Prayers for the morning, part 3: Body

CoverThis is the third post in a series of short meditations on morning prayers. (See Part 1: Gratitude and Part 2: Soul.)


I always say that my favorite prayer is modah ani, the blessing for gratitude. And it is. But the asher yatzar, the blessing for the body, is a close second:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, אֲשֶׁר יָצַר אֶת הָאָדָם בְּחָכְמָה, וּבָרָא בוֹ נְקָבִים נְקָבִים, חֲלוּלִים חֲלוּלִים, גָלוּי וְיָדוּעַ לִפְנֵי כִסֵּא כְבוֹדֶךָ שֶאִם יִפָּתֵחַ אֶחָד מֵהֶם, אוֹ יִסָּתֵם אֶחָד מֵהֶם, אִי אֶפְשַׁר לְהִתְקַיֵים וְלַעֲמוֹד לְפָנֶיךָ: בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, רוֹפֵא כָל בָּשָׂר, וּמַפְלִיא לַעֲשׂוֹת:


Blessed are You, Adonai our God
Who forms the human body with wisdom
And creates within it a miraculous combination
Of organs and arteries, tissues and sinews.
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 open
We would not be able to stand before you and offer praises.
Blessed are You, Adonai, creator of embodied miracles!

"Organs and arteries, tissues and sinews" is a creative translation which I think I first encountered in Reb Jeff's homegrown siddur; the Hebrew literally says "ducts and tubes," hinting at flutes, meaning something like "openings and closings" -- e.g. the organs and veins and ducts in our bodies.

Some people call this "the bathroom blessing," because these are the words traditionally recited after (washing the hands after the act of) elimination. I love the fact that we have a blessing which reminds us not to take the regular functioning of our bodies for granted. (It also appears in daily liturgy.)

When I had my strokes back in 2006, my relationship with this blessing shifted radically. It's one thing to say, in the abstract, that in order for me to be present before God and pray I need a body which will keep me alive in order to do so. But the strokes brought that reality home in a new way.

"It is known...that if one of these were to be...closed where it should be open" -- if, for instance, a blood clot found its way again to my brain -- I might not be able to be here in relationship with God. I might not "be here" anymore at all. I try to remember that my body is a miracle, every single day.

Rabba Emily Aviva Kapor has written a beautiful variation on Asher Yatzar which takes into account how the classical prayer can be problematic, in its unconscious ableism and in how it can erase the experience of trans* folks who struggle with the assertion that God made their bodies "with wisdom."

Whether I daven the traditional text or Rabba Emily Aviva's variation, this prayer feels incredibly important to me. Maybe because it's easy for me as a woman to knock my body, and this prayer reminds me instead to thank God for the miracle of this body which allows me to exist in the world.

And my mashpi'ah reminds me that this prayer teaches also that we need to be aware of openings and closings on other levels. In emotional life there can be blocks which need clearing. In intellectual life. In spiritual life. Channels need to be open in all four worlds of body, heart, mind, and spirit.

What in your life is closed which you yearn to open, or opened which you wish you could safely close? Does this blessing speak to you and to your sense of your lived experience in your body? What are the sine quibus non, the things or conditions without which you could not be present and offer praise?



Sanctifying the body, 2005

Morning blessings for body and soul, 2007

On bathrooms, blessings, and a learning experience, 2012

Daily love song to my body, 2013

Every body is a reflection of God, 2013

Gratitude for my body, 2015


Image: the cover of this children's book.


Gratitude for my body

I sat down this morning wanting to do some writing, and when I let my mind clear, what emerged was this subject. Even as I was writing this post, I had the sneaking feeling I had written something similar before -- but I intentionally didn't seek out that older post until I had finished drafting this one. It turns out that I've written almost this exact post before -- two years ago in deep midwinter, just like now. Apparently this is stuff I think about a lot, maybe especially at this time of year.


13058I don't manage to say 100 blessings every day. Actually, I'm not certain of that; it's not as though I'm keeping score, making a note on my phone every time I remember to bless. There may in fact be days when I organically offer a hundred moments of gratitude to God. But I suspect that most days my count is lower than that. Still, one blessing I offer every day is the asher yatzar. Here's how it goes:

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, source of all being; You formed the human body with wisdom, and placed within it many openings and closings. It is known before Your throne of glory that if one of these were to be opened 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!

