Jewish Body Language

As water reflects a face, so too a person’s heart reflects another.
— Proverbs 27:19

Remember the etiology of the narcissus flower? Narcissus, a very attractive Greek hunter, fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water and drowned, leaving us with the name of a beautiful flower and a term in psychology for those overly self-absorbed: narcissism.

We find a different reading of water's reflective powers in the book of Proverbs from the verse above. Instead of reflecting ourselves, we find that an image speaks back to us that should make us sensitive to others.

In the Talmud [BT Yevamot 117a], one scholar understands this verse as a plea to the emotions and one to the intellect. The Talmud is discussing whether or not a mother-in-law can provide testimony to support her daughter-in-law in the case of a husband presumed dead that would permit the daughter-in-law to re-marry. The rabbis debated the question of self-interest and possibility of emotional pettiness in this relationship and cited this verse in Proverbs as support. Namely, the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship is often fraught with tension. The daughter-in-law picks up on negative signals from the mother-in-law and then those feelings are returned, just like water reflects the face of one who looks at it, citing our verse in Proverbs.

If one person has strong, negative body language towards another, the feeling is likely to become mutual. Sometimes we don't realize the way our faces talk. When someone grimaces or rolls his eyes at something another person says, everyone in the room picks up on it. No words are needed to pick up on the insult. Daniel Goleman, the pioneer of emotional intelligence studies, along with his co-writers in Primal Leadership, presents research about the body language of leaders. Even when they don't speak, people are busy reading their faces and posture to determine if they feel good or bad about a presentation or an idea. "Leaders manage meaning for the group," they contend, even and sometimes especially, when they don't speak.

Weaker chimpanzees, researchers tell us, will smile at a stronger chimpanzee to show that it is vulnerable and not hostile. Studies also show that people who are good at interpreting body language will watch the mouth and not the eyes since it seems to reveal the most about what someone is thinking.

Rabbi Yehuda, however, interprets the verse differently as referring to an intellectual experience: the more Torah one studies, the more Torah he understands. Rashi, the eleventh century French commentator, writes that if a teacher shows a positive countenance to his student, it is more likely for that student to become a scholar himself. Without the teacher's non-verbal encouragement, Rashi contends that the student will never become a scholar. This places a strong educational and moral responsibility on the shoulders of teachers. Be careful about what your body language says to those studying with you

Clearly, we pick up and respond to the emotions we receive. This is likely the reason that Ethics of the Fathers [1:15] recommends we greet every person with a "beautiful face" because that face or look will be returned to us.

This week, we closed the study of Tractate Yevamot in the Talmud's daily cycle. It was a very long tractate and to honor its completion, I shared the teaching above and would like to share one more that held particular meaning for me.

The Talmud records a drowning incident of the famous scholar Rabbi Akiva. When asked how he survived, he said he grabbed hold of a "daf" - a plank of the ship's wood and held on to it for safety. It carried him to shore [BT Yevamot 121a]. Rabbi Meir Shapiro  of Lublin, the founder of the Daf Yomi program - the daily study cycle that takes 7 ½ years to complete - based a sermon on this story to encourage people to study the Talmud based on the wordplay for plank - called a daf . Just as Rabbi Akiva held on to a "daf" and it saved him, so can the regular study of Talmud save us. I know that it has personally served as a wonderful anchor and daily discipline for me and others, especially in an ever-changing world.

We all need to find that which spiritually grounds us as we get tossed about. We find that in the people who reflect warmth and love to us. We find it in community. We find it in study. But we only find what grounds us spiritually if we're looking for it.

Shabbat Shalom