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Thursday, March 28, 2019

A Year of Civil Conversations Religious Leader Reflections: "Ode to the Body: Making Life Sacred" | by Rabbi David Straus

An interview and discussion with Sharon Olds was the focus of Krista Tippett’s  On Being, aired in Philadelphia on WHYY on Sunday morning, March 17. Sharon Olds is one of contemporary poetry’s leading voices. Winner of several prestigious awards, including the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award, Olds is known for writing intensely personal, emotionally scathing poetry which graphically depicts family life as well as global political events. Her work is often built out of intimate details concerning her children, her fraught relationship with her parents and, most controversially, her sex life. “The politeness and prudity of the world I grew up in meant that there were things that were important and interesting to me, [but] I had never read a poem about them,” she once said. Now, her interview was on public radio, and none of it was bleeped out according to the FCC rules; still, many of her poems are probably not the kind of readings that find their way into the liturgy of most congregations, or a sermon. Perhaps an adult learning class, but not usually on the pulpit. And yes, while I don’t blush easily, I do blush, and cannot imagine explaining to my board why I choose to read “Ode to the Tampon” or “Ode to the Clitoris” at last week’s family service.

And yet, I do believe that the topics of her poetry are exactly the kinds of themes and issues that should and need to be addressed, both from the pulpit and in the classrooms of churches and synagogues, and our religious institutions.

Now, I cannot speak for other religious traditions, but for me, Judaism is a spiritual practice and discipline that is all about sanctifying—making holy—our words and deeds and actions. I often ask my students to define the word “holy” or “kadosh” in Hebrew. The smart alecks reply, “not holy”. After a more serious conversation, we come to learn that in my tradition, holy means special, unique, different, set apart, extraordinary. The opposite is common or usual. Now, in truth, life would be pretty okay if each moment were ordinary, like the last. But Jewish spiritual tradition, through prayer, meditation, language, ritual and acts, allows us to take the ordinary and make it special, even extraordinary. By saying a blessing before we eat, we take time to acknowledge the action we are about to do, that we have food, that people prepared it, etc. By saying a blessing over Shabbat candles,we help make this day different from the other days of the week. And the list goes on. Even (maybe especially) sex can be holy, and our bodies, created in the image of God, are surely vessels for holy acts.
I think that is what Sharon Olds is trying to get us to think about in her poetry, and in her conversation with Tippett.  Rabbi Kuk, the first chief rabbi of Palestine wrote: “our task is to take the old, and make it new, and the new and make it holy”.

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