I first became conscious of this blessing as a practice because it was printed on laminated posters which hung just outside the bathrooms at the old Elat Chayyim in Accord, New York. The words were there as a reminder to us that in Jewish tradition, even the act of elimination can be sanctified with words of blessing. I'm pretty certain that when I first encountered it I was charmed by the fact that we have blessings for pretty much everything. But I know it didn't really hit home for me then.

The blessing made a whole new kind of sense to me once I landed in the hospital with that second stroke. It is known that if one of these were to be closed where it should be opened... if a blood clot, for instance, should travel to the brain and block the flow of blood where it is needed... I would be unable to stand before You, indeed. My own brushes with illness have brought this truth home for me in a new way. And although I am (thank God) healthy and hearty now, the blessing's truth remains.

The truth is, having a body which more or less works most of the time is a flat-out miracle. Most of us don't tend to think of it that way, because it's incredibly difficult to live in the world while also feeling genuine wonder at every single miracle which occurs. My heart is beating: that's amazing! Hey, it's still beating: amazing! My kidneys are filtering my blood without my conscious control: amazing! No one can live with that awareness all the time. But our lack of awareness doesn't negate the miracle.

When I became pregnant I started experiencing the blessing in yet another way. Because I was a stroke survivor, and pregnancy increases the risk of stroke, I needed to inject myself with blood thinner every day. I am one of those people who shies away from needles even at the safe distance of seeing them on tv, so I was anxious about having to begin every day with an injection. So I developed the practice of reciting the asher yatzar while administering the blood thinner each morning.

Pregnancy also offered me new opportunities to marvel at the things my body does without my conscious intervention. Not only does my heart continue to beat, not only do my organs continue to do all of the things they're meant to do, but somehow my body knew how to grow a human being. I certainly wasn't driving that bus. My body knew what it was doing without me needing to be in charge. My body knew how to grow and change in ways I couldn't possibly have imagined.

And then our son was born, and the injections ended, and my relationship with my body went through a rollercoaster of changes: wonder that I had grown a human being from component cells, amazement that my body could produce the nourishment he needed, and then exhaustion and postpartum depression which deadened me to the wonder of my body (and of anything else.) I think there was a period of time when I wasn't saying many blessings for anything at all, my body included.

These days I silently recite the blessing every morning while I'm doing the incredibly mundane task of moisturizing my skin. This is a kind of routine wintertime maintenance for me. Between the cold dry air outside and the heated air indoors my skin gets dry and itchy at this time of year. It's a minor affliction, and it can be averted with a little bit of lotion. I try to use the moisturizing time to cultivate gratitude for my body. And as soon as I reach for the lotion, the blessing pops into my head.

Along with the words comes a melody. I sing them silently to myself using the trope, the melody-system, for Song of Songs. In rabbinic school I learned to use that melody for the sheva brachot, the seven blessings at the heart of every Jewish wedding. (I think that's a beautiful tradition. It makes sense that we would sing wedding blessings using the melody-system designed for Tanakh's great love-text.) So if it's a melody I associate with wedding blessings, why am I humming it to myself?

Because one of those seven blessings begins with the same words as the asher yatzar blessing -- "Blessed are You Adonai our God, Source of all being, Who creates the human being..." The wedding blessing goes on from there in a different direction, but because I have sung those words so frequently to this melody, the melody and the words have become intertwined. So when I am reciting the asher yatzar blessing to myself in the morning, that's the melody which arises.

I love praying the asher yatzar blessing to this melody because it makes the prayer feel like a love song both to my body, flawed and imperfect as it is, and to the One Who creates me anew in every moment. Singing a love song to my body isn't always easy. I know I'm not alone in looking in the mirror and seeing everything I like least about this physical form. But this blessing reminds me to look beyond those things to the miracle which underlies them. My heart is beating: that's amazing!

I can't live in constant awareness of these miracles. But if saying the blessing every day offers me an opportunity to glimpse the wonder again for a moment, that feels like enough.



