Body thoughts

Jewish self-portraits, God's height, and Gaga style

A joint venture of Neve Schechter and the renowned Bat Sheva contemporary dance company, Body Midrash is one of our most eclectic programs. Dancers, professors, artists and rabbis discuss new understandings vis-à-vis the concept of the body.

Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, Self Portrait, 1814-1816, Oil on canvas (Credit: Wikimedia)

Here is a taste of three Body Midrash meetings.

Painting Jewish bodies

In a lecture on Body Midrash, Dr. Ronit Steinberg, a specialist in Jewish Art, discusses how Jewish painters have portrayed themselves and their fellow Jews during the past two centuries.

Dr. Steinberg explained that Jewish painters depicted themselves as artists during the 1800s due to their desire to be accepted in the broader artistic community . They abandoned  closed communities for big cities, and joined the Emancipation in search of freedom from traditional settings. Hence, their self-portraits have a bohemian, avante-gard, slightly feminine look; often they are portrayed holding a palette. No references to Jewish symbols appear in these portraits.

Simultaneously, Jewish painters started to portray the “symbolic body” of the wandering Jew.ings

Samuel Hirszenberg, Galut, 1904, Lithograph

The paintshowed bodies on the move: men or women walking carrying a bag on their shoulders, sailing with a suitcase, or sitting on a train car. Harsh circumstances had made these figures lose their static position and forceed them to move on, to leave.

Moving to a more contemporary setting, Steinberg presented works by two artists that focusing onh the body.

Dennis Kardon’sJewish noses — a series of 49 oversize nasal sculptures – emphasize the main feature of the stereotypical Jewish body. This provocative collection demonstrates how body stereotypes shape people’s identity and perpetuate prejudice.

Ruth Kestenbaum Ben-Dov, Immersion 1, 1997, oil on canvas (To the artist’s website)

Ruth Kestenbaum Ben-Dov’s work combines an artistic interest in the naked body with the feminine Jewish context of immersion in the mikvah. Ben Dov’s composition sets an example for a newly accepted artistic activity: portraying religious Jewish topics from a woman’s point of view and with a feminist awareness.


God’s physical body

An examination of bodies does not only refer to human bodies

In a lecture for Body Midrash, Rabbi Roberto Arbib introduced a theological question discussed by both mystics and rationalists: Does God have a body?

In this context, Rabbi Arbib cited the Song of Songs, which presents the voices of two lovers praising each other::

“My beloved is white and ruddy, pre-eminent above ten thousand. His head is as the most fine gold, his locks are curled, and black as a raven. His eyes are like doves beside the water-brooks; washed with milk, and fitly set.  His cheeks are as a bed of spices, as banks of sweet herbs; his lips are as lilies, dropping with flowing myrrh. His hands are as rods of gold set with beryl; his body is as polished ivory overlaid with sapphires. His legs are as pillars of marble, set upon sockets of fine gold; his aspect is like Lebanon, excellent as the cedars. His mouth is most sweet; yea, he is altogether lovely. This is my beloved, and this is my friend, O daughters of Jerusalem”.[i]

Jewish tradition has interpreted the text as an allegory of the love  between God and and the people of Israel. But Shi’ur Qomah, a Midrashic text of the Heichalot literature, reads it as a source for the actual physical description of God.

“His total height: 236 ten thousand thousands parasangs. From His Right Arm to His Left Arm, 77 ten thousand. From His Right Eye to Left Eye, 30 ten thousands. The Skull on His Head, three and one third ten thousand. The Crowns on His Head, 60 ten thousands equaling the 60 ten thousands of the tribes of Israel”. [ii]

However, a number of rabbis in the Middle Ages were not happy with this literal reading. The rationalist Jewish philosopher Maimonides stated that the book was so heretical that it had to be burned. Rabbi Saadia Gaon  expressed doubts about the origin of the text and Rabbi Moses Narboni dismissed the blatant anthropomorphisms of Shi’ur Qomah as speaking strictly metaphorically.

The question of metaphors and literality has always accompanied the Jewish quest, also when it comes to God’s body.

Mr. Gaga, the movie. Photo: Gadi Dagon (click on the picture to see the movie trailer)

Dancing the Gaga

Body Midrash invites participants not only to learn but also to have a physical experience, either as spectators of  dance performances or as dancers themselves. Participants attend Gaga classes, a unique movement language developed by Ohad Naharin, the leader of Bat Sheva.

Naharin explains what happens when people attend the classes: “We become more aware of our form. We connect to the sense of the endlessness of possibilities. We explore multi-dimensional movement; we enjoy the burning sensation in our muscles, we are ready to snap, we are aware of our explosive power and sometimes we use it. We change our movement habits by finding new ones. We go beyond our familiar limits. We can be calm and alert at once.”[iii]

You can try it out once and see how it feels! There are Gaga classes all over the world.

We invite you to think about how we portray ourselves, to meditate on the awe-inspiring features that may be applied to God, and to feel your body moving in its own language.

[i]  Song of Songs 5: 10-16
[ii]  Shi’ur Qomah 1
[iii]  Ohad Naharin,