The Hidden and The Manifest

A Conversation About Judaism and the Senses

By Jay Michaelson

Published November 24, 2006, issue of November 24, 2006.
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Scholars, like artists, need community — people who see the world in ways similar enough to be supportive but different enough to provoke thought, controversy and inspiration. For me, Rabbi Jill Hammer has long played all those roles. When we teach together, she always seems to “get it,” and to come up with insights or rituals that I would never have dreamed of. Last week, for example, I was asked to create a Jewish component for an interfaith Halloween service. Jewish Halloween? But I sent Jill an e-mail, and within minutes came the perfect response, drawing on Sukkot’s ushpizin ritual, integrating the harvest elements of the original Halloween holiday.

And yet, Jill and I often disagree, usually in productive ways. On paper, you’d think that two semi-heretical, queer-identified, post-renewal/post-denominational Jewish spiritual leaders would agree about everything. But as we’ve taught together, useful differences have emerged. I tend more toward meditation, Jill toward narrative and ritual. My spiritual practice tilts toward the ayin, emptiness; Jill’s toward yesh, or form. And of course, I’m a man and Jill’s a woman.

As luck would have it, Jill and I both have books coming out this Hanukkah season. Her “Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons” was published in September by the Jewish Publication Society; my book, “God in Your Body: Kabbalah, Mindfulness, and Embodied Spiritual Practice,” was published this month by Jewish Lights. Both are in large part about bringing Judaism back to the world of the senses, and to religious experience as opposed to concept and myth. That’s where we began our conversation.

— Jay Michaelson

JM: Jill, I’ve noticed that both of our books, in their different ways, seem to deal with the concrete, as opposed to the abstract, aspects of religious life: nature and body, as opposed to text and history. I wonder what drew you to that perspective on Jewish spirituality.

JH: The main idea of this book came to me when I suddenly noticed that the way I was observing the Jewish holidays was deeply influenced by the seasons, what was happening in the outside world and with other people. Holidays, though they do have historical stories associated with them, tell the story of nature in an embodied and constantly changing way. For me, this was exciting, because it transcended the particular without erasing it, and it was something I could relate to. Looking at the calendar in this way allows you to find your place in a much larger cycle of life. Maimonides says the same thing: If we look at the larger universe, we begin to understand how small we are — and yet we have such power. That’s a good spiritual practice.

JM: Usually, though, when people ask, “Why do we fast on Tisha B’Av?” or “Why do we light candles on Hanukkah?” they get a historical answer — because the Temple was destroyed, or because it was rededicated. Whereas, I’m more interested in what fasting, or lighting candles, does — how does it work functionally.

JH: Yet for me, narrative is very powerful, too. To join with these narratives, particularly when I’m reworking them, allows me to reflect on myself and my people’s historical experience in a powerful way. Of course, not all the stories work for me all the time, but I can find ways to make most of them work for me.

JM: Can you give an example?

JH: Sure. The destruction of the Temple has some problems for me. It implies there is one central place to meet God, and that place can be destroyed — whereas I tend to interpret Temple as Earth. So Tisha B’Av becomes about the destruction we do here on earth, and how to repair it. I suspect that you’re more practice oriented than I am. I’m not consistent in all of my Jewish and/or spiritual practices. For example, I find fasting a miserable experience. It makes me totally unable to concentrate on what I’m doing. I’m always in struggle about whether to abandon this practice that is horrible for me, and I usually don’t abandon it, because of the narrative.

JM: That’s interesting, because for me, the narrative doesn’t ring true, but to be unable to concentrate in the usual way is a great opportunity to see the mind, and meditate. Fasting also helps me learn to make space for bodily discomfort, to relate to it in a different way — since at some point, we’re all going to experience a lot more of it.

JH: What I don’t like is being told what my body needs and wants. I don’t want to abolish fasting for the Jewish community, but I do want people to take my experience seriously. Listening to my body is important for me. It’s important from a gendered perspective, as women tend to have more trouble with fasting than men do. Taking the body seriously means you listen to what your real body is saying, not just what the tradition says your body should be saying.

JM: Where do we draw the line, though? I agree with you, but I also hear that Orthodox devil’s advocate saying, “What if your body tells you that you should cheat on your partner, or steal, or kill?”

JH: Of course, the body can get it wrong: We can have addictions, and instincts to cruelty, and those are just as embodied as our instincts to kindness. That’s why I turn to tradition in the first place. Traditions try to encapsulate ethics so as to create society. But I don’t assume the tradition’s perspective comes from a nonsubjective place. After all, what about when the tradition says I’m still married to a person because they won’t give me a get? Is that ethical? Ethics has to be contextualized in terms of situation and relationship.
I’m curious, Jay, how you make these decisions yourself. In your book you say, “Do the practice, and when the practice is hard, notice the practice is hard.” Why isn’t the prohibition against homosexuality just another practice that’s hard? How do you know the difference?

JM: One of my teachers, Joseph Goldstein, says that suffering is like knee pain during meditation. When you sit for an hour, or two, your knees are going to hurt — really hurt. So you stay with it, noticing the pain, noticing your reactions. At some point, though, you notice that all you’re experiencing is pain — and at that point, you decide to move. The difference between that and just reactively moving, though, is that it’s a conscious, mindful decision, made after you’ve made as much space for the pain as you think you can. For me, the same is true for sexuality. I lived with that “knee pain” for over a decade, and I know what it does to the soul. And I’ve met dozens, maybe hundreds, of closeted religious Jews, almost all of whom are deeply unhappy, broken people. For now, that’s how I know the difference.

JH: How do you see the relationship between the body and the larger environment? Your book focuses more on the personal, and mine more on the larger, environmental experience.

JM: That’s right. My book is essentially a book about consciousness: how to wake up out of delusion in, and through, the body. Any book like that will have an individualistic focus, and thus runs the risk of being narcissistic. But for me, the body is exactly that which gets us out of our narcissistic egos and into the wider world. It’s like a wake-up call from the rest of reality, whether it happens through enjoying good food or sex, or noticing how we’re affected by the weather, or by illness. There definitely is this tendency to identify with the “soul” inside my head, but the body can help undo that illusion.

JH: For me, the fundamental impulse of observance is gratitude: How am I going to show my gratitude for what I’ve been given? There are all kinds of ways, and tradition prescribes some. Kashrut, for example — I don’t really like it so much, but I do it; it’s something I do for God. And while I don’t have the theology that God commanded it, I do have the theology that this is what my people have chosen to offer to show gratitude for the world. It’s not good to live an ungrateful life, and Jewish observance allows me to live a grateful one.

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