The Jew­ish Body

Melvin Kon­ner
  • Review
By – November 14, 2011
Jews, who con­ceived of a God with­out a body, have nev­er­the­less been extra­or­di­nar­i­ly inter­est­ed in their own bod­ies. Draw­ing on lit­er­a­ture, cul­ture, and biol­o­gy, Melvin Kon­ner, a med­ical doc­tor and pro­fes­sor of anthro­pol­o­gy at Emory Uni­ver­si­ty, exam­ines the Jew­ish body as seen by Jews them­selves and by oth­ers over the course of some thir­ty cen­turies.

Adam and Eve dis­cov­ered their bod­ies in Eden, and from that moment their Hebrew descen­dents have been con­cerned with them: Jew­ish men are marked at birth, and obser­vant Jew­ish women are strict­ly gov­erned by the rhythm of their bod­ies. At times in their his­to­ry Jews have been lured by the bod­ies of the oth­er”; cen­turies before nose jobs and tum­my tucks, Jew­ish men were de-cir­cum­cised to emu­late the per­fect Greek body. And over the cen­turies the oth­ers,” in return, con­jured up notions of a Jew­ish phys­iog­no­my, expressed most shame­less­ly and hor­rif­i­cal­ly by the Third Reich, which likened Jews to rats and ver­min, pub­lic health threats to be erad­i­cat­ed. 

Although the Tanakh abounds in vision­ary and tri­umphant heroes — Sam­son, Deb­o­rah, David — Jews emerged from the Tem­ple peri­od a defeat­ed peo­ple. Weak and pas­sive in the eyes of the peo­ples among whom they lived, Jews became weak in their own eyes. Not until the 19th cen­tu­ry did Zion­ists like Emma Lazarus and Max Nor­dau, cham­pi­ons of the active, mus­cu­lar Jew, urge their peo­ple to regain their phys­i­cal strength in order to regain their des­tiny. Move­ments from stren­u­ous agri­cul­tur­al efforts to mil­i­tary train­ing in the two world wars con­tributed to the emer­gence of the healthy, vig­or­ous State of Israel. 

Konner’s exam­i­na­tion of the Jew­ish body ranges from the impli­ca­tions of Jew­ish genes to visions of mas­ter mys­tics crawl­ing in the dense curls of God’s black beard — a brief metaphor­i­cal cor­po­re­al­i­ty — and spans the ages from ancient Israel to Israel reborn. This range allows us fresh views of Jew­ish iden­ti­ty and self-iden­ti­ty from a com­mit­ted and thought­ful author. Chronol­o­gy, illus­tra­tions, notes, sug­ges­tions for fur­ther reading.
Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

Discussion Questions