[The following is a translation of an article that I wrote in Hebrew for the Israeli monthly magazine Chayim Acherim. Published on July 1 2019. The entire issue was dedicated an exploration of the body. A PDF of the original Hebrew article can be viewed here.]
The title of this article, which comes from a biblical verse (Job 19, 26), has been interpreted and reinterpreted for thousands of years, reflecting the different understandings about the religious position towards the body. In the following article, published in Israel in Hebrew on August 1, 2019, I met a researcher of Judaism, a Christian monk and a Sufi Sheikha in order to learn about the position of the three largest Western religions towards to body. However, it is safe to assume, that had I met three other representatives, the article would have been different.
How do you speak about the relationship of religions to the body in one article, or even in one magazine issue or in one book? It’s almost an impossible mission, even if you try to limit yourself to only one religion. In my own spiritual life, my relationship towards the body has undergone significant changes; as a young man, I lived about 20 years in communities dedicated to spiritual development, where people lived celibate lives without families. Today I am married and have a family. From my own personal experience, as well as from reading and talking to people from around the world, it is clear to me that relationship with the body is a complicated business in every religion, every culture, every spiritual community. And indeed, everyone I invited to speak with me about the body for this article reacted similarly: “This is a huge topic!”
One of my teachers/friends I spoke with was Yakir Englander. Englander (43), grew up as a member of an ultra-orthodox Hassidic sect in Israel (the Vizhnitz Dynasty) before he left, at age 22. He wrote his PhD thesis about the male body in the non-Hassidic, ultra-orthodox communities, as reflected in the Mussar literature (focusing on ethics and morality) and stories about famous righteous people.
I know Englander from an online theology course which he led and in which I took part. We became online friends, and it so happened, that our first, un-coordinated meeting in the flesh happened at a Sufi mosque in New York! (more on that later). God’s ways are wonderous.
Judaism has no Kama Sutra
“So what’s the story about the body in Judaism?” I ask Englander. “On the face of it, we are a religion that embraces the body, that does not renounce the body. ‘The Torah has not prescribed us to worship through asceticism’ were the words that Rabbi Yehudah Halevi put in the mouth of The Friend, the advocate for Judaism, in his 11th Century book, The Kuzari. But what’s really happening?”
“The assumption that Judaism has never negated the body, but rather related to it positively (as opposed to Christianity, for example), makes it harder sometimes for us to see things as they are,” he says. “We must ask: Does Judaism related to the body as it is, as part of the thing I call ‘self’ but that has its own language, its own needs, that need to be listened to? Or does Judaism look at the body solely as a tool for worshipping God?”
Rather than answering his question, Englander invites me to enter a time machine and travel to Jerusalem during the Second Temple period, 1st century of the common era. We meet the great teacher Hillel the Elder leaving the House of Study in order to go to the Roman steam bath and telling his students that he was about to perform a mitzvah (a divine commandment). “How is a Roman steam bath a mitzvah?” his students wonder, and as a good citizen of the Hellenistic era, he answers: “If a king would put statues of himself throughout his kingdom, would he not expect his subjects to keep them clean?” In other words: our body is the image of God, and washing it is worshipping God!
We move forward in time a few hundred years, north-east in space, and we reach Babylon. There we see Rabbi Kahanah sneaking into his teacher’s bedroom, and hiding unnoticed under the bed. Soon his teacher, Rav, enters with his wife, and a romantic scene unfolds, accompanied by giggles, chitchat, and, of course, the main course. From under the bed, Rabbi Kahana asks Rav: “How come you talk and joke with your wife during intercourse?” Rav turns to him and says, “What are you doing here?!” and Kahanah answers, without a trace of hesitation or embarrassment: “This is Torah, and I need to learn it!”
“You understand,” says Englander, “that whoever decided to include this story in the Talmud is not ashamed to say that sex is something that is done through enjoyments and with laughter and joy! Here the body appears as it is, without censorship, without sublimation.”
This celebration of the body (and of course, with the exception of the Song of Songs, it’s exclusively a celebration of the male body) does not last very long. Our time machine skips to the Pious Hassids of Ashkenaz (old Germany) in the 12th and 13th century. We see long-faced individuals and traumatized communities, severely hurt by the Crusaders on their way to liberate the Holy Land. The austere relationship of the neighboring Christian communities did not help either. “For these people, the body was already a source of shame, not honor,” says Englander. Here, in Europe, following the violence of the crusades, the term Kiddush Hashem (Sanctification of God) was coined, meaning sacrificing the body in order to preserve the purity of the soul.