Sanctifying the body, 2005

Morning blessings for body and soul, 2007

Every body is a reflection of God, 2013

A daily love song to my body, 2013


Poems of miscarriage and healing

After reading Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin's poignant and courageous essay Can We Please Tone Down Mother's Day This Year?, about facing Mother's Day after repeated miscarriage, I wanted to post here to offer a reminder of a small resource which is free to share: my chapbook Through, poems of miscarriage and healing, published in 2009.

Through is available for free as a digital download, or printed at cost (under $5) if you want a paper copy for yourself or for a loved one.

Here's what others have said about the collection:

"This can't have been an easy experience to write anything about at all, let alone to distill into ten brief, searing, and luminous poems. As with Rachel's earlier chaplainbook, these are accessible poems with several different layers of meaning, so I think almost anyone who's ever gone through a miscarriage will get something out of it. Which is not to say the audience should end there: miscarriage is a subject every bit as relevant and revealing of the human condition as warfare, for example. So why doesn't it get more attention from writers and artists?" -- Dave Bonta, at Via Negativa

"The Velveteen Rabbi, Rachel Barenblat, has written a collection of poems about miscarriage -- based on her own -- and offers Through to any reader who wants or needs them. As Dave Bonta points out, miscarriage is not a widely discussed topic, certainly not by men too often, but not even by women. Find comfort and companionship in shared grief and experience. For yourself, or someone you know." -- Deb Scott, at ReadWritePoem

Miscarriage, and sorrow around infertility and attempts to conceive, are among the silent scourges we usually endure alone. But I believe there can be some small comfort in sharing our stories and in knowing that others have walked -- continue to walk -- these difficult paths.

You can read excerpts from the collection, and/or click through to the free download or the at-cost printed edition, at the original post announcing the chapbook's publication: Miscarriage poems: "Through."

May comfort come to all who mourn.

The December Project

Some of you may have read the recent essay by Sara Davidson in the Huffington Post titled Passover Asks: Are You Ready to Go? Here's an excerpt from near the beginning of the piece:

When I arrived that morning at his home in Boulder, CO, the rabbi's wife, Eve, was in the kitchen, preparing for Passover by removing "hametz" -- anything containing flour that's risen -- from every drawer, shelf and counter. I walked down to the basement, where Reb Zalman stood up from his computer desk and greeted me with a hug.

"What does Passover feel like in the December years?" I asked, as we settled in chairs facing each other.

"That's such a good question. Give me a moment to go inside." He closed his eyes, waiting to sense what would arise. "When we come to the end of the seder, we open the door for Elijah the prophet. I ask everyone to be silent and think, 'What question would I like to ask the messenger of God?'" He said people reflect on that, sitting quietly while the door is open, and after it's closed, he asks if they'd like to share what they heard.

"Then we come to the place in the ceremony where Elijah asks, 'Are you ready to go?'"

"Go where?" I said.

"Go forth from the seder into the world. But for me it's also, 'Are you ready to go?'"

Readiness is an essential quality in the story of the Exodus: readiness to leave, to head into the unknown, to trust. Readiness is part of celebrating seder. And readiness is required if one wants to face the end of life gracefully, whenever that end may come.

December_projectThis is a story which also appears in Sara Davidson's new book The December Project, subtitled "An Extraordinary Rabbi and a Skeptical Seeker Confront Life's Greatest Mystery." The book chronicles two years' worth of regular conversations between Sara and Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, "Reb Zalman," about navigating the December of one's life, doing spiritual end-of-life work, and approaching death with open eyes, clear heart, and untroubled mind.

The resulting book is somewhere between memoir (stories of Reb Zalman's childhood, upbringing, adventures, and spiritual life) and the kind of conversation one might have over coffee with a dear friend after many years of connection, when you can go straight to the stuff that matters.

For we who are students of Reb Zalman, or students of his students, much of this material will be familiar. Many of us will have heard him tell these stories, often more than once! But that doesn't make them any less a pleasure to read, and being able to imagine his presence, his humor, and his singing voice just adds to the experience of diving into the book. And for those who haven't been blessed with a personal relationship with this rebbe, the book offers some of those gifts in printed form.

