The Jew­ish Body: A History

Robert Jütte, Eliz­a­beth Bre­deck (Trans­la­tor)

  • Review
By – June 7, 2021

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.

Discussion Questions