On the 50th anniversary of S.Y. Agnon’s acceptance speech
Melvin Konner, a renowned doctor and anthropologist, takes the measure of the “Jewish body,” considering sex, circumcision, menstruation, and even those most elusive and controversial of microscopic markers—Jewish genes. But this is not only a book that examines the human body through the prism of Jewish culture. Konner looks as well at the views of Jewish physiology held by non-Jews and how those views seeped into Jewish thought. He describes in detail the origins of the first nose job, and he writes about the Nazi ideology that categorized Jews as a public health menace on a par with rats or germs. A work of grand historical and philosophical sweep, The Jewish Body discusses the subtle relationship between the Jewish conception of the physical body and the Jewish conception of a bodiless God. It is a book about the relationship between a land—Israel—and the bodily sense not merely of individuals but also of a people. As Konner describes, a renewed focus on the value of physical strength helped generate the creation of a Jewish homeland and continued in the wake of it. With deep insight and great originality, Melvin Konner gives us nothing less than an anatomical history of the Jewish people.
Jews are so often called “the people of the book” that it is easy to overlook the deep, complicated relationship they have to the physical realm. In The Jewish Body, Melvin Konner, an anthropologist and physician, tackles this wide-ranging subject, taking on body modifications and sexual relations, Talmudic discourse and Nazi ideology, nineteenth-century tough guys and 1960s nose jobs. He explores the provocative implications of genome research and the ways in which bodily anxieties were built into the founding of the modern state of Israel. Using the body as a lens, Konner has written a fresh history of the Jewish people. The following questions are designed to help guide you through his material. Bodiless God “Then I will take My hand away and you will see My back; but My face must not be seen.” –Exodus 33:23 Why was the concept of a disembodied God such a radical notion? How did some Jews fight against it? Konner writes that Jews yearned for their god to have a body. Can you give biblical examples of this yearning? How did the kabbalists attempt to give God a body? “But if the Jewish god might not have a body, the Jewish people did,” Konner writes. “They were obsessed by it.” How does this obsession translate to the laws detailed in the Torah? Scholars through the centuries have described their relationship to the Torah in amorous terms. How does the kabbalists’ notion of Shekhinah fit in with this? Sex, Death, and Marriage “Let’s put the id back in Yid.” –Philip Roth According to Konner, one of the cornerstones of Jewish law is that “all men are lustful.” How is this notion of desire regulated? In what situations is sex mandated? What is the Jewish view of celibacy? “Menstrual blood is the mortar on which the house of gender difference and bias is built,” Konner writes. Why? In what sense is menstrual blood seen as polluting, and how does this perception play out in Jewish law? Can you give some examples, both biblical and modern, of the lure of non-Jewish women? How can we view this temptation in terms of the Jewish body? That is, what is the historical and cultural context in which this attraction has operated? Konner concludes that American Jews perhaps need a “new and different kind of revival,” that their bodies have become “desexualized and thus their owners are not reproducing in numbers consistent with a sound Jewish future.” Do you think dwindling birth rates can be chalked up, in part, to desexualization? Why or why not? What are our physical expectations, and how is this bound up with questions of the Jewish body? Why must bodies be returned to the earth as soon as possible after death? What does the mandate to keep a burial simple reveal about Jewish thinking regarding bodies? The Kaddish makes no mention of or even allusion to death. Why not? Greeks, Tough Guys, and Muscle Men “Let us once more become deep-chested, sturdy, sharp-eyed men.” –Max Nordau How did the Greeks’ theology contrast with the Hebrews’? What were their different views of the body? The Greeks called Jews atheists. Why? Konner contends that “the Apollonian worldview remains the ideal of ruling classes of Europe.” Can you give examples of this? The eighteenth-century English prizefighter “Mendoza the Jew” was known as the first “scientific boxer.” What did he do to earn this reputation? How do stereotypes of the Jewish mind and body dovetail with this description? Max Nordau called for a “Greek ideal” for Jews. What does that mean? What is the historical antecedent? How did Nordau’s philosophy