Judaism and the body

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Judaism and the body The association of the ‘Jews’ with the healthy and the ill body is a long-standing one in the West. Within traditional (Orthodox) Judaism as a religious practice there are complex rituals concerning the body, ranging from infant male circumcision to the ritual washing of the corpse (Halacha). These rituals are commented on in the Talmud, the commentaries and explanations of Biblical rituals. Such traditional views have their mystical parallel in the Zohar's image of the body of God and the role of the body in ritual dance and movement in Jewish mystic groups, such as the Chasids. In the Western image of the Jew, on the one hand, we have the image of the medieval Jewish physician who was claimed to have a special knowledge of the most efficacious medicine (obtained from Greek sources, read in Arabic). On the other hand, there are medieval and early modern images of the Jews as the source of all epidemics from the Black Plague to syphilis. The Jews were even accused of spreading illnesses by which they themselves remained untouched. Both of these fantasies about Jews and illness had real results in the real world. On the one hand Jewish doctors were particularly sought by non-Jewish patients; on the other, entire communities of Jews were murdered. The association of Jews with illness and the healing art remains powerful even today. The dehumanizing image of the ‘dirty Jew’ — carrier of illness, ugly, destructive — is also countered by the philo-Semitic (and equally fantastic) image of the ‘beautiful Jew’, ‘der shejne Yid’ (a proverb in Yiddish) — intelligent, strong, and moral.

The image of the ‘Jewish body’ does not merely rest on the fantasy of Jewish difference as represented in the non-Jewish world. ‘Real’ Jewish physicians, from Maimonides in the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry, to the German physician Tobias Cohen, whose 1707 book on medicine began the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment, in Germany, to the Viennese neurologist Sigmund Freud, and beyond, had to deal with the particular association of ‘Jews’ with illness and the healing arts. The Jewish healer is assumed to have a special relationship to his/her patient. The appeal of Sigmund Freud and the rise of the talking cure, in contrast to the cold and harsh manner commonly used to treat psychiatric patients of his day, is rooted in the simple fact that Freud and the psychoanalysts actually listened to their patients. Thus the perceived ‘Jewishness’ of psychoanalysis was both a pejorative label (as in C. G. Jung's words) and also an acknowledgment of the belief that Jewish doctors were more empathic.

The images of the healthy and the ill Jewish body shaped, and were shaped by, the existence of ‘real’ Jewish doctors and ‘real’ Jewish patients. These real Jewish doctors and their patients, such as the ‘Jewish Patient’, Franz Kafka (the title of Sander Gilman's book on Kafka) were also impacted by fantasies about the Jewish body.

The association of the Jews with moral cleanliness led to the creation of the first programs for social work in Germany to rescue young Eastern European Jewish women from the brothels; at the same time the association of the Jewish with sexually transmitted disease became a hallmark of anti-Semitic rhetoric. The Third Reich's pseudo-documentary The Eternal Jew (1941) portrayed Jews as being like rats spreading disease across Europe. Zionist ideology from the same period stressed the need to transform weak (and ugly) Jewish bodies into the strong (and beautiful) bodies of the Kibbutzniks. The ideology of sick and healthy bodies can be seen to have a specific focus in the representation of the ‘Jew’.

Central to this discussion is the antithesis perceived between the ‘social’ and the ‘biological’ body of the Jew. Religious ritual becomes translated into racial biology: Jews, who ritually circumcize their male children, are claimed in the medical literature, beginning in the eighteenth century, to have a higher rate of male children who are actually born circumcized! Biological differences, such as the real or perceived higher (or lower) rates of illness such as hysteria or cancer, are read as having either racial, biological, or social causes. Jewish scientists, such as the founder of the Sociology of the Jews, Artur Ruppin, or the Zionist–physician Max Nordau, seek a biological understanding of the ill and corrupt Jewish body and find it in the experience of the Jew ‘who has lived 2000 years in the ghetto’. Socio-biological change, the creation of a ‘new muscle Jew’, will enable the Jews to become new people in a new land. In the ‘old land’, Jewish institutions ranging from hospitals to sanatoria to gymnastic societies had as their goal the amelioration of human suffering and the reconstitution of the healthy body, but in complex and different ways.

The gendering of the Jewish body into female and male is a complicated element in the construction of the image of the healthy and the ill Jewish body. The gendering of the Jewish body and the meaning of sexuality are of course linked. The idea of Jewish males and females as different from non-Jews begins with the medieval Christian discussion that male Jews menstruate! — and therefore that they need the blood of Christian children to cure their female woes. This initial image of the diseased Jewish male body raised the meaning of the Jewish male as a potential ‘third sex’. The reinterpretation of circumcision as castration in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries feminizes (or at least de-masculinizes) the male Jew. Thus there is a discussion of the number of Jewish homosexuals in the medical literature of the nineteenth century. Here images of ritual murder and circumcision can be linked. The works of Magnus Hirschfeld (who was Jewish and gay), at the turn of the century, link Jews and gays in interchangeable categories. The universal modern definition of the human body (defined as the masculine body) as strong and healthy, places the female body as its antithesis, weak and ill (because her reproductive functions are seen as illness). It is little wonder that the juxtaposition of Aryan (masculine) and Jewish (feminine) is a standard trope of the visual arts of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

From the writings of the early Church to the anti-Semitic writings of the Aryan Nation, the Jewish body has been labeled as ill and deformed because it is truly the body of the Devil incarnate. The image of the Devil's goat-foot becomes the flat foot of the prototypical Jewish draft dodger in the anti-Semitic art of the twentieth century. But even more so, ‘Satan's Synagogue’ becomes an image of the Jew and his ritual practices. It is not merely that the Jew, like the Devil, is deformed; the stereotypical Jew will deform the rest of humanity out of inherent hatred and malice.

Historically the juxtaposition of the tortured and treated Jewish body provides a set of contradictory images from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century. The concentration and death camps of the Third Reich saw the Jewish body as the object of torture because of the differ-ences attributed to the ‘essence’. Children at Hohenlychen were experimentally infected with tuberculosis and later murdered so that the experiment would not be discovered by the approaching Allied forces. With such acts, the mythological discussion in the nineteenth century of Jewish immunity to tuberculosis has its horrible end. But the counter to this image can be found in the work of Ludwick Fleck, the famed physician and philosopher of science, who worked as a physician on a typhus vaccine in the death camps, and refused to give it to the Nazis.

The realities and the fantasies of the ‘Jewish body’ as a different body are linked in modern understanding of the Jew as a different being.

Sander L. Gilman


Biale, D. (1992). Eros and the Jews: from biblical Israel to contemporary America. BasicBooks, New York.
Boyarin, D. (1997). Unheroic conduct: the rise of heterosexuality and the invention of the Jewish man. University of California Press, Berkeley.
Eilberg-Schwartz, H. (1990). The Savage in Judaism: an anthropology of Israelite religion and ancient Judaism. Indiana University Press, Bloomington.
Gilman, S. L. (1991). The Jew's body. Routledge, New York.

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