The Jewish Ethicist: Girth vs. Worth
Yes Judaism believes in cultivating health and well-being, but the most important kind of health is the spiritual kind.
I received a number of questions and objections about my recent column , where I wrote that moderate overeating is not unethical. I feel that this is a very important ethical topic, and so in response to the cogent questions I received I want to further explain my position.
First of all, I wonder if the claim that overweight is an ethical failing is clearly thought out. Most Americans, after all, are overweight; should we conclude that most are unethical individuals?
Let's go a little further. The site or newspaper carrying my column also treats you to inspiring pieces by a wide array of individuals of outstanding ethical stature. As your character is strengthened by learning from these gifted individuals, do you ever wonder about their girth?
I doubt that you do, and I certainly don't believe that you should.
Many readers objected that being overweight shortens life. This claim has some ethical weight, but it is limited. Taken to extremes, it would dictate a life dedicated to increasing longevity, mortgaging our quality of life to its mere quantity. A severe "calorie reduction" diet seems to increase life expectancy even for thin people, but I don't think the average thin person is thereby unethical. Many (not all) people find that such a diet involves significant discomfort or loss of functioning, just as many overweight people find dieting unbearable. Studies show that getting more sleep increases life expectancy, but the number of waking hours is diminished. Is it unethical to get the most out of life by managing on five hours of sleep a night?
But the most important objection I have is spiritual. Of course Judaism believes in cultivating health and well-being. Maimonides the rabbi devotes an entire chapter of his authoritative legal work to giving us the benefit of the medical knowledge of Maimonides the world-famous physician. The chapter begins: "Since having a healthy and whole body is among the ways of God -- for it is impossible for a person to understand or know anything of the knowledge of the Creator when he is sick -- therefore a person is required to distance himself from anything which damages the body, and to conduct himself according to those things which invigorate and cure." The chapter goes on to detail the importance of a healthy and moderate diet, regular exercise, and adequate sleep.
But the most important kind of health and well-being is the spiritual kind. We can find a profound metaphor for this in Oscar Wilde's famous book, The Picture of Dorian Gray. In the book, a handsome young man named Dorian Gray becomes obsessed with maintaining his youthful appearance, and wishes that his portrait should age while he should remain youthful. His wish is granted, and his life of sin and dissipation make his portrait uglier and more repulsive from day to day while his own appearance is unaffected. At his death, the picture suddenly reverts to its original youthful appearance and the actual Dorian Gray dies an ugly old man.
Many Jewish sources describe a similar process, whereby our earthly deeds affect our supernal or spiritual selves. A common way of describing this process is to state that each of the 613 commandments of the Torah corresponds to one organ of this idealized human body.
A life of corruption degrades this self, as experienced by Dorian Gray. Some of the classic moralistic works try to concretize our understanding of sin by an imaging exercise, whereby we imagine ourselves missing some vital limb or organ as a result of transgression.
But a life of virtue has the opposite effect. Even as our external appearance inevitably deteriorates and our health declines with age, our spiritual "portrait" gains strength and beauty from year to year, even from minute to minute. While the materialistic culture surrounding us perceives a shriveled and frail old person, our inner vision may enable us to see a man or woman of striking beauty, which cannot be matched by any young person. As our days on earth reach their end, we continue our likeness to Dorian Gray; we change places with our portrait and enter the World of Truth with the traits we have cultivated with our deeds during our life.
The difference is that according to Judaism, we can continue to develop even after death. The Talmud tells us that the righteous go "from strength to strength" even in the world to come, for their good deeds do not end with their passing but continue to have an impact for years or even generations.
I know many individuals who waddle or wheeze their way to the bus stop, but run like gazelles to help others. While physical fitness is definitely praiseworthy and desirable, the most important key to a good and long life is our ethical fitness.
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