Judaism and the Human Body

The commandment to remove a corpse from the stake on which it is impaled teaches us the importance of respecting the holiness of the body.

Commentary on Parashat Ki Teitzei, Deuteronomy 21:10 - 25:19

The definition of what is “religious” shifts throughout the ages. In antiquity, being religious meant offering sacrifices (of children, women, prisoners taken in war) and making regular gifts to the gods. In biblical Israel, it meant being aware of God’s presence, by bringing animal sacrifices to the Temple in Jerusalem at the designated times.

By the Second Temple period, a new emphasis, one of ritual purity, ethical rigor, and obedience to a growing oral tradition became the defining feature of pharisaic religiosity, which the Rabbis of the Talmud extended into an emphasis on the performance of mitzvot (commandments) and study as religious acts.

In the medieval period, study and ritual purity remained important, but they were refocused through the lenses of Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism. Finally, in the early modern age, social justice (for some) and celebration through song and dance (for others) often competed with the earlier identifying features of religiosity.

Jews today have inherited this range of different ways of being religious — from offerings to social justice, from prayer and study to dance, from purity to the performance of mitzvot.

There are many paths of piety rooted in thousands of years of Jewish tradition. On the other hand, America today seems to offer two primary modes of religion: either literalist obedience to a sacred book or in new age exultation of feeling.

In many cases, what American spirituality avoids is the bodily reality of human existence. Too much of American spirituality assumes that “spirit,” a concept originating in Greek thought and Pauline Christianity, is the opposite of “body.” Spirit — we are told — is good, pure and eternal. Body is bad, corrupt and ephemeral.

Given that understanding of spirit, it is no wonder that the wide range of American spiritual movements tend to help free the person from the trap of their own bodies and drives. Cults from eastern religions and from the latest fad all unite in an effort to help us transcend our bodies. How surprising, then, to look back over the list of Jewish spiritual responses and see how solidly rooted in bodies they all are.

A Corporeal Religion

Judaism is a corporeal religion. We know that a spirituality that doesn’t redeem the body with it is merely an escape, and one doomed to failure in the end. That emphasis on the body emerges in today’s Torah portion in the unlikeliest place.

“If a man is guilty of a capital offense and is put to death, and you impale him on a stake [after his having already been executed], you must not let his corpse remain on the stake overnight, but you must bury him the same day. For an impaled body is an affront to God; you shall not defile the land that the Lord your God is giving you to possess.”

Why is an impaled body an offense against God? Wouldn’t the humiliated corpse serve a valuable preventative function, since all who saw it would resolve not to commit a similar offense? If so, it should be a good thing to leave the body hanging. Besides, the person isn’t the same as the body anyway! The body is relatively unimportant, like a used set of clothing that no longer fits. So who cares about how the body is treated!

Apparently, the Torah doesn’t accept that trivialization of the body. Rashi adds to the Torah that, “It is a slight to the King [God] because humanity is made in the likeness of God’s image and Israel are God’s children.” This may be likened to two twin brothers who resembled each other; one became a king while the other was seized as a criminal and hanged. Whoever saw him exclaimed, ‘The king is hanged.'” This shocking comment implies that our resemblance to God is more than just spiritual, that even our bodies reflect the Divine Image, and therefore deserve reverence and respect.

In Midrash Va-Yikra Rabbah, the great sage, Hillel, compares keeping our bodies clean to maintaining a statue of a king. He comments that, “Bathing the body is an obligation, since we are created in the image of the Ruler of the world.”

For that same reason, Jewish tradition prohibits cremation as undignified to the body of the deceased, and Talmudic tradition affirms a physical resurrection of the dead. One need not share every Talmudic belief about the afterlife to recognize great wisdom in preserving a sense of awe and gratitude for the human body.

In an age awash in self-destructive drugs, too busy to exercise or to eat carefully, respect for our bodies is dangerously low on our agenda. Teenagers and women smoke in growing numbers, and alcohol use, too, is on the rise. Biblical and Rabbinic tradition maintain that our bodies reflect God’s image and therefore command respectful maintenance. In addition, our bodies are not our property, but God’s. We use them, as the tenants and stewards of God’s possessions. But ultimately, our bodies must be returned, well-tended, to their original Owner.

Is there a connection between the trivialization of the body in American spirituality and the callous disregard for bodies in American life? Let’s get physical!

Provided by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, which ordains Conservative rabbis at the American Jewish University.


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