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The Jewish Body

In The Jewish Body, Jütte has written an encyclopedic survey of the Jewish body as it has existed and as it has been imagined from biblical times to the present, covering everything from traditional body stereotypes—such as the so-called Jewish nose—to matters of gender, sickness, and health to the end of physicality and death.

The Jewish Body
A History

Robert Jütte. Translated by Elizabeth Bredeck

Dec 2020 | 416 pages | Cloth $49.95
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Table of Contents

Translator's Note

Chapter 1. The Biological Body
Chapter 2. The (Un)covered and Altered Body
Chapter 3. The Sex of the Body
Chapter 4. The Intact Body
Chapter 5. The Ailing Body
Chapter 6. The Body in Need
Chapter 7. The Mortal Body


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


A ssejfer on a hakdome is wi a guf on a neschome.
(A book without an introduction is like a body without a soul.)
—Yiddish proverb

What Separates a Non-Jew from a Jew?

A goy bolts out of bed in the morning, slips on his pants, splashes himself with water, falls to his knees, and stammers his prayers. Then he gets back up, takes a seat and swigs a glass of schnapps, scarfs down a piece of bread, and heads out to the street to do business. Afterward he goes back to his hovel, sits down with his brats and his old lady, eats and drinks like a pig so he can race back out again and cheat the world. In the evening he goes to church, crosses himself like a donkey, comes back to his hovel, stuffs himself again, and crashes.

But a Jew! In the morning he arises from his bed, puts on his garments, washes himself thoroughly, and stands to say his morning prayer. Then he partakes of a small drink of something and a piece of bread and makes his way outside to do business and trading. . . . Later he makes his way back home, sits down at the table with his spouse and little ones, may they enjoy good health, gives the blessing, eats, says grace after meals, and returns to the street to continue doing business. Before nightfall he attends the evening service in the synagogue, returns home, takes his supper, says his bedtime prayers, and lays himself down to sleep.

The goy fritters away his few years like this, croaks, and is tossed into a pit. The Jew, however, lives quietly for as much time as he is granted, then dies and is buried, laid to rest in a Jewish grave.

The reader of these lines, taken from one of the best-known collections of Yiddish anecdotes, proverbs, and humorous tales, Rosinkess mit Mandlen (Raisins and Almonds), is surprised at first to read the same story twice. Only the word choice and exaggeration make the life of the one person—namely, the Jew—seem more worthwhile than that of the other. As Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) observed in his book on jokes, Jews often try to turn what is actually an oppressive experience into an ironic situation. Hence the black humor Jewish jokes are known for.

The dual perspective is surprising for a different reason as well. The Jewish conception of history long included the belief that a Jew who lived and lives in the galut, or Diaspora, was doomed to a life of trials and tribulations. Yet here we see a completely different, self-confident image. In the anecdote, the moral superiority of the Jew's life is what elevates it above the life of his counterpart, the non-Jew living in mainstream society. The same motif occurs in a Yiddish children's rhyme taught to ultra-Orthodox children in Jerusalem already in kindergarten: "Oj, wie scheyn zu sajn a jid, oj, wie schwär zu sajn a goj!" (Oh, how great to be a Jew, but oh, how hard to be a goy!). I first heard it in the mid-1980s while living and teaching in Haifa; watching a program on Israeli television, I rubbed my eyes in astonishment and wondered what these budding ultra-Orthodox people would ever experience the world of the goyim in their later lives that were to be devoted to the study of Jewish religious texts. For you can be truly proud of something only if you also know its opposite.

In the opening comparison of a goy and a Jew, the alleged difference between them, underscored by the use of derogatory terms, is most clearly visible in their bodily practices. These include morning routines, hygiene, food intake, physical movement, and sleep, but also the end of corporeality, death. In all of these areas the Jew supposedly surpasses the non-Jew, whose life seems bleak and hardly enviable. The vivid, downright motion-based rhetorical style of the original Yiddish reinforces this impression. But if we "neutralize" both texts by removing the religious shading, we discover that the daily life of the Jew is hardly any different from that of the non-Jew, including their bodily practices.

The insight we gain by reading the Yiddish text against the grain has been given perhaps its most poignant expression and clever staging by none other than Shakespeare. In the famous scene from The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare—who could not have known any Jews personally—has Shylock forlornly exclaim: "Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian?" (3.1). As we know, however, this emphasis on Christians' and Jews' equality under the laws of nature, which also apply to the human body and mind, falls on deaf ears and in the course of the play is contradicted outright.

In fact, at the time (at least in Venice) Jews were physically almost indistinguishable from Christians, as the English traveler Thomas Coryat (ca. 1577-1617) attests. On a 1608 visit to the ghetto in Venice, he is astonished to find that here the English expression "to look like a Jew" has no relation to reality: "I observed some fewe of those Jewes especially some of the Levantines to bee such goodly and proper men, that then I said to my selfe our English proverb: To looke like a Jewe (whereby is meant sometimes a weather beaten warp-faced fellow, sometimes a phrenticke and lunaticke person, sometimes one discontented) is not true. For indeed I noted some of them to be most elegant and sweet featured persons, which gave me occasion the more to lament their religion."

