Julie Emden, Program Founder and Director, Embodied Jewish Learning
David Waksberg, Chief Executive Officer Jewish LearningWorks
Mara Kassoff, Chief Operating Officer JewishLearningWorks
We live and exist as somatic creatures. As such, Embodied Jewish Learning offers a chance to discover the wisdom of our tradition by engaging in activities that resonate with our physical practices for well-being. As a result, we experience how Jewish wisdom and practice are available to us as an essential resource for living balanced, joyful, flourishing lives.
Embodied Jewish Learning employs source texts and Jewish wisdom teachings in many different ways. First, we use primary texts or lines from Torah and Liturgy as portals or gateways to connection to self, spiritual practice, and divine connection to inspire our actions in the world. Second, we bring in teachings from Midrash, Talmud, Aggadah, Zohar, Hassidut and other mystical texts to help expand upon the possibilities for personal connection to the original text. Finally, we draw upon rabbinic or other scholarly commentaries, ancient to modern-day, for further creative connection and illumination of the way in which a Hebrew word, line or phrase, or the meta-wisdom teaching offered by the line can bring meaning to our practices for balance and well-being in our lives. A regular resource for our programs are weekly study of teachings from Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, The Sefat Emet (1847-1905) and from Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk (1730-1788).
Embodying Text from Torah
“Because in truth every person has a unique knowing in the Torah (De’ah Miyuchedet)” (Sefat Emet, commentary on Korach (1890)), our intention is to facilitate for every person a uniquely experienced, internal understanding of the relevance of lines of Torah to their life and to their embodied spiritual practice. To that end, we offer access points to the texts so that the texts can live and breathe inside of each learner.
For all learners, especially young people, we know there is a question of how to make Torah relevant in this day and age. And as we know, engaging our entire beings in our learning is essential. So in Embodied Jewish Learning, when we open the Tanach to the weekly Torah portion, we enter the questions ‘What’s here for me today?” or ‘What is this text saying to me?’ or “How is this relevant to me in my life?” through the lens of kinesthetics and the body.
When bringing forth Jewish wisdom teachings from primary texts sources, such as lines from Torah, we employ a method we call Embodied Pardes. Here is the key, we take one moment in Torah, or one line, and we go deep and long with a look at the Hebrew language, at the phrasing, at the intricacies of the text and apply the PARDES method (Pshat, Remez, Drash, and Sod), but through a lens of embodiment. For example, here is how we use this approach with the line:
וַיַּחֲלֹם, וְהִנֵּה סֻלָּם מֻצָּב אַרְצָה, וְרֹאשׁוֹ, מַגִּיעַ הַשָּׁמָיְמָה; וְהִנֵּה מַלְאֲכֵי אֱלֹהִים, עֹלִים וְיֹרְדִים בּוֹ.
And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.
First, in Pshat, we search the text for the Hebrew words that are actual body parts or bodily movements or elements. So in this line, we have ‘Rosh’ (head) and ‘Artzah’ (earth). Next, in Remez, we search for hints or references to the body and bodily movements - words that can describe an element or movement of the body. So in this line we have ‘Mutzav’ (planted firmly), ‘Magia’ (approach), ‘Olim’ (ascend or rise up) and ‘Yordim’ (descend or come down). Next, in Drash, we look for words or phrases in which we can interpret or derive bodily reference, even if the language is not directly a body part or movement. So for example in this line we have ‘Sulam’ (ladder), whose imagery maps onto the body as spine. Or if drawing from these words as we embody the text, we can look at which parts of the body plant firmly, approach, ascend, descend in any given posture or movement. For instance, in Warrior 1 (Virabhadrasana 1) the outer back foot and heel Mutzav (plant or set firmly into the ground) as the inner thigh, kidney, psoas and front of the spine Olim (ascend). And the Olim/Yordim of the angels on the ladders mirrors an ongoing ascent and descent of various parts of the body in just this pose alone! The tailbone descends, the back of the neck ascends. The base of the toe descends, the inner arch of the foot ascends. Then we can further refine the pose as informed by the order of the words in the text. ‘Ascending’ (Olim) appears first. So also in the practice, by first lifting (Olim) the pelvis and torso up off the legs, and then descending (Yordim) lower to the ground by bending the front knee, we receive more freedom, stability and openness in the asana!
Finally, we reach the level of Sod. Here we look for creative, new, secret meanings in the sense of perhaps unknown until this moment. Often we can discover or experience a new Sod level of understanding through this practice, that is difficult to even put into words. One example could be, a ladder implies steps, incremental moments of approaching or retreating from a height (Ha’Shamayim). So too, in an embodied practice we have one small step, one opening, and another and another, until we reach expanded physical stretch or consciousness that is a result of each small step taken.
"The Jewish teachings are conceptual and applicable, not lessons from the bima, but guidance in movement that are applied immediately. Here we can experience hesed (lovingkindness) inside of us and bring it out into the world from that place.” -Mara Langer, Yoga and Wholeness Classes, Peninsula JCC, Foster City, CA
In our workshops and classes, we take an in-depth look at one word, phrase. or line from Torah, or one quality or one teaching about a holiday, and offer creative ways to embody the language, and to experience the way in which the text or teaching lives in us. Thus, what is unique about EJL is the way in which we are in relationship with the text. By bringing the wisdom of the texts into our beings, we are able to bring the wisdom out into the world from that lived experience.
