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Scents and sensibilities: righteous aromas, early sluggers, and godless scribblers

Josh Lambert
February 14, 2011
(La caverne aux livres by gadl / Alexandre Duret-Lutz; some rights reserved.)
(La caverne aux livres by gadl / Alexandre Duret-Lutz; some rights reserved.)

How did the rabbis of the Talmud smell? No, this isn’t the set-up for a terrible joke (the punchline of which would inevitably, lamentably, have to be, “With their noses”). Posed sincerely, this question drives Deborah Green’s The Aroma of Righteousness: Scent and Seduction in Rabbinic Life and Literature (PSU, March). Tracking references to perfume and incense in the Torah, Talmud, and midrash, Green recovers what she can of the olfactory culture of late antiquity to place the rabbis’ senses of smell into their historical context—and to understand how their embodied, sensual lives influenced their theological understandings.


Judaism has grappled with a different facet of embodiment—gender—since the first chapters of Genesis, where the text introduces the distinction between “male and female” early on and then quickly complicates matters with a reference to “woman,” called such “because she was taken out of man.” Examining such verses in Gender Issues in Ancient and Reformation Translations of Genesis 1-4 (Oxford, March), Helen Kraus focuses on their translations from Hebrew to Greek, Latin, German, English, and Dutch throughout the centuries. She suggests that these versions transform what began as androcentrism—that is, a focus on men—into a source-text frequently cited as justification for the discriminatory mistreatment of women by the faithful.

Kraus’ take on the first chapters of the Torah accords well with Rabbi Isaac Sassoon’s argument that, while one cannot gainsay ancient and rabbinic misogyny, the Torah and Talmud offer plenty of alternative perspectives, too, some of them less oppressive in their patriarchy. Indeed, some passages, at least in Sassoon’s reading, can even support women’s claims of equality, as he explains in The Status of Women in Jewish Tradition (Cambridge, February). As Sassoon decorously phrases it, “the Talmud is innocent of any assaying of life that fluctuates according to gender. Thus the chasm dividing man and woman in the rabbis’ topography, though gaping, did not reach all the way down to soul and quick.”


One specific way in which ancient Israelites treated men’s and women’s bodies more or less equally is that both could be bought and sold as slaves. This wasn’t a unique facet of Judaism, of course, as contributors to Keith Bradley and Paul Cartledge’s The Cambridge World History of Slavery, Volume 1: The Ancient Mediterranean (Cambridge, February) make clear. Ancient Jewish attitudes to slavery—which are surveyed in the volume by the University of London’s Catherine Hezser, author of 2005’s Jewish Slavery in Antiquity—differed from those of other ancient peoples mostly in terms of their specific details: For example, “Hebrew legal thinkers limited the length of debt-slavery a Hebrew could endure to six years, while Hammurapi had limited debt-slavery service to three years.”


Jewish sports stars demonstrate that, pace Woody Allen and Seth Rogen, there is nothing inherently weak, fumbling, or slovenly about Jews’ bodies. Take Lip Pike, son of a Dutch Jewish haberdasher in Brooklyn, and a crucial American baseball pioneer. The first professional player in the country—the first, that is, to admit publicly that he was paid to play—he was so fast on his feet that he once beat a horse in a footrace. He also led the National League in home runs in its second season, in 1877, with a whopping four dingers. Richard Michelson tells Pike’s life story in a picture book, Lipman Pike: America’s First Home Run King (Sleeping Bear, March, ages 4-8), lavishly illustrated by Zachary Pullen. “In America,” the book has Lip’s father remark, justifying the time his sons devote to sports, “even the smartest young men chase balls like silly boys. We want our children to fit in with their neighbors, not to live like foreigners in their birthplace.”

Pike was hardly the last Jewish slugger to lead his league in home runs; in 1938, 1940, and 1946, the American League home-run champ was one of Pike’s coreligionists. Which is not to say that Hank Greenberg was very religious. Mark Kurlansky argues in Hank Greenberg: The Hero Who Didn’t Want To Be One (Yale, March) that while Hammerin’ Hank sat out a key game on Yom Kippur in 1934—a gesture that would be repeated by Sandy Koufax decades later—he identified more as a secularist than as a synagogue attendee.


Bouncing around the newly formed professional leagues, Pike spent one season, 1871, playing for the Troy Haymakers; Richard Selzer, a retired Yale surgeon and author of reflective books on the medical practice (think Atul Gawande, but decades earlier) grew up in that Hudson River city and memorialized it in his 1992 memoir Down From Troy: A Doctor Comes of Age. Selzer’s latest book, Diary (Yale, March) offers his brief, disconnected reminiscences from 1997 to 2008: many lunches at New Haven’s Educated Burgher, with or without pre-med undergrads or faculty colleagues. Though his parents were Jewish and he occasionally refers to the Torah (“Aside from Noah, the only sympathetic character in the Old Testament is Isaiah,” he proclaims), Selzer professes a wistful atheism: “If only there were a God,” he muses, “to thank for this lovely life of literary seclusion.”


When it comes to God—the one in which Selzer cannot, to his regret, believe—the question of embodiment gets rather tricky. On the one hand, it is widely understood as contrary to Jewish theology, or as just plain silly, to think of God as “the old man with a beard,” as Rabbi David Lyon puts it in God of Me: Imagining God Throughout Your Lifetime (Jewish Lights, February): “Such a flawed God image,” Lyon argues, “impairs any hope that God’s presence in our life could inspire us, guide us, and strengthen us”; he offers up alternatives. Meanwhile French literature scholar Didier Maleuvre’s The Horizon: A History of Our Infinite Longing (California, February), surveying human obsessions with the infinite across the millennia, credits Jews with the abstraction of God into “a voice in the whirlwind … an idea or ideal, a law, the silence of contemplation,” during the Israelites’ wanderings in the desert. On the other hand, though, newly available in paperback and having won awards from the American Academy of Religion and the Association for Jewish Studies, Benjamin Sommer’s The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel (Cambridge, January) reminds us that “the God of the Hebrew Bible has a body” and, as he explains elsewhere, that this “God with a body is … a God with whom we can have a relationship, because a being with a body is a being like us.” If so, it seems like there’s an inevitable question to ask: How does God smell?

Josh Lambert (@joshnlambert), a Tablet Magazine contributing editor and comedy columnist, is the academic director of the Yiddish Book Center, Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author most recently of Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture.

Josh Lambert (@joshnlambert), a Tablet Magazine contributing editor and comedy columnist, is the academic director of the Yiddish Book Center, Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author most recently ofUnclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture.

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