Philosopher Sarah Kofman was sheltered by several families during World War II in order to avoid deportation. At first she was sent to northern France, but she was promptly sent back to Paris: she refused to eat pork because it was not Kosher, and when she tried, she vomited. Her host family felt that her aversion to pork would give her, and them, away.

She spent the remainder of the war along with her mother hiding at the apartment of a Parisian woman. Despite her gesture, the woman was determined to break Kofman from her faith:

Knowingly or not, Mémé had brought off a tour de force: right under my mother’s nose, she’d managed to detach me from her. And also from Judaism. She had saved us, but was not without anti-Semitic prejudices. She taught me that I had a Jewish nose and made be feel the little bump that was the sign of it.

She never stopped repeating that I’d been badly brought up: I obeyed ridiculous religious prohibitions but had not moral principles. She undertook to reform me from head to toe and to complete my education.

After the Liberation of Paris, Kofman found that she lost the physical discipline to follow Jewish laws. And she was happy not to.

The body has been a central marker for Jews in public life. Dress, bodily discipline, diet, and sexuality were signs of difference; they were also signs of progress towards assimilation. The Jewish body was always at the center of ‘emancipation’. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries are replete with examples of Jews attending to corporeality: Freud, Adler, Hirschfeld, Nordau.

Obviously there is a history of the Jewish body. But as much as it is an appropriate historical subject, many scholars won’t accept it as a subject for Jewish Studies. The current issue of Jewish Quarterly Review (on Project Muse, subscription required) hosts a number of essays on (what one scholars calls) the corporeal turn. Those who object do not deny that Judaism has much to say about the body; rather attention to the body has disturbed the structure of Jewish Studies.

The corporeal turn forces recognition of extra-Judaic influences in the construction of identity. The Jewish individual is not only constructed with reference to Jewish texts, but is shaped through numerous cultural and social influences.

The notion of a Jewish subject that is social, anthropological, or even racial has been repeatedly rejected, diluted, and often feared. Jewish Studies, therefore, conceives itself largely as an intellectual project. Those who critique the corporeal turn say that Talmudic texts themselves provide sufficient material by which to discuss the issue of the body without looking to the outside.


The study of the Jewish body does not require, as most of its practitioners believe that it requires, an uncritical acceptance of cultural materialism. … the study of matter is an activity of mind, and in the Jewish case what it finds again and again—the true subject, I think, of Jewish cultural materialism —- is the inscription of Jewish mind upon Jewish matter. The laws of menstruation, for instance, are not some kind of “privileging” of the body over the mind that await rediscovery by scholars newly sensitized to considerations of gender; they are, and they always have been, plainly for all to see, the interpretation of the Jewish body by the Jewish mind: the application to corporeal life of certain ideas which are not themselves corporeal in origin, but which nonetheless presume to order and to explain corporeal life, to confer meaning upon it. But the meaning that they confer upon it is metacorporeal, metaphysical; and thus the Jewish scholar, if he or she is to comprehend this phenomenon correctly, is immediately thrown back from the body to the book, to the supremacy of the incorporeal. Such a development does not amount to a denial of the body. But the body is not its own interpreter.

The “construction” of the body is not a bodily activity. The Jewish traditions about sexual intercourse and sexual hygiene are intellectual traditions, not physical traditions. They seek to legislate and to legitimate practices with concepts. This is the complication, the tension, the paradox, the play of freedom that the materialist utterly fails to grasp. And the failure to acknowledge the interpenetration of idea and act in Judaism is a failure of historical method.

Should the body be admitted to Jewish Studies? I don’t think that introducing extra-Judaic would endager “the People of the Book”. If scholars wish to limit themselves to theology and its practice, they may, knowing that they are shutting themselves from the experiences of daily life. Others are involved in studying the Jewish body as it is constructed by numerous disciplines.

Distancing itself from the body, Jewish Studies will dissociate itself from a means of studying the complexity and plurality of Jewish cultures. Early Zionists were themselves motivated by the critique of degeneration and developed programs to prepare Jews, mind and body, to return to Palestine. Over the last decades claims of crypto-Judaism and “lost tribes” have been re-evaluated theologically and scientifically on the basis dietary and sexual practices. DNA evidence has been used to test claims made by Falasha and Lemba communities in Africa as well as to prove the genetic relationship between contemporary Jews and the ancient Holy Land. Without the body scholars would undermine their ability to see how texts manifest themselves in daily practice, and how they interacted with the various host cultures where Jews have lived. Indeed, they obscure the signs of Jewishness itself.

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