I recently had the opportunity to interview Rabbi Matthew Ponak, author of the newly released book “Embodied Kabbalah: Jewish Mysticism for All People.” Rabbi Matthew shared his journey into religion and spirituality as he learned to find a balance between the two.
Here are some excerpts from our time together:
Reb Charna: You mention “spiritual yet not religious” people and how this influenced the writing of your book. Can you speak to this?
Rabbi Matthew: Though I was raised in a Conservative synagogue in Canada, as a teenager I went to an Orthodox yeshiva in Israel. Some messages I received at that time, both explicitly and implicitly, were about becoming a “superhero” tzadik: one who constantly prayed, ate and slept little, and was guided toward ecstasy. Over time I became overwhelmed with the practices that did not emphasize emotional presence or physical grounding. This gap led to a fracturing event and I left the religious world. I strove to learn outside of the Jewish community for strategies on how to find balance and integration between body/mind/emotions.
Reb Charna: I met you in 2006 at Naropa University in a Jewish Mysticism class; was this part of your healing journey?
Rabbi Matthew: Yes, along with what I was exploring in transpersonal psychology. There I learned more about myself and the importance of strong self-care. I realized that ecstatic practices must be balanced with body care, emotional well-being, and worldly wisdom. By studying other traditions, I realized that religions have a mix of wisdom, spirituality, and power dynamics. Not all religious leaders and institutions use their standing for holy purposes, which can derail the potency of their teachings. Spirituality attempts to extract the best parts of the religion yet does not always include the responsibilities and accountabilities as well as the connections to ancestry. It is the blend of the two approaches that began to inspire me.
Reb Charna: It sounds like this led you to an ethical understanding of how the two interface.
Rabbi Matthew: Yes; it is hard to create long term change over generations with only spiritual creativity; it also needs structure. Religion tends the fires of the past and keeps the lineage alive. Also, there is something inherently grounding in established communities and how they function as support systems.
Of course, there are many wounded people who had an oppressive religious experience. Abraham Joshua Heschel spoke to this when he realized that people were leaving religious Jewish life because of the stagnation within it. Part of the role of this book is to acknowledge that something is lost when we leave the body out, and something else is lost when we depart from our lineages and ancestries. An integrated approach includes and evolves. There is a reason why we see ourselves as a link in the chain – l’dor v’dor/from generation to generation.
Reb Charna: What do you think is a new edge that is pushing the generations to grow? And do you believe that integrating the body is part of the healing of the feminine in Judaism?
Rabbi Matthew: Creating a healthy standard of body positivity is an important step in integrating the physical and spiritual world. The book is an effort to reconcile this tension between transcendent mystical experiences and healthy physicality. Mystical practices often diminish the body. This trend is probably leftover from the purity cult of the Second Temple period and the ascetic culture that developed in early post-temple practices. Since the body is often connected with the feminine, body integration is an essential step in our healing.
Reb Charna: How would you say your book speaks to the average person on a spiritual journey?
Rabbi Matthew: First of all, it is an excellent introduction to Jewish mysticism. Embodied Kabbalah gives access to our esoteric traditions with a specific emphasis on grounded spirituality. This includes the way in which dealing with our emotions can be a key to both body wisdom and spiritual growth; it articulates a path of being a responsible and accountable person while delving into the inner world.
Reb Charna: You are coming to Boulder in early January, and have plans to teach a workshop based on your book. Can you tell us about it? And who would benefit from this workshop?
Rabbi Matthew: This class is for experienced spiritual seekers of any background, somatic practitioners and teachers, spiritual psychologists, and students of kabbalah. We will look at several texts that are in the book and will conduct body awareness exercises, and movement practices to make the texts our own. The value of doing this in community, live, is important. From a Jewish point of view, community practice is a powerful transformational technology. It gives us a reflective opportunity to see ourselves outside of our own self-perception and also to be a part of the amplified energy that resonates within a group. As the old teaching goes, the Divine Presence rests between people.
Reb Charna: How can people contact you or learn more about your work?
This in-person class in North Boulder is open to people of all backgrounds.
Sunday, January 8th; 9:00am – 1:30 $54