The new modern image for the Jewish body has become not a Rebbe; it’s Gal Gadot! Is she just any Hollywood martial-art-badass-babe or could her physically fit stature be a model for the redemptive hopes of Israelis and other Jews. To put it bluntly: Is her strong Jewish body – not the sickly one of exile – the basis of the New Jew? Can we all become Gal Gadot? Can we leave the exile of our tragic Jewish history behind? Historically, Jews never thought of themselves as strong physical beings. What was more prominent was the intellect. The body, itself, was secondary to keeping Judaism alive. That all changed with the birth of Israel.
While the fitness craze has ignited people in many countries, and especially those inhabiting warmer climates, this trend towards physical fitness among Israeli Jews may have a deeper root; A story of the transformation of the oppressed Eastern European “Old Jew” and a desire for Israeli society to replace this with the physically fit embodied Israeli “New Jew.”
The draw of Israelis to physical culture & embodiment began with early Zionist thinkers who sought out to become the “muscle jew” and to flex the muscles of physical survival instead of spiritual faith. It is this turn to physicality as a tool for survival, that now has influenced the people of Israel today with their focus on athletic prowess, holistic physical living which includes yoga, contemporary dance, or even the everyday widespread activity of Israeli outdoor hiking.
“Muscular Judaism,” a term coined by Max Nordau, in his speech at the Second Zionist Congress, held in 1898, spoke about the need to design the “New Jew” and reject the “Old Jew”. The “New Jew” would not make the same mistakes of the Jews of the past and grow in weak, unhealthy, therefore defenseless bodies, becoming subject to continuous oppression. The “New Jew” would later embrace embodiment not only for utilitarian purposes such as farming the land and military protection, but also as an integration and embracing of the aesthetics of the influence of Sephardic Culture. As Daniel B. Schwartz writes, in his article “The Sephardic Mystique”:
“German Jews were drawn to the Sephardic Jews’ seeming embodiment of beauty, dignity, and refinement, as opposed to the ugliness they perceived in—or projected onto—Ashkenazic life. The construction of a self-consciously “Sephardic” aesthetic took many forms—visual, literary, even aural. “
So was the Jew of the past really disembodied & did Judaism intend for this to be the image of the Jew?
In reading Torah texts, one can’t help observe that the biblical figures shared more in common with the Sephardic Jew’s sensibility of integrating Torah with embodiment then the negative stereotype of the “Old Jews” bent over their books. There is a reflection the body’s implicit holiness in its reference to great leaders that triumphed in military defense while using the aesthetics of music and poetry to express spiritual gratitude (King David), female intuits who transformed sexual desire into a tool for historical redemption (Tamar/Ruth), and prophets and people who danced with drums while gesturing with prayer as an expression of the Divine soul serving its master (Miriam & Temple Times). Even in the Zohar, the book of Jewish mysticism, we are told “One needs a body strong as a lion” (Zohar 3, 160a, Otzar HaZohar 4, 823b).
The Torah valued the body as a tool to serve G-d so long as it sought after the path of the soul & the will of G-d. Jewish taboos of the body became a later development by the ascetics of Jewish history post facto, or the post Hellenistic period where the Rabbis feared Greek notions of forced assimilation through body worship practices.
So do we see today in modern Israelis a fitness obsessed culture consciously or subconsciously produced by a fear of the continued persecution of the post Holocaust Jew? Can Torah Judaism and early Jewish history, with its teachings of how the body can become a vehicle for the Divine, ever recover and heal the disembodied history of the Jewish people.
Within Israel there is an attempt among the more contemporary religious Jewish movements to reinsert the Jewish Divine embodied experience once again. Those influenced by Rav Kook’s teachings that the intellect must be housed in a body of strength, or Sephardic culture with it’s aesthetic sensibilities around healthy beautiful food and the freedom to dance, or the teachings of chassidut, Breslov ecstatic dance, & contemporary Rabbis such as Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach or Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi’s Jewish Renewal. These movements have all sought to bring back the embodied spirit within Judaism; Recreating reflections of the days when we can once again greet the Divine with the timbrels, drums, and dances of Miriam our prophetess and when we can find in a modern day Jewish religious experience a poet, a soldier, & a lover of the Divine (like King David).
As muscle builds Israel, the Israelis, and the Jews, my hope is that we can understand the historical context that created the tensions within Israel between the “Old Jew” and the “New Jew”. To see these tensions between tradition and modernity as outlined by the traumas of our European history around anti-Semitism and the loss of the body. It is in this loss where we can understand where our reactions have come from and what have been our responses to it, what we gained when we became the “New Jew,” and what we lost when we feared the “Old Jew.” To work towards an understanding that whether the body of the “Old Jew” or the body of the“New Jew,” a Jew is a Jew. We are all striving for survival.
*With the exception of Gal Gadot of course. She is just…well… a Goddess”
Kinneret Dubowitz is the director and founder of KinneretYoga and manages the Jewish Women’s Yoga Network. You can check out www.kinneretyogatraining.net or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org *