Morning blessings for body and soul

At the end of our first liturgy class yesterday, we spent a short while looking at two blessings from the first part of the morning liturgy, the matched set of אשר יצר / asher yatzar ("Who formed the human body with wisdom...") and אלהי נשמה / elohai neshama ("My God, the soul that you have placed within me...") One blessing for the body, one for the soul: a matched set. (As the classical saying goes, tefilah bli kavanah, zeh kmo guf bli neshamah: "prayer without mindful intention is like a body without a soul.")

I've blogged about each of these blessings a little bit before, though it's been a couple of years since I last wrote about either. (Here: Sanctifying the body and Elohai neshama, both posts from 2005.) My classmates offered some beautiful insights about each of these prayers.

For instance, the blessing for the body uses the word חלולים / chalulim, "ducts" or "tubes" or "openings." (In context: "Who formed humans with wisdom and created a system of ducts and conduits within them.") A chalal is a flute, so this blessing evokes the ways in which our bodies are like flutes through which the ruach ha-kodesh ("holy spirit," more or less) flows. (I'm reminded of that Rumi poem I blogged just before last Yom Kippur, specifically the lines comparing us with instruments.)

Or, on the blessing for the soul: in speaking about the purity of the soul God breathed into each of us, this blessing does something gorgeous with onomatopoeia. Its string of feminine-ending words, each with an aspirated heh at the end, obligates us to focus on our own breath in order to articulate our words about God's breath, and in so doing to be mindful of the ways in which both we and God breathe holiness into the world. (That insight is courtesy of Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman of Kol Haneshama in Jerusalem.)

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Sanctifying the body

I was talking with a friend not long ago about embodiment. Like me, she's a geek and a science fiction fan, raised on tales of sentient computers and people taking flight in the cybernetic matrix. She admitted that she thinks of herself basically as a brain-in-a-jar; her body exists to carry her brain around, but if she had her druthers, she'd never have to deal with it or maintain it. It's packaging for what really matters, the part of her which thinks.

Body/mind dualism is hardly new. I can understand wanting to soar, pure thinking spirit, in a world without physical pain or illness. I get fed up with my body's limitations all the damn time, and I'd generally rather read or study or write than go to the gym to keep myself in working order. I've worked hard to counter the pop-culture messages that my body equals my worth, not to mention the old notion that men are lofty thinking creatures and women are mired in embodiment. (Usually I blame Plato or the Victorians for that, though truth be told, the dynamic arises in traditional halakhah, too: men get the positive time-bound commandments, while women are exempted because we need to deal with food for our bodies, children from our bodies, and the mysterious effusions of our bodies that make us tamei.  Oy.)

And yet I don't think Judaism necessarily condones the kind of escapism from embodiment my geek friends and I might sometimes imagine we desire. As a Jew I recite the asher yatzar blessing, sometimes called the Blessing for our Bodies, every day. Jews say asher yatzar either as part of the traditional morning liturgy, or every time we use the bathroom, or both.

The blessing thanks God Who created the human body with wisdom and placed within us a miraculous combination of openings and cavities. It goes on to say, "it is known before Your Throne of Glory"  -- yes, that could be read as Rabbinic bathroom humor --  "that if one of these were to be ruptured or blocked, we wouldn't be able to survive and stand before You." (That's the traditional translation. The one in my siddur says, "Clearly, we would not be able to praise Your miracles were it not for the miracle within us.")

In the morning liturgy that I pray, the blessing for the body is immediately followed by a blessing for my soul. The elohai neshama prayer thanks God for the soul given to me, calling it tehora, pure. (I've written variants on both of these blessings; the asher yatzar one also appears in the current print edition of Zeek.)

Looking at these two blessings together, it seems clear to me that there's some body/soul dualism at work. The soul is pure regardless of the state of the body. (And clearly the traditional binary of tahor/tamei  is fascinatingly problematic for anyone who wants to engage with halakhah and wants to argue that our bodies are inherently holy.) But even so, I think the tradition's perspective on embodiment can't be reduced to "thinking good, embodiment bad," because the asher yatzar blessing reflects a sense of embodied life as miraculous. Our bodies are meant to inspire a regular sense of wonder.

If I had world enough and time, this could lead me to explore a lot of related issues; not only the relationship between body and soul/mind, but also the nature of what follows what we know as life. Or body/mind dualism in the early Church (the Pauline question of why there is matter at all, if spirit is what is essential) and the Kabbalistic response to extreme gnostic dualism. (Jay Michaelson wrote some good stuff in that direction.)

But this is a much smaller blog post than that. Really I just want to muse on how interesting I find it that though Judaism can certainly bolster a sense of dualism (in which minds are valued and bodies, well, aren't), Judaism can also be read as body-positive. (Even sex-positive.) It's an interesting alternate paradigm to inhabit. Especially taken alongside the pretty common geek fantasy of abandoning embodiment altogether one of these days.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I think it's time for a late lunch. Holy as my body may be, it still needs to be fed.


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