As Tisha b'Av approaches
An unusual wedding

On bathrooms, blessings, and a learning experience

About a year ago, I printed out the following on a flyer and posted it inside the stalls of the bathrooms at my shul:

Asher Yatzar / Blessing for the Body

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם אֲשֶׁר יָצַר אֶת הָאָדָם בְּחָכְמָה וּבָרָא בוֹ נְקָבִים נְקָבִים חֲלוּלִים חֲלוּלִים. גָּלוּי וְיָדוּעַ לִפְנֵי כִסֵּא כְבוֹדֶךָ שֶׁאִם יִפָּתֵחַ אֶחָד מֵהֶם אוֹ יִסָּתֵם אֶחָד מֵהֶם אִי אֶפְשַׁר לְהִתְקַיֵּם וְלַעֲמוֹד לְפָנֶיךָ.בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' רוֹפֵא כָל בָּשָׂר וּמַפְלִיא לַעֲשֹוֹת.

Blessed are You, Adonai, source of all being,
who formed the human body with wisdom
and created within us various openings and closings.
It is known before Your throne of glory
that if one of these were to be open where it should be closed,
or closed where it should be opened,
we would not be able to stand before You and offer praise.
Blessed are You, Adonai,
healer of all flesh and worker of miracles!

This blessing, which teaches us to notice and appreciate the marvel of a human body which works, is traditionally recited upon going to the bathroom. (It originates in Talmud.)

I was inspired by the memory of the old Elat Chayyim Jewish retreat center in Accord, where I first encountered this blessing ten years ago. It was posted on a laminated sign outside the bathroom door as a reminder to be mindful of the miracle of having a body which works. (The sign wasn't exactly this one, but it was similar. Nor was it as lovely as this all-Hebrew one crafted by soferet Jen Taylor Friedman, but it was the same general idea.) I didn't grow up with this blessing, but when I first encountered it as an adult, I loved it. What an amazing set of intentions for noticing and recognizing an everyday miracle.

In more recent years I've developed a special relationship with this blessing. During my pregnancy with Drew, I needed to give myself an injection of blood thinner in my belly every day. I fear needles, so this was a major hurdle for me. I got myself through it by reciting this blessing as I pushed the plunger home. The injection kept my blood flowing smoothly and prevented another stroke; the blessing kept me able to make the injections. Anyway: the blessing has become a part of my daily spiritual practice, and I wanted to offer it to my shul. We often recite this blessing near the beginning of morning services -- but most of our members do not come to services frequently, and those who do are often not there at the very beginning. So I posted it in the bathrooms.

Over the months after I posted the blessing I received a lot of feedback, mostly positive. Several people came to me and said: what is that, where is it from, it's beautiful! Some asked me to email it to them so they could have a copy at home. Some visitors asked if they could take a copy home to their own shuls. People said that it had sparked new awareness in them -- both of the miracles of their own bodies, and also of the reality that Judaism contains a way of sanctifying even this most earthy of acts.

I also heard from a couple of people who found the posted blessing troubling. God's name, they argued, shouldn't appear in such a room. From a traditional halakhic perspective, that is correct, and when these members raised this issue I did some renewed learning about it. At that time, I decided that that since many (perhaps most) of our members do not understand themselves to be bound by halakha, the consciousness-raising upsides of the posted blessing outweighed the halakhic prohibition. And then a few weeks ago, the newly-revitalized religious practices committee asked me to take the blessing down.

Hearing this instruction from the committee felt different, to me, than hearing qualms articulated by a couple of individual members. I took the blessing down immediately, and I apologized to them for having created a situation in which members of that committee felt uncomfortable. Instead I posted the bracha outside the bathroom door, for those who might still want to recite it after using the facilities but might not know it by heart, and inside the stalls I posted one of my own poems which touches on the same themes as the blessing. Here's the poem:

Blessed is the breath of life
who formed and animates this body,

its myriad organs and tissues,
protrusions, bones, and sinews;

winter skin so dry my calves rub bloody,
flesh flushed with rhythm and heat;

curve of hip distinguishing me
from my mother whose pants need belting;

nailbeds a reincarnation
of my grandmother's long fingers;

tiny dunes of bicep I have labored
to bring into being and maintain;

narrow feet which fit snug
only in the most expensive of shoes;

wrists and ankles I can encircle
with thumb and forefinger;

nose and mouth that together savor
venison, real vanilla, green tea;

hair so limp and fine I could still use
Johnson & Johnson's baby shampoo;

all the weird, wet, noisy orifices
I need daily but can’t understand.

If my bowels were to fail, or my pancreas,
my vision...? Doctors would stitch and sew,

but it wouldn't be easy
and You'd still have to prop me up

as You do today and every day.
Blessed are You, creator of embodied miracles.

Beneath the poem I included text indicating that anyone who wanted to offer the traditional blessing would find it posted outside the bathroom door. (This poem, in a slightly earlier revision, was first published in Zeek magazine and also appears in Jay Michaelson's book God In Your Body: Kabbalah, Mindfulness, and Embodied Spiritual Practice.)

The poem, too, seemed to resonate with people. I heard some kind words about it, most meaningfully (for me) from a Jewish poet who visited our shul. And then the committee met again, and asked me to remove the poem as well. I apologized to them a second time; the poem is now gone from the walls, too.

I'm glad I posted the blessing, and then the poem; and I'm glad that the religious practices committee was able to articulate their needs so that I could fulfill them by taking the blessing and the poem down. Both of these are, I think, good things. And the whole adventure has given me opportunities for reflection about one of the interesting challenges of serving a religiously-diverse smalltown liberal Jewish congregation.

The people who found the blessing, and then the poem, inappropriate are people who come from a relatively traditional background. They know this blessing, and have probably known it since childhood. They know the halakha which says that one can recite Modeh/Modah Ani in the morning before washing hands, but that ritual handwashing is required before reciting the rest of the blessings of morning prayer, including this one. And they feel a deep and visceral discomfort with having any kind of prayer, or even prayer-like poetry, in a bathroom. For them, the halakhic prohibition is the end of the story.

The people who found the blessing, and then the poem, uplifting are people who come from a less traditional, and/or less-observant, background. Some of them are Jews by choice; some of them are strongly identified Reform; some of them have returned to Judaism as adults but didn't necessarily receive much Jewish education as kids. They largely didn't know the blessing before it was posted, and encountering it was meaningful for them. Halakha is by-and-large not part of their worldview or their Jewish practice. Their relationship with Judaism and with prayer is primarily one of choice and of what speaks to their souls, rather than what generations of rabbis and teachers have legislated.

I have empathy for both of these positions. And I think the tension between them can be fruitful and healthy -- and I suspect it exists in a lot of small congregations. (Probably big ones, too.)

There's no question in my mind that this was a worthwhile experiment -- and also that taking the blessing, and then the poem, down was the right thing to do. But I think there's an interesting question beneath all of this: what are the best ways to balance the needs of people in a community who have different relationships to halakha and different priorities in their religious lives?

Does the reality that our shul is affiliated Reform, and the Reform movement has historically privileged informed choice over halakha, make a difference? Does the reality that our shul includes members whose backgrounds are Orthodox and Conservative, in addition to members who are strongly Reform-identified, make a difference? How about the reality that we are the only shul in town? (There are others within a reasonable drive -- 45 minutes in either direction -- but we are the only shul in Northern Berkshire county.)

I don't actually have answers. But I'm grateful to have had this opportunity to think more about the questions.