Reb Zalman's been working with these ideas for years. Some of the practices at the end of this book are similar to the exercises in his From Aging to Sage-ing, a book which I also recommend. But this book takes a different tack. And Sara Davidson, this book's author, offers an interesting path in. She is open about both her doubts and her hopes. Over the course of the book, she takes us on her journey -- not only into these conversations, but also into her mother's illness and death, and into her own anxieties about the end of life and what comes after. She strikes a keen balance between sharing enough of herself that she is a real presence in the book, and withdrawing enough of herself that we can feel that we too are sitting in intimate conversation with Reb Zalman, gleaning some of what he's harvested over nearly ninety years of life.

In one scene which has stayed with me, Sara has appeared for their regular appointment and Reb Zalman is clearly unwell, struggling with a variety of physical ailments which are dragging him down. They talk about his need to disengage even from beloved students in order to marshall his energy for his own survival. And then he tells her about how he used to maintain an open-door policy on Shabbat, where people were welcome to come and pray and sing and learn; now he spends Shabbat only with his wife. Here's how Sara describes it:

Before Friday night arrives, he writes his love-letter and slips it under her plate. On Saturday at dusk, they sit outside if the weather is mild and sing Shabbos melodies until it's totally dark. "It's so wonderful," he said, and I watched his body soften and his breathing become more relaxed. It was as if the words, like the smell of chickens roasting on Fridays at camp, had a Pavlovian effect, taking him to a Shabbos state of mind.

In telling the story of how he has come to adapt Shabbat practices for his late eighties, he models for us what it would be like to thoughtfully choose what to relinquish as we age.

Reb Zalman's sweetness, his sense of humor, and his deep hunger for God all come through in this book -- as do his idiosyncracies and some of the challenges which have resulted. Here are stories about Chabad, about meeting Howard Thurman and coming to deep ecumenism, about experiencing Christian and Buddhist mentors, even about experimenting with LSD as a path to God. He's also honest about his failings and his mistakes -- not in a self-congratulatory way, but thoughtfully. I was particularly moved by his frank and gentle words about his first marriage and its dissolution, and by the chapter where he asks to undergo taharah -- the washing / blessing / dressing of one's body after death -- in order to prepare himself for that experience when it comes.

5362606310_35a01cbb56_nOn a purely personal note, I got a particular frisson of joy while reading the chapter "You Can Take Me Now," in which Sara describes two different ALEPH ordination ceremonies. She describes Hazzan Shoshanna Brown singing a niggun which had been a favorite of the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, as a prelude to asking Reb Zalman to offer a teaching. Sara writes:

With high color in his face, Reb Zalman took the mike and faced the audience. He explained that the Rebbe used to sing that melody to prepare himself and his students for a transmission. "Want to hear my transmission?" he asked. Turning to the ordinees on stage, he threw out his arm. "You are my transmission."

That was at my ordination, and it is a moment I will never forget. (Photo source.)

Must one be in one's "December years" to get something out of this book? Not in the least. As a student in the ALEPH hashpa'ah / spiritual direction program, I spent a semester studying and engaging in the work Reb Zalman calls 'sage-ing' -- preparing, mindfully and consciously, for the transition out of this life. Many of you know that I am not yet forty. Then again, I'm also a multiple stroke survivor, so I'd already begun to approach some of these big questions.

I remember talking with my spiritual director about what it was like to begin doing this sage-ing work at a young age. She told me that she had done the same, and that doing this work had enriched her in innumerable ways. After all, our tradition prescribes making teshuvah on the eve of our death, and since we never know when that will be, the sages teach us to make teshuvah -- to do this inner work of discernment, forgiveness, and letting go -- every night before we sleep. (I've written about this before -- see my post The vidui prayer of Yom Kippur -- and of every night.) 

Death is perhaps the greatest mystery there is. In this book, Sara Davidson and Reb Zalman have given us a beautiful example of how to live with that awareness joyfully, and how to approach it not as something to be abhorred, but as a holy transition -- the end of this deployment, to use Reb Zalman's language, and the beginning of something new.

On children, and suffering, and this day of the Omer

Whatever gets in the way of the work, is the work. So taught the poet Jason Shinder, may his memory be a blessing, and that sentence has become one of my mantras. It works for me on both a poetic level (whatever is obscuring the poem I think I need to write, that very thing is probably what I really ought to be writing about) and a spiritual one (whatever life "stuff" is getting in the way of my spiritual practice needs to itself become the spiritual practice.) The work -- of creativity, of spiritual life, of living -- is made of whatever I experience in the moment, not whatever I imagine I ought to be experiencing, or whatever I had planned to experience.

