With the Olympics coming up, and with world attention focused on the brawny athletes who will be competing for gold, silver, and bronze medals in London, it is a good time to see what Judaism has to say about exercise and sport. We will use Rabbi Kook as our mentor and phys-ed instructor, and draw from his teachings, which appear in his books, Orot and Orot HaT’shuva.
Rabbi Kook begins his exploration of t’shuva, or penitence, by telling us that a person seeking happiness in life should have a healthy body and mind. The concept of t’shuva, which goes far beyond its normal understanding as making atonement for one’s sins, begins with the simple advice to be healthy. T’shuva is essentially a return to one’s roots. To do this, a person must first return to his natural physical well being, to his natural physical self. To reach inner peace and harmony with the world, an individual must first have a healthy body.
In our days, where health-food stores and sports clubs abound, this simple teaching is known to almost everyone. A healthy body is the basis of all creative endeavor. What is new, however, is that Rabbi Kook sees this as part of the process of t’shuva. Being in good shape is an important factor not only in attaining personal well-being, but also in forging a connection to God.
Rabbi Kook writes: “Every bad habit must cause illness and pain. Because of this, the individual and the community suffer greatly. After a person realizes that his own improper behavior is responsible for his life’s physical decline, he thinks to correct the situation, to return to the laws of healthy living, to adhere to the laws of nature, of morality, and of Torah, so that he may return to live filled with all of life’s vigor” (Orot HaT’shuva, 1).
To hook up with the spiritual channels connecting heaven and earth, a person must first be in a healthy physical state. For instance, one of the basic requirements of prophecy is a strong, healthy body (Rambam, Foundations of the Torah, 7:1). Physical and spiritual health go together. The Rambam, who worked as a physician when he was not studying Torah, has systematically detailed in his writings the rules of healthy living, stressing the importance of exercise, proper diet, and bodily care as a prerequisite to keeping the Torah (Laws of De’ot, Ch.4).
Today, everyone seems to have a battery of doctors. People cannot seem to do without an assortment of pills. Medical clinics are filled up months in advance. Yet the natural state of a man is to be healthy. Physical ailment, lethargy, and being overweight are all signs that the body is in need of repair. Sometimes the remedy is medicine. Sometimes a proper diet. Sometimes rest and relaxation are the cure.
Rabbi Kook’s call to return to a state of natural well-being has been partly answered in our generation. Today, there is a vast world industry in being natural. We have natural foods, natural organic vegetables and fruits, natural whole wheat bread, natural herbal teas and medicines, natural clothes, natural childbirth, and an assortment of back-to-nature lifestyles. In the past, it was written on food labels which ingredients were included. Now it is often written which ingredients are NOT INCLUDED: no preservatives, no additives, no salt, no sugar, no carbohydrates, no artificial coloring, and the like.
In line with this return-to-Eden existence, Rabbi Kook teaches that when a person corrects an unhealthy habit, he or she is doing t’shuva. It turns out that gyms and health clubs from California to Miami are filled with people doing t’shuva. If you are riding an exercise bike to get back into shape, you are coming closer to God. Tennis players are doing t’shuva. In Las Vegas, even though the morals of the people in aerobics classes may be bent out of shape, they too are engaged in the beginnings of t’shuva.
Accordingly, if a person stops smoking, he is engaging in repentance. If a fat person goes on a diet, he is embarked on a course of personal perfection and tikun. When a teenager who is addicted to Coke begins to drink fruit juice instead, he is returning to a healthier state. In place of caffeine, his blood will be carrying vitamins throughout all of his system. In the language of the Rambam, this person is replacing a food which merely tastes good, with one that is beneficial to the human metabolism (Laws of De’ot, 5:1). As he explains, a person should always eat what is healthy and not merely foods that give his taste buds a lift. Interestingly, the Rambam’s guide to healthy living, written generations ago, reads like the newest best-seller on the market.
It is important to note that while physical wellbeing is a basic rule of good living, the injunction to be healthy is a principle of Torah. We are called upon to “carefully guard your life” (Devarim, 4:9). This is a warning to avoid needless danger and to watch over our health. Inflicting any kind of physical damage on oneself (like excessive cigarette smoking) is forbidden (Igrot Moshe, Even HaEzer, 4:76). The Rambam explains: “Having a whole and healthy body is part and parcel of serving God, for it is impossible to have understanding and wisdom in the matter of knowing the Creator if a man is ill. Therefore one must avoid things which damage the body and to habituate oneself with things promoting health” (Laws of De’ot, 4:1).
