Gideon Aran: The Body, Fundamentalist Movements and Jewish Orthodoxy

In the past two decades, the body has received widespread attention in the social sciences and humanities based on the contention that social and cultural factors are crucial to understanding body imagery and body-centered behaviors on the one hand, and that the body is an integral component of many social phenomena, rich in significance and implications that may further our understanding of particular cultures on the other hand.

Gideon Aran

Gideon Aran, The Hebrew University

It seems that interest in the body is the outcome of social developments such as changes in the meaning of the body in contemporary post-industrial societies (Martin, 1992) and theoretical developments such as a gradual shift away from simple mind-body dichotomies and a more holistic conceptualization of the issue (Lutz, 1985, 1987); the incorporation of Pierre Bourdieu’s (1977) ideas about habitus as propensities or inclinations which are beyond the grasp of consciousness into social scientific thought; and the influence of Michel Foucault’s (1979, 1980) propositions about discipline and body/power on current studies.

All groups must solve the “problems of the body” (Turner, 1997; see also Shilling, 1993) Here we shall mention just two that are relevant to our argument. First, socialization does not simply involve the intrinsic problems of learning, since people resist the imposition of structures of society – such as temporal structures, regimes of discipline, or body comportment – on their natural inclinations (Berger and Luckmann, 1967: 203). The second, and closely related reason for focusing on the body is that the workings of power are most invisible at the level of the body (“what could be more natural”) and the elements of agency and resistance are so often situated in the body (“the body rebels”). Embodied attitudes such as stance or movement, to put this point by way of example, appear as if they were supremely individual traits while their social origin is made invisible through the body’s “innate” and unconscious actions within and upon the world. Yet the body is never wholly socialized: it always includes spaces for actions, feelings and thoughts that are at a distance from cultural representations or social institutions. It is in these spaces that we find the loci of much resistance and proclivities for change.

There is much sociological, anthropological and historical writing on female and the male bodies, on black and white bodies, on young and old bodies, Latin or Mid-eastern bodies. There are social scientific studies of the religious body too (Coakly, 1997). It is accepted by now that the communal organization of God-believers, their family structure, their economy, even their leisure patterns or sense of humor, are of particular nature and significant implications. The same holds for the body of God-believers. One can find in the literature on the religious body interesting research findings and theoretical arguments. Thus, for example, the body as an occasion of sin and temptation in the Greek Orthodox tradition (Ware, 1997: 90), the idea of the body as a gift and sacrament rather then a burden and threat in Protestant theory (Tripp, 1997:147) or body as disgusting and repulsiveness in some Mahayana Buddhist perspectives (Williams, 1997: 208).

Obviously some of the scholarship on the body in religion may be applicable to the case of fundamentalist movements, especially since it has typically tended to focus on extreme cases, like the body of religious virtuosi (see McGuire, 1990; Sullivan, 1990). A case in point is Peter Brown’s work (1988) on the bodies of nuns in early medieval times that were characterized by flagellations. In much of this kind of literature the body is seen as setting a major problem for religion since it is the locus of irrational impulses, material desires and hedonistic passions. Generally speaking, Western monotheistic religions tend to be puritan in the sense that they regard the body as a threatening agent of unruly satanic forces, a vehicle or vessel of the profane and impure if not adequately regulated or neutralized. And yet, the body is often used as a ritual medium and thus as a signifier of religious belonging and an index of religious commitment (see Urban, 2000). In light of the above, it is to be expected that the body would form a locus of attention in contemporary fundamentalist movements. Fundamentalists are challenged by a world in which the human body is much more salient, if not provocative than ever before. From the point of view of fundamentalism, the body is a bastion of sin and heresy, but at the same time it is also an ideal mean to manifest religiosity and promote its agenda.

Actually, in an indirect and somewhat crude manner, the body appears in writings about fundamentalism, usually in the context of Puritanism and asceticism that characterizes these movements: For instance in the mention of sexual prohibitions among Protestant Bible Believers in North America, or of the reemergence of practices of self-mortification after the Shiite resurgence in Lebanon and Iran. In the literature on religion and particularly on radical religion, the body is usually treated in negative and one-dimensional terms, as something that has to be rejected or subdued. Thus, there seems to be an implicit contention at base of such scholarship that the there is a basic tension, even an opposition, between radical religion and the free expression, empowerment and manifest use of the bodies of believers. There emerges a tacit truism that relates fundamentalism to an ‘anti-body’ stance. No room is left for examining the possibility of more complex, let alone positive relation of fundamentalism with the body.

Excluding the body from the debate about fundamentalism, or analyzing fundamentalist movements only in terms of the negation of the body is all the more surprising since fundamentalist movements are commonly associated with several features with essential bodily aspects: virility, potency, ostentation, activism and militancy. Moreover, fundamentalism is inherently linked to actual or potential violence (see Sprinzak, 1993; Rapoport, 1993; Jugendmeyer, 2000). The absence of explicit and emphatic reference to the body in writings on violence is like avoiding reference to the body when dealing with dance. Writings about fundamentalism seem to be unaware of the problematic linkage if not the contradiction between the asceticism and Puritanism usually attributed to fundamentalist movements, reflecting an ‘anti-body’ attitude, and the activism and violence that usually characterize them. The conspicuous absence of the body in the literature concerning fundamentalism results in a deficient understanding of fundamentalist violence.

