The arts process

‘Thinking with our bodies’ can transform Jewish education

In Short

Engaging textual study in an embodied way through the arts is good for Jewish life and Jewish education. Our experience shows that this is not only something that is beneficial to those already in the arts, but that it is valuable for everyone, even for those for whom traditional text study is their preferred mode of study.

Traditionally, Judaism is largely a text-based religion. We gather. We sit around the table. We study. As a result, Jewish education has not always been as receptive to those for whom sitting and learning is not the best mode of learning. The same can be said about those for whom the arts are their primary vehicle of expression. Many arts-oriented Jewish kids and adults do not often feel that what they do is fully appreciated and taken seriously by mainstream Jewish educational institutions. Those who train our clerical leaders often miss a profound opportunity by leaving out those who think and reflect best in ways other than conventional study “at the table,” such as through embodied movement and the arts. However, my colleagues and I have begun to explore what happens when we incorporate using our bodies as a tool of study for our sacred within academic settings.

People use art to learn and teach all the time, but the process is generally illustrative or aesthetic. When a teacher is explaining a concept to a child, they might ask the child to draw a picture to illustrate the concept. Visual artists can create beautiful works of art, many working with biblical themes, that might bring to life a story or idea about God. In dance, choreography can take us somewhere transcendent, as we appreciate the beauty of bodies in motion.

At our pluralistic Jewish seminary, the Academy for Jewish Religion (AJR), where I serve as CEO and academic dean, our goal is different. Beginning in 2012, AJR has been inviting students of Jewish tradition to encounter Torah, Talmud and other sacred study through the arts. Our goal is not to create beautiful art. Rather, we are using the arts to process the texts, through a range of artistic forms including music, visual arts, movement and circus arts. Our project is still serious textual study, but through other creative means, such as physicality and movement, we are opening up the text. Using the arts allows individuals to integrate and embody subject matter. The words of the text have not only been read, discussed and analyzed, but also internalized in a way that encompasses the whole self. To be clear, we are thinking with our bodies as well as our minds. 

Simply put, engaging textual study in an embodied way through the arts is good for Jewish life and Jewish education. Our experience shows that this is not only something that is beneficial to those already in the arts, but that it is valuable for everyone, even for those for whom traditional text study is their preferred mode of study.

At AJR, we have been making a particular effort to explore the circus arts. Through a collaboration of expert instructors and our rabbinical and cantorial students, circus becomes the embodied pathway for learning biblical texts. Circus enables our students to think with their bodies. The idea is not to produce a finished show or work of artistic entertainment. Rather, we believe that embodying the text in turn yields different experiences of scriptural study, reflection, and interpretation.

One week, we brought a tight wire into school. We used it to study the Akedah, the binding of Isaac. We invited students to think about Abraham while walking on the tight wire, giving them the experience of reading and contemplating the text while feeling personally unbalanced.

One student took his copy of the Tanach with him as he walked the wire, reading the text aloud and becoming increasingly and profoundly moved. He seemed on the verge of tears.

As the student dismounted, he said that he had been jaded about this text because it is read so often that you stop thinking about it. But he was in tears, because of how he was experiencing it bodily. That is what we are aiming for. 

I have experienced the power of this method myself. I have been studying and teaching the Bible for many decades, and for much of that time I paid very close attention to feminist readings of the Bible. I have spent real time on the wife/sister story in which Abraham passes Sarah, his wife, off as his sister in order to protect himself (Genesis 12 & 20). I had always read this as Abraham being abusive to his wife, Sarah, by putting her in danger and creating a situation where she was taken into Pharaoh’s house to be either potentially or actually subject to sexual violence. During a Sacred Arts circus class, however, I climbed onto a rolla bolla, a board on top of a cylinder where one stands and strives for balance. While standing on the rolla bolla I then read the story again. Because I was feeling unbalanced on the apparatus, and concerned about falling, I was suddenly filled with a new empathy for Abraham. I felt his struggle, his fear and his pain. This is not to say that Abraham was right in his actions (I still find plenty to critique), but this new empathy led to a richness in my reading that had not been there before. 

Had I stayed “at the table,” engaged in the “head” practice of sacred textual Jewish study, I would likely have remained locked inside certain readings of this text. But getting away from the table took me somewhere new, into my body and heart. A very few minutes on the rolla bolla allowed me a new reading of the text.

Embodied learning through the arts can advance inclusion in our institutions. Yes, a lot of Jewish text study happens with everyone sitting around a table, studying together. But for many people, that is not their way of learning, and because of that they easily could feel that Jewish study is closed to them. So we have focused on whether there are alternative ways to approach text, ways that maybe can open the door to more people. And not only to artistic students — we believe that this works for everybody and is valuable for everybody. My own life is rooted in textual study, and yet my engagement with embodied learning through the arts has been transformative.

When we get away from the table and use our bodies as tools of study for the sacred texts of our tradition, we open new doors to new and exciting insights into sacred text. 

Ora Horn Prouser, PhD is the CEO and academic dean of the Academy for Jewish Religion, the nation’s oldest pluralistic Jewish seminary.