We offer ongoing classes, workshops, immersive retreats, teacher trainings, online resources and tele-seminars to share this approach. In the past year we have reached over 250 learners. Based upon the feedback we have received from participants via evaluations, surveys and interviews, we have learned that participants in Embodied Jewish Learning are discovering that their bodies are holy, that they walk away with deeper whole-being connections to themselves and to Judaism, and that they experience more fully expressed and integrated lives, as well as more calm and serenity. In our public workshops, 92% report that they experience a way to engage in Jewish life that resonates with their personal practices for well-being and 100% report they would refer a friend to future EJL programs. In our Yoga and Jewish Wisdom Teacher Training, 100% report increased understanding about how to prepare for and select texts and themes for Yoga and Jewish Wisdom classes; 83% report increased knowledge about different Jewish wisdom texts to integrate into their classes; and 100% report interest in continuing studies of Yoga and Jewish Wisdom.
From our teachers:
"The Yoga and Jewish Wisdom Teacher Training transformed my Jewish identity. I have never felt such a sense of spaciousness and connection with my Judaism. Through Jewish wisdom and embodied yoga practice I feel walls being dismantled from my past that no longer serve me and more joy in my Jewish life."- Tracey Green, Yoga and Jewish Wisdom Teacher, PJCC Foster City, CA
“This training has helped me develop a clear methodology for thoughtfully combining a serious Yoga practice with rich Jewish texts. It has enabled me to reach a greater population of students, as well as helped me create innovative experiences, like a Yoga seder, to meet their needs.”-Leah Kahn, Senior Jewish Educator at Hillel, Berkeley, California
“As a rabbi and yoga teacher, I am often looking for opportunities to deepen my own practice as well as strengthen my own skills in creating embodied Jewish learning experiences. While there are many Jewish yoga teachers where I live, there are almost no options for continuing education in this field nor is there a guided, supported space to workshop ideas or share best practices. Embodied Jewish Learning offers just this!” -Rabbi Sarah Tasman, Interfaith Family/DC Director, Washington DC
From our learners:
“I learned that Jewish wisdom can enliven my relationship to my body and my ability to see it as a divine vessel. That, in turn, can shift how I think of my relationship to my Judaism and how I bring my whole self to it - mind, body, heart and spirit.”- Anonymous, Joy! Weekend Retreat, Sacramento, CA
“I was amazed at how in touch I felt to my Jewish identity after just one class. It's so important to explore Jewish identity through these new and exciting ways...it has helped me reconnect with the Jewish community.” - Allison Callow, Torah in Motion at the Peninsula Jewish Community Center, Pacifica, CA
“I have learned a way to embody ancient Jewish teachings into my being.” - Miriam Schwartz Kanani, Sacred Dance Circles, Berkeley, CA
“I now have an intense respect for my body. My family is not very religious, and this class made me realize how much Judaism is a part of who I am, and how lost I feel without it in my life. It taught me that every little part of the world is worth studying and caring for.” – Lily P, Yoga, Art and Sacred Text Teen Class Series, Oakland, CA
“I discovered that my body is holy.” - Jonathan W, Yoga, Art and Sacred Text Teen Class Series, Berkeley, CA
In the two decades of designing and offering Embodied Jewish Learning experiences, we have learned that deep wisdom teachings, and instructions for understanding the relationship between body and spirit exist in our tradition, but most people do not know how to access them. When we provide a map and clear methodology for bringing Jewish wisdom to embodied practice, participants have ‘aha’ moments where they experience a sense of wholeness in their being. Providing a clear method for integrating the teachings into a movement practice empowers learners to make their own discoveries. This process sparks in learners joy and delight, as well as a thirst to pursue more Jewish learning ongoing and to create their own new connections to Jewish tradition in creative and embodied ways. Placing creative license and tools for discovery into the hands of the learner is one key to our success.
We have also learned that the Four-Worlds approach to learning is not only applicable in every learning setting, but is also essential to the success of reaching learners who wish to experience Jewish wisdom that is immediate, relevant, embodied and thoroughly integrated into their lives. We interweave the four worlds of body, heart, mind and spirit (Assiyah, Yetzirah, Beriyah and Atzilut) into all of our work, with specific exercises to support this integration. Because most (70%) of our participants in public workshops name mind-body-spirit practices as their primary mode of expressing themselves Jewishly, we have learned that people need and desire embodied spiritual practice in a Jewish context. When they discover ways to connect Jewish wisdom to their practices, they feel relief at not having to segment off the ‘Jewish’ part of themselves from the living, breathing, moving, dancing part of their beings.
Finally, we have learned that the language, material and content for each program must be adjusted based upon the setting in which the program is offered and adapted to the unique constituents who attend. Embodied Jewish Learning programs attract a wide range of learners with a wide range of Jewish identity, background and/or observance. However, all participants, value the meaning, relevance, and resources that our tradition has to offer. “Although I’m not Jewish, I found combining the principles of yoga with the teachings of Judaism to be helpful in gaining new insights to this ancient practice. Each class was a wonderful learning adventure and Julie’s handouts helped show how concepts discussed applied to human anatomy. I’ve learned how ancient traditions have the potential to enrich the lives of persons of all religious backgrounds.” Tom Feledy, Yoga and Wholeness, PJCC, Foster City, CA.
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