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Bound Together: Building Resiliency, Connection, and Wholeness through Embodied Jewish Practice

July 12, 2022

וְאָהַבְתָּ אֵת יְיָ אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בְּכָל-לְבָֽבְךָ, וּבְכָל-נַפְשְׁךָ, וּבְכָל-מְאֹדֶֽךָ. וְהָיוּ הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, אֲשֶׁר אָֽנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם, עַל-לְבָבֶֽךָ: וְשִׁנַּנְתָּם לְבָנֶיךָ, וְדִבַּרְתָּ בָּם בְּשִׁבְתְּךָ בְּבֵיתֶךָ, וּבְלֶכְתְּךָ בַדֶּרֶךְ וּֽבְשָׁכְבְּךָ, וּבְקוּמֶֽךָ. וּקְשַׁרְתָּם לְאוֹת עַל-יָדֶךָ, וְהָיוּ לְטֹטָפֹת בֵּין עֵינֶֽיךָ, וּכְתַבְתָּם עַל מְזֻזֹת בֵּיתֶךָ וּבִשְׁעָרֶֽיךָ

You shall love Adonai your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. Take to heart these instructions, which I compel you with on this day. Impress them upon your children. Recite them as you dwell in your home and while you walk along the way, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead; inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

In the familiar words of v’ahavta that traditionally follow the Shema blessing in Jewish prayer liturgy, we hear the injunction to hold the instructions of living Jewishly close to our hearts, in our speech, and in the way we move through our lives. We bind them to our hands and place them above our eyes, guiding both action and vision, connecting body and mind. And we inscribe them on the thresholds of our personal and collective spaces — a reminder both to ourselves and others of the values we hold dear, and the particular pathways through which we strive to uphold and embody them through all the ways in which we encounter and move through the world as Jews. 

At Mitsui Collective, our mission is to build resilient community through embodied Jewish practice and somatic antiracism. In other words, how do we take to heart the multitudes of wisdom woven throughout our collective Jewish body — from our written words to our cultural inheritances to the deeply-rooted knowledge held in and impressed upon our bodies through lived experience and ancestral transmission — and apply them to the ways in which we move through our modern lives both in and beyond our homes and communal spaces? 

If you’ve ever participated in team-building games or activities, you’ve probably experienced how simple and even silly prompts or challenges can illuminate common interpersonal dynamics and create a scaffold to strengthen how teams communicate, collaborate, and even tackle deeply entrenched power dynamics and other structural issues. In day-to-day life, these movements are often subtle and subconscious, though they impact our choices and behaviors no less. 

Through Mitsui Collective’s pedagogies of embodied Jewish practice, part of our work is to elevate our innate movement — how we walk, speak, behave, and respond in and to the world around us — to more conscious, intentional explorations of the questions at hand. Using these tools, we craft embodied experiences that use physical, whole-body approaches to create gateways for Jewish learning, growth, and community building. 

Here’s an example: in the last week of June, we gathered with both new and returning members of the Mitsui Collective Kollel — our multi-modal community of practice for Jewish practitioners working throughout intersections of embodiment, somatics, antiracism, and other counter-oppressive liberatory work — for several days of in-person learning, sharing, and practice in community. The Kollel includes Rabbis, ritualists, and Kohenot; song-leaders, musicians and somatic therapists; yoga and dance teachers, and more. 

Throughout the gathering,  we invited our community to explore how we define Jewish embodiment: What are particular Jewish expressions, modalities, and frameworks for embodied experience and what is their relationship to other forms of embodied experience and expression?  How do individual Kollelniks experience, define, and utilize embodied Jewish experience in their work and practice? Where are there synergies and where are there points of divergence? 

In a core workshop focused on Mitsui Collective’s approach to embodied Jewish experience, we went deep into these explorations, building a scaffold of embodied, physical prompts guiding the cohort from individual experience to chevruta-based partner work and finally to a collective full-group movement practice exploring the ways in which the bonds of communal obligation manifest through varying intra- and interpersonal dynamics. 

In other contexts, this learning might happen through a combination of text study, group discussion, and individual reflection. We like to take it to a different place. So in our embodied learning, we gave the Kollel six-foot-long wooden staffs to use as additional chevruta (partner-based) learning tools — first using them as yads (pointers) to direct their partner’s movement, then as a paintbrush or quill guiding their partner in greater creative autonomy, then as a literal binding agent that connected each partner on either side of the staff, staying in each other’s orbit, playing with how to move together in harmonious synchronicity.

