I've been meaning to post a review of Jay Michaelson's new book God in Your Body: Kabbalah, Mindfulness, and Embodied Spiritual Practice. Short version: this book is smart and thoughtful. It's clear enough, and explains enough, that it doesn't have prerequisites; this could be a satisfying read even if mindfulness, spiritual practice, and Judaism aren't yet familiar subjects. It's also deep enough to hold the interest of people who've been immersing in this stuff for a long time.
I knew I liked Jay's work. I've been a reader of, and subscriber to, Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture -- which he founded; he serves still as chief editor -- for some years. (Full disclosure: a few months ago I joined the editorial board at Zeek, and am blessed now to call Jay a colleague. More full disclosure: Jay published my poem "Asher Yatzar" in the print edition of Zeek a while back, and reprints it in full in an early chapter of God in Your Body. I have to kvell a little -- that's exciting.)
Several of his essays in the online edition of Zeek knock my socks off (Kashrut and Nonduality; How I Finally Learned to Accept Christ in My Heart; and most recently, Keep Your Godwrestling: the Uses and Limits of Theology); ditto some of the work he's published at his website, like The Gate of Sadness and Eat Your Way to Enlightenment (which also appears as part of chapter one of the book -- read an excerpt here.) So I went into this book prepared to love it. It did not disappoint.
I measure nonfiction by my urge to create marginalia. If while reading a book I find myself compelled to pick up a pen and put exclamation points in the margins, that's a very good sign. (Needless to say, my copy of God in Your Body has been multiply-inscribed.) One of the first places I marked up was this passage on prayer -- specifically, on how and why Jewish prayer in America looks the way it usually does. This is a long quote, but worth reading:
[H]ow did we get to the boring, life-negating and body-twisting form [of Jewish prayer] we know today, sitting still in uncomfortable pews and standing ceremoniously while someone in a robe intones a somber tune? Well, it's a complicated story, but the short version is that most American Jewish prayer is pretending to be German Protestant. Lutheran prayer is meant to be edifying; you're meant to contemplate the words and music in a serene state, and cause your soul to be uplifted. It works, when it's done right, but it's not the point of most Jewish prayer. Most Jewish prayer is meant to be devotionalistic, pietistic, ecstatic, contemplative -- it's all over the map, but it is always, always embodied.
What I love about this passage is not only how Jay neatly and concisely offers the concentrated version of the long liturgical story, but also his acknowledgement that the German Lutheran paradigm of prayer "works, when it's done right, but it's not the point of most Jewish prayer."
Which is to say: there's nothing wrong with the Lutheran way of praying. I have family members who genuinely thrill to the lofty music and reverent silences of the Classical Reform mode of prayer, and that's great -- it can work, to be sure. But it's not what Jewish prayer has historically felt like, and often it is literally dis-embodied -- something one attends, like an audience member at a concert, rather than something one does with both spirit and body together.
There's some esoteric stuff in this book. (Most of it is concentrated in the one chapter, about a third of the way in, which discusses various reality-maps of the body and of the universe which derive from kabbalah, the "received" tradition of Jewish mysticism.) But as Jay notes, these are tools -- means to an end, not the end itself. "Advanced spiritual practice does not consist of ever more esoteric formulae. It is about applying the esoteric to an ever-wider sphere of the mundane."
The chapter about exercise was particularly interesting to me. That's one of the places where my own practice of Judaism (and of being an embodied human being) falls short of my ideals, so I suspect these are pages I will have reason to return to. Given the choice, I'd rather write poems or pray than work out. This isn't theoretical; every morning I have a choice about how I'm going to begin my day. I'm caught between the conflicting impulses toward poetry, toward prayer, and toward exercise. And exercise usually loses.
This, Jay argues, is a mistake. Not just my blithe tendency to focus away from my body, but also the dualism that presumes mind and body are necessarily separate and that I can focus on one without engaging the other. He writes,
There is nothing you need to "get" to be fully enlightened and united with God, just a lot of things to let go of -- namely the identification with your small self and its selfish desires...
Not having a body practice is like never reading a book or marveling at a sunset; it's an incomplete form of living, and that's a shame, since you may only be here once.
I'm accustomed to thinking about exercise first of all as something I ought to do (and often feel shame about not-doing), and secondly as a place where I'm usually inadequate. It's embarrassing to admit it, but I don't usually think in terms of having a body practice. After reading this chapter, that's something I'd like to change.
In one of the religious circles I now inhabit, dance is a big part of davenen. It's fairly common at Elat Chayyim to see people dancing in the back of the room or in the aisles during particularly energetic and delicious prayers; after Shabbat dinner people always dance (sometimes accompanied by psalms and prayers, sung and rapped over the accompaniment of drums.) A part of me always yearns to join the dancers. I envy their physical freedom and their ability to bring their bodies to prayer and praise. Once or twice I've joined in, but it's rare for me, and I'm always self-conscious when I do it.
I thought of that self-consciousness, and of how dance can be like prayer, when I read this passage:
Once nice adage about spiritual practice says that just as dancing is ridiculous to someone who can't hear the music, so spiritual practice may seem ridiculous to someone who can't hear its tones, timbres, and rhythms. To such a person, spirituality is delusion. But with deep listening -- which requires quieting the mind enough to allow spirit to be perceived -- what had seemed to be fantasy becomes, instead, an intimation of the deepest reality. So, yes, dancing is ridiculous, but it is also profound -- and in just that pair of facts lies an important Torah of the human soul.
To someone who can't hear the music, dance looks absurd. To someone who doesn't perceive God in the world, prayer looks absurd. Each of these activities requires a leap of faith, a willingness to be open to something that's not logical...and when we open ourselves in that way, something remarkable can arise.
I'm good at opening my heart to God. I'm pretty good at opening my mind to thinking about God. But I'm not so good at allowing my body to be a place where I experience the divine.
One of my favorite tiny little passages in the book is this: "Really, what is liturgy anyway but the verbal expressions of inchoate yearning? It's not theology; it's poetry." This echoes something I've been increasingly realizing: that while I want my theology to make sense, to speak to my mind, I want my prayer to speak to (and from) my heart. My challenge may be learning how to allow my prayer to speak to and from my body, too.
There's a lot more I could say about God in Your Body. The chapter on health and healing, for instance, resonates a tremendous amount for me in the wake of my strokes. My response to that chapter could fill an entire post. Maybe another day it will.
But for now I'll close with one last quotation. Jay's talking here about why spiritual practice matters -- not because it makes our lives happier in a facile or willfully blind way, but because it can help us to be fully being present to everything that is, and in so doing, we can find God.
[T]he point of spiritual practice is not to increase our pharmacopeia of spiritual narcotics so that we may always feel sweetness and light, but to enable more "receiving," gradually to widen the sphere of acceptable faces of the Divine.
Amen v'amen. God in Your Body is published by Jewish Lights; buy it online, or at your local independent bookstore, and enjoy.