Query: Jewish Sources on Physiognomy & explanation of physical deformity

Israel Sandman's picture


A colleague is seeking primary and secondary literature on Jewish explanations for / construals of physical deformity / ugliness / difference, and discussions of physiognomy, from antiquity to the present, including analysis of the impact of plastic arts, still photography, and cinema.

Many thanks,

Israel M. Sandman (is.m.sandman@gmail.com)

See: On the Margins of a Minority
Leprosy, Madness, and Disability among the Jews of Medieval Europe
by Ephraim Shoham-Steiner

You may want to read Sander L. Gilman's work on the Jewish body.

For the question of Israel M. Sandman in regard to Jewish discussions of physiognomy – here are several sources:

Yehuda Liebes, Hakarat Panim baKabbalah (Physiognomy in Kabbalah), Pe'amim (Studies in Oriental Jewry) 104, pp. 21-40.

Moshe Idel, Panim: on facial re-presentation in Jewish thought: Some correlations instances, in Nurit Yaari (ed.), On Interpretation in the Arts: Interdisciplinary Studies in Honor of Moshe Lazar. Tel Aviv, 2000, 21-56, pp. 21-56.

Holst, S. and Hogenhaven, J, Physiognomy and eschatology: Some more fragments of 4Q561. Journal of Jewish Studies 57, (2006) pp. 26-43

Jonathan Schorsch, Blacks, Jews and the Racial Imagination in the Writings of Sephardim in the Long Seventeenth Century, Jewish History, Vol. 19, No. 1 (2005), p. 135 n. 73.

In regard to a metaphysical perception of the face – following especially Levinas - see:

Rudi Visker, The Inhuman Condition: Looking for Difference after Levinas and Heidegger, (London : Kluwer Academic, 2004), p. 118 ff. and p. 126 ff.

Edward S. Casey, The Ethics of the Face to Face Encounter: Schroeder, Levinas, and the Glance, The Pluralist, Vol. 1, No. 1 (2006), pp. 74-97.

Brian Schroeder, There’s More than Meets the Eye: A Glance at Casey and Levinas, The Pluralist 1, 1 (2006): 98-103.

Admiel Kosman
Potsdam University

Some Talmudic references (Babylonian Talmud):

Ugliness: Ta'anit 20b; Ta'anit 7a-b.
Dreams of deformity: Berachot 56b.
Particular case of Rabbi Yochanan: Bava Metzia 84a; Berachot 5b; Bava Kamma 117a.
Aesthetics generally: Shavuot 15a (see commentaries); Menachot 110a; Shabbat 133b.

For an interesting polemical passage on the ugliness of Jews vs. the handsomeness of Gentiles (with a pro-Jewish spin), see David Berger, The Jewish-Christian Debate in the High Middle Ages: A critical edition of the Nizzahon Vetus, Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1979, pp. 224, 340

Gershon Bacon
Bar-Ilan University

To what has already been said (I too am a fan of Sander Gilman’s work), I would add the following. Assuming the colleague can read Hebrew, I would strongly recommend Lorberbaum’s book “Image of God,” for the historical-philosophical aspects of these questions.

- Abrams, Judith Z. Judaism and Disability. Portrayals in Ancient Texts from the Tanach through the Bavli. Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press, 1998.
- Avalos, Hector, Sarah Melcher, and Jeremy Schipper, eds. This Abled Body: Rethinking Disabilities in Biblical Studies, Semeia Studies 55. Atlanta, Ga.: SBL, 2007.
- Belser, Julia Watts. "Disability, Animality, and Enslavement in Rabbinic Narratives of Bodily Restoration and Resurrection." Journal of Late Antiquity 8.2 (2015): 288-305.
- Olyan, Saul M. Disability in the Hebrew Bible. Interpreting Mental and Physical Differences: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
- Popović, Mladen. Reading the Human Body. Physiognomics and Astrology in the Dead Sea Scrolls and Hellenistic-Early Roman Period Judaism, STDJ 67. Leiden: Brill, 2007.
- Schäfer, Peter. The Hidden and Manifest God. Some Major Themes in Early Jewish Mysticism. Translated by Aubrey Pomerance, Suny Series in Judaica. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992.
- Schipper, Jeremy. Disability Studies and the Hebrew Bible. Figuring Mephibosheth in the David Story, Library of Hebrew Bible / Old Testament Studies 441. New York: T&T Clark, 2006.
- לורברבוים, יאיר. צלם אלהים. הלכה ואגדה. ירושלים / תל אביב: שוקן, 2004.