Rabbi Kook teaches that t’shuva is bound up with personal strength and valor. Man was created to be a strong, active creature. This is true not only for Olympic athletes, but for spiritually enlightened people as well. The holy men of the Torah possessed not only great personal attributes and wisdom, but also great physical prowess. Though Yaacov spent all of his youth studying Torah, he could lift up a huge boulder when needed (Bereshit, 29:10). The “little” shepherd boy David was able to overcome lions and bears (Shmuel 1,17:34-36). And the holy spirit (Ruach HaKodesh) which marked Samson’s life was marked by incredible physical prowess.
Rabbi Kook writes that a person must do t’shuva for physical weaknesses and their consequences. For instance, a person who is overweight and easily tired may lack the energy to perform the commandments with the proper enthusiasm, or he may feel too weak to resist bodily temptations. His fatigue may interfere with his Torah learning and prayer. In God’s service, a strong body and a strong mind go hand-in-hand.
Rabbi Kook explains that a weakening of the will is due in large measure to a lack of physical energy and strength (Orot HaT’shuva, 14:20). When a person’s willpower is weak, he can fall into many bad habits. As part of his overall mending, he must improve his physical health, as well as his moral and spiritual worlds.
Interestingly, Rabbi Kook was fiercely condemned by certain ultra-Orthodox groups who belonged to the Old Settlement in Jerusalem when he extolled the virtues of exercise and a healthy physique. In his classic work, Orot, Rabbi Kook writes that the exercise of young Jews in Eretz Yisrael, in order to strengthen their bodies to become mighty sons to the nation, adds overall strength to the Jewish people, which enables the righteous to bring more Divine light into the world (Orot, Orot HaTechiya, pg.80).
“When young people engage in sport to strengthen their physical capabilities and morale for the sake of increasing the overall strength of the nation…, this holy endeavor raises the Divine Presence ever higher, just as it is exalted by the songs and praises sung by David, King of Israel, in the Book of Psalms….” (Ibid).
Upon hearing this comparison between sport and the Psalms of King David, the ultra-Orthodox community in Jerusalem vehemently attacked Rabbi Kook. They were afraid that any praise of the secular Zionists could lead to a crumbling of barriers between the holy and the profane. In addition, their negative attitude toward the praise of physical strength can be seen as having evolved from the miserable state of the Jew in the exile, where Diaspora Jews were helpless against the oppression of the gentiles. A philosophy developed whereby a Jew was supposed to look solely to God for salvation and rescue. The Jews were so outnumbered, how could they fight? Physical prowess was meaningless. A Jew had to rely solely on Torah and prayer. While that might have been true in the Diaspora, with the return of the Jewish people to Israel, physical strength became a necessity if the Jews were to successfully settle the Land and defend Jewish settlements against bloodthirsty Arab attacks.
In the generation of national revival, as the Jewish Nation returns to its Homeland, a new type of religious Jew must appear to take up the challenge. Rabbi Kook writes:
“Our physical demand is great. We need a healthy body. Through our intense preoccupation with spirituality, we forgot the holiness of the body. We neglected bodily health and strength. We forgot that we have holy flesh, no less than our holy spirit. We abandoned practical life, and negated our physical senses, and that which is connected to the tangible physical reality, out of a fallen fear (that God doesn’t include the physical world within the realm of holiness), due to a lack of faith in the holiness of the Land” (Orot, Orot HaTechiya, pg.80).
In fact, it is the revival of the Nation’s physical strength which brings about a renewed spiritual strengthening, which we can see today as Israel has turned into the Torah center of the world.
“For the t’shuva of the Nation to succeed, along with its spiritual splendor, there also must be a physical t’shuva which produces healthy blood, healthy flesh, firm, mighty bodies, and a flaming spirit spreading over powerful muscles. Through the power of the sanctified flesh, the weakened soul will shine forth — like the physical resurrection of the dead” (Ibid).
Jews are not to be “nebechs,” weaklings whom everyone can push around. We need not be ashamed of our bodies. We must be strong to learn Gemara, and strong to build and defend the Land.
(The above overview was condensed from our book, The Art of T’shuva, an easy-reading guide to Rabbi Kook’s incomparable writings on the life-saving wonders of t’shuva.)
About the Author: Tzvi Fishman was awarded the Israel Ministry of Education Prize for Creativity and Jewish Culture for his novel "Tevye in the Promised Land." A wide selection of his books are available at Amazon.The author's opinion does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Jewish Press.
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