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  • Returning to Flesh:A Jewish Reflection on Feminist Disability Theology
  • Julia Watts Belser (bio)

In her powerful assessment of feminist disability theology, Sharon Betcher argues that feminist recuperation of body has not been inherently liberating for people with disabilities. While a focus on the body allowed feminists to challenge a discourse that valorized the masculine-spirit above the physical-feminine, [End Page 127] Betcher argues that the body is too easily transcendentalized. Though attention to the body has allowed feminists to reclaim the spiritual value of embodiment, it has not necessarily occasioned feminist grappling with the gritty realities of corporeal existence. She notes the degree to which ability, health, beauty, and productivity are expected of today's body, and how these cultural norms become means of policing and subjugating the disabled. Flesh, Betcher suggests, is different. Unlike the body's heady wholesomeness, flesh is vulnerable. Flesh is exposed. Flesh is subject to violence.

Judaism has unwillingly played flesh to Christianity's spirit for centuries. For many late antique Christian writers, Jewish resistance to the allegorical and spiritual meanings of the Hebrew Bible led the Jews into a resolute and stubborn denial of the Christian message—a persistant preoccupation with the corporeality of the law. Daniel Boyarin has emphasized the way in which Augustine and other church fathers framed the emerging Jewish-Christian difference in bodily terms. "The carnality of Israel's understanding," he writes, "is what consigns it forever to the realm of the flesh. That is to say, the hermeneutic practices of the rabbinic Jews, their corporeal existence as a people and their emphasis on sex and reproduction, are all stigmatized as 'carnal.'"1 Throughout Christian history, Jews have suffered for this unwillingness to surrender the flesh. Refusal to renounce the physical, tangible reality of Jewishness has left millions of actual Jewish bodies violated and dismembered.

But the forcible separation of spirit, body, and flesh is not solely a matter of Jewish-Christian difference. A similar rhetoric of exalted spirit and deviant carnality underscores the relations between Judaism and paganism. In popular Jewish and Christian discourse, the divine call to Abraham heralded a spiritual revolution that transformed the ancient Near East. According to this view, the ethical monotheism first articulated by Judaism and later exemplified through Christianity served as spiritual corrective to the hypersexualized hedonistic culture of Canaan. The subjugation of sexuality, the body, and its flesh comes part and parcel with another triumphalist paradigm of religious evolution.2 Like fantastical and demonic caricatures of the Jews, the rhetorical portrayal of paganism becomes a dangerous specter with little grounding in historical reality. The "pagan" conjures up fears of child sacrifice, sexual indiscriminacy, homosexuality, moral degeneracy, and the overthrow of Western civilization—and links them with the feminine, the Goddess, the earth, and an embrace of the sacredness [End Page 128] of body and flesh.3 As Carol P. Christ describes, the charge of paganism has all-too-often allowed the institutional establishment to police Christian and Jewish feminist theologians, and to break burgeoning alliances between Christian, Jewish, and Neo-Pagan feminists.4

So yes. Let us examine the flesh. But let us not rush to remediate the amputations and scars that these inherited dichotomies have imposed upon our difficult, untidy bodies. Let us open up the terrain of loss and grief and exposure.

Disability theologians have critical testimony to bear about the violence implicit in cultural efforts to sever and distance dangerous, unruly flesh from the rest of the more holy and wholesome body. As both Betcher and Eiesland underscore, disability names an identity created and reinforced through the experience of social exclusion and stigma. When Eiesland calls for the body's portrait to represent both bones and braces, she intends it as an explicit critique of "the unexpressed agenda of 'normal' embodiment."5 Likewise, Betcher emphasizes the ways in which global capitalism's incessant demand for cheap labor intersects with its power to fuel the aesthetic expectation for beautiful bodies as sites of consumption. Numerous studies have chronicled the sociological fact that disability is correlated with poverty and vulnerability to violence.6 This vulnerability results not so much from our physical experience, but because of the social and...


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pp. 127-132
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