Robert Jütte’s The Jewish Body: A History is an encyclopedic account of perceptions of, and laws about, the Jewish body. Jütte, Director Emeritus of the Institute for the History of Medicine of the Robert Bosch Foundation, offers a detailed and rich exploration of the topic. In-depth discussions of how Jews have been thought of by non-Jews sit alongside descriptions of Jewish laws pertaining the body — from the urban myth that tattooed Jews are not to be buried in Jewish ceremonies to the question, first raised by the ancient interpreter Philo, as to why Jewish women are not circumcised.
Jütte notes how the traditional Jewish belief that the human body contains 248 bones corresponds to the number of positive commandments (out of the overall 613). This number also aligns with Islamic tradition (the seminal Muslim thinker Avicenna also counted 248); and Hippocrates and Galen similarly tabulated a total “over 200.” Stereotypes of supposed Jewish attributes (hooked noses, long beards for the men) are reviewed, with the author noting that the sign for “Jew” in German sign language originally imitated the shape of a crooked nose, although that is thankfully no longer considered politically correct. As he astutely notes, it is not coincidental that an antisemitic culture that thought Jews even smelled differently that other humans ended up killing millions in gas chambers designed to look like disinfectant rooms.
On a more positive note,The Jewish Body covers models of Jewish physical and athletic prowess, from American and European Jewish boxers to Zionist pioneers. The book contains occasional factual errors (for example, the author writes that Jewish law requires Orthodox Jews to wear socks in bed). The largely gendered practices of kippah-wearing and ritual immersion receive useful brief historical summaries, and there is even mention of the 2004 scandal in which it was revealed that hair used for Orthodox women’s wigs came from India, where it might have been connected to idol worship.
The Jewish Body covers topics ranging from health spas to Holocaust tattoos, portrayals of aging in Ecclesiastes to modern Queen Esther beauty pageants, Tay-Sachs disease to Talmudic tales of blind sages. Readers researching the history of any topic relating to the Jewish body (besides the history of the mind-body dichotomy, which the other admits merits its own full-length work) would benefit from Jütte’s helpful survey. Unabashed and extensive, it uncovers a fascinating, multifaceted historical view of how Jews have treated, shaped, clothed and even buried bodies; and of how others, in turn, have perceived — for better and for worse — these unique traditions and practices.
Dr. Stu Halpern is Senior Advisor to the Provost of Yeshiva University. He has edited or coedited 17 books, including Torah and Western Thought: Intellectual Portraits of Orthodoxy and Modernity and Books of the People: Revisiting Classic Works of Jewish Thought, and has lectured in synagogues, Hillels and adult Jewish educational settings across the U.S.