The Body Beautiful and Not So Beautiful

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, April 16, 2021 / 4 Iyyar 5781

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Summary: This week’s Oasis Songs focuses on body shame and explores how Judaism offers us a more integrated and healthy understanding of our physicality.

Reading Time: Six minutes

At the end of January, I had knee surgery. It was my fifth surgery. Five surgeries? Yes. My first surgery occurred when I was 19. Since then, my knees have failed me at regular intervals.

People are surprised when I tell them this was the fifth surgery. The fact is, these surgeries all result from being very athletic when I was young. I played competitive soccer. Tennis. Ultimate Frisbee. I was even a USCF Category 4 bike racer. In the aftermath of those surgeries, and the hesitancy and loss of confidence I suffered, I am anything but athletic anymore.

A central part of my youthful identity was snuffed out. My body betrayed me. Or at least that’s one way to describe how I responded to my loss of athleticism.

One outcome of all this is that I have struggled with weight issues and body issues—particularly because the body I have ended up with seems so different from the one I had when I was an active athlete. For a long time, the startling gap between the physical self of my youth as opposed to my later years created a sense of shame.

We live in an era which tries to avoid body shaming, even as our advertisements and media still idolize the young, lithe body. Because those messages are still so present, the body shaming I experienced was primarily generated internally and not externally. It’s something that I have slowly come to terms with.

But you don’t need to struggle with weight control to experience a sense of embarrassment in your body. Ask any teenager who has suffered from acne. Ask those who imagine that their noses are too long or crooked, or who are disturbed by less than perfect symmetry. Ask a woman who is coming to terms with her body after labor and childbirth. Few of us escape these dilemmas.

The truth is that shame in the body is an ancient part of Western culture. It finds its roots in Greek thought and Christian theology, which separates the body and soul, and gives preference to the soul. This division was magnified as human sexuality was deemed defective, and in which the highest form of divine service was exemplified by the Catholic priest and nun who embraced celibacy, and in which our carnality—our “embodiedness”—was viewed as an impediment to spirituality.

Thoughts matter, and what a society is willing to address impacts us in ways that are often quite invisible. We can be left with shame without understanding how it is a product of an alien and ancient ideology.

Judaism has always approached the body and soul in a much more entwined manner. In the traditional prayerbook, the early pages of the morning service juxtapose two prayers, “elohai neshama shenata bi, tehora hi” with “asher yatzar et haadam b’chochma,” which is a prayer that is also recited after finishing up in the bathroom. The fact that there is no gap between these spiritual and carnal recognitions of the human state matters. The fact that each prayer recognizes the divine hand in our nature matters.

The body-soul problem is not a Jewish problem.

This week’s double parshah of Tazria Metzorah makes this abundantly clear. In a manner so typical to the Torah, we find ourselves looking straight on at a description of bodily ailments and afflictions. We read about leprosy of people and buildings. We listen to the laws surrounding seminal emission and menstruation. The Torah places these most personal functions of the body in plain sight because ultimately it demands we confront our humanness, our carnality, our corporeality. The Torah describes bodily processes precisely because these too are worthy of celebration and of elevation. Holiness is not found by a denouncement of the body, but by raising up its functionality and finding the holiness of the material realm.

It is this deep integration that offers us a way out of body shame. It is this brilliant holism that also allows us to escape the ways that the classical and contemporary world elevated the body into something to be worshipped. Without this integration, we shouldn’t be surprised by a society that polarizes our relationship with our own fleshiness, offering us the fake choices of looking down at our physicality or worshipping youthfulness instead.

I have tried to take to heart the spiritual wisdom that Judaism offers us about the body and the fact that it breaks down. This is not a betrayal: it is simply the reality of matter. Illness creeps in because there is no way that finite matter won’t decay.

When I began my physical therapy this time around, I told my amazing PT how my other knee surgeries had made me lose confidence in my physical abilities. That I was always afraid of the next injury, and how this fear held me back. I told him this because I was committed to a different sort of recovery, one in which the purity of my soul and the miraculousness of my body could dwell in the healthy sort of harmony that the prayerbook offers. I feel really good about that.

There is a category of Jewish text study called Difficult Torah. Difficult Torah presents us with images and concepts that we need to struggle with. Too often in the larger world, if we don’t like an idea, we throw it away. That’s not the Torah’s way. It forces us to look at reality head on. By doing so, it allows us to uncover new truths and recover old ones. Tazria Metzora is difficult Torah, precisely because it makes us reckon with our own imperfections. It does this for a reason. As the medieval mystics taught us, inside every husk of brokenness is a spark of holiness; it is our job to redeem the holiness encapsulated in dreck.

I am grateful for this 5th knee surgery for the opportunity it has presented me with.

I am grateful all of us are given a pure soul and a miraculous body.

May we all know health and not illness.

May we experience long life.

May we pay attention to our bodies’ work, for this too is Torah, and each of us must learn it.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. What was your first experience of your body as shameful?
  2. When have you taken your body for granted? When have you been deeply aware of it?

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