“In the Greeks alone we find the ideal of what we should like to be,” Wilhelm von Humboldt wrote in his essay Über das Studium des Altertums und des Greicheschen inbesondere (1793). By the late eighteenth century at the latest, ancient Greece, for better or worse, was regarded by many as the ideal and model for European culture. At the same time, as is well known, there were others who insisted that the worship of all things ancient and Greek was misplaced, that modernity was superior to the ancient past, and that modern Europeans would do well to reject the idealization of the ancients. Progress, in the view of the moderns, was linear, and for the most part those who lived now were better off than their ancestors. Were these the only two models offered an educated public interested in the relationship between the ancient and the modern, and the questions of knowledge, well-being, and progress?
As I've tried to show in this book, over the course of the nineteenth century an intellectual tradition developed that reinterpreted the Mosaic and rabbinic law codes as medical hygiene codes. Physicians, rabbis, professional and popular medical writers, and others working within this interpretive paradigm demonstrated the efficacy of the laws by pointing to the historical and contemporary vitality of the Jews, their longer individual life spans, their purported immunity from certain diseases, and their 3,000- year-long survival as a distinct race or Volk.