Finally, each person took their own staff, and we created a collective space for personal creative exploration, close enough together so that individual expression was by necessity shaped and impacted by being in proximity to others also moving around with their own staff. 

Embodiment is clearly something that can only fully be experienced in real-time. Hopefully, though, I’m painting enough of a picture for our readers here to follow well enough for me to build some additional reflections. Each of the stages I describe above creates a complex web of entry points for learning and experience. Part of the educator’s or facilitator’s role is to help frame the experience and then guide the reflection process, as well as subsequent application and integration into other contexts. In our gathering, we framed the embodied experience as an exploration of how we purposefully bind ourselves together — what are the binding obligations of being in community? By what values or ideals are we bound? What was the Passover experience of moving from bondage in slavery to a bondedness to community, and how do we explore that for ourselves? Where and how do we create the boundaries of community and what happens inside those bounds? How do we find the right pace so that we’re reducing the risk of harm yet not moving so slowly or over-cautiously that nothing interesting or generative can happen?

These explorations and reflections were both meaningful for their own sake and can also serve as gateways for further learning. What would it look like, for example, to move into a more traditionally text-based study session exploring texts on related themes? For our purposes, the experience was part of setting the stage for our second core workshop the next day on Jewish cultural somatics for antiracism and counter-oppression. In this workshop, we went deeper on the construction and embodiment of our individual and cultural identities; the role of the nervous system in receiving, processing, and transmitting information in regards to personal, interpersonal, and environmental dynamics; and specifically Jewish practices and resources that are available to us in navigating these complex and challenging issues. 

Jewish tradition clearly values both study and action. In Midrash, for example, the Rabbi who is asked which is more important responds “study is great, for it leads to action” (Kiddushin 40b). Simultaneously, the primary injunction na’aseh v’nishmah — we will do and we will learn — said by the Israelites upon receiving the Torah at Sinai, implies a predisposition towards action and experience. Without a doubt, our texts are to be cherished, deeply studied, and expanded upon. Yet without tangible application of this wisdom to our day-to-day lives, text study can remain a primarily intellectual activity rather than one that deeply informs our way of being in the world. 

Clearly we need both. It’s no secret, though, that learning institutions throughout the Jewish world are struggling. While no single variable can account for this, I strongly believe that at the heart of this struggle is the lack of engaging Jewish learners in the entirety of their being. 

Most of us don’t usually walk around literally carrying six-foot-long wooden staffs every day. But we move through the world carrying metaphorical sticks that serve as extensions of ourselves and impact our interpersonal and communal dynamics no less. We probably each have experience seeing (or being) the person who enters a space, plants their stick down to stake out a specific position, and defends it at all costs, no matter what may be shifting around them. Or the person who comes in swinging. Or the person who remains solely at the periphery, either refusing or perhaps simply unable to fully participate. 

These tend not to be helpful modalities for moving in community together. But even when we “know” what’s unhelpful, it can be difficult to know what healthier, more beneficial ways of moving together can look like without experiencing a framed and purposefully simplified version of them in our physical bodies, so that we better know what to look and feel for in the more complex reality that we live in day to day. 

While the word halacha carries many layers of meaning and connotation, one way we might translate halacha is simply as a Jewish way of moving in and through the world, informed by all the multitudes of wisdom at the heart of our traditions, our knowledge, and our experience. These ways may at times be quiet and subtle, like Moses’ mother Yocheved slipping a basket into the Nile river to carry her son downstream; and at other times bold and overt, as with Avraham and Sarah’s decision to go forth, lech lecha, towards a new vision of being. They are all significant.

In this time of great transformation and challenge, the way we move in the world couldn’t be more important. But we can’t do it alone. It’s not only that we can’t do our personal work without the support of others, though that’s true. It’s also that the work we need to do is also collective work. Work of healing, of transformation, of building the kind of culture we need to move through this time into a new space of emergence and possibility. That’s the work that we’re striving to do at Mitsui Collective. And we can’t do it alone. So I hope you’ll join us together in partnership as we move together through this world we all call our home. 

Yoshi Silverstein is the Founder and Executive Director of Mitsui Collective.