Students of fundamentalism tend to adopt an implicit working assumption concerning a causal and negative relationship between the hostile fundamentalist stance towards the body and the central role it plays within such movements. It seems like a hydraulic system: as one presses here, it pops up there. Specifically, fundamentalist other-directed aggression is often seen as an expression, substitute or compensation for the typical restriction or repression of the body[i]. Presumably fundamentalist violence indicates a sort of resistance of the body against the values and norms of the fundamentalist world that usually discourages the body and curbs its natural inclinations. Such violence is a medium through which the body reminds the movement’s members of its existence and seeks avenues for its articulation. Moreover, we contend that this violence is an attempt by the body to participate in the radicalization of religion and even to ‘lead’ it. As we will further argue, through violence bodies are not only harnessed to established projects of extreme religion but offer new options for religious excellence.

It appears that the subject of fundamentalism, body and violence, consists of unexpected aspects and contains contradictions and paradoxes. Note the elementary question: who is the ‘ideal fundamentalist’? Is it the one who absolutely stamps down his own body, denies its reality, diminishes its presence, torments it and achieves self -mortification? Or is it the one who sets his body free, extends its reaches and enforce it upon the public sphere and other bodies by way of imposing presence and violence[ii]?

We shall explore such issues through the case of one fundamentalist movement that provides rich data for analysis. The Fundamentalism Project offered for analysis a large variety of movements that seemed to bear a ‘family resemblance’. These cases are accepted as the paradigmatic instances of fundamentalism, as the basis for generalization about this phenomenon. Among the roster of these by now ‘classical’ cases, the Jewish brand of fundamentalism is represented by two movements: Gush Emunim (the bloc of the faithful) (Aran, 1991) and the Haredim (those who fear and obey God) (Heilman and Friedman, 1991; Soloveitchik, 1994b; Selengut, 1994; Heilman, 1994; Almond et. al., 1995). The Gush is Orthodox and Ultra-Zionist, while the Haredim are Ultra-Orthodox and anti- or a-Zionist. The Gush is considered revolutionary while the Haredim conservative; the Gush is very political, hyperactive and offensive, while the Haredim are supposed to be ritualistic and scholastic, and tend to seclusion and passivity.

It is the Haredi case that we focus on here. Except for one case (Aran, 2003), there has been no systematic mention of the body in the literature on Haredim. It seems that much of the ongoing scholarship uncritically accepted the official Haredi stance that disregards the body and belittles problems posed by the body. Yet behind this strategy and rhetoric of denial is a live body and the strong rejection of it may be seen as an indication of its frustrated vitality. What follows is a novel attempt to study Haredim in terms of their body, in order to improve our knowledge of fundamentalism and radical religious violence in particular.

Until the last decades of the past century, scholars studying Judaism accepted the contention that Jews had a spiritual and intellectual life so expansive and demanding as to leave almost no room for the “body.” Suddenly, during the last decade or so researchers have ‘discovered’ that Jews, too, have a body. At once the “People of the Book” have turned into ‘The People of the Body’ (Eilberg-Schwartz, 1992). In the meanwhile a number of seminal works about the Jewish body have been published (Boyarin, 1993, 1997; Biale, 1992a; Jacobs, 1997) and they form the background to our analysis. Nevertheless the applicability of existing knowledge about the Jewish body is somewhat limited for our purposes. First, because the Haredi movement is an unprecedented generic phenomenon, different from related Jewish phenomena, including medieval ‘traditional’ Judaism. We further argue that the Haredi body is unique and should be distinguished even from the Orthodox body. Second, most of the publications about the Jewish body are based on the analysis of sacred texts and canonical narratives and tend to focus almost exclusively on the formal conceptions of the body. In contrast, the material presented here relates to actual bodily behavior without reference to the written traditions and old customs and their expression in various Halakhic or mystic sources and in other rabbinic legacies unless they are cited by our informants within their internal discussions or in their dialogues with us. Third, this study focuses on contemporary patterns of behavior, locating very recent trends and pointing to processes that are still developing.

Our research is based on fieldwork, especially field observations and interviews, with members of the Haredi community in northern neighborhoods of Jerusalem, between 1997 and 2003, in the framework of three projects: work ethic among Torah scholars (Stadler, 2001,2002 ), modes of militant religiosity in the middle east (Aran, forthcoming), and talmudic students views of military service (Stadler and Ben Ari, 2003).



[i]Hints at this economic-mechanic logic can be found in literature on religious or ideological systems which went to the extreme in puritan moralism, or Spartan way of life, such as, for instance, medieval monastic orders, revolution of the Saints in early modern Europe, communist or charismatic sects in the twentieth century, and similar highly charged phenomena characterized by strict ascetic regime and aggressive position towards their environment.

[ii]This resembles to some extent the classical dilemma often arising in the context of sport and the military. Both require, on the one hand, strict discipline, which imposes severe restrictions on physicality, masculinity and action-seeking, while, on the other hand, they develop the body and depend on the aggressive energies released by it. In the case of the combat soldier and a competitive athlete, just as in the case of the radical believer, effort is made to produce controlled energy to be channeled into desired pathways, preventing it from spilling into directions which might endanger cohesion and the collective’s adaptability.

Gideon Aran is a professor of sociology and anthropology at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem.

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