Book Review: Jewish and Christian Views of Bodily Pleasure

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Jewish and Christian Views on Bodily Pleasure: Their Origins and Relevance in the Twentieth-Century by Robert Cherry. Wipf & Stock, Eugene, Oregon, 2018.

Why do conservative Texas politicians do what they do? Why was the Pope’s initiative on climate change dead on arrival? Why were the great movie moguls of Hollywood’s golden age predominantly Jewish? What possessed Trump when he told his bizarre story about doctors and mothers killing babies? The answers are in this book.

Don’t let the book’s title fool you. Yes, the author does cover the material mentioned in the title, but so much more. Professor Cherry traces Jewish thought back well before the beginnings of Christianity and examines the latest scholarship on the life and ministry of Jesus and the earliest years of the Christian movement.

Ascetic, anti-pleasure movements existed in both Jewish and Christian tradition during the troubled years of the Before Common Era / Common Era split. It appeared to many Palestinian Jews under Roman occupation that the world was coming to an end. Why create families and produce children?

Ironically, the stories told of Jesus early on focused on his lack of asceticism and of his wrangling with the pietist Pharisee movement, a movement that led to rabbinic Judaism in the aftermath of the Roman destruction of the Second Temple and much of Jerusalem in 70 CE.

Dr. Cherry traces the transition of Christianity from a movement among the Jewish poor in Palestine to a Hellenized, pan-Mediterranean phenomenon. Again irony: what began as a movement focused on the wisdom sayings of Jesus morphed into a religion focused on the miraculous resurrection of Christ.

For that to happen, Christian thinkers adopted the body / soul distinction that had gotten little traction in Jewish tradition but was embedded in Greek philosophy. For early Christians, the body became a problem to be solved. Flesh and spirit would be forever at war.

What is asceticism for? Early Christians often saw celibacy as self-improvement. It was not until Augustine, who died in 430 of the Common Era, that sexual desire was equated with original sin. Soon enough Church fathers moved from preaching abstinence and passionless sex to produce children to embracing extremes: self-mortification of the flesh though bad food; continuously interrupted sleep; extremes of heat and cold . . . all for the sake of the immortal soul.

Jewish tradition, on the other hand, embraced family life, joy in sex, and a frank encouragement of female sensuality. Christians were scandalized.

Dr. Cherry deftly transitions from these early developments to cultural implications in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century United States. The uptight vaudeville and early movies made by Christians gave way to the steamy Theda Bara.

Is religion predominantly about individual piety or is it about a commitment to social justice? What are our bodies for?

This book traces the many and warring answers to those questions.


Poet, Senior Minister at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, a Humanist congregation. Amazon author's page

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