Though we don’t always acknowledge it, our religious rituals have powerful effects on our bodies in addition to our mind and spirit. Through moving, singing and doing other rituals in unison, we find often find a unique warmth and peace within ourselves. Many synagogues offer a wealth of these experiences throughout the year, with cultural Judaism combining and religious Judaism combining forces to give people joy and wisdom. How does Judaism – and Jewish culture – help give us more laughter, rest, and help us pay attention?
This presentation was adapted from a longer discussion session with members of the congregation, which you can view here.
(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. As part of the program, Beth Haverim Shir Shalom in Mahwah, NJ has been holding a series titled “The Science of Tsuris: The Polyvagal Theory and How Judaism Responds to our Biological Imperative to Connect.” This talk was adapted from a session recorded on March 7, 2021).
Photo by Flavio Grynszpan
Given that Judaism, I think as you all know, has a history of tsuris, of trial, of tribulation to a certain degree, one of the questions that I keep coming to is whether these aspects of Judaism are a response to our communal tsuris, or are they a feature of the faith? Would they be part of Judaism, whether or not we had endured hardship as a people? And so this is sort of an overarching question that I’d love for you to consider as we go through. Not that we’re going to stop on every aspect and, you know, try and suss it out. I certainly have my theories, and I welcome some disagreement.
So we kick things off by talking about playfulness. There are a couple of things to point out. So one is that playfulness is actually found as early as the Tanakh, Jewishly. So it says here in Proverbs 8:30-31, King Solomon speaks in the voice of the Torah – which is already a kind of a playfulness, the fact that we animate the Torah.
“I [the Torah] was the artist’s plan. I was his [God’s] delight every day, playing before Him at all times, playing in the inhabited areas of His earth, my delights are with human beings.”
And this translation from the Hebrew original is based on the wisdom of the first page of the ancient Biblical commentary of the Midrash Rabba. So what’s being said here, to a certain degree, is that part of what the relationship between Torah and God is is a playful one, that the interaction isn’t necessarily just “God speaks and Torah is the manifestation of that,” but that there is – I wouldn’t say a game, because I don’t like the idea of manipulation there, but there is a joyousness, a playfulness, that is already built in.
And for those of you who study Jewish texts, you know that they love puns, and they love joy, which of course brings us to this notion of Jewish humor. And one of the things, just to tie into the Polyvagal Theory, that humor can do, is it can lead to improved performance and circulation in the lungs and muscles. And it helps us cope with stress and adversity, including bereavement. And it gives positive attention and admiration and increased creativity.
So I wanted to share with you just a little bit from The Big Book of Jewish Humor, some aspects that we may find in Jewish humor. And while we may not think of this as religious, I would argue that this is fundamental to who we are as Jews. I don’t think that we would be the same kind of Jewish community, not BHSS and not Judaism writ large, without our sense of humor. So it’s usually substantive, it’s about something. It’s especially fond of specific topics, like food. “Noshing is sacred “– haha, sorry – I love the puns.
Okay, good. Family business, anti-semitism, wealth and its absence, health and survival – it’s also fascinated by the intricacies of the mind and by logic. And it’s the short elliptical path separating the rational from the absurd. As social or religious commentary, Jewish humor can be sarcastic, complaining, resigned, descriptive – it’s broad, and sometimes the point of the humor is more powerful than the laugh it delivers. And for some of the jokes, the appropriate response is not laughter, but rather a bitter nod or commiserating. So sometimes the idea is not to laugh out loud, but to strengthen the bonds of the people, or to recognize a common trouble.
Jewish humor tends to be anti-authoritarian, which I think is fascinating. It ridicules grandiosity and self-indulgence. One of my favorite Jewish jokes comes around the High Holidays. I know a lot of you grew up in congregations that were not necessarily reform, and so maybe you remember a part of the service where the rabbi and the cantor are sort of beating on themselves and self-prostrating and all of this. This is one of my favorite jokes: the cantor praying up to God, “I am not worthy, give me strength, I am not worthy, let me lead this people.” Great, great, great. The rabbi does this: “I’m not worthy, give me strength.” Then the beadle comes up. Do you know what a beadle is? The person who takes care of the Shul traditionally, right, sort of the caretaker, as it were, but it’s often a part of the congregation. He says “I’m not worthy!” And the cantor looks at the rabbi and says “Look who thinks he’s not worthy?”, right?
So, right, it’s that sort of humor, of anti-authoritarian, like, “Let’s not take ourselves too seriously also,” and the dignity and worth of the common folk as well.
