THE BLOOD IS THE LIFE-FORCE
The Last of Deuteronomy
Only you must not partake of its blood; you shall pour it on the ground like water. Deuteronomy 15:23
When I was a rabbinical student, longer ago than I like to admit, I took an extraordinary set of courses from a professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Ze’ev Mankowitz, of blessed memory, was an exceptionally popular instructor for visiting students. His subject was the Holocaust. His expertise and erudition were not limited to the horrors of the murdering of so many human beings – though he did not omit any aspect in the year-long class. He insisted on exploring the question that every student carried into his large lectures: why.
You don’t need to scan this column to find the fast answer. There is, of course, no one answer. The convergence of religious doctrine, pagan practice, economic interests, political changes, intellectual pretensions, sociopathic ambition, and scientific arrogance (and inauthenticity) all contributed to the “othering” and dehumanization of Jews and others deemed inferior.
But the one aspect that Prof. Mankowitz presented that made the greatest impression on me was anthropological. He discussed in one session the uneasiness with which human beings of all stripes treat bodily effluence. Those substances that should be contained in a sealed system – like the body – become dangerous and threatening if they escape. He used a remarkably effective illustration, distributing clean disposable “shot glasses” to us and challenging us to spit our own saliva into it and then drink it back down. Some students could and some could not, but all of us were struck by how something that was a split-second previously a natural part of our own body became, once outside that body, a source of profound discomfort.
The lesson went on to discuss other such “escapes,” including feces, urine, ejaculate, infected fluids and, of course, blood. In art, “science,” and rhetoric, the Nazis became adept at exploiting a history of denigrating Jews as those who feasted on those substances expelled from the body, most especially blood.
I repeat: there is no one explanation for the atrocities of the Holocaust, but once I was exposed to this aspect, it stayed with me for, so far, forty years.
It was especially powerful in the context of the work of Margaret Mead, who wrote extensively on the belief in “mana,” not the sustaining food of the Israelite wandering, but the presumed life-force that was honored and feared in pre-scientific cultures. There is no room for a primer on the notion here, other than to say many cultures understood that the life-force by any name was contained in the blood. It makes sense. If an animal or person bleeds, the more blood escapes, the weaker it gets. And therefore, it makes sense that if you consume the blood of another, you acquire the life-force.
For the Nazis, Jewish blood was polluting (and also ejaculate, most certainly). It was in their perverted interests to reinforce the revulsion to escaped fluids that would pollute the purity of the Aryan individual and, both literally and metaphorically, the Aryan culture. It was part of the broader plan to marginalize and devalue Jewish lives.
That revulsion, however, is also present in the Bible. The prohibition of consuming blood is comprehensive, expanded into requirements of preparing kosher meat by soaking and salting or broiling to reduce, to the greatest extent, even the accidental ingestion of blood. Likewise, the flow of blood and other fluids from the body is depicted as polluting, not from a hygienic point of view, but from a ritual perspective (which I might argue parallels the anthropological description). It is quite an irony that some Christians and all Nazis exploited this disgust embedded in Judaism to denigrate the Jews most likely to uphold these prohibitions.
You might think we know better now – slogans like “blood and soil” are relegated to those not-so-fine people on the other side. But I would contend that the messaging is just a bit more subtle. Over the past four years the race, ethnicity and religion of “outsiders” have been called into question by leaders in high positions. They depict not so much a conflict of ideas as an inherent “mana” that should not be allowed to escape into the purity of what makes America great. They are rapists coming for your daughters. They are murderers wanting your blood. They are dangerous criminals stoppable only by lethal force. And some of them have sent over an invasive virus designed to pollute our economy and, incidentally, our lives.
As the verse says, you must not partake.