Published in January 2009:
”…a tour de force…”
“…fresh views of Jewish identity…from a committed and thoughtful author.”
“…weaves a narrative that is not just a Jewish story, but one of humanity’s many stories…”
“Konner…is an able and companion-able guide…By the end, it’s hard not to register what a mensch [he] is, and then just how strange and remarkable his times, and our own, have been.”
“…a terrific book, filled with deep insight and great originality. [I] can’t recommend it highly enough.”
“…an excellent book that makes for a very interesting read . . . a perfect book club selection as it is sure to engender a lively discussion!”
“In this comprehensive look into Jewish physicality, Konner discusses the most sensitive topics with curiosity, impartiality, and an impressive breadth of knowledge.”
“…in Konner’s able hands the Jewish body comes to life, representing the individual and collective, the literal and metaphorical, the corporeal and spiritual, and the historical and contemporary. . . enjoyable and informative.”
Honorable Mention for the American Library Association’s 2010 Sophie Brody Award, “to encourage, recognize, and commend outstanding achievement in Jewish literature.”
View the video trailer, listen to the podcast, or buy the book.
From the introduction to Melvin Konner’s The Jewish Body, Nextbook/Shocken, 2009:
“Since ancient times, Jews have had very clear ideas about their own bodies, and these ideas–and the practices that went along with them–changed dramatically over the three millennia since the Jews became an identifiable people. Some had to do with regulating sex, some involved internalizing contemptuous images drawn by others, some were deliberate reactions against those images, and some involved what might be called a centuries-long compare-and-contrast exercise between the Jewish body and the body (if any) of the Jewish God.
“Jews are known as the people of the book, but they have also been called the people of the body, and some of their most revered books through the ages have dealt extensively with the body—how and how not to change it, care for it, reproduce it, satisfy its insistent demands, bless and thank God for its myriad functions, and dispose of it after all those functions cease. The Hebrew Bible is full of messages about the body and twenty centuries of rabbinical interpretations of them have parsed them to the nth degree. The Jewish body during those centuries went from strong and warlike to weak and submissive and back to strong and warlike again, with momentous consequences for Jewish destiny.
“As for God’s body, Jewish destiny was shaped by their insistence that God didn’t have, yet their refusal to give him one was inextricably tied up with their views about their bodies. The medieval mystic books of the Kabbalah tried to give God a body after all and scholars have argued over its meaning ever since. Jacob, who is Israel, wrestled with an angel and won, although he limped away, so the people of the book are also called God-wrestlers. In the last century or so, some Jewish writers have shown less interest in wrestling with God than with the world and with themselves, and their ideas about the Jewish body, some ironic and funny, some tragic and grotesque, have shaped the consciousness of countless readers, Jewish and non-.
It is my goal in this book not only to trace the Jewish body through its radical, almost magical transformations, but to try to understand how Jewish bodies and Jewish thoughts about them have shaped the Jewish mind and the Jewish contribution to civilization. Finally, very tentatively and carefully, we will consider how centuries of relative bodily isolation, inspired for better or worse by ideas about the body, may have shaped the Jewish genes.
“But if there is a thread that organizes all these things, it is this: The world made the Jews weak, so weak for so long that even they became convinced that the only strength they would ever have would be mental. That sort of strength they had in ample measure, and they used it to refine their approaches to God and human, male and female, sex and love, tragedy and comedy into the most exquisite array of comforting distractions. They came, however, to mistrust the physical, so much so that their bodies seemed both polluting and comical to themselves and others. The comedy and the comfort of sexuality provided relief, and we will see how. So did the Torah, for those who embraced it.
“But two great events of the twentieth century—one the worst thing that ever happened to the Jews, and the other the best—turned the tables on Jewish weakness forever. Strength prevailed, because the very best powers of the Jewish mind became allied to a new physical strength, rising out of the ashes and blood of six million murders. This synergy produced the state and the army of Israel. It has won, and will continue to win, great victories against great odds.
“The Jews tried mind alone for eighteen hundred years; that led to defenselessness, contempt, isolation, pogroms, and finally mass murder on a scale unknown to human history. The traditional balms of God, law, ritual, learning, love, sex, family, narrative, and comedy passed through the gates of Auschwitz and were found wanting. God did not answer the prayers of the victims, the Torah did not explain their plight, their sense of humor slammed into a burning wall. Enforced starvation and pestilence abolished sexuality, and married women were shot for the crime of pregnancy. One and a half million children were murdered; the love of their mothers and fathers did not save them. Survival on this planet depends not on mind alone, but on mind and body, argument and physical force, learning and fighting, genius and, yes, violence judiciously construed. The world has been, is, and will be a very dangerous place for Jews. They tried weakness—oh, how they tried; indeed they were better versed in it than anyone else on earth. Strength is better.”