Lately what's getting in the way of (at least some of) the work is latent anxiety about the certainty that our son will experience pain. This has arisen for me because we've had a few medical adventures recently, and as a result I've been newly-confronted with reminders that just as everyone who lives in a body sometimes experiences pain, so will our little boy. Intellectually I can tell you that nothing he's experiencing is a big deal. (Really, really not a big deal.) But emotionally, the prospect of our son suffering stops me in my tracks. I would do anything to forestall or prevent that, if I could. As would any (healthy) parent; the sentiment is so obvious that it's banal. Of course I wish I could protect him from pain. And I can't.

I know that his minor bumps and bruises and routine procedures are vanishingly insignificant, and that not all children are so fortunate. Take those two little boys who are sick, about whom I wrote back in the fall -- a six-year-old with leukemia; a four-year-old with a brain tumor -- just to name two examples from within my online circle of friends. (Sam appears, thankfully, to be doing great. ETA: As of the next day, Sam's leukemia has relapsed. Gus is finishing chemo; please read his mom's latest update, which talks about their journey and the other kids they've met along the way.) There are so many sick kids in the world. I ministered to a few of them when I was a student chaplain. I know that I would have a much harder time with that part of hospital chaplaincy now that I'm someone's mom. I know in my head that children suffer, but I can't bear to know it in my heart. Or: I know it in brief flickers, and then I put at least a partial lid on that knowing, because I can't inhabit that knowledge and also function in the world. My heart feels too tender.

Several of my friends have been reading and discussing Sonali Deraniyagala's book Wave (see, e.g., Lorianne DiSabato's post after Wave at Hoarded Ordinaries, or Teju Cole's review A Better Quality of Agony in the New Yorker.) Deraniyagala lost her entire family in a tsunami: husband, children, parents, everyone she loved. Wave is her memoir and her remembrance of them and of what she lost. I believe that the book is powerful and well-written and important, bit I don't know if I can bear to read it. There, too, I'm operating out of heart rather than head. I'm inhabiting the realm of yetzirah, emotions, rather than briyah, intellect. Intellectually I believe that Deraniyagala's book is tremendous. Emotionally, I don't think I can face it. At least not right now.

"Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body." I've seen that quote floating around in various forms for years. (It's attributed to Elizabeth Stone, author of A Boy I Once Knew.) Granted, it's a cliché to say that I didn't wholly understand it until I had a child, but I suppose there's a reason why some clichés endure. Yes: some part of my heart is walking around in the world, learning and trying and striving and falling and laughing and wailing and doing all of the things that children do. A part of my heart is out there, independent, living on his own. And I can't spare him suffering, even though I wish I could. It's a kind of emotional and spiritual exposure, as though some part of my own heart and spirit which had been safely tucked-away were now open to the world, to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, to the physical suffering which every body comes to know.

In the Counting of the Omer, today is the day of tiferet she'b'chesed, harmony and balance within lovingkindness. The quality of chesed, of overflowing love, is one that (the kabbalists teach) we and God share. "Parent" is one of our foremost metaphors for God. God is the Parent Who births all of creation, who feels our joys and our sorrows, who suffers when we suffer. And God also manifests through the quality of tiferet, harmony and balance. Today is the day when, as the kaleidoscope of the Omer turns, the two qualities reflect and refract one another. The day of balance within the week of lovingkindness. Lovingkindness filtered and framed through the kind of harmoniousness which arises when everything is in balance.

Maybe my work today is to (re)learn how to imbue chesed with today's quality of tiferet, to temper my overflowing openheartedness with the harmony which arises when good love has good boundaries and balance is reached. Suffering is real, and children experience suffering, and I wouldn't want to be the kind of person who doesn't feel tenderhearted dismay at remembering that reality anew. But today is a day for finding balance within that space of tender heart. Maybe I can find it through celebrating the caregivers, parents and grandparents and nurses and doctors and friends, whose loving hands manifest the presence of God in caring for all of the children in need.

Tefillin and manicures

my hand, with painted nails and tefillin

Me, in microcosm.

