Is there a Jewish obligation to look after your health - diet / exercise / etc? I feel like the centrality of food in Jewish culture and ritual is really damaging to other values, like guarding your life. Is there a real basis for my discomfort?
Food can be pervasive in Jewish culture, as it is in many cultures. However, gluttony and sloth are not honored in Jewish tradition. In fact, the opposite is the case.
Let us look at the writings of the Rambam—Moses Maimonides (d. 1204, Egypt). He is renowned for being a great Jewish philosopher, rabbi and physician. His writings throughout are filled with the necessity of balance in one’s life, in every possible respect.
His philosophical writings, for example his phenomenally important introduction to the Mishnah of Avot—Ethics of the Fathers, known as the Shemonah Perakim—Eight Chapters, deal with the wellbeing of the nefesh or soul. Soul in this case, as it is understood in Judaism throughout, does not mean a disembodied spirit (as understood in Christianity), rather the totality of the human being.
Maimonides speaks at the outset about diseases of the soul and in chapter four, concerning the cure of the diseases of the soul. He writes about what has become known as the she-vil ha-zahav—the Golden Mean, “Good deed are such as are equi-balanced, maintaining the mean between two equally bad extremes, the too much and the too little. Virtues are psychic conditions and dispositions which are midway between two reprehensible extremes, one of which is characterized by an exaggeration, the other by a deficiency. Good deeds are the product of these dispositions.…”
“Now, let me return to my subject. If a person will always carefully discriminate as regards his actions, directing them to the medium course, he will reach the highest degree of perfection possible to a human being, thereby approaching God, and sharing in His happiness. This is the most acceptable way of serving God….”
While Maimonides’ book, the Eight Chapters deals in the main with the psychic reality and disposition of humankind and the virtue of the Golden Mean, he eventually codified this in his major work of Jewish law, in the Mishneh Torah. In his first book, the Book of Knowledge, Laws Relating to Moral Dispositions and Ethical Conduct, he speaks explicitly of proper behavior in accordance with Torah teaching. It is instructive to look at this to grasp how Maimonides grappled with the very human tendencies to seek extremes of behavior, while shunning the medium path leading to and maintaining good health.
Maimonides writes, “A person should aim to maintain physical health and vigor, in order that their soul may be upright, in a condition to know God. For it is impossible for one to understand sciences and meditate upon them when he is hungry or sick, or when any of his limbs is aching.” (Law 3)
A most direct statement to the effect that physical health is vital to make possible the proper service of God, is to be found in chapter four, “Since by keeping the body in health and vigor one walks in the ways of God—it being impossible during sickness to have any understanding or knowledge of the Creator—it is a person’s duty to avoid whatever is injurious to the body, and cultivate habits conducive to health and vigor.” (Law 1)
Often times, we are misled into thinking that Judaism demands a particular action based on our exposure to certain persons who seem to practice the religion seriously, while acting in other ways which seem to fly in the face of what would intuitively appear to be proper. We must always take into account that we are all ‘human’ and subject to the frailties of any other mortal.
We, however, must take care and do our best to follow the paths to good physical and mental wellbeing as expected in the Judaism taught by our sages, as delineated in the works of Maimonides, urging us to pursue the Golden Mean in all that we do.
Yes, there actually is a basis in Judaism for your discomfort at the cultural excesses that often take place regarding food within Jewish tradition and culture, Food is such an integral part of our rituals and celebrations and it is certainly tempting to not eat in moderation, to sit too much and not get the proper exercise and diet. I strongly believe that it is a Jewish concern to take care of both our physical and spiritual health. As a matter of fact, we read in the opening chapter of Genesis, 1:27, that we have been created 'b'tzelem Elohim' in God's image. Of course, we know that God doesn't possess a physical body as we do, but it is in the spirit of God that we have been given the bodies we inhabit. They should not be abused or misused, like something to be thrown away without a second thought.
Throughout our tradition, we have many texts which speak about the wonder of our bodies, a gift to be treasured and treated with respect. One of the surprising blessings that speaks to this is the one found in the beginning of our prayer books, 'asher yatzar'. What many do not realize is that, in reality, this a blessing to be recited after one has used the bathroom! And why would we utter such a thing? "Blessed are You, O Lord our God, Sovereign of the universe, who has with wisdom created humanity and has fashioned with them openings and passageways. It is revealed and known before Your holy throne that if just one of these were perforated or obstructed, it would be impossible to survive before You. Praised are You, O Lord, who heals all creatures and does wonders." Even such a bodily function as going to the bathroom is a wonder, a mystery. If we have ever had intestinal problems, we know what it's like when our bodies don't function properly! So it's not surprising that the rabbis chose to express gratitude to God in such a way as an example of the wondrous gifts God has given to us. Not eating a proper diet, over indulging, consuming foods which are unhealthy or potentially damaging goes against the very values that our tradition holds so highly.
Another concept within Judaism is that our physical body is the vessel in which our souls reside. Again, at the beginning of the morning service, we find another prayer which speaks to this idea. (It's not surprising that both these prayers are found at the start of the morning service, even before the formal prayers begin. It is important that as we begin our day, we are cognizant of the bodies which will carry us through the remainder of our waking hours.) "While my soul still dwells within my body, I shall offer thanks to You, O Lord my God and God of my ancestors, Lord of all creation, Master of all souls." If we do not manage our bodies properly, if we do not treat them with care and respect, how can we offer praise to God? It is only through our physical well being that our souls are able to sign praises to God. We have been given many opportunities to act in ways that bring honor to God and God's world. Without the well being of our bodies, this would be an impossibility. We are a concern of God's for just that reason and it goes without saying that we must take care of the bodies we inhabit.
Many take good care of their cars, bring it in for regular oil changes, service checks, we wash and ensure that it remains in good condition. At the very least, we should do the same for our bodies,
In addressing your question, I can’t possibly improve upon the following statement of Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam; Maimonides) in his great code of Jewish law, the Mishneh Torah (HilkhotDe`ot 4:1). There, he teaches that keeping our bodies healthy is an integral part of our worship of God, “for it is impossible for one to gain any knowledge of the Creator when one is ill.” Therefore, he continues, one must abstain from substances and habits that weaken the body and behave in ways that are conducive to physical health. He follows this with a detailed prescription (remember that Rambam was a physician) for a proper diet, good sleeping habits, sufficient exercise and prudent personal hygiene. Given that Rambam was working on the basis of the best available science in his time – the 12th century – it is quite possible that we today would disagree with some or many of his instructions. His basic point, however, is as relevant as it ever was: the preservation of bodily health and well-being is an essential element of Jewish religious teaching. So, to respond directly to your question: yes, there is a Jewish obligation to look after one’s diet, exercise, etc. Or, to put this differently: there is no mitzvah that requires us to overeat or to eat an unhealthy diet.
You’re right that food is a central element in “Jewish culture and ritual.” But then, the same can be said for other cultural traditions. And while some say that “Jewish cuisine” (especially the Eastern European variety familiar to many American Jews) is fatty, starchy, caloric, and what-not, this doesn’t have to be the case. Real Jewish cuisine is as varied and as interesting and as potentially nutritious as any other. Take a look at Tina Wasserman’s Entrée to Judaism: A Culinary Exploration of the Jewish Diaspora (URJ Press, 2009) if you don’t believe me. There is no reason why Jews cannot eat “Jewish” and “healthy” at the same time. All it takes is some sekhel (intelligence; common sense), some planning, some will power, and a deeper appreciation of what “Jewish culture and ritual” really do require of us.
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