Olam Katan

The human body as a microcosm of the world

As the final step in the creation of humanity, according to the biblical account, God breathes into Adam the divine breath and, with this breath, brings the first human being to life. From this moment forward, the understanding of the human being as imbued with divinity permeates virtually all of Jewish thought. As might be expected, as human writers contemplated the notion of the human being created in the image of God, they likewise envisioned God in the image of the human.


Olam Katan in Rabbinic Literature

Rabbinic literature describes the human being as an olam katan–a microcosm of the world. Some texts even link each part of the human body to a part of the natural world. According to one midrash (commentary):human body

“The rabbis taught: The creation of the world was like the creation of humanity, for everything that God created in the world, God created in the human being. The heavens are the head of humankind, the sun and the moon are the human eyes, the stars are the hair on the human head” (Otzar haMidrashim, Olam Katan 406).

In creating a one-to-one correspondence between the elements of the world and the features of the human body, this midrash rewrites the entire story of creation as the story of the creation of humanity. Adam and Eve are no longer simply the final products of creation, but are themselves the physical manifestations of creation in its entirety. The contemplation of the human body, then, can be a means of contemplating the world of divine creation. In the words of Ibn Ezra, a medieval biblical commentator, “One who knows the secret of the human soul, and the structure of the human body is able to understand something of the upper worlds, for the human being is in the image of a small world” (comment to Exodus 25:40).

The Body, The World & The Temple

If the human being is an olam katan–a small world, then the mikdash, the tabernacle through which ancient Jews offered sacrifices to God, becomes an olam emtzai–an in-between world, which acted as a sort of intercessor between the realms of the human and of the divine. As in descriptions of the human body, the midrash often suggests a one-to-one correspondence between parts of the mikdash, or later, the Temple in Jerusalem, and the created world.

Explaining the tri-part relationship between the human being, the Temple and the created universe, one midrash describes God as creating the world in the image of the human being, and beginning from the Temple:

“When God came to create the world, God created it in the same way that a human fetus is created. Just as a human fetus begins in the navel and pushes out in one direction and the other, to all four sides, similarly, God began creating the world from the foundation stone of the Temple, and from there founded the world” (Tanhuma, Pekudei 3).

In this description of creation, the human being, the Temple and the world of creation become inextricably tied to one another. Each is created in the image of the other, and the existence of each depends, to some extent, on the other. Ultimately, though, as it is human beings who construct religious texts, the human body–and not the universe or the Temple–remains the point of reference for the other descriptions.

Olam Katan in Kabbalah

The idea of the human being as a microcosm of the divine realm becomes particularly important for kabbalah (mysticism), which describes God through a system of sefirot, or aspects of the divine. Many explanations of the sefirotic system describe each of the sefirot as corresponding to one part of the human body. As such, God’s emanated self reflects the physical makeup of the human being. In this scheme, human beings resemble God not only in intellect, but also in form. Accordingly, physical, and often sexual, descriptions of God become central to mystical language and thought.

Sixteenth-century kabbalah deepened the connection between the divine being and the human body. According to the theory of creation developed by Isaac Luria and his disciples, the ein sof, or inaccessible and infinite divine being, created the world through a process of withdrawal and emanation. The ein sof first contracted itself in order to make space for the world, and then emanated aspects of the divine through the vehicle of adam hakadmon, the primordial human being. The human form, in this formulation, is central to the process of creating the world and accordingly, Lurianic kabbalah considers human physical and ritual acts to have a profound impact on the very nature and unity of the divine being.

Hasidism further develops the connection between the human body and divinity by introducing the idea of avodah b’gashmiyut, the concept that worship of God takes place through physical activities such as dancing, singing, and shuckling (swaying) in prayer. The human body, beyond being a reflection of the divine being, becomes, in itself, a means of divine worship.

Rather than posit a stark distinction between body and soul, or describe the body simply as a container for the soul, Jewish thought, in large part, considers the physical body to be a reflection either of the created world or of God’s own being, as well as a means toward worshipping God. In this way, the body itself becomes a mode of religious and theological description and practice.

The attribution of theological import to the human body compels us to view everything we do to and with our bodies as a component of religious practice. Decisions about what to eat, how often to exercise, and whether to smoke become not simply health choices, but means of relating to God and to the world of creation.

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