Editor’s Note: In this series, What the Forward?, we attempt to shed light on confusing Jewish customs, questions and observances.
A version of this article originally appeared in the Texas Jewish Post.
Q: I know rabbis that are quite obese, and I just don’t get it. I mean, doesn’t the Torah command us to be healthy?
A: I’ve heard and have been asked versions of this question many times over the years — and the answer is not simple!
First and foremost, it is improper to judge any individual case of obesity as self-inflicted, as one never knows another’s health particulars. As a doctor recently shared with me, you can, in fact, be naturally obese. From congenital leptin deficiency (leptin being the “satiety hormone” that helps to regulate energy balance by inhibiting hunger) to disorders like Prader-Willi syndrome and the insatiable hunger and chronic overeating (hyperphagia) that follows in its wake, to genetic predispositions to obesity and other environmental factors, obesity occurs in the general populace for a variety of different reasons other than lack of personal discipline and will.
In the end, it is the obese individuals alone who can honestly answer if they are actively doing everything in their power to get their weight under control. We, then, do not stand in a position to judge.
That being said, there is a perfectly fair question that lies at the heart of the aforementioned query. How are we to reconcile the fact that there are individuals, whether overweight or thin, who are scrupulous in the minutiae of Jewish law, and yet seem not to care about their health?
I have no study data to back up my thoughts on the matter, but I do believe I have a pretty strong theory: Humans do better adhering to carefully detailed laws (like those codified in Rabbi Yosef Caro’s definitive and extensive code of Jewish Law, the Shulchan Aruch) than ethereal religious ideals (all those sacred constructs left out of the Shulchan Aruch).
And while guarding oneself from potentially life threatening situations may be of Biblical origin (derived from the verse “and you shall carefully guard your souls” [Devarim 4:15]) and finds itself codified in the Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 427:8), the general admonition to maintain a healthy lifestyle is conspicuously absent from the Shulchan Aruch, seemingly consigned to the sea of Jewish values.
Maimonides, plainly omitting any Biblical or rabbinic citations when describing personal health, seems to similarly concur that keeping healthy, while of supreme Jewish value, is not technically law. Here are his words upon the matter: “Since having a healthy and whole body is integral to Divine service — as it is impossible to understand or know anything about the Creator when one is sick — one must stay far from things which destroy the body and accustom himself to things which preserve one’s health. (Mishneh Torah - Hilchot Deot 4:1)”
For better and worse, the detailed observance of Jewish law often evolves into daily habit. The bright side: We are creatures of habit and halachic habit forming is crucial to creating Judeo-centered lives. The dark side: If we’re not careful, our practice of halacha, the beating heart at the center of our Jewish practice, can descend into “mitzvat anashim m’lumdah” — the ritualistically unconscious routine that the prophet Isaiah decried many moons ago (29:13).
Unlike the well practiced observance of halacha, the infusion of Jewish ideals and values into our lives requires a kind of proactive, zeal-like consciousness and a sacred determination.
It’s about looking beyond our technical, limited duties and into the world of spiritual possibility. It is to care to become the kind of person the Torah wants us to be, something much more than the sum total of a lifetime of halachic works.
For those of whom the practice of Jewish law is more culture than mission, more habit than calling, it is the spirit of the law and our hallowed Jewish ideals, both areas that are not and cannot be codified in law, that are most likely to become the first casualties of unconscious Jewish practice. Sadly, this is a Judaism full of body but bereft of soul.
It may surprise you that the practice of unconscious Judaism endangers the fulfillment of certain laws as well, many of whom comprise the heart and soul of the religion. You see, laws like loving and fearing G-d revolve around emotions and matters of the heart and spirit, areas of which no corporeal action or religious habit suffice. Similarly, laws like “you shall be holy” (Vayikra 19:2), and, “you shall do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord” (Devarim 6:18), both of which command us to go beyond the letter of the law in both our divine and interpersonal relationships, cannot sprout in a mind that perceives law as the end all.
Don’t get me wrong: a strong commitment to a halachic lifestyle is the backbone upon which all else rests. But if we cease imbuing it with kavana, conscious intention, we may find ourselves in the predicament of Tevye from Fiddler On The Roof, a man deeply convinced of the importance of passing on the faith, but unable to meaningfully explain to the next generation why it meant anything more than mere tradition.
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