Reviewed by Rabbah Gila Caine
(AJNews) – Every generation says this: we need a good story. We need a story that brings sense into our lives, purpose into our actions and meaning into our being here on earth.
When we talk about mysticism, or mystical traditions, we are talking about the greater story within which we play out our life. And to clarify, I’m saying “story” to show this is a critically important and foundational way in which we see the world, like air and gravity it is hidden in full view. Which is why the book title “Embodied Kabbalah: Jewish mysticism for all people” totally caught my attention. What a great name for the story our generation desperately needs, we who are stuck online and increasingly not only separated from the outdoors but growing overly fearful of human contact and physical presence.
In his book, Calgary born Rabbi Ponak, invites us to explore forty-two segments of Jewish mystical text, each dealing in its own way with the central and sacred place our body/flesh holds, as we do our spiritual work. By weaving traditional mystical Jewish texts together with his knowledge of other religious traditions as well as contemporary practices in grounded spirituality, Rabbi Ponak creates that rare book – one which is both metaphysical and practical.
Before I briefly comment on the words “Kabbalah”, “Embodied” and “for all people”, I’ll say something about the book’s structure:
Embodied Kabbalah is a compilation of texts selected from books written over the past millennia, though it focuses mainly on the last 500 years through the start of the 20th century. Most, but not all, of these works were written in Europe. Rabbi Ponak touches on the gendered aspect of this collection and adds his hope that by reading these texts, a more diverse set of readers will be inspired to renew, refresh, and reimagine what Jewish mysticism looks like. Amen. And I would venture to say that the fact that we are presented with a Kabbalistic compilation of grounded texts, speaks to the profound influence Feminist theology has had on our spiritual life today. But this is for another time.
Each page is designed in the manner that we now consider to be a traditional Talmud page – the main text in the center, surrounded by commentary, spiritual practice, meditations and historical contexts. You could read the book cover to cover, but at its core it is not linear. Each textual offering stands holding its own as we progress in our exploration of embodied and grounded Jewish spirituality.
Kabbalah is a huge field of inquiry and practice, and this isn’t the place to go into detailed exploration of its many pathways and meanings. But one important thing Rabbi Ponak reminds us of is that “Being a householder tradition, Judaism and its mystical components emphasizes a balance between the earthly and the spiritual.” Our mystical tradition is overwhelmingly non-monastic, and very much engaged in spiritual change through daily life and ethical behaviour. This rootedness in the world is critical if we are to invite multitudes to develop their spiritual selves, within their own lives.
This is exactly where “Embodiment” enters as a key tool if we are to redevelop a spiritual language that can be meaningful for most people.
An embodied practice cultivates an intimate (and loving?) relationship with the body, rather than trying to escape it. For instance, connecting to Shabbat’s spiritual power by enjoying a good Shabbat meal, is an embodied experience, and this kind of work is critical for our heady, online, disembodied time in history. And while Halacha and much of Jewish practice has been inherently of-the-world, Jewish mysticism hasn’t always taken that path. Which is why this book, with its intentional focus on embodied spiritual work, is critical for our times in the way it reminds us that mystical practices don’t have to be about running away from the world. They can function as a sacred bridge connecting our physical and spiritual life.
The foreword to this book was written by Rabbi Arthur Green, one of the great contemporary teachers of Jewish thought and mysticism. He speaks of his own work as “translator” of texts and leads us into Embodied Kabbalah by describing it as a work of “translation” in the deepest sense, translation as “a cultural task, making words spoken…or written in one cultural context accessible and meaningful to readers who live in another.”
This touches on the last part of the title, “for all people” and on Rabbi Ponak’s vision that “in the same way that cultures in many parts of the world have benefited from mindfulness and yoga, people can benefit from the universal insights found in Judaism. Our planet, our people, and our societies need help from as many sources as they can access.” Our story of deeply grounded, down to earth, life-loving spirituality is a gift to the world and one we should share.
This is also a particularly good work of “translation” for Jews who are curious about touching on something “beyond” but who might not necessarily want to buy into a God centered universe. Here is a book that uses Jewish language to tell us an important story: By listening to our physical sensations, we can connect with a divine which isn’t separate from us, but sometimes hidden even from ourselves.
A shout out to Pinchas Segal for a deceptively simple, yet intriguing cover image. In a few lines, he has captured the essence of the book, and the essence of the wider project which it represents.
Yishar Koach to Rabbi Ponak on this book, an important and timely addition to any Jewish library, and one which I look forward to joyfully exploring further in my teaching.
You can order your copy here: Embodied Kabbalah – Matthew Ponak.
Rabbah Gila Caine is the spiritual leader at Temple Beth Ora, Edmonton’s Reform Jewish congregation.