Jewish humor frequently has a critical edge. It creates discomfort at making its point. Often its thrust is political, aimed at leaders and other authorities who cannot be criticized more directly. “May God bless and keep the Tsar far away from us,” right. These sorts of jokes apply to prominent figures in general society as well as those in the Jewish world, such as rabbis and cantors and sages, intellectuals, teachers, yada yada yada – not to use too much Jewish humor.
A special feature of Jewish humor is the interaction of prominent figures with simple folk and the disadvantaged, with the latter often emerging triumphant. So we root for the underdog, even through our humor. And then the other thing is that no one is immune. Jewish humor remarks everyone and that includes HaKadosh Baruch Hu, right, that includes God, right. The humor is an equalizing power as well.
So one of the things that I want us to think about with this, in the context of Polyvagal Theory, is when you laugh, or even when you tell a joke, where do you feel it? Where do you recognize it? We feel it in our gut, we feel a release. We feel a release of tension. I’m thinking of, you know, sometimes even uproarious laughter, when you’ve released some tears, even, you know, that kind of laughing. And it allows a letting go, right. And that’s all part of this re-regulating, potentially.
And one of the things, sort of from a meta perspective, that I want to have, is this concept that our textual, intellectual Judaism, our cultural Judaism, and our bodies actually work together, that I don’t think we can separate them. Which, incidentally, is one of the reasons that it can be hard, when somebody, for example, is a new Jew, to fully be embraced by Judaism. Because these components are so vast and all-encompassing, and it’s not to say that people can’t or they shouldn’t try – they absolutely should – and we should welcome people. And it can be challenging, because these pieces interlink and they make us who we are as people, and also as a people.
All right, so the next thing, after we talk about humor and playfulness, is to talk about the rhythm of rest. And one of the things that I want to show you – this is essentially a Jewish calendar, okay. And right now, as you know, we are on this line right here in Shabbat, right. Or Adar – actually, Adar is over here, but that’s where we are. And what’s hilarious is that you’re like, “Oh, look at all of these opportunities to rest.” And it feels so stressful, how many times we have to rest. But the holidays are – very intentionally, by the way – distributed around the year. And you will see that, almost like on a color wheel, that across the year, there are significant holidays that balance out the year, so that Pesach is almost exactly opposite in the year to Rosh Hashanah and Simchat Torah. That we have the holidays to sort of even us out and to put into place a rhythm of rest.
As you know, there are some holidays where we are commanded not to work, there are other holidays where we commemorate the holidays without necessarily being commanded to rest. For example, Hanukkah is one of those kinds of holidays. And that as different holidays sort of crop up – Yom Ha’atzmaut is one that I’m thinking of, for example. It was very intentionally put on the calendar in a place where it would potentially have a counter balance, or where there was an open spot, not already something taking the place on the calendar. And so you’ll notice that, for example, Tu B’shvat, which is the holiday of the trees, almost counterbalances with Tu B’Av, which is sort of the Jewish Valentine’s Day. Some of us have heard of it, some of us haven’t, right, but these are holidays that have a different feel than, necessarily, the heft, the weight, the substance, of Pesach or the High Holidays, for example.
But as you know, Shabbat fundamentally is part of the rhythm of rest weekly. “Remember, if you need anything, I’m available 24/6.” We’re back to our Jewish humor. “The work on weekdays and rest on the seventh day are correlated. The Sabbath is the inspirer, the other days are the inspired.” If you have read Abraham Joshua Heschel’s “The Sabbath,” then you know that he really thinks about Shabbat in terms of time rather than space, and really thinking about rest as fundamental to what Judaism is. There is another quote, this time from AJ Jacobs: “This is what the Shabbat should feel like. A pause. Not just a minor pause, but a major pause. Not just lowering the volume, but of muting. As the famous Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put it, ‘the Sabbath is a sanctuary in time’”.
What does that mean, a sanctuary in time? So in traditional Judaism, when people are dedicated to rest on the shabbat, the work that they do is different. So we already know that a lot of people don’t go to work or don’t do their day-to-day job on Shabbat, but when we say “rest” in this context, what we mean is not, you know, crawl into bed for your shabbos schluff. That’s wonderful also, but what we mean is shifting our mindset, so that it’s not unusual in traditional households to study Torah, to study Talmud on Shabbat, to avoid talking about the work week at all.
And so we’re going to talk a little bit more about that in a moment, but the other thing just to keep in mind is – and again, I don’t know if you all have been reading the same articles that I have, but there’s this whole new thing that’s coming up now, as we’re a year into the pandemic, of the four-day work week, that now we know that we don’t have to work as long, necessarily, to accomplish all of the stuff that we intend to accomplish. One of the things implied in Shabbat is that you should work the other six days, but there has to be something that you rest from, and that there is value in work, and there is something about self-worth when we work, and that when we value our work, we also recognize that it is incumbent upon us, from time to time, to stop working.