A story from that period, that was also by Maimonides, illustrates the change. One of these pious Hassids travelled on a boat, when a non-Jew approached him and said: “You are a despicable person!”. He then proceeded to urinate on the Jew, who stayed in place, to show that he had no shame before anyone except God. It was only up to God to decide what is shameful and what is honorable. Jews did not care if they were despised throughout the human realm. On the contrary: the shaming (of the body for the sake of preserving the purity of the soul) was perceived as a heroic deed.
We transition to the same period but a different region: to Fustat (ancient Cairo) in Egypt, home to one of the most important Jewish leaders of all times: Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon, known as Maimonides. On the basis of his encyclopedic knowledge of Talmud, Midrash, commentaries and the responsa literature, he compiled, for the first time in Jewish history, a codification of halakha (Jewish law), known as Mishneh Torah (lit. Repetition of the Torah). Maimonides is also not a celebrator of the body: as far as he is concerned, one should perform sexual intercourse “as if forced to do so by a demon.”
The time machine takes us 300 years forward and brings us to Safed, where another code of halakha, of Jewish Law, is created. This is the Shulchan Aruch (“The Set Table”) by Rabbi Joseph Karo. “The halakha”, explains Englander, “These codes of rules, are the most bodily thing there is. Halakha is performed through the body, not by means of thinking or faith. But this is not a celebration of the body but rather a subordination of the body, so that each step one takes, each movement one makes, one expresses the maxim of ‘I am ever mindful of the LORD’s presence’ (Psalm 16:8). So you will not find here torturing of the body or harming it—Maimonides was a physician—but its subordination is definitely there, for the purpose of a goal that is understood to be beyond the body.
Englander demonstrates: “When I ask you to hand me a glass of water, the body knows exactly what it needs to do, what movements to make, taking into account your position and orientation in space. But the halakha tells you, that right upon rising you have to take a glass in your right hand, fill it with water, transfer if to the left hand, pour some water on the right hand, transfer the glass to the right hand, pour some water on the left hand, do this three more times and then say a blessing. This is not speaking the body’s language; this is boot camp training that breaks the body and subordinates it.”
Englander moves the time machine to the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, the years Zionism flourished. “Zionists looked at the traditional Jewish lifestyle and told themselves: ‘They are crazy! These Jewish have no bodies! When the gentiles kill their bodies, they create this category of Kiddush Hashem (Sanctification of God), sacrificing their body to preserve the purity of the soul.’ That’s how women behaved in the old world, not men. The Zionists wanted to create a new Jew who was like the Vikings, like Bar Kochba.”
We move over to Kishinev, a town in the Russian Empire at the beginning of the 20th Century, where Hayim Nahman Bialik, later to become Israel’s National Poet, witnesses the results of the pogrom and writes his epic poem, Begey ha’harigah (In the City of Slaughter), deeply lamenting the situation of the Jews at the time. In those days, Max Nordau was preaching his philosophy of “Muscular Judaism” to the Zionist Congress. Orthodox rabbis all over the world shudder at the thought, except for the Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Palestine, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, who writes: “There is a great demand on our body, we need a healthy body, we have focused much on our internal life, we have forgotten the holiness of the body, we have neglected health and physical heroism, we have forgotten that we have holy flesh no less than we have holy spirit” (Eight Collections, 3, 273).
Englander parks his time machine in 21st Century Israel. Like in every other field, the religious discourse has moved online. He shows me websites such as Yeshivah, Moreshet and Kipah, where youngsters ask no less than tens of thousands of halakhic questions about sex. “This was never the case,” he says. “How many citations can you find about masturbation in the Mishnah, in the Kabbalah or in Hassidism? Five, ten? Suddenly you have thousands of halakhic questions from young boys and girls. What, girls masturbating? Who has ever heard about this?”
The youngsters are giving the rabbis an accelerated education. “A rabbi tells a young lesbian woman in an internet forum, ‘There’s no such thing as lesbian. A woman identifying as such has either experienced some sexual trauma from a man and is afraid to get married, or just wants to have an affair,’ and she replies to him: ‘Are you out of your mind?’ Or the former Minister of Education, Shay Piron, replies to someone and says that the only reason masturbation and homosexuality are parts of his life was that he has become a self-absorbed Westernized individual. You can imagine the responses.”
