God in Your Body: Kabbalah, Mindfulness, and Embodied Spiritual Practice
By Jay Michaelson
Jewish Lights Publishing, Nov. 2006
247 pp, $18.99
Finalist, ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Award
God in Your Body is about embodied spiritual practice: how to experience the deep truths of reality in, and through, your body. Based in the Jewish tradition,Â God in Your Body is the first comprehensive treatment of the body in Jewish spiritual practice and an essential guide to the sacred. It integrates the insights of mystical and traditional Judaism, Buddhist and mindfulness meditation practices, and a cosmopolitan, contemporary sensibility.
JewsÂ are sometimes called the “people of the book,” but they are equally the people of the body. Traditional observance of the Sabbath and holidays involves not beliefs or “spiritual feelings,” but taking and refraining from certain physical actions. Jewish dietary laws are about foods, not sentiments; Jewish ethics is about action, not intention. Even Jewish prayer â built around the kneeling (barchu), listening (shema), and standing (amidah) prayers â is built not upon some abstract soul or spirit, but upon the body. This body-centricity of the Jewish tradition is well known in academic and scholarly circles, but ironically, forgotten in many religious ones.
God in Your Body is essential reading for anyone interested in integrating the body into spiritual practice, and also a valuable resource for scholars interested in Jewish traditions about the body. With meditation practices, physical exercises, visualizations, and sacred text, the book shows how to experience the presence of the Divine in, and through, the body. And it shows how, by cultivating an embodied spiritual practice, it is possible to transform everyday activities â eating, walking, breathing, even going to the bathroom â into moments of deep spiritual realization, uniting sacred and sensual, mystical and mundane.
Read selected excerpts from God in Your Body
With the gentle authority of a good yoga master, Michaelson, chief editor of Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture, offers not so much a mind/body lesson in Kabbalah as a map to a mindful, spiritually rich lifestyle. Having âchosen to emphasize those aspects of the Jewish and world wisdom that treat the body as a sacred site for contemplative practice,â he uses a combination of simple meditations, prayers, Talmudic excerpts and wisdom from historic rabbis to guide those seeking to embrace the âGod in your body.â While most journeys begin with a single step, this one begins with a single breath. Throughout, he reminds us that âa practice is done âno matter whatâ not for strictnessâs sake, but so it can be a prism which casts light upon the mindâ-whether that practice be one of breathing, eating, walking or even using the bathroom. Yet, the calls to practice are balanced with a fascinating cache of tidbits. For example, the Amidah, or Standing Prayer, is sometimes called âThe Eighteen,â referring to the 18 blessings within it that are believed to correspond to the bodyâs 18 vertebrae. This book belongs as much on a shelf with other meditative, mind/body titles as it does among Judaica.
Jay Michaelson has achieved a coup de Torah with God in Your Body: Kabbalah, Mindfulness and Embodied Spiritual Practice. His book is the one of the first contemporary publications that comprehensively explores a wide range of Jewish sources to cover all aspects of daily life. Eating, sex and going to the toilet are all topics that are discussed and elevated in this well-written work.Â The publishers are Jewish Lights who continually present a high standard of creative and engaging books about Jewish practice. There arenât any illustrations or photographs in the book, but their absence gives the reader free reign to imagine various different applications of Michaelsonâs well-developed ideas.
The book has a mixture of theory and practice and one chapter begins by outlining a kabbalistic meditation before applying it to jogging. Although it is tempting for runners to distract themselves â with headphones, or conversation, or, in the gym, by watching television â I imagine myself as a kind of hunter, or even as an animal, with focus dead ahead and determination moving every step. The inner stillness that arises is truly astonishing: the combination of fatigue and energy really silences the mind while maintaining an absolutely crisp and sharp perception. Paula Radcliffe, hang up your trainers; this rabbi is getting ready to outrun you.
One section I particularly liked was the chapter on fasting, because although most Jews go without food at least once a year on Yom Kippur, it isnât a subject that is often taught in synagogues. Fasting is conducive to finding direction, explains the author. âI am ‘led’ by fasts to places that are often achingly beautiful. I find myself more loving, more accepting, more grateful.â The author combines facts with poetry and the book is enlightening to read. If you ever questioned whether your body is a temple, hereâs your proof.
