK, let me try again:

1.  To pick on four courses that didn’t have what the writer was looking for, and then generalize it to all of Lehrhaus, is a mistake.

2.  I fail to see how ***any*** of what the writer is looking for could have been incorporated into a course on writing ethical wills.  If by “embodied learning” she means that one has to be in a relaxed, calm place to learn most effectively, fine.  That’s true for *all* learning, not just Jewish learning.  However, there are places where yoga, meditation, etc., might belong naturally, and places where incorporation is not only not necessary but perhaps counterproductive.

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