It’s beautiful how much emphasis there is on Shabbat and holiday celebration in the Orthodox community. However, celebration of the values of health and exercise is sorely lacking. Parents often don’t stress health and exercise for their children, and day schools fall short when it comes to creating rigorous health programs.
Happily, though, religious celebration need not compromise our commitment to health. Obesity is a major problem in the United States and a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and Type 2 diabetes. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 36 percent of American adults are obese, and the problem is getting worse.
As of 2010, every state had at least a 20 percent obesity rate, and twelve had a rate of 30 percent or higher. Even more alarming, 17 percent of children ages 2-19 are obese, and physicians are now seeing Type 2 diabetes (a disease with a normal onset age of 40) in this population. Although today about 7 percent of our population has diabetes (almost all with Type 2), the CDC predicts that one in three children born in 2000 will develop diabetes during his or her lifetime – in large part due to obesity.
U.S. statistics do not record data based on religion, but Israeli data confirm the high incidence of obesity in the Orthodox community. The Israel Health Ministry has reported that haredim are seