Stuart J. Dow

Physical Cues, Spiritual Truths

Photo by Palinchak (

The body doesn’t lie. When it speaks, it tells a truth – often an uncomfortable or difficult-to-decipher one, but an unvarnished reflection of something real. If eyes are windows to the soul, the stomach is a repository of unprotected, deeply embedded feelings. We can ignore or resist them (which all of us do sometimes), but by unpacking and acknowledging these visceral, gut-level pangs, we can achieve a clarity – in seeing & being – that will help us achieve a spiritual peace, with others & with ourselves.

Of course, all of that is much easier said (or written) than done. So when she began telling me how what I had said upset her as a black woman, I immediately felt my belly clinching. In fact, I found myself no longer listening & instead mentally preparing my rebuttal – an explanation for how she must have misunderstood. My feelings skipped right past regret and closed in on defensive anger for being wrongly accused and unfairly mis-judged. Thankfully, all of that happened in my head. I hadn’t said a word out loud. So I rubbed my palms against my jeans, breathed a little slower, and listened as she continued.

Several days later, a name appeared in my in-box. It was an email from a very smart parent who frequently challenges. Again, I felt a knot developing. The message was long & strong, but not wrong. I forwarded it to several colleagues, many of whom I suspected would disagree. The parent had posed hard, but important questions about reading, politics, perspectives and institutional objectives.

I had been thinking about both of these encounters when last week, I had two very different experiences that helped me connect them.

I’ll admit that I tend to avoid reading about the Holocaust. But when my brother texted me that the new Ken Burns documentary was coming out, I knew I needed to watch it. For those who aren’t familiar, it’s a three-part, six-hour examination that doesn’t focus on the atrocities in Europe so much as on the related, moral failures that took place in the United States at the same time. It’s excruciating, upsetting and critical to understanding American society. Then, as I was in the midst of streaming the documentary on my laptop, my Outlook sent a notification – “message from Anna Kate.” Distracted, I paused the video & checked my email.

“Hi Mr. Dow, Shana Tova! I can’t believe I’m doing this, but I’m writing one of those alumni emails you always talk about in Zionism class . . .” Anna Kate went on to describe how when she had arrived at Emery, she had very little sense of Jewish identity, but how the school changed her. More specifically, she talked about our Israel trip, and how profoundly that experience impacted her. Now, active in Hillel on her college campus, Anna Kate was writing because she was shocked by a blistering anti-Israel assault she had just encountered. Thankfully, she wrote, our class had prepared her for the one-sided, largely baseless arguments she faced.

So how are all these things connected – and how are any of them related to the upcoming holiday of Yom Kippur?!  I think the answer lies in the value of discomfort – and in the balance between the Jewish concepts of universal & particular.

With regard to the latter, we require all Emery students to learn about Israel because connection to the Jewish State is a priority for us, regardless of one’s political or religious orientation. And though Israel is admittedly imperfect (like all countries), the disparate treatment she receives on college campuses is indefensible. It’s therefore imperative that our graduates be prepared accordingly. Kol Yisrael aravim ze la ze. “All the People of Israel are responsible for one another.” Similarly, we are right to call out antisemitism in all of its forms, no matter who the purveyor — which is why the Burns documentary is so important. And (not but) the Jewish lens through which we view the world must also see the plight of others – and be open to confronting our own role in it. This is the universal part of our moral imperative.

Back to the body. The Day of Atonement is famously hard – we deprive ourselves of food & drink for 24 hours precisely in order to achieve a heightened degree of honest self-reflection. We acknowledge shortcomings & admit mistakes, individually and collectively. By the time the sun has set during Neila, the closing service, we are famished; and yet, that physical aching can help create a spiritual and ethical nourishment — if we heed & allow it.

About the Author
Stuart is Founding Head of The Emery/Weiner School in Houston -- one of the fastest growing and largest per capita schools of its kind in the country. Before entering education, Stuart practiced law at Susman Godfrey, a boutique litigation firm. Stuart graduated with honors from Yale College, where he won the Cogswell Award for Outstanding Leadership; he earned his J.D. from The University of Texas School of Law, where he garnered several speaking awards, and in 2014, Stuart received his MBA from the McCombs School of Business at UT Austin. He's the proud father of three wonderful children (and a great dog), and loves salty & spicy foods.
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