Melvin Konner, a Jewish physician and professor of anthropology, combines his knowledge of all three areas to write The Jewish Body, a contemplative and surprisingly entertaining look at the literal and literary bodies of Jewish culture. Beginning with the revolutionary concept of a disembodied god, Konner goes on to ponder the contradiction; throughout the Torah, we find reference after reference to G_d’s face, G_d’s loins, G_d’s voice, and so forth. Konner’s explanation is that “… in the end you might say that ‘G_d’s body’ … meant your body, as G_d wanted it to be.”
From that perspective we can understand, perhaps, why there is such great attention within Jewish culture paid to the physical form. Early on, Konner brings up circumcision: “Unquestionably it is the first and the most important defining and self-defining feature of the Jewish body.” People who know absolutely nothing else about Jews know this. Oddly, every other form of bodily mutilation is forbidden, which only reinforces the importance of the covenant. Again and again, Konner comes back to the profound impact this single feature has on self-perception and how it has shaped much of the culture.
Despite the unrelenting attention paid to the physical body, Jews have traditionally excelled in almost every area except athletics. Konner suggests that it was that one allowed mutilation – circumcision— that led to the centuries-long perception of Jews as sports-challenged. In the games of ancient Greece, young men participated in the buff. Athletic skill and physical perfection were gifts from the gods, and the victors in the arena were viewed as demigods.
“Needless to say, Jewish boys and men had a few problems… if they were circumcised they were mutilated; their bodies might be perfect in the Jewish sense but could never be so in the Greek sense, however athletically gifted they were, however hard they tried.”
Viewed by others as physically defective, Jews themselves soon bought into that idea. Throughout The Jewish Body, Konner traces the evolution of beliefs, customs, and near-obsession with the body, and the effect these have on self-perception as well as the perception of Jews by non-Jews. Having accepted the general view of Jews as anything but athletic, the people themselves concentrated on developing mental ability and became known largely as scholars rather than fighters. (This did not stop young Jewish men from becoming some of the most successful boxers in the early part of the 20th century, however. According to Konner, their prowess in the ring grew from a frantic desire to keep their faces unbruised, as that would have alerted their parents to their scandalous activities.)
When, in 1882, Emma Lazarus called for “the re-establishment of our physical strength, the reconstruction of our national organism…”, she essentially initiated a movement toward reversal of the centuries-old paradigm. With so much emphasis for so long on developing the mind, it is all the more interesting that Jews not only regained their muscles – albeit not until the late 19th century — but developed those muscles to such an extraordinary degree in such a short time, as witnessed by the fierce and highly-trained Israeli army.
Konner delivers an objective, anthropologically sound examination of the connection between religious belief and cultural adaptation on the psychology of a people. Konner’s enthusiasm shines through, making what could have been a dry and dismal exploration of a relatively obscure and lusterless topic a thought-provoking and enlightening read. Thoughtful, compelling, often witty, The Jewish Body goes beyond all its easily-defined topics without ever meandering too far from its core.