“Or take the young girls who asks a rabbi, ‘Why can boys in Bnei Akiva (a religious youth movement) take off their shirt when we go on hikes? Maybe I’m also aroused sexually when I see shirtless men?’ And the rabbi answers: ‘You did not write ‘maybe’ for no reason, because we both know that this is not your experience.’ He receives a flood of responses from young girls who profess to be orthodox, and they ask him which universe he lives in. The halakhic force that has sought to subdue the body can no longer do it. The Western celebration of the body is taking over.”
Englander claims, that Judaism does not have much to offer about listening to the body. “Judaism is a religion of community”, he says, “while the body is part of nature. It’s not our field, not our specialty.” The body is not the only field we have not specialized in, he says, and gives the example of breathing exercises. “With the exception of a few inaccessible Kabbalistic texts, we have nothing to offer. So let’s go to the Buddhists and learn from them how to breathe! Likewise, we don’t have a Jewish equivalent to Kama Sutra. So let’s get the halakha out of the bedroom. Judaism will be better for that.”
He did not want to compromise
For the past few years, about once a month, I make a “pilgrimage” to the Bronx, about an hour’s journey from my home in Manhattan. There in a corner of two quiet streets, is a church of the Marist Brothers. They are an order of monks whose members are dedicated to education (none of them are priests). I walk to the back entrance, leading to the monks’ residences, and sit for a talk with Donald (Don) Bisson (72), educator, Jungian psychologist and one of the deepest, wisest and more open-minded people I have had the privilege of knowing.
Bisson, like me, is a spiritual director. Spiritual direction is a form of consultation that preceded modern psychology by a few hundred years. One of my teachers introduced him to me as “the golden standard” of the field. In spite of being a monk from a very early age, he is a committed iconoclast who does not hesitate to strongly criticize the Church, including for its attitude towards the body and sex. I speak with him, knowing that there are no questions that need be off the table and the response I will get will be straight and sincere.
“The central point of Christian theology is bodily incarnation. Of course, this is primarily about God’s incarnation as man, as Jesus, but it has far-reaching implications for humanity as a whole. The scriptures say, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are my brothers, you did it to me.’ (Matthew 25:40). In other words, the King’s Holy Spirit did not only incarnate in Jesus but also in each and every one of us. We are all holy.”
This is the reason, he explains that Catholics, as well as the Greek Orthodox, strongly reject interference in matter of life and death. They oppose abortions, assisted medical suicides and death penalty. “Life, incarnation, is sacred,” he says.
At the same time, this Christian relationship to the body as sacred has a dark side. “There’s always been a split within Christianity. We have a history of the body as ‘shadow’ (a term he uses in the Jungian sense: suppressed aspects of the personality that may cause a person to behave in an unconscious, destructive matter towards themselves or their environment; IHM). Since the earliest days to the very present, Christianity has tried to encourage excessive holiness, excessive spirituality, while ignoring the body and its needs.” I am reminded of St. Origen, who castrated himself in order to tame his sexual desire, or the medieval St. Augustine who wrote extensively about his difficulties restraining his sexual organ. Bisson believes these are mutilation of the original teachings.
I tell him that reading the Christian scriptures does not indicate that Jesus lived a monastic life. He seemed to have fun, to enjoy a good glass of wine and good company and was not “holier than thou”. How is it that St. Paul’s extreme inclinations took over the Church, even though he was a late-comer who never met Jesus in the flesh, I ask?
“In the first generation after Jesus,” says Bisson, “they were sure that he would reappear very shortly and the Kingdom of Heaven would overtake the Earth. So St. Paul said, ‘if the Kingdom of Heaven is just around the corner, you better prepare yourself and don’t spend time on nonsense.’ It took the Church about one hundred years to understand that well, Jesus may not be returning that soon. The problem is that some of the structures that were created that that time, out of that state of mind, continue to this very day.”
I am reminded of the Chabad (Lubavitch) Hassidic movement where the same story is being recreated. When their guide, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, passed away 25 years ago without appointing a heir, some of them interpreted this as a sign that he was the Messiah. He did not die, he only left for a short time, and soon he will return and establish the divine order on earth. How will that movement look in 100-200 years, when they understand that nobody is coming back from nowhere?