This book is smart and thoughtful. Itâs clear enough, and explains enough, that it doesnât have prerequisites; this could be a satisfying read even if mindfulness, spiritual practice, and Judaism arenât yet familiar subjects. Itâs also deep enough to hold the interest of people whoâve been immersing in this stuff for a long timeâŠ. Several of Jayâs essays in the online edition of Zeek knock my socks off (Kashrut and Nonduality;Â How I Finally Learned to Accept Christ in My Heart; and most recently,Â Keep Your Godwrestling: the Uses and Limits of Theology)âŠ So I went into this book prepared to love it. It did not disappoint. I measure nonfiction by my urge to create marginalia. If while reading a book I find myself compelled to pick up a pen and put exclamation points in the margins, thatâs a very good sign. Needless to say, my copy of God in Your Body has been multiply-inscribed. (Read entire reviewÂ here.)
Praise for God in Your Body
Many Jews have trouble finding a connection between their religious observance and their spiritual life. If there is any book that can help them bring the two together it is Jay Michaelsonâs God in Your Body. In a work of genius that wisely calls upon us to âlet theology follow experienceâ, Jay makes us understand the embodied nature of spirituality and the spirituality of the body. He does this by recasting both Jewish observance and daily living as a series of spiritual practices that act as bridges between our physical and spiritual worlds. Although Jay, a learned and commitied Jew, draws much of his material from Judaism, especially its mystical traditions, he has both the knowledge and the generosity of spirit to incorporate insights and practicves from other spiritual traditions as well. This book should be read by every rabbi â by every Jew â in America.
~ Rabbi Eliezer Diamond, chair, Department of Talmud and Rabbinics, The Jewish Theological Seminary; author, Holy Men and Hunger Artists: Fasting and Asceticism in Rabbinic Culture
Jay Michaelsonâs book is by far the best text ever composed in the Jewish modalilty on how we can integrate our spiritual path with our physical bodies. It is clear, concise and beautifully written, covering a broad spectrum of knowledge that includes mystical insights, meditation practices, explanation of prayers, and profound wisdom that covers the four worlds of Kabbalah. I highly recommend this book to anyone who seeks to understand the depths of Jewish practice.
~ Rabbi David A Cooper, author of God is a Verb: Kabbalah and the Practice of Mystical Judaism
What an amazing book this is! Jay Michaelsonâin a voice that is informed, authoritative and sweetly accessibleâhas presented every aspect of our physical lives as yet another opportunity to experience such closeness to the Divine that blessing becomes spontaneous. The ordinary becomes miraculous.
~ Sylvia Boorstein, author of Thatâs Funny, You Donât Look Buddhist: On Being a Faithful Jew and a Passionate Buddhist
God in Your Body is a practical handbook for a person seeking to live a spiritual life in a healthy and sensory body transform us the old, body-aching asceticism into an altar for healthy, robust and life-affirming worship. Jay Michaelsonâs book has an authentic flavor that brings Hasidic wisdom to contemporary life.
~ Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, co-author of Jewish With Feeling and Credo of a Modern Kabbalist
The simplicity of being fully present in the body and the depth of Judaic spiritual tradition find a beautiful companionship in this book.
~ Sharon Salzberg, author of Lovingkindness
Jay is a thoughtful, contemplative, and insightful individual, a person with an open mind and most importantly an open heart. You will be intellectually stimulated and emotionally awakened as you enter his universe.
~ Rabbi Dovber Pinson, author of Meditation and Judaism: Exploring the Jewish Meditative Paths
God in Your Body presents an innovative yet timeless way to understand and live Jewish practice. It is a comprehensive guide to Judaism, rooted in Jewish tradition yet focused on the sensations and experiences of the body. Michaelson re-interprets central Jewish rituals like prayer, kashrut, Shabbat, sexual ethics, and mystical meditation not as artifacts of the mind but as practices of the body, meant to keep us spiritually awake and centered on what is. This book should be required reading for the religious leaders who have kept us âin our headsâ and not in our bodies â but it is also a useful guide for beginners and seekers of an embodied religious life. Michaelson offers a challenging yet liberating vision of body and spirit in union, inseparable, and equally valued. Whether you are a contemplative or an ecstatic, a practically minded sort or a mystic, youâll find something here that will enhance your way of being.
~ Rabbi Jill Hammer, author, The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for all Seasons
At long last, a book from the Jewish spirituality camp that successfully fuses the heart with the head, the soul with the body. Michaelsonâs is a fresh and important new voice, and we need to hearken to its call. God in Your Body is full of wisdom, insight, and practical exercises; it reflects and transmits the deep, personal spirituality of its author, drawn from obvious and powerful experience and study.
~ Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein, author of Gonzo Judaism: A Bold Path for Renewing an Ancient Faith
Jay Michaelsonâs God in the Body is a must read for anyone seeking an integrative, contemplative approach to Judaism. He masterfully weaves many strands of mystical theology into a practical, user-friendly manual that helps one celebrate and develop awareness of the Divine in the most âmundaneâ activities in our lives.
~ Rabbi David Ingber, Kehilat Romemu, New York