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Judaism and the Body

In the Jewish tradition there is no absolute division between material and spiritual, body and soul. According to the Hebrew Bible, the human body expresses divine reality and is a key to divine knowledge. As the Bible states, “From my flesh, I will perceive God.” (Job 19):

Before his expulsion from Eden, Adam’s body shone like the sun and was capable of living forever. Only as a result of eating from the Tree of Knowledge did God “place His hand on man and shrink him”. This changed to skin the body of light which en-clothed him, making it subject to death. One of the goals of Jewish spirituality is to reverse this process: to perfect the body and make it shine.

Judaism’s ultimate goal is not to transcend the physical, but to make for God a dwelling place in the lower worlds. This brings the divine into the physical world. Judaism’s ideal is the soul fully inhabiting the body, not the soul liberated from the body.

The importance of the concept of revival of the dead in Judaism emphasizes the body’s centrality. Maimonides was a Jewish thinker who was influenced by Greek philosophy and its disdain for the body. He contended that revival of the dead was only a stage and that the ultimate good was to be a ‘pure intellect’. Kabbalists, led by Nachmanides, rejected Maimonides’ stance, asserting that the body’s spiritual perfection and eternal existence with the soul are of ultimate significance.

The Zohar ( kabbalistic text) teaches that the ultimate reward of a person who has succeeded in this world is that his soul and body will be reunited. The human personality is interpreted as an expression of the unique gestalt that is created between an individual body and soul.

In the rabbinic and kabbalistic traditions, the preferred time for sex is on Sabbath, when physical and spiritual pleasure are one. A medieval essay on sex called “The Holy Letter” argues against the philosophical attitude which denigrates the sense of touch. It claims that sex is holy because it expresses and enacts the secret of oneness, and that God is one through the union, not the separation, of opposites.

The great Jewish emphasis on the value of having children is also evidence of a  positive attitude towards the body. Judaism rejects the notion of asceticism as a ‘diminishment of God’s image in the world’. Producing more embodied souls is a great mitzvah (commandment), in fact, the first one in the Torah.

According to the Talmud (Oral Law), there are 613 commandments in the Torah, including 248 positive commandments and 365 negative commandments. These correspond to the 248 organs and 365 tendons of the human body. The Mishna lists the exact breakdown of these ‘organs’.

The soul, in inhabiting the body, can also be said to have 613 parts, filling the body in a specific, concrete way, not in a general or amorphous fashion.  Fulfilling a commandment spiritually repairs its corresponding organ, thus enabling the soul to fully inhabit that organ. In fulfilling all the commandments, the soul inhabits the body in all its complexity and diversity. 

The rabbinic and kabbalistic traditions call the human body olam katan (a small cosmos). Each part of the body has its own unique spiritual powers and significance, and corresponds in some way to the divine powers expressing themselves in the cosmos. Ezekiel had a vision in which he “saw the glory of God as the image of a man”, expressing the deep connection between the human and the divine.

Rabbi Nachman of Brazlav teaches that the body can help the soul spiritually, when the soul experiences one of its intermittent falls. Apparently this can only happen if the body and the soul are close enough for the soul to have conveyed to the body the spiritual light it attained when it was ‘high’. When the body is pure, its pleasures can help the soul return to experiencing spiritual bliss, reminding the soul of spiritual knowledge.

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