"First, it suggests that the body is not an end in itself but a means to a religious end. The body is a vessel for the soul and is valued primarily for this reason. Jewish tradition is replete with admonitions to study, to pray, and to serve God wholeheartedly; and, of course, without a healthy body all of these become far more difficult. But it is hard to find exhortations within the tradition to cultivate and preserve the body in order to make it more beautiful, powerful, or effective in mastering the arts of civilization. This is hardly surprising in a religious tradition that regarded the body as transitory, while the soul was pure and immortal.

"From this perspective, treatment of the body is likewise a means to an end. It is essential that we take good care of the body, for only in this way can we properly serve God. If we are unable to hear, speak, or walk, we will be unable to do some of those things that God expects of us; these impairments should, therefore, properly be rectified to the extent possible. If, on the other hand, we are not beautiful enough or do not have sufficient stamina to run a marathon, the tradition would be far less certain about the value of corrective medical interventions. So the way in which we think about the proper purpose and value of our bodies will decisively shape how we define our prerogatives and, therefore, the parameters of our moral responsibilities toward them.

"But, of course, Judaism also teaches us to praise God for the wondrous workings of the body, for these are truly expressions of God's creative power. The message here is powerful and far reaching. The intricate workings of the human body are a wonder and not infrequently a source of amazement even for physicians who think of themselves as largely secular. It is important that this sense of awe is not restricted to bodies that conform to a particular cultural ideal. Indeed, the rabbis require that we recite a blessing upon seeing a person with a physical disability: 'Blessed are You, Lord our God, who fashions diverse creatures.' Seeing a body that is 'abnormal' is no less cause for praising God than seeing one that looks like a Greek statue. This teaching entails a striking reversal of many commonly held American values. The fact that we have bodies at all — and the further fact that our bodies come in such diverse forms and conditions — is far more significant than endorsing any particular ideal type of body."