This volume, focused on Jewish attitudes toward the human body, is the first volume of the Jewish Choices, Jewish Voices series published by the Jewish Publication Society. Subsequent volumes focus on money, power, sex and intimacy, war and national security, and social justice. Each volume in the series presents hypothetical case studies involving modern moral questions, a collection of classical and contemporary sources relevant to the case studies, and a collection of short essays by a range of contemporary American Jews reflecting on these materials or on other related issues. Elliot Dorff and Louis Newman, the preeminent scholars of Jewish ethics who edited this first volume in the series, explain in their introduction that they sought to gather together “a variety of authors with many different Jewish beliefs and approaches” (xvi). They do not claim to present “what Judaism says,” but, rather, to anthologize a variety of Jewish perspectives. In doing so, they seek to follow the approach of the Bible and the Talmud, both of which contain “many, many voices articulating often diverse points of view” (xvi).
On the other hand, Dorff and Newman reject the idea that “anything goes” when it comes to Jewish views about the body. They indicate that modern American Jews may be tempted to endorse such a perspective, accustomed as they are to the American notion that “I own my body.” But, Dorff and Newman suggest, American Jews would do well to consider the contrary notions that animate much of classical Jewish thought on the body: that God is the true owner of every human body, and that God makes demands about how one should use one’s body. The case studies that follow challenge readers to keep these ideas in mind as they consider duties to limit one’s body weight, refrain from tattooing one’s body, and avoid high-risk behaviors.
The essays that make up the heart of this book do by and large embrace Dorff and Newman’s challenge. A few do so quite confidently, such as the one Orthodox contributor to the volume, who declares God’s ownership of human bodies to be “the attitude of Torah Judaism.” But a similar view is also upheld by less traditionally inclined authors such as Adam Goodkind, a college student who expresses his doubts about conventional Jewish observance and theology but who sees the idea of not owning one’s body as reflecting the “common sense” of the Jewish tradition. [End Page 213]
Many of the essays are also linked by their view of Judaism as a tradition that does not disparage bodily pleasures. Such pleasures should be greatly valued, a number of authors stress, at least within certain limits. Goodkind takes a stronger stance, opining that “part of being a good Jew is getting a maximum amount of enjoyment out of life” (43). Such talk is not surprising—it fits well with the this-worldly ethos of contemporary American Judaism. But it is worth noting that the more ascetic and otherworldly voices found in the tradition are largely absent from this volume.
The volume may not showcase the full breadth of traditional Jewish perspectives, but it does demonstrate how thoughtful and generally liberally minded American Jews do think about key ethical questions when they are asked to consider them through a Jewish lens. And while the essays in the volume are somewhat uneven in quality, they tend to be marked by moral sensitivity and by the creative application of traditional Jewish ideas. This first book in the Jewish Choices, Jewish Voices series offers stimulating reflections about the human body, and it also offers a fine introduction to the patterns of moral reasoning found among many contemporary American Jews.