My mother always has beautiful nails. I'm not sure I've ever seen her without nail polish on. In recent years there are certain colors she favors -- a kind of creamy ivory, a deep maroon -- and I've come to expect one of those rather than anything else in the rainbow of available options. But her nails are always manicured. It's just part of being put-together. I don't remember my first manicure (though I remember the first one I had after my summer of backcountry camping when I was fourteen -- it felt positively sybaritic.) But getting my nails done is an ordinary, and sweet, part of my life.

The manicure I'm wearing now wasn't done by a professional. I painted my nails last night while my son splashed in the bathtub. He had chosen to color his bath water a brilliant turquoise blue (with a dissolving bath tablet which, amazingly enough, doesn't leave our bathtub stained when the water drains away.) He stomped and splashed, rocking his little duckies and boats, while I sat on the floor and painted my fingertips. Then he helped me blow on them to get them dry before I lifted him out of the tub.

I don't think anyone else in my immediate family wears tefillin. Scratch that: I'm pretty certain no one does. If I had to guess, I'd imagine that some of my Dallas cousins do, and possibly some of their sons. But I'd be surprised to discover any other women in my family who put on tefillin in the morning to pray. I became interested in tefillin the first time I went on a Jewish Renewal retreat at Elat Chayyim. Knowing that I'd been yearning for some, my dear friend David gave me my set of tefillin when I turned thirty.

In fairness: I don't always manage to lay tefillin. Life gets in the way. And, for that matter, I don't always manage to have my nails painted. But when I pause to put color on my fingertips, I feel like I'm treating myself to something special, and I remember again some of the many cherished ways in which I am my mother's daughter. And when I pause to lay tefillin, even if I only say one prayer before taking them back off again, I remember again some of the many cherished ways in which I am connected with God and with my tradition, with something bigger than myself.

VR at Reform Judaism and at Ritualwell

My thanks go to the editors at the Reform Judaism blog for reprinting my post Every body is a reflection of God. I serve a Reform shul and I'm delighted to have that post circulating to the broad Reform community.

And my thanks are also due to the editors at Ritualwell, who asked me to write a short essay about miscarriage, spirituality, and ritual. It's here: Through (Ritualwell). Here's how it begins:

Some years ago I flew to Colorado for OHALAH, the annual gathering of Jewish Renewal clergy and student clergy, carrying a dazzling secret: I was newly-pregnant. When I danced at kabbalat Shabbat services, I was already imagining what it would be like to bring an infant with me the following year. And then I went to bed feeling uneasy with cramps, and woke to blood everywhere.

That Shabbat was endless, and it was awful. What I remember most about that terrible day was the way that—as word spread—woman after woman came up to me to tell me it had happened to her, too. I had unknowingly joined a club of which many of my friends and teachers were already members. Once, twice, three times … Each of them had stories to tell, and though they could not offer healing, there was comfort in knowing that I was not alone—that so many other women carried this invisible scar.

You can read the whole thing at Ritualwell, along with a variety of other resources for pregnancy loss. They also linked to my free chapbook of miscarriage poems, Through. Thanks, Ritualwell editors. May all who suffer that grief find comfort, speedily and soon.

Every body is a reflection of God

I glance down at my body in the shower, and the first thought that crosses my mind is: oh, there's that little belly that I don't like. And then I make the conscious effort to think a different thought: oh, there's that beautiful belly which grew our son. I can make the shift, but it requires a kind of mental wrenching, pulling my thoughts away from the well-worn groove to channel them in a different direction.

I know that my body is a miracle. (I remind myself of that every day when I say the asher yatzar blessing.) So why does my mind still immediately leap to criticism, instead of praise? To the things I don't like, instead of the things that I love?

It's a cliché to say that this is what mainstream American culture teaches women to do, but I think there's truth in it. We learn to belittle our bodies instead of praising them. To always be striving to be a few pounds thinner, a little bit more like the images we see in fashion magazines. (I know that men wrestle with this too. But I think women get more of these messages than men do.) I don't think that's an emotionally or spiritually healthy way to live.

