To many people I don’t look like a rabbi. One reason, I suspect, is that I’m athletic. I swam in the 1993 Maccabiah Games and am currently training for a triathlon.
Many people don’t expect to hear a sermon from a guy who is 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds. Why? Jews struggle to associate authentic Judaism with athleticism, with seeing the physical world as holy.
Emma Lazarus is best known for her poem “The New Colossus,” carved in bronze inside the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses….” Less well-known is an article she wrote for the magazine American Hebrew in 1882, arguing to change the Jewish body: “What we need today ... is the building up of our national, physical force…. We read of the Jews who attempted to rebuild the Temple using the trowel with one hand, while with the other they warded off the blows of the molesting enemy. Where are the warrior-mechanics today equal to either feat?... For nearly nineteen hundred years we have been living on an idea; our spirit has been abundantly fed, but our body has been starved….”
What is an authentic Jewish relationship between body and soul? A verse from this week’s parasha may offer insight.
Parashat Mishpatim concludes with a short narrative about Moses, Aaron, Nadav, Avihu and the 70 elders of Israel, who ascended and, having survived a mystical vision of God, “they saw God and ate and drank” (Exodus 24:11). They saw God and ate and drank?
Rashi spells out the objection: “They looked at Him [God] with an arrogant heart, while eating and drinking.” Can you imagine drinking a soda during the Amidah? We disassociate bodily processes (eating, drinking) with holiness.
Echoing Rashi’s negative view of eating and drinking, Judah Halevi interprets the elders’ eating and drinking as a sign of their low spiritual stature: “They saw God but they ate and drank,” meaning that despite being nourished by the Divine presence, the nobles had to eat and drink. If they’d been really holy, they wouldn’t have needed food.
Onkelos is complimentary of the elders’ experience, and he translates the verse, “They saw God as if they were eating and drinking,” to mean their experience of God was as real as the physical, bodily experience of eating and drinking. That is quite an intense experience of God. But Onkelos’ reading still veers away from the idea that the elders were actually eating and drinking while seeing God. Why? Because such physical, bodily processes are antithetical to his understanding of how one encounters God.
Not all rabbinic commentaries take such a dim view of eating and drinking. Nachmanides explains that when the elders ate and drank, what they consumed were holy sacrifices of well-being: “They rejoiced and made it a holiday — for it is an obligation to rejoice at receiving the Torah.” After citing other biblical examples when eating and drinking following an encounter with God, he writes, “So here, on the day of our wedding to the Torah, they did exactly the same.” Nachmanides’ interpretation argues that eating and drinking are an extension of the encounter with God; not the same as a vision, but no less vital a part of the experience.
Abarvanel says, “Since they did not achieve prophesy — but rather they attained a realization of God’s existence by means of their own intellect — they did not need to avoid food, but could eat and drink as they celebrated.” According to Abarvanel, while prophets must avoid food and drink in order to experience God, such asceticism is neither necessary nor desirable. The nobles encountered God as we can — not through an abandonment of the physical world of food and drink, but rather by staying rooted in this world. We encounter God through the use of our mind and intellect and, when we do, how do we celebrate in a holy way? Through food and drink.
Body and soul, food and Torah are not so dissimilar. Some of our holiest Jewish moments are punctuated not through intellectual contemplation but through the body. We make Kiddush over wine, a substance that makes us drunk and which, according to Psalms (104:15), “gladdens the heart.”
Eating and drinking are processes of ingesting foreign substances and allowing one’s self to be physically nourished and changed by them so that our bodies can be healthy and grow. Learning Torah is a process of “ingesting” a new idea from our tradition and allowing oneself to be changed and nourished in the process so that we can grow in our relationship with God.
Jewish tradition has always maintained the physical and spiritual worlds are incomplete without one another. Hillel’s students once asked him if taking a bath was a mitzvah. He replied, “If in the theaters and circuses, the images of the king must be kept clean by the man to whom they have been entrusted, how much more is it a duty of human beings to care for the body, since man has been created in the image of God.”
Emma Lazarus bemoaned that for 1,900 years the Jewish spirit was fed while the body was starved. Was she right? Perhaps. If so, it was because the rabbis ignored sources within our own tradition that point toward how caring for the Jewish body is not a distraction from what is holy; it is a mitzvah, a path to encountering the Divine.
Rabbi Daniel Greyber is executive director of Camp Ramah in California and the Zimmer Conference Center at American Jewish University (ramah.org).