Most of the time, when I’m experiencing something emotional, I feel it in my body before I can even process it.
I’ll feel a sinking in my stomach and know I’m dealing with dread. I’ll wake up grinding my teeth and realise I must be anxious. I go to bed feeling full of life and visceral feel my joy.
Every emotion is a physical experience. It is not just something we can rationally understand.
In Biblical Hebrew, if you want to say that you are angry, you say that your nose flares. If you are compassionate, you are womb-ful. If you are sad, you rip your hair. If you are lustful, you are big-balled. If you feel respect and awe, that’s in your liver.
In the biblical imagination, the body is a map of all the emotions we might feel. Each limb and organ corresponds to the full range of affective experience.
We must bear this in mind when we come to read this week’s parashah and its resultant commandments:
Put these words that I command you today on your heart… Wrap them as signs on your arms. Bind them in front of your eyes.
The words are recited daily by the most observant Jews. They form part of the first paragraph of the Shema, Judaism’s central prayer.
The Shema begins with an instruction to listen; to pay attention. Hear, O Israel, the Eternal One is our God. The Eternal God is One.
It then tells us the embodied experiences we must have to make sense of what we are hearing. Heart. Arms. Eyes.
Of course, these carry metaphorical meanings. For the ancient Israelites, the heart was the seat of thinking, much in the same way as we consider the brain in the modern West. When Torah tells us to keep it on our hearts, it means that it should be part of our whole intellectual being.
The arm is the site of action. It is synonymous with power. The arm is what gives to charity and shields the vulnerable. It is also the body part that raises swords and strikes stones. With an outstretched arm, God redeemed the Israelites from Egypt. The instruction to keep God’s word on our arms is a call to use our power for God.
Eyes, for the Hebrews, are for desiring. Your eyes can wander after foreign gods. They can delight at the wonders of nature. They can covet things that aren’t yours. They can favour children. The Eternal’s eye is always on those who have hope and mercy. If the commandments are frontlets before your eyes, enacting them as all you want to do. You are singularly focused on doing good deeds.
Over time, our ancestors came to see these words as more than just symbols. Rabbi Akiva, the Mishnah’s great thinker on metaphor and interpretation, is credited with codifying the rules for tefillin.
Tefillin are compartmentalised boxes affixed to leather straps. You can see people wear them wrapped around their heads and arms in weekday morning prayers.
These prayer aides were invented so that observant Jews could literally enact the commandment of binding the words on the body. Inside the boxes are the words of the Shema. Cheder children tell me they look like Go-Pros.
Carefully, we tie them to our arms, close by our heart. We wrap the leather straps around our arms, seven times. We place them as a crown around our heads, settled between our eyes. We finish up by plotting the straps around our fingers and palms in a set pattern.
If ever you come to Leo Baeck College’s shacharit services, you will see a bunch of students and teachers adorned in them.
If the founders of the College and its movements could see us, they would be aghast. For many of the originators of our movement, such embodied practices were strange and arcane.
Progressive Judaism was a response to the Enlightenment. Across Europe, people heralded the triumph of science and reason. Ideas, not feelings, were paramount. Rational thought, not embodied emotion, would be what guided humanity to greatness.
Reforming rabbis of the past called the practice of bending knees in prayer “bowing and scraping.” They saw their Orthodox contemporaries’ kissing the scroll as a form of idolatry. Above all, they certainly never wore tefillin.
When, in my early 20s, I asked my dad for a tefillin set for an upcoming birthday, he raised an eyebrow. “Isn’t that an Orthodox thing?” he asked. We didn’t talk much about the theology, but I told him I liked the idea of it, and he got me a beautiful pair.
In a way, he was right. Tefillin were an Orthodox thing. But, over time, progressive Jews have reclaimed them and made them our own.
Reason is still deeply important. We still hold to the importance of modern scientific inquiry and rational debate. It’s just that we can no longer isolate what goes on in our bodies from what goes on in our brains.
Living with chronic pain, I see daily how intertwined are my spine and my spirit. Every part of my mental and physical health is connected. I would struggle to draw a line between my body and my ‘self,’ and can’t really comprehend their separateness.
This is just as true in prayer. So I wrap tefillin. I feel my religious inclinations before I can process them.
I’ll stick a box on my left bicep and know that my body is part of the miracle of creation. I wrap it around my arms and I am bound by God, submitting to the commandments. I set the straps over my head and feel the weight of responsibility. I rest the box before my eyes and see what I have to do. I tangle the knots around my fingers as if I am being married and I am overwhelmed by the loving gift of a new day.
I wrap my body in prayers. I can work out what they mean later.
I wrote this sermon for Leo Baeck College’s newsletter, Parashat Vaetchanan