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The term gashmius, [1] which literally means “materiality,” was

originally used disparagingly to talk down about things considered

mundane or worldly, as opposed to ruchnius, or “spirituality.” In

fact, scholars sometimes discuss two types of mysticism: “this-worldly”

and “other-worldly.” “Other-worldly” mysticism is centered around the

idea of pulling oneself away from the mundanity of the physical world,

and within this model, gashmius had a negative connotation.

In the 18th century, Hasidism introduced a concept called Avodah b’gashmius, which literally means “service (or worship) in physicality/corporeality,” into the Jewish theological vocabulary. This idea suggests that our religious lives should not pull us away from the world, but should draw us into it. Because Hasidism teaches us that everything in existence is a manifestation of the Divine — the classic teaching is “There is no place devoid of Him. The whole earth is filled with his glory (Isa 6:3)!” — everything becomes an avenue through which to engage with that Divinity. Thus we attempt to find the spirituality in all of our material pursuits as a way of encountering holiness. This shift in ideology ushers in a more positive meaning for the word gashmius.

 

For example, the early Hasidic rebbe Menachem Nahum of Chernobyl (1730-1787) teaches that “In all our deeds, be they study or prayer, eating or drinking, this union [with the Divine] takes place.” [2] Here the Chernobyler puts a meal on the same level as a mitzvah, a sacred commandment! Modern neo-Hasidic pioneer Arthur Green points out that by connecting these four different actions, the rebbe suggests that “Physical acts have the same possibility of unifying divinity as do prescribed acts of piety. The uplifting of the corporeal and its transformation into spirit is the very essence of devotion.” [3]

We at Gashmius Magazine take this spiritual idea of “worship in physicality” seriously by insisting that it also holds within it a moral imperative. The social and material conditions of our lives and our interactions are not to be ignored in favor of spirituality. We cannot spiritually bypass the reality of the world, including injustice and oppression. Those social and material conditions are instead an essential venue in which our spiritual ideals can, and must, come alive. Just as the Chernobyler Rebbe saw the seemingly mundane act of eating as the highest avenue of devotional worship, so too do we see an engagement with seemingly mundane social and political questions as a powerful opportunity to connect with divinity. We uphold the idea that the work to improve the world is a necessary and holy act of service. 

This ability to find the sacred in even the most mundane aspects of life is the birthright of all people, regardless of identity, and we hope to honor the roots of this teaching by widening its accessibility to everyone who might find it meaningful.

The decision to use the word Gashmius as the title of this magazine reflects our desire to celebrate this radical ethos, which insists that everything that is, and everything we experience–yes, everything!–is an expression of Divinity, and has a place in the Jewish conversation. Our joys and our pains, our boredoms and our ecstasies, the ways we’re welcomed and the ways we’re alienated are all part of our spiritual path, and all have a home in this publication we’re building together. We do not turn away from the world, but rather lean into it. We seek to engage with it, sing love songs to it, question it, and of course, wrestle with it in the pursuit of a more equitable and just society for all.

 

Footnotes:

[1]  We choose to use a traditional Ashkenazi pronunciation of the word gashmius/gashmiut because we want to honor the ancestors who brought us this radical teaching, and we strive to celebrate the diasporic Jewish cultures that we’ve inherited from them.

[2] Rabbi Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl, Me'or Enayim. Accessed via The Light of the Eyes: Homilies on the Torah, trans. Arthur Green (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2021), breishit 5, 152.

[3] The Light of the Eyes: Homilies on the Torah, Breishit 5, 152, footnote 231.

What Does
"Gashmius"  Mean?

Gashmius Staff

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