“And Rav Yehuda said: There are three matters which, when one who prolongs their duration, extend a person’s days and years. They are: One who prolongs his prayer, one who prolongs his mealtime at the table, and one who prolongs his time in the bathroom.”Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 54b
The rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud spend a lot of time talking about shit. They didn’t agree on much, but they agreed that effluvia, bathroom practices, and the state of one’s intestines were important. This Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, I’ve been enmeshed in the web of Talmud, the compendium of Jewish law and story compiled by around 600 CE. I am following the new cycle of daf yomi, the practice of going through a folio of Talmud a day, which began this January and will last for over seven years.
The rabbis discuss just how dry feces must become before one can pray in the area where someone has defecated; which foods are good for your intestines (beets, leeks, small fish) and which will harm them (meat); the dangers of dropping one’s phylacteries if you take a bathroom break in the middle of prayer; the dangers of disease if you hold it in and don’t take a bathroom break while praying; and in which direction you should defecate.
One night, I sat on the couch after I closed my thick red Koren Talmud and scrolled through Facebook. I saw that, because it was March, the Giant Inflatable Colons have returned. Yes, this is a thing now. To make more Americans aware of the lifesaving value of screening colonoscopies, giant walk-through inflatable colons now tour the country, like fluffy pink wind tunnels from Oz, but with polyps. “Fun for all ages!” said the ad for one event.
I thought: What would the rabbis say about the giant inflatable colon?
And then I thought: as a colon cancer survivor, will I ever see shit as just shit again?
When I was diagnosed with cancer, I initially thought it was ovarian. Doctors found the first tumor when it grew to nineteen centimeters and rudely wrenched around my right ovary.
Many weeks later, when I learned that, instead, I had metastatic colon cancer, the first feeling I had was fright, but then, it was: shame. My mutinous organ was not the ovaries that gave life to my only child. It was one of the parts of me I try not to think about, the part that is filled with smelly, putrid fecal matter. As the children’s book title goes, everyone poops, but we grownups try not to talk about it too much.
There is something deeper here, about Jews and smell and the history of anti-Jewish caricature. Medieval and early modern Christians wrote of the foeter Judaicus, the rank smell of Jews, associated with stench and garlic. Olfactory hatred of the Jewish body is an entrenched trope, one that I have internalized.
There is a memory I had buried in the recesses of my brain, but in this month of fear and contagion, this time of reminders to “check your plumbing” by getting screened for polyps and also to wash your hands before the coronavirus destroys us all, it has come back to me: the feeling that my type of cancer made me dirty, and dirty as a Jew. I recalled how, in the midst of my diagnostic limbo, I had texted a friend:
“I’m scared people won’t be as sympathetic if it turns out I have colon cancer.”
“They’re pretty sympathetic to Kate Bowler,” she wrote.
This was true. My friend had named my uncanny cancer doppelganger, a professor of American religions diagnosed with colon cancer two years before me, before she was 40. I don’t know Kate in person, but with so many friends in common, I had indeed seen the outpouring of love for her on social media. Yet my embodied sense of shame held onto the foeter Judaicus. She was Christian, I thought. Popular. Normal. Recognizable. Not like me. Not the weird religious other. Deep down, I felt it, the humiliation of centuries: a fear that we Jews, people of the body, could not be forgiven for our consumptions or our excretions.
Why did I have to get the cancer that is associated with a poop emoji? Colon cancer advocacy groups have bravely, and humorously, embraced puns and poo and bottoms in order to erase the stigma around symptoms and getting tested. The Colon Cancer Alliance sponsors “Undy RunWalks”; the Colon Cancer Coalition has the “Get Your Rear in Gear 5k.”
These efforts are awesome, of course, and I support them. But I also cringe. When I think of underwear and running, I think of the times, in my first year post-surgery, that no amount of immodium prevented me from having horrific accidents on the running trail, of my memories of washing out that sullied underwear (and leggings, socks, and shoes). I want to feel strong when I run. Underwear makes me think of weakness. Americans love to pretend we can control our bodies, but really, we can’t. There it is again, when I see the underwear jokes: the shame.
How do we make shit holy? In the Talmud, we can find, rather famously, a prayer for going to the bathroom. The rabbis disagree about what to say upon entering the bathroom (bei ha-kisei; literally, “the house of the seat”). One says to begin by speaking to the angels who accompany him. Another says to say, “Guard me, guard me; help me, help me; support me, support me; wait for me, wait for me, until I enter and come out, for this is the way of man.” The way of all humans is defecation. We have bodies.
What’s most interesting, though, is the blessing upon leaving the bathroom, where the rabbis bless God, who “formed man in wisdom, and created in him many orifices and cavities. It is revealed and known before the throne (kisei) of your glory, that were one of them to be ruptured and blocked, it would be impossible to survive and stand before you” (Berakhot 60b).
In some colon cancer patients, tumors grow so large that they block the intestine, preventing the excretion of waste. Others sustain such damage to their colons that they must have a temporary or permanent colostomy bag. The waste must leave the body, somehow. In surgeries, there is always a low risk of rupture. I felt this passage in my gut, literally and figuratively. Without our colons, we are doomed. There’s a fun resonance to play with in the Hebrew, too—the bathroom, beit ha-kisei (house of the seat), evokes the heavenly throne, kisei ha-kavod (seat of glory). Is the divine throne just a giant porcelain commode in the sky? Or is it, perhaps, the other way around? Is shitting holy?