I can’t resist asking him: “Why, then, did you become a monk?”
“I chose this way of life at a very early age: I was barely 18 years old. I did not do it for ideological reasons, but because of my nature, because the richness of my internal life which I wanted to deepen. When I was 30, I felt that I needed to check myself, and I left the monastery and that way of life. Very quickly it became clear to me that if I marry and have children, I will have to compromise my internal life—the life of prayer, contemplation and meditation—and I understood that such a compromise would be opposed to who I was, to my natural inclination. So I returned to the monastery.”
Bisson is against requiring priests to be celibate. “It’s only in the past 1,000 years that priests are required to be celibates, and it started for political reasons, for consolidation of power. If you have an ‘army’ of celibate priests, it’s easy to mobilize them and get them to move, because they are not tethered to family or property.” He is happy about the first signs of the loosening of those restrictions by the present Pope Francis, who is authorizing—only in remote areas in Brazil, for now—to ordain married priests.
As a Jungian, he sees a difference in principle between the life of the a priest and that of a monk. “The archetype of a monk is completely different than the archetype of a priest” he says. “A monk devotes his life to inner work; a priest, on the other hand, oversees the performance of rituals, the sacraments. Marriage is considered a sacrament in Christianity; monasticism is not.” He believes that married people can be better priests, because they have a better first-hand understanding of their parishioners’ problems.
But no, he does not feel that celibacy is responsible for the pedophilia and other sex-related scandals that have plagued the Church recently. “Independent studies have shown,” he claims, “that the relative number of pedophiles among celibates and among homosexuals is the same as their relative number in society as a whole.” Seventy years of suppressing news about the pedophilia cases by the Church have surfaced all at once, and that, he believes, is that reason that the number of pedophiles in the Church seems larger than usual. “And yet, as I said, there is something very dark about the Church’s relationship towards the body and sex.
“The understanding that Christianity is opposed to sex is a mutilation. One of the people who come to me for spiritual direction told me about a dream in which he realized, that his relationship to sex is very mechanical. This led to a conversation between us: why is he so focused on ‘performance’ instead of on relationship? How does this express itself in his daily life? How does it express itself in his prayer life, in his relationship with his wife, in his relationship to his work, in his life in general? Because your relationship to sex and to the body is not different than your relationship to anything else. Life is one whole, not separate compartments. This is the story that we started with, which can be found at the basis of Christianity: life is the incarnation of the divine in a body. And no aspect of our life is free from this paradox, the complex relationship between the divine and the human.”
She Did Not Have A Choice
I first heard about Sheikha Fariha (72; complete title: Sheikha Fariha Fatime Al-Nur Al-Jerrahi) from Dr. Yakir Englander, the first person I mentioned in this article. From the moment he mentioned her name, it was clear that I had to meet her. It was kind of love at first hearing.
She has a fascinating life story, one that could have filled a whole book. She was born to Catholic, French-born parents (Monique and John de Ménil) in Houston, Texas. Her parents were patrons of the arts and culture in the city, who, among other things, sponsored one of Houston’s jewels, the Rothko Chapel, a wonderfully designed spiritual, artistic and cultural center named after the famous American painter Marc Rothko. Fourteen of Rothko’s paintings, commissioned especially for this chapel, adorn its walls.
In the 1980’s, the Sheikha’s mother invited a group of Sufi whirling dervishes from Turkey to appear at the Chapel, along with a Turkish Sheikh who lived in the USA at the time and who was tasked with making sure the dervishes were hosted properly. While talking to Mrs. de Ménil’s daughter, Phillipa, known today as Sheikha Fariha, the Sheikh said, almost by the way, that great as those dervishes were, if she wanted to see greatness, she should meet his teacher, Sheikh Muzaffer Efendi of Istanbul. When the latter came to visit the US sometime later, she travelled with her then-husband to meet him in Spring Valley, New York.
“And there he was,” she wrote in a book, “on the couch surrounded by his dervishes, singing his love to Allah with every cell of his body and soul. It was the living Jesus with his disciples before me, and without choice I became his, wrapped in his love, his life, and his destiny.”
