My Body, My Self: Avodah Be’gashmiut

Rabbi Or Rose
September 2, 2013
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As the High Holy Days approach and I engage in the process of heshbonha’nefesh, soul accounting, among the sources I turn to are the teachings of the Hasidic masters, particularly those of the founders of this  great spiritual revival movement. I was introduced to the sermons and stories of these masters as a child, and they continue to nourish and challenge me today.

One of the elements of this popular mystical tradition that I find especially helpful is the focus on spiritual integration. The Hasidic masters insist that we seek to fashion a life of holiness in which we carefully consider how to serve God, not only in the synagogue or study hall, but also in the marketplace, in the fields, and at home. The Hasidim lived within the framework of traditional halakhah (Jewish law) and sought to extend their religious activities into those areas not included in the already wide-ranging system of mitzvot. The ultimate challenge, as they saw it, was to try and create a continuous connection with God (devekut) in all times and places. This spiritual aspiration is based on a theological worldview that stresses the radical immanence of God in all of creation. If God’s glory “fills the whole earth” (Isaiah 6:3), then we must seek out “holy sparks” throughout our lives. The Hasidic masters speak openly about the challenges of maintaining one’s spiritual focus, but they call on us to maintain a connection even in times of confusion and struggle (katnut).

In presenting their vision of this holistic devotional posture, the rebbes often speak of avodah be’gashmiut, “service through materiality.” Much of this work has to do with developing a God-centered consciousness. What is my intention when I eat and drink, when I converse with family and friends, or when I make love to my spouse? Are my actions mindless, do I seek only immediate gratification, or is there a higher purpose to what I do? How can I “uplift” these acts and sanctify these moments?

Avodah be’gashmiut is a complex mystical idea that has been interpreted in different and sometimes conflicting ways by Hasidim and modern interpreters. For example, some texts encourage us to use the experience of physical pleasure to stimulate divine service. Other sources insist that the true devotee should pay no attention to his/her physical pleasure and focus exclusively on bringing pleasure to God. Rather than delve into those differences here, I want to share a brief personal reflection on this practice.

In adapting the concept of avodah be’gashmiut in my own life, one area in which I am struggling is my relationship with my body. At age 39, I am more than 50 pounds overweight; I take several medications to help regulate my blood pressure and cholesterol, and I rarely exercise. Though I can cite understandable reasons for my health issues — genetics, long work hours, and young children — I also recognize that a significant part of the problem is my increasing alienation from my own physical body. While I regularly read illuminating Hasidic and other spiritual teachings about mindful eating and walking practices, I have yet to embody these insights meaningfully. In my attempts to grow as an intellectual and as an educator over the last two decades, I have gradually adopted a set of very unhealthy physical habits. Ironically, I think one of the issues underlying this imbalance is my fear of mortality and my drive to make some meaningful professional contribution in the limited time available to me.

I regard this alienation as a serious spiritual shortcoming, because I am not treating my body with the care and respect it deserves as a divine creation. I know my behavior affects others in my life — primarily my family and friends — who spend too much time worrying about my physical wellbeing. As the father of young children, I feel a particular responsibility to improve my health so that I can be a more active presence in their lives for as long as possible.

As part of my process of teshuvah, or return, this year, I am trying to think more carefully about my body — my gashmiut — as a vessel for sacred action at home and in the world. And so, with great difficulty, I am attempting to be more conscious of what I eat and why I eat it. I am also recommitting myself
to exercising and playing outdoors with my children. I cannot disregard my body as I sit and pore over holy books, plan new courses, and wax poetic about the importance of living an integrated spiritual life.

Of course, even as I write these words, I hear the ba’al davar (the inner voice of dissuasion and accusation) cynically telling me that I am not up to the task: “How many diets have you tried? How many exercise videos do you own?” I will try again, reminding myself that at the root of the word “hasid” is “hesed” (loving-kindness). The goal is not to berate myself, but to honestly and compassionately take responsibility for my life as I seek to serve as an eved HaShem (a servant of God).

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Rabbi Or Rose is Associate Dean and Director of Informal Education at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College. He is the co-editor of Righteous Indignation: A Jewish Call for Justice and God in All Moments: Mystical & Practical Wisdom from the Hasidic Masters.

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