Olam Katan

The human body as a microcosm of the world

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In this description of creation, the human being, the Temple and the world of creation become inextricably tied to one another. Each is created in the image of the other, and the existence of each depends, to some extent, on the other. Ultimately, though, as it is human beings who construct religious texts, the human body--and not the universe or the Temple--remains the point of reference for the other descriptions.

Olam Katan in Kabbalah

The idea of the human being as a microcosm of the divine realm becomes particularly important for kabbalah (mysticism), which describes God through a system of sefirot, or aspects of the divine. Many explanations of the sefirotic system describe each of the sefirot as corresponding to one part of the human body. As such, God's emanated self reflects the physical makeup of the human being. In this scheme, human beings resemble God not only in intellect, but also in form. Accordingly, physical, and often sexual, descriptions of God become central to mystical language and thought.

Sixteenth-century kabbalah deepened the connection between the divine being and the human body. According to the theory of creation developed by Isaac Luria and his disciples, the ein sof, or inaccessible and infinite divine being, created the world through a process of withdrawal and emanation. The ein sof first contracted itself in order to make space for the world, and then emanated aspects of the divine through the vehicle of adam hakadmon, the primordial human being. The human form, in this formulation, is central to the process of creating the world and accordingly, Lurianic kabbalah considers human physical and ritual acts to have a profound impact on the very nature and unity of the divine being.

Hasidism further develops the connection between the human body and divinity by introducing the idea of avodah b'gashmiyut, the concept that worship of God takes place through physical activities such as dancing, singing, and shuckling (swaying) in prayer. The human body, beyond being a reflection of the divine being, becomes, in itself, a means of divine worship.

Rather than posit a stark distinction between body and soul, or describe the body simply as a container for the soul, Jewish thought, in large part, considers the physical body to be a reflection either of the created world or of God's own being, as well as a means toward worshipping God. In this way, the body itself becomes a mode of religious and theological description and practice.

The attribution of theological import to the human body compels us to view everything we do to and with our bodies as a component of religious practice. Decisions about what to eat, how often to exercise, and whether to smoke become not simply health choices, but means of relating to God and to the world of creation.

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Rabbi Jill Jacobs

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America. She previously served as the Rabbi-in-Residence for the Jewish Funds for Justice.