As a fitness trainer, I wonder: do health and fitness have a place in Judaism? It seems that the secular world encourages a healthy life far more than the Jewish world does. I hear rabbis talk about spiritual matters, but find it hard to listen to them if they themselves are overweight. Is physical wellbeing not important?
The scales of merit are not found in heaven anymore, but are right there on the bathroom floorIn our modern world, we are seeing health as the new morality. Good and bad are now measured in calories. My cereal box invites me to “taste the goodness”—not a moral value, but rather a nutritional one. The scales of merit are not found in heaven anymore, but are right there on the bathroom floor, and the daily judgment is pronounced in kilos and pounds.
This all makes sense if you see the human being as just a body without a soul. If the flesh is all there is, health becomes the highest ideal. But from the Jewish perspective, the soul is our true self, and the body its vehicle. The body and its health are important only because through them we express our higher self. More so, while our body houses our soul, it is a gift from our Creator to use while we are in this world. As it is on loan to us and therefore does not truly belong to us, we must always treat it with respect.
The great Jewish thinker, Maimonides, wrote in the 12th century:
“Caring for the health and wellbeing of the body is one of the ways of serving G‑d.”
And he immediately explains why:
“One is unable to think clearly and comprehend truth if he is unwell.”
If your mind is cloudy, you may lack moral clarity to know what’s right. While battling with illness, we may not find the stamina to battle the ills of the world. That’s why we need to look after our bodies. A healthy body is not in itself our life’s purpose; it helps us fulfill our purpose. It is a vehicle that transports us towards goodness, but it is not the destination.
Jewish tradition provides no excuse for being unhealthyJewish tradition provides no excuse for being unhealthy. On the contrary, it gives the best reason possible to live healthy: life has meaning and purpose, and each day is precious. Only if life has meaning is it worth taking care of. The risks of high cholesterol, heavy smoking and drug use are a concern only to one who values life. The threat of a shorter lifespan means nothing to someone who sees life as pointless.
We are the healthiest generation in recent history, and our life expectancy is reaching biblical proportions. This means we have more time and energy to fulfill our purpose—to elevate our corner of the world, and tip the scales towards true goodness.