Within the past few months, circumcision and other Jewish rituals such as kashrut, the dietary laws, and shechita, the kosher butchering of animals, have been the subject of considerable attention, much of it condemnatory. But then, that shouldn’t occasion too much of a surprise: For centuries, and continuing into our own day, the corporeal practices of the Jews, from the way they mark the male body to what they ingest — or don’t — are typically regarded as the most distinctive thing about them.
Separating the Jews from the rest of the body politic, circumcision and kashrut gave rise to suspicion and hostility on the part of the larger, non-Jewish world. The advent of modernity did little to soften such views. On the contrary. Negative sentiment toward these practices actually accelerated in the wake of the Emancipation of European Jews, which sought through both legal and cultural means to transform them from strangers into citizens. Circumcision, kashrut and shechita, it was widely thought, got in the way.
Under the circumstances, latter-day champions of these age-old traditions had to jump through all manner of hoops to justify, reassess and reinterpret them in terms consonant with modernity’s emphasis on the commonweal and the commonplace. Demystification would be one way to describe this process of reinterpretation; rationalization would be another.
One of the most fascinating exercises in demystification, and arguably among the best intentioned, took place in 1911 in Dresden, Germany, at the International Hygiene Exhibition. Drawing more than 5 million visitors from around the world, it was a great hit with the public, which relished the exposition’s “kinematographic projections” and “moulages,” or lifelike wax reproductions of the human body. The International Hygiene Exhibition, The New York Times enthused, is the “greatest object lesson in the realm of public hygiene which the world has ever seen.”
Another American visitor, Dr. William J. Robinson, the editor of “The Medico-Pharmaceutical Critic and Guide,” was particularly enraptured by the openness with which the Germans talked about sexual matters. Noting how the section on venereal and sexual diseases was “crowded from morning to night,” he couldn’t resist a dig at some of his more puritanical American counterparts. “Had Anthony Comstock walked into that section, he would, I fear, have immediately gotten an apoplectic shock,” Robinson wrote, referring to America’s great champion of censorship. “In this country such an exhibit would be absolutely unthinkable.”