The Jewish Body

Schocken Books/Nextbook Press  2009

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.

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