Is Orthodoxy Unhealthy?

by | in Letters

Is Orthodoxy Unhealthy?
In Rabbi Reuven Spolter’s recent article (“Is Orthodoxy Unhealthy?,” spring 2011), the author points out the ways in which so many of us overeat on Shabbat and yamim tovim, at semachot and other events. Rabbi Spolter is correct in stating that we should all take better care of our bodies.
However, we should also keep in mind the many ways in which the Orthodox Jewish lifestyle promotes health–psychological and physical, as well as spiritual. For example, a large body of research demonstrates that those who pray regularly are both physically and psychologically happier. With our thrice daily prayers, we Orthodox Jews pray more than practitioners of any other religion (with the possible exception of Muslims).

Steven J. Scher, PhD
Professor of Psychology
Eastern Illinois University
Charleston, Illinois

I want to thank Rabbi Spolter for his excellent and revealing expose into the eating habits of the Orthodox community. And yes, we will fight to cling to every last second of life in many ways, but we tend to be neglectful of the basic mitzvah of v’nishmartem meod l’nafshoseichem. Our poor eating habits and gluttony are half the problem. The other half is exactly how to do teshuvah. We have all heard our doctors, or spouses, tell us to “lose weight.” Then we go on a diet, and if we are anything like 97 percent of society, after the initial success we end up failing and gaining it all back—if not more. And to top it off, as Orthodox Jews, being unhealthy is a lot more than just being unhealthy—it is an aveirah, period. A few examples of sources:

The Rambam (Hilchos Deos 4:1,14) writes: Because for the body to be healthy and wholesome is among the ways of Hashem . . . therefore a person must distance himself from those things that cause his body damage . . . And they stated another rule relating to the health of the body: As long as a person engages in physical activity [exercise] and works hard . . . no illness will attack him and his strength will increase.

The Be’er HaGolah at the very end of Choshen Mishpat tells us there is no bigger hefkerus than not taking care of oneself.

The only truly effective way to rectify the problem of obesity and its many related illnesses is to combine behavior modification with moderate, consistent and balanced exercise and good eating habits. Deprivation won’t work, but changing your thought process will. To change the habits of an individual, let alone an entire community, is hard work, but the payoff is a better quality of life, a longer life, and more money to spend, not on unnecessary medical expenses but on ourselves or others in need.

Alan Freishtat
Certified Personal Trainer (ACE)
Lifestyle Fitness Coaching
Jerusalem

Rabbi Spolter has written a very important piece about staying healthy by avoiding excessive eating and damaging foods.

I would add three points:

First, to make do with little is an age-old Jewish pietistic ideal, not just a necessity of health.

Second, all this Shabbos eating that Rabbi Spolter describes also takes place, perhaps not so extensively but nonetheless excessively, during the week. Because of that, Shabbos as a time of special food treats cannot be appreciated.

Third, while Rabbi Spolter correctly emphasizes appropriate diet as critical for good health, a good diet by itself will not likely keep the body healthy. Also needed is—regular exercise!

Again, thanks to the rabbi for raising an important issue too long swept under the rug.

Rabbi Hillel Goldberg, PhD
Denver, Colorado

Rabbi Spolter’s article ignores the following. In an article (“L’Chaim in Bnei Brak,” http://www.jewishmediaresources.com/376//lchaim-in-bnei-brak, accessed February 26, 2001), Jonathan Rosenblum wrote:

Here’s an interesting statistic. Bnei Brak, Israel’s most religious city, also has the highest average life expectancy: 81.1 years for women and 77.4 years for men.

What makes that finding even more curious is that Bnei Brak also happens to be Israel’s poorest city, thus confounding the normal correlation between poverty and poor health.

Certainly heightened health consciousness cannot explain the longevity of Bnei Brak residents. Many men still smoke, and a quick glance around the city is sufficient to establish that news of the benefits of exercise and a low-fat diet has not yet reached most of Bnei Brak’s inhabitants.

A growing body of scientific evidence suggests the key to the longevity of Bnei Brak residents may well be their religiosity. Fully three-quarters of the 300 studies to date of the relationship between religious belief and health demonstrate a positive correlation. Various studies have shown that religious belief and regular attendance at religious services are associated with reduced doctor visits, a lower incidence of certain forms of cancer and heart disease, and decreased post-operative mortality and quicker rates of recovery.

Surprisingly, Rabbi Spolter also makes no mention of the role of exercise in maintaining good health. In his article “Physical Culture in Rabbinical Literature in Modern Times” [Korot, 15 (2001): 56–95], Aaron Ahrend writes:

Rabbi Yisrael Meir Hacohen, the Hafetz Haim, surprisingly enough, adopted this approach in an extreme manner at the beginning of the century. In a lecture on ethics which he gave at the yeshiva of Radin in 5653. . . [he stated that], avoiding physical activity because of bittul Torah is advice of the evil inclination, since by doing so, man is weakened and consequently is completely devoid of Torah, as he says:

“Do not study overmuch. Man must preserve the body so that it is not weakened, so that it does not fall ill, and for that it is crucial to rest and relax, to breathe fresh air. A walk should be taken toward evening, or sit at home and rest. When possible, a swim in the river is good for strengthening the body.

Overindulgence in study is the advice of the evil inclination, which counsels working too hard in order to weaken the body, after which the person will be obliged to refrain entirely from Torah study, so that in the end his reward is his loss.”

The Hafetz Haim himself explains the background to his approach later in the discussion: he related that during his youth he studied more than his strength would allow and weakened his eyes. Subsequently the doctors ordered him not to read for two years, so that his reward was his loss.

In light of the above, shouldn’t our yeshivahs encourage boys and girls to get regular exercise? Shouldn’t they provide facilities for physical activity and build time for this into the school day? After all, good habits acquired when one is young are often the foundation for similar actions later in life. And shouldn’t the Orthodox community encourage its adult members to exercise regularly?

Clearly, there is more to good health than just limiting how much one eats.

Professor Yitzchok Levine
Department of Mathematical Sciences
Stevens Institute of Technology
Hoboken, New Jersey

This article was featured in Jewish Action Fall 2011.

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