I’ve been talking to a lot of friends who have been trying not to use electronics on Shabbat before the pandemic hit, and that fundamentally had to shift over the past year. And I would say that one of the ways that many Reform Jews – and I’m looking at a lot of you, and a lot of you are our Shabbos regulars – that one of the ways that our Shabbat is different from the rest of the week is by the people that we connect with, right. Or even by getting together and praying together as a community, right, we do some positive interactions, rather than taking away for Shabbat. Maybe we still leave our phones on, and maybe we’ll still talk about that thing that’s frustrating us at work, but maybe we’ll add candles, and maybe we’ll add a different friend group. Maybe we’ll add – I don’t know how many of you sing on a day-to-day basis at home, but on Shabbat, I think a lot of us, in the modern world, Shabbat is one of those few opportunities we get to sing out loud, right, that’s not the shower.
Okay. We’re going to continue forward – snapshots, and being in the present. And I did want to share with you – this is a kind of a midrash by Lawrence Kushner, and it was the best example that I could think of, Jewishly, about savoring snapshots and being in the present.
“The ‘burning bush was not a miracle, it was a test. God wanted to find out whether or not Moses could pay attention to something for more than a few minutes. When Moses did, God spoke. The trick is to pay attention to what is going on around you long enough to behold the miracle without falling asleep. There is another world, right, here within this one, whenever we pay attention.”
So again, the idea is not that the miracle is that “This was God in the bush,” and the bush being unconsumed, but rather, the miracle was that Moses paid attention.
The next way that we can engage in our Polyvagal Theory: we nurture glimmers and optimism. And I couldn’t help it, I had to put in some snarky Jewish joke. “I’m an optimist: things will get better. I’m a Jewish optimist: things won’t get worse.”
So okay, but there is a lot in Judaism that inspires optimism, that encourages optimism, that requires optimism. And I think when we talk about the future, which we do all the time, we think about optimism. I also think, especially in Reform Judaism, there is something that we talk about, which is a Messianic Age, right. That we have this notion that we are headed towards progress, that we are going to get to a point, or at least we work to get to a point, when things will be peaceful, right, and when things will be complete and whole. And there is, in other forms of Judaism, certainly a sense of Messiah that does something similar, but I would argue that one of the things that Reform Judaism does is that it brings that optimism into our lives – that each of us has the opportunity to improve the world, to get things to an even better place.
And so I wanted to think a little bit about Tikvah, which is, as you know hopefully from the Israeli national anthem Hatikva, “The Hope.” And it comes from the verb “qawa,” and describes the act of combining multiple strands and coiling those into a single, much stronger cable. I want us to think about that for a moment, that this source of this word for hope has to do with combining strands to make them stronger, and how profound that can be Jewishly, when we talk about each of ourselves as a strand, and when we talk about our community as the combining of those strands to make each of us stronger and to make the future stronger. It’s derived from the strong cable-making sense of the noun qaw, meaning “line” or “measuring line.” The noun “tikqwah” means chord. So we’re back to music, to a certain degree. And the exactly identical noun “tikvah” means hope, and “miqweh” means “might” or “strength.”
This next one is near and dear to my heart, and this is compassion. “A religious man is a person, a religious person, who holds God and people in one thought at the same time at all times, who suffers harm done to others, whose greatest passion is compassion, and whose greatest strength is love and a defiance of despair.”
And there are words that we learn in family school, and the truth is that almost all of them come back to the notion of compassion. So we could do this pop quiz style, but I will try not to put too much stress or pressure on anyone. But B’tzelem Elohim means “in the image of God,” and it has to do with this notion that we all have something of God within us, and therefore we all deserve dignity and compassion. Tikkun Olam is the repair of the world. Gemilut Hasadim are acts of love and kindness, Tzedakah is righteousness, but this all has to do with recognizing the humanity of other people and turning it into action. And I think that it’s not to say that we do good things because it makes us feel good physically, but it is true that when we do acts of compassion, we do feel better. And it is an additional motivation, right. We have a moral obligation, and I think we have a physical motivation to do good in the world and to act in ways that are compassionate. So I think that is worth looking at as well.
So I want to take a step back and go back to that first question that I asked, which is: “What do you think? Do you think that it goes that Judaism, by its own nature, taps into these autonomic strengthening devices? Or do you think that because we’ve been through so much as Jews, we have found ways to strengthen ourselves through our culture and our faith? What do you think? Which way does it run?