What prompts Coryat to question stereotypes and popular images was for many of his contemporaries more a cause for concern. How could you recognize a Jew at all if not by his physical appearance? This worry goes back to late medieval efforts to identify Jews with the help of clothing regulations (garish colors, colors with negative connotations, and accessories such as the yellow ring sewn to their clothing). It was believed that these made it possible to instantly recognize a Jew, who often did not have the "typical" physical features of a hooked nose or beard. And even after conversion, in Christian circles well into the early modern period there was lingering doubt whether baptism had actually made a new Christian out of a Jew if there was no clear physical "proof." Legends circulated that baptized Jews ostensibly no longer stank, something alleged of their former brethren. And if such wondrous bodily transformations were lacking, then converts had to at least adapt their bodily practices to their new environment. Especially in the Inquisition trials of forcibly baptized Spanish Jews (marranos), suspicious bodily practices could raise doubts about the credibility of the conversion. One test, for example, involved the "proper" treatment of a corpse.

What to us may at first seem like an anachronism actually still plays a role in modern society. A sizable number of converts try to underscore the shift in their beliefs or religion by altering practices related to the body. Studies have been done in the sociology of religion, for instance, on American Jews who, after leaving their ultra-Orthodox parents' homes, felt the need to emphasize this step with new body techniques (for instance, morning routines, eating patterns throughout the day, style of dress). In these cases it was apparently insignificant whether the person had merely shifted to a less Orthodox denomination or had become an atheist. Other religious communities show similar shifts in behavior following conversion. As yet, however, no historical studies have been done that explore this religious-sociological phenomenon in earlier times.

But why should a historian bother with the body at all, and especially the Jewish one? Does it even have a history?

The need to view the body not just biologically but also as something with a historical dimension has been convincingly argued in recent decades by researchers in body history. Fundamental questions of methodology have been debated, and there is no longer any doubt that the body is a social construct. Body culture studies and, more specifically, body history seek to ask "questions about received notions about the body and bodily practices in an effort to find answers about social construction." This "corporal turn" in historiography has also begun to inform Jewish history. Discussion since the 1990s has focused on how the Jewish body was "constructed" in the course of history, by Jews and non-Jews alike. It has addressed not only images of self and other, but also specific bodily practices that are ascribed to the Jews or play an important role in creating the identity of a religious and cultural community. American Jewish journalist Leon Wieseltier has objected that such research is banal since, after all, every Jew has a body, but his critique misses the point. Wieseltier's essentialism, which presupposes a timeless, ahistorical human physis, serves him merely as a way to promote a history of ideas that privileges (what is usually considered progressive) Jewish thinking. To take this approach is to ignore the fact that anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism, but also Jewish self-hatred, are directed first and foremost at the body, not the mind. This somewhat singular and one-sided position has therefore been rightly criticized by American scholars of Jewish studies, who note, for instance, that the body of Jewish religious laws known as Halakhah itself contains many different and detailed regulations concerning "techniques of the body."

Let us recall how the French anthropologist Marcel Mauss (1872-1950), who introduced this expression and incidentally came from a Jewish family, defined the term: "the ways in which from society to society men know how to use their bodies." So, what are the body techniques that Jews have acquired from childhood on from parents and authority figures, and what is Jewish about them? How have these changed in the course of a history of more than two thousand years (most of it spent in exile)? How have these practices affected the non-Jewish outside world? How have they influenced the image of the Jewish body? In this context, the question also arises of how secularization has influenced the body.

Deliberately bracketed here is the relation between body and soul in Judaism. A whole, separate book could be written about the Jewish neschome (Yiddish for "soul")—both in the literal and figurative sense. This has to do not least with the broad spectrum of Jewish spirituality, which not only includes multiple terms for the soul, but also contains, in particular, mystical elements. Think of the Kabbalah, for instance, whose central theme is the divine-human union in which the soul plays an intermediary role. Liturgical, philosophical/theological, and even medical aspects would also need to be considered. That would have been far beyond the scope of this book. I have therefore chosen to keep the strict division between body and mind that became part of natural philosophy with René Descartes (1596-1650) and which has been used ever since by many, if not all, Jewish philosophers and physicians.

The primary aim of this book is to answer a variety of questions that are almost exclusively about the body. To do so, I refer to a broad range of Jewish and non-Jewish sources. Its central focus is always the human physis in all of its facets, even if the division between body and mind—as noted above—is more of an artificial one used here for practical reasons.

A closer look at traditional body stereotypes serves as an ideal starting point, not only because these are so familiar but also because they remain powerful even today. They range from the so-called "Jewish nose" to the particular smell that Jews are said to have.

The fact that the external appearance can be changed, be it through clothing or particular body techniques (sports, tattoos)—of this there is particularly eloquent testimony in Jewish history. In this connection, the Zionist alternative model of the "muscular Jew" in particular deserves special mention.

The history of gender has also discovered the Jewish body. It addresses topics including the notion popularized in ancient Christendom, especially by the apostle Paul, that Judaism has an ostensibly carnal or bodily orientation and, correspondingly, different sexual practices (for example, in issues concerning procreation and celibacy).

The categories "sickness" and "health" are central to any history of the body. For the Jewish people these terms were and are of key importance, not only in the sense of biological terms for phenomena and processes. They also have a metaphorical meaning—think only of the anti-Semitic concept of Judaism as "illness." But the opposite belief—that due to their religion Jews are particularly concerned about maintaining the health of their bodies—also did and does exist. How Judaism has dealt with these two anthropological constants (sickness and health), which on closer look emerge as largely social constructs, is one of the least-examined areas in Jewish history.

And finally—how could it be otherwise, given this topic?—the end of physicality: death and the transience of human life coupled with the hope of resurrection, which has a different character in Judaism than in Christianity or other faiths. Here, as in other contexts, we can trace connections to ethical issues in contemporary medicine (for instance, brain death, autopsy). The following chapters will approach these issues from an interreligious perspective and explore their historical foundations.

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