In her powerful essay Hello, I Am Fat, Lindy West writes, "I have lived in this body my whole life. I have wanted to change this body my whole life." Is there anyone reading this who doesn't feel a twinge of I-can-relate-to-that? I don't want to co-opt Lindy's words or her passion; my body more-or-less fits the norms my society values. But even with this body, I still struggle with the ingrained impulse to belittle. And I'm not alone. Here's fashion blogger Sally McGraw:

I’m a normal woman, in every way. And yet I spend inordinate amounts of energy hating this perfectly normal body. My own and only body...

Dear Body, // I owe you an apology...

I often wish for "more" or "better." Wish my spare tire could vanish, arms could hold muscle tone, hips would slenderize, boobs would enlarge, skin would clear up. My wishlist is long, but it contains items that I feel are quite normal. However, when I wish, I wish for different things than what you can naturally provide for me, and my wishes are insulting to the abundance of goodness you offer me.

That's her post A Letter to My Body - Part 2. Is there anyone reading this who can't relate to the desire for a body which is "more" or "better" instead of the body one actually has?

I want better for us. Not better bodies, but better ways of loving the bodies we have, and better ways of staying mindful of how amazing it is that we have bodies to love. Being who I am, I turn to Jewish tradition for tools I can use in this holy work. The asher yatzar blessing is one. And since I didn't include a translation in my last post about it, I'll offer one here:

Blessed are You, Adonai our God
Who forms the human body with wisdom
And creates within it a miraculous combination
Of organs and arteries, tissues and sinews.
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 open
We would not be able to stand before you and offer praises.
Blessed are You, Adonai, creator of embodied miracles!

(And if you want a beautiful calligraphic rendering of this prayer in Hebrew, soferet Jen Taylor Friedman offers one as a thank-you gift for those who make a small donation to Pardes.) In the birchot ha-shachar, the traditional morning blessings which are part of our daily liturgy, we bless God Who opens our eyes, makes firm our steps, strengthens the weary, crowns us with splendor. These bodies in which we live offer us endless opportunity for offering blessings.

And Jewish tradition holds that we are all made b'tzelem Elohim, in the divine image. Each of us is a reflection of divinity. What does God look like? Like me. And you. And you. And you. Every single human being who has ever lived and who will ever live is a facet of the divine reflection. Think about that for a moment, and marvel with me.

Every skin color. Every shape and body type. Every expression of gender. Everybody -- and I mean that in its most literal sense, every body -- is a reflection of God. What would it be like if each of us could unlearn the habit of disliking our bodies, and replace it with the mantra this body is a reflection of God, exactly as I am?

A daily love song for the body

8471708130_bb8bd875ae_m One of my wintertime rituals is rubbing lotion into my hands and forearms. I keep a little tube of lotion on each of my two desks, the one at home and the one at the synagogue. I don't know whether the dryness stems from living with radiators and fires during the wintertime, or from some natural lack of moisture in the local winter air, but one way or another, my skin is always dry in wintertime. Hand lotion feels like an incredible gift. I can actually see my thirsty skin coming back to life, like a wilted plant becoming vibrant again.

While I'm rubbing the lotion into my palms and the backs of my hands, I say the asher yatzar blessing, praising God Who creates the human body with wisdom. After I had my strokes, I developed a new relationship with the idea that if one of the body's many openings should be accidentally closed, it's no longer possible to stand before God and offer praise.

My relationship with the blessing changed again when I became pregnant and started giving myself daily injections of blood thinner; I recited the blessing every morning as the needle's plunger found its way home. And then I treated my expanding belly to some lotion, both to soothe the sting of the injection and because I couldn't help marveling as my physical form started to shift and change.

Today the blessing has become mundane again. I'm no longer worried about blood clots sneaking their way into my brain; I take my handful of pills every morning, and I trust that they're all doing their jobs and that my blood will continue to flow freely where it ought to be flowing. And I no longer have to steel myself to pinch a generous fold of flesh and guide a needle home. But the habit of reciting the blessing remains, a reminder that my body is a miracle -- that every body is a miracle, always.

Several years ago I learned how to sing the sheva brachot, the seven blessings which are central to every Jewish wedding ceremony. I learned to sing them from my teacher Hazzan Jack Kessler, who chants them according to the trope (the system of cantillation) used for the Song of Songs. It's a perfect match. I love singing the blessings which sanctify the heart of a wedding using this ancient ancestral melody which is linked with our tradition's greatest text about companionship and love.