Of course, it’s not so simple. One of the reasons the rabbis are so obsessed with feces is because the feces themselves are polluting, and because the shifting of clothing before defecating can violate their modesty norms. The process is life sustaining. The product is profane.
In rabbinic literature, shit is not in the category of the most ritually impure substances (that honor is reserved for things like semen and menstrual blood). Nonetheless, it is cordoned off. It is not supposed to be near Torah scrolls or phylacteries (which contain small parchments with words from the Torah).
Historian Mira Balberg writes that intestinal disease, mentioned frequently throughout the Talmud, was the “the worst of ailments and the best of ailments.” The feces are a problem, inside or outside: “excrement is a source of disgust and repulsion even when contained inside the body.” Yet digestive diseases, and the suffering that accompanied them, may have been seen as mode of purging out that filth. Intestinal disease separated its sufferers from the Torah, erecting a pragmatic boundary. Ridding one’s body of excrement was both a source of shame and of relief: “intestinal disease is thus both a poignant metaphor for everything about human beings that is flawed, objectionable, and profane, and a metaphor for the channels through which those flaws can be ultimately conquered and obliterated.”
Then, too, there are the demons. Going to the bathroom was a dangerous business. An entire section of Berakhot discusses practices to avoid demons while defecating. Rav Hisda’s daughter would rattle a nut in a copper vessel to scare off the demons for him.
Last summer, at the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh, I came face to face with an actual human colon, taken from a cadaver. It was in an exhibit on the human body. All of the key systems were there: heart, lungs, intestines. My daughter kept trying to get me to play a heart game, but I was transfixed by the gray, meaty flesh of the preserved intestinal tissue. There it was, the organ that had caused such trouble, almost beautiful in its seemingly infinite folds.
Colon, punctuation mark, according to Merriam-Webster: “used chiefly to direct attention to matter (such as a list, explanation, quotation, or amplification) that follows.” The human colon does indeed direct our attention to matter, to our somatic, messy, smelly selves. Like the giant inflatable colons that scream “get screened!” or the colorectal cancer advocates turning Times Square blue, colons require a pause—like the pause in the beit ha-kisei. Attention must be paid, says the colon. So, too, do awareness months, much as they are wracked with emotional land mines for cancer survivors. As I soldier on in my #blessed post-cancer, no-evidence-of-disease life (ptuey ptuey ptuey!), March stops me in my tracks and forces my attention the matter that matters, the flesh that both sustains and betrays me.
The rabbis didn’t need awareness months. In the discussions they have left behind—the discourse that is all we have of them—they are hyperaware. They do what my therapist is always trying to get me to do. They are radically mindful, asking us to stop and bless and stop and bless and stop and bless.
I’ve never seen a giant inflatable colon in person, but what strikes me in the pictures is how very clean they are. So bright and pink and shiny. No fecal matter in site. No pollution. The rabbis would have no problem bringing an entire Torah scroll right in. (What would it mean to chant Torah inside the giant inflatable colon? What would it sound like if the holy words reverberated on its plastic walls, sanctifying our strange, easily inflamed passages?)
When you go in for a colonoscopy or a colon resection, you have to clean out the colon first. Completely. The “prep,” as it is called, is what most people dread the most, what makes it hard to get people screened for the third most common form of cancer. A day of clear liquids followed by pints of laxative-laced Gatorade and a night on the toilet bowl. Is this a kind of purification? I struggle against the idea that in suffering there is transformation, or anything good. It’s pragmatic. We need to clear the colon for a safe surgery, or a clear picture through the lens of the scope. Maybe shit really is just shit.
But, like the rabbis, I won’t read anything “sacred” or important to me during that process. Trashy magazines only. I may not worry about dropping tefillin in the toilet bowl, and yet I will not sully poetry or history or a good novel with the smells of that process. My own sense of foeter Judaicus is about excrement, not garlic: about residues we cannot control. Is there any way past the shame?
I wonder if blessing is the way out. The #blessed hashtag is a Christian one. As Kate Bowler writes, it hovers “somewhere between gift and reward.” Grammatically, it is passive, adjectival: I have been blessed. In contrast, Jewish tradition takes a very different approach. Berakhot means “blessings,” but they are active ones. Humans make blessings, say blessings, debate how and when and why and what to bless. This first tractate of the Talmud, the one we just finished at the beginning of this March, describes a web of human agency, entangled with the act of blessing. Like the colon in a sentence, blessings make us pause.
Blessing enfolds matter in sanctity, just as the colon delicately envelopes the fetid waste that would kill us if it spilled out of the intestinal coils. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, food to feces. I pause here at the hinge between fear and gratitude, disgust and pride, balanced on the colon in the middle of the sentence, unsure of what comes next. One thing is certain: we defecate, or else we die. The rabbis, fans of both guarding the body’s health and scatological puns, would probably get a kick out of the giant inflatable colon.
[Image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/healthiermi/13266807653]
Jodi Eichler-Levine is Associate Professor of Religion Studies and Berman Professor of Jewish Civilization at Lehigh University. She teaches and writes at the intersection of Jewish Studies, religion in North America, and gender studies. Her next book, Paper Pomegranates and Needlepoint Rabbis: How Jews Craft Resilience and Create Community, will published by UNC Press in October 2020.