Once in a while, when her Sufi center has open evenings, I visit the Sheikha and take part in the dhikr ceremony (the word means “remembrance”—referring to remembrance of Allah). It’s a practice that involves a sort of dance, one which the Sheikha is choreographing in real time. She does not give sermons, but when she is filled with inspiration, or when she responds to questions, she answers using associative, circular, emotional speech, almost like poetry. This is also how she spoke in our telephone conversation, parts of which appear below.
I asked her how the Sufis relate to the body, whether they see it a friend or a foe, whether they respect it as it is or see it as a tool for worship.
Sheikha: “The Qur’an teaches us that Creation, including our body (which is part of it), is the face of God. You cannot say ‘God’s body’ because that could become a very limiting expression, but you can call it ‘the light of God’, ‘the emanation of God’, ‘The Light of God’, ‘The presence of God in.’ Creation is not only a path to return to God but God’s very presence. This is very ancient teaching that belongs to humanity as a whole, but we have deviated from it. During certain periods, this wisdom was stifled by members of different religious and through various religious practices.
“Ideally, we live here as representatives of God, what in Arabic is called ‘Khalif’ (King David is the first prophet who is specifically referred to in the Qur’an using this title). The Qur’an teaches us that humanity as a whole is Khalif, because all the human qualities are embodied in us. The question, of course, is which of these qualities do we express? Do we express our power and our dignity by ruling over others, or do we express goodness, compassion, humility, etc. These are very basic teachings, of course, that we are all familiar with.
“The essence of Islam, of the Qur’anic teaching, is completely positive and body affirming. I would say that the entire Muslim tradition is an affirmation. Because when Allah asked all the souls, before time, ‘Am I not your Lord?’, all of them, without exception, answered: ‘Yes, yes, yes, you are our Lord.’
“Sufism emphasizes that the spiritual path is a path of affirmation. We affirm our creation, we affirm our light, we affirm our life, our body, we affirm our relationships, we affirm our livelihood, and through this affirmation we express gratitude. This gratitude is our very nature!
“So the body is divine, the body is heaven. One of the Allahis (a Sufi hymn) that we sing says ‘My body is your paradise. My soul is your Holy Spirit.” This is very rare teaching in this world. This body is God’s body, with all its function and gifts. But usually we use it in a way that does not enable us to experience this. The body of the mystic is a body of light, a body of joy, but it can also be a body of pain, because a mystic experiences things more intensively.
“Sheikha,” I ask, “the body has its own language and its own needs. How does Sufism relate to this? For example, the sexual needs? Are they respected as they are?”
“Bodily desire is divine as well. The famous mystic and philosopher Ibn Arabi says: ‘When you make love, know who you are making love to. You are making love to Allah.’ This is vital.
“Sexual desire, like hunger, is the most intensive desire. This is also the desire around which the various traditions have erected most fences. But the desire itself is holy. It is a sacred act, not just for procreation. And this is what is interesting here. In this respect, Sufism liberates us from a behavior that is dictated by specific goals. ‘I am doing this so that…’. Of course, on the highest level we live for God, but we are required to live in the moment and within reality and within the intensity of the moment. Every moment that sprouts is like a spring that emerges from the unseen essence.
“If we cannot taste this, we are not in the presence of God! If we are in the midst of the sexual embrace, but cannot feel the elation of the moment or we are full of fear, then at that time we are not completely in God’s presence. This is true about everything. We are not with God if we are walking along and being distracted by obsessive thoughts. We learn that God constantly reveals new expressions, new revelations, in everyone’s heart; but our heart is disconnected because our mind is at the wheel. We need the mystics to save us from ourselves! (laughs).
“And of course, all this has to be in a framework of proper measure. I don’t want to create a picture of unbridled sensuality. But the bottom line is this: all our talents, all our skills, all our experiences, all that happens to us in our life is given to us and is happening to us for one purpose only—to experience the presence of God. In all our experiences, there God is.
* * *
Three voices from three traditions that share a common source; three unique, brave and creative voices. What would have happened had I approached three other people? Most probably I would have received different answers. One thing is sure: the body is indeed a complicate matter, and requires much thought and study. It seems that we live in an age in which much is changing in this regard, which is exciting. And we barely touched subjects that have only reach the mainstream awareness in recent years: transgender, homosexuality, non-binary sexuality, etc. We will keep all that for future issues.