One of those blessings begins ברוך אתה ה' אלהינו מלך העולם, אשר יצר את האדם בצלמו -- Blessed are You, Adonai, Sovereign of creation, Who creates humanity in Your image. The asher yatzar blessing begins with those same words, though instead of "in your image," the daily prayer says "with wisdom," and continues on from there. But because I have so frequently sung those opening words to this Shir haShirim melody, that's the melody I naturally hear in my head when I think of the words of the asher yatzar blessing.

And it reminds me to relate to my own body with love. To marvel at the wonder of having a body that works, and to treat my physical form with the love, kindness, and compassion I seek to bring to my marriage and to all of my relationships. Every time I grace my body with lotion, every time I recite the asher yatzar, is a chance to sing a love song to my body. Imperfect though it surely is, this body carries me through the day -- enables me to walk, to touch, to eat, to sleep, to sing -- grew our son from component cells. Yes, this body is worth celebrating. Always.

Joy Ladin's Through the Door of Life


Joy Ladin's extraordinary memoir Through the Door of LIfe: A Jewish Journey Between Genders begins with a short chapter I wish I could excerpt in full. Instead, I will link you to it; it was published in Zeek, as the essay A Blessing Over Progesterone. Here is how it begins:

Every day I say a blessing in Hebrew over my medication: “Blessed are You, O Lord our God, who has kept us, preserved us, and brought us to this time.” That blessing is traditionally said at the beginnings of holidays, on the eating of new kinds of fruit, and at any joyous occasion at which Jews want to heighten their sense of gratitude by becoming mindful of the singularity of the moment and the precariousness of the lives that have brought us to it. It is not said on the taking of medication; it is specifically not to be said over daily events, for which there are different blessings; and it is never said over a disease.

The medications I take — progesterone tablets, which I swallow whole, and sweet circles of estrogen that I dissolve under my tongue — are synthetic versions of the powerful hormones that naturally define and regulate many of the physiological characteristics of normal female bodies. I don’t have a normal female body. Born without the capacity to produce more than trace amounts of female hormones, for decades my body instead has produced testosterone, masculinizing my face, bones, muscle, hair, and skin. Though there are few aspects of my physical form unravaged by testosterone’s effects, thanks to my medication, those effects are diminishing. For the first time in my life, when I look in the mirror, I see someone who has begun to resemble — me.

Every trans person has a coming-out story. Most of these stories involve struggle for acceptance -- from oneself and from others -- and often these stories are heartbreaking. Joy's struggle takes a very particular form: she dealt with the impact of her transition while teaching at the women's college of Yeshiva University, the flagship institution of modern Orthodoxy. She writes:

Orthodox Judaism, like most traditional forms of religion, considers the things transsexuals do to fit our bodies to our souls to be sins. In my case, those sins included wearing women's clothing and taking hormones that destroyed my fertility. I was also violating customs and conceptions of gender that, while not mandated by Jewish law, are held to with religious conviction by many Orthodox Jews[.]

That conviction is so strong that Joy feared that even receiving tenure at Stern would not be enough to keep her in her job once she transitioned. And transition was necessary. "My gender identity crisis had destroyed my marriage, shattered my family, and turned me into an unwelcome stranger in my own home," she writes. Upon receiving tenure, she moved out of the home she had shared with her wife. "My children were grief stricken, angry, and baffled by the double blow of losing their happy family and the strange transformation of the father they loved."

When she explained to her dean that she was beginning the process of transition, she was forbidden from setting foot on campus. But she was allowed to return to teaching in 2008. After much negotiation (including which bathrooms she would be permitted to use), she returned to her life as an academic.

Finally, September arrived, and with it, my first happy day in a long time. After years of hiding and pretending, I was finally going to stand before my students and colleagues as the person -- the woman -- I knew myself to be. More important, after centuries of intolerance, an institution representing Orthodox Judaism was about to welcome an openly transgender employee...

My office was heaped with the same stacks of papers, the same teaching anthologies, but the name beside the door said "Dr. Joy Ladin." It was a miracle. I -- the real me -- was here, in plain sight. I walked through the halls, waiting for my transition to matter to someone. It didn't. Teachers rushed to and fro, students talked on cell phones or swayed back and forth in prayer. People had more important things to do than think about my gender.

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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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