God’s Presence in the Mundane
One of the great contributions of the Rabbinic period to Jewish theology is the celebration of God’s presence in the mundane. How can we experience God in the world without God’s sacred abode in the Temple? The rabbis taught us to find holiness in the everyday through the beautiful system of blessings. God can even be encountered when we use the bathroom:
“Praised are You, Lord our God, King of the universe who with wisdom fashioned the human body, creating openings, arteries, glands and organs, marvelous in structure, intricate in design.”
Through the recitation of this bathroom blessing, we train our souls to recognize the spark of the divine in literally every aspect of our lives. The Jewish spirit takes nothing for granted in this world. The proper functioning of our bodies is an occasion for reflecting upon God’s miraculous creation.
However, this week’s Torah portion may challenge the assumption that everything is imbued with potential holiness. Among the many laws of parashat Ki Tetzei, we learn about the importance of safeguarding the sanctity of the military camp through the establishment of a latrine outside of the camp:
“There shall be an area for you outside the camp, where you may relieve yourself. With your gear you shall have a spike, and when you have squatted you shall dig a hole with it and cover up your excrement. Since the Lord your God moves about in your camp to protect you and to deliver your enemies to you, let your camp be holy; let Him not find anything unseemly among you and turn away from you” (Deut. 23:13–15).
I struggle to reconcile this biblical injunction with the poignant rabbinic blessing. On the one hand, Deuteronomy teaches that God’s intimate presence in the Israelite camp is endangered by “anything unseemly.” From this passage, rabbinic law teaches that one may not recite the Shema or the Amidah in close proximity to a bathroom or to a foul smelling place (see Berachot 25a). On the other hand, each time we use a bathroom, we mark the sanctity of the moment with a blessing (once we have walked outside).
I believe that this tension speaks to the core of what it means to be a religious Jew. As Rabbi Irwin Groner has taught, holiness in Judaism is always established through boundaries. Eating can be a sacred act. However, what distinguishes us from animals is our ability to set limits and make choices. We do not eat anything we want whenever we want it. Similarly, we attend to the needs of our bodies with modesty and sensitivity. The rabbis were concerned that “anything unseemly” in our environment would prevent us from fully concentrating on the strivings of our souls in prayer. However, they were also keenly aware that without the healthy functioning of our bodily systems, we could never stand before God in awe and in love.
As we approach the High Holiday season, may we dedicate ourselves to a renewed awareness of God’s holiness in every part of our lives. May we also find the discipline and commitment to establish the boundaries in our lives which elevate our humanity.
The publication and distribution of the JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.