Embodied Judaism. The phrase itself conjures an image of hippie-ish Jews at a retreat center shaping themselves into yoga-like shapes of Hebrew letters. Indeed, a quick Google search for those words brought up links for a six-week yoga journey through the Hebrew month of Elul, programs that draw on the Feldenkrais method to illuminate classical Jewish texts, training workshops for teachers to integrate Jewish wisdom into their classes, and more.
Embodied Judaism is often thought of as a contemporary innovation, influenced perhaps by Eastern spiritual practices. But in fact, there are plenty of ways in which our ancient texts express a deep understanding of the connection between Judaism and our bodies.
On today’s daf, we encounter several statements about the embodied experience of Torah study, including descriptions of the healing effect of Torah on the body and exhortations to engage the entire body in the learning process. If this seems pretty far afield from the topic of Eruvin, you’re not wrong. We arrive at this discussion in a typically circuitous talmudic way.
Yesterday’s daf begins with an inquiry about how to measure the borders of a city for the purpose of constructing an eruv. It cites a dispute between Rav and Shmuel about the correct spelling of a word in the mishnah, which in turn launches a conversation about the proper ways to speak and the importance of correct pronunciation. After several twists and turns, the Gemara relates a story about Beruriah, the wife of Rabbi Meir:
Beruriah came across a certain student who was whispering his studies rather than raising his voice. She kicked him and said to him: Isn’t it written as follows: Ordered in all things and secure (II Samuel 23:5), which indicates that if the Torah is ordered in your 248 limbs, i.e., if you exert your entire body in studying it, it will be secure, and if not, it will not be secure.
We already met Beruriah back in Tractate Berakhot — she is one of the few named women in the Gemara, and also one of the few who has any sort of voice. The stories told about her emphasize her extraordinary mind and vast knowledge of Torah. In most places she appears, Beruriah is shown subversively using the methodologies of Torah scholars to critique their behavior. And in all those cases, the Talmud presents her as being in the right.
In this encounter, Beruriah does three brilliant things.
First, she champions what would now be called a kinesthetic learning style, in which learners process information through movement and touch. Some people naturally learn best in this way, but research has shown that movement helps almost all learners retain information better.
Second, Beruriah creates a spontaneous midrash on this verse from II Samuel. In its original context, the verse has nothing to do with either bones or Torah study. It is a statement made by King David describing the covenant that God made with him. Beruriah offers a completely new reading of the phrase “an eternal covenant, ordered in all things and secure.” Based on another verse from the book of Malakhi, she interprets the word covenant to refer to Torah. Next, based on the seemingly extraneous description of the covenant being ordered “in all things,” she interprets those words to refer to the bones of the body, concluding that Torah should be studied out loud so that its words can penetrate.
Finally, Beruriah gets the attention of the scholar in this story in a truly embodied way: by kicking him! It is almost as if she makes her point about the importance of using one’s entire body in learning and teaching before she even opens her mouth.
While the term “embodied Judaism” may have originated in the modern era, this story, and the many that follow on this daf, demonstrate that our sages did not live entirely in their heads, valuing solely the intellectual process of Torah study. On the contrary, they understood deeply that the body must be involved in the learning process — and that in turn, Torah and its wisdom can help our bodies be strong and healthy. So whether you call it embodied Judaism or rabbinic Judaism, here’s to an integrated approach to Jewish learning.