translate into reality in Europe? How could his theories play into anti-Semites’ hands? Noses, Horns, and Other Bodily Transformations “She cut off her nose to spite her race.” –Dorothy Parker Why is circumcision considered a covenant? How does it relate to the concept of tikkun olam? Why wasn’t Adam worthy of circumcision? Why did God choose Abraham? Aside from Abraham, what are the other mentions of circumcision in the Bible? What does their context tell us about the meaning of the procedure? The Jewish nose was seen as more than simply a cosmetic deformity. In the minds of Christian Europeans, what did it suggest? Jacques Joseph, the Jewish surgeon who developed rhinoplasty, possessed markings on his face. What did these scars mean to nineteenth-century Germans, and how might such markings have made Joseph more sympathetic to the plight of his Jewish patients? From an anthropological perspective, Konner writes about the universal tendency to find childlike and symmetrical faces beautiful. What are the repercussions of this tendency in terms of the Jewish nose, and how has this played out historically and culturally? How did the stereotype of the horned Jew come about? Konner refers to the perception that Jews were subject to flat feet as “the most damaging stereotype.” Why would this be the case? Can you give historical examples that might have made such a perception exceedingly difficult for Jews? Genes, Impurity, and Danger “It doesn’t matter what the faith, the swinishness is in the race.” –Nazi jingle Konner contends that Jews who don’t look like Jews have always inspired the most hatred. Why would this be the case? The twentieth century saw Jews cast as contaminants, eager to infect and destroy the larger, “racially pure” population. Konner refers to this as the “twentieth century’s most destructive metaphor.” Why? What role did the medical profession play in Nazi ideology? How did Nazi propaganda promote the notion of Jews as a public-health menace? How did this ideology play out in popular culture? In the death camps? The Nazis attacked the collective body of Jews, but also, more importantly, waged war on individual bodies. How was this achieved? “Jewish peoplehood is a reality,” Konner writes. What does he mean by this, and how is this borne out by the Jewish body? What might be the negative repercussions of such a statement? The Nazis relied heavily on the notion of “Jewish blood.” What are some recent scientific discoveries that might support this notion? How might this be controversial? Might it be reassuring? What is the founder effect? How might rabbinical academies have functioned as natural selectors? Muscling onto the Land “It will not be well to let the race find out its strength. If the horses knew theirs, we should not ride anymore.” –Mark Twain How did a renewed focus on physicality help generate the creation of a Jewish homeland? Konner writes, “Modern Israel is a rallying point for every Jew who understands the past.” To what extent is this true? Can you make an argument that this might be an overstatement? Why might Israeli Jews be seen as “born-again Jews,” as Konner contends? What are the biblical antecedents to this perception? How did Jews’ reliance on God’s outstretched arm affect the fight for their physical homeland? In what sense did it hinder them? How might it have helped? Konner writes that biblical figures were proud of not only their faith but their bodies as well. Can you give examples of this physical prowess? How did the destruction of the Second Temple change the perception of Jewish physicality and affect the collective Jewish body? In what way can modern Israel, in Konner’s understanding, be seen as a rebuilt Temple? In what sense does the country represent the resurrected body of the Jewish people?
Read articles from our week-long series on the Jewish Body at Tablet Magazine.
“The Jewish Body. . .is a tour de force. . .a solid and readable compilation of the existing critical and scholarly literature on the Jewish body. . .[the] book is a valuable addition to the popular literature on the question “Who are the Jews?” and on why they look and act the way they do.” Continue reading
“Helps shed light on a complicated subject.” Continue reading
The Jewish Body” was the 2010 Honor Book for the Sophie Brody Medal, which recognizes outstanding achievement in literature that highlights the Jewish experience.The Sophie Brody Award for Excellence in Jewish Literature, Honor Book Honor Book Continue reading
MELVIN KONNER, Ph.D., M.D., is the author of nine books and is Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Anthropology at Emory University in Atlanta, where he teaches in the anthropology, human biology, and Jewish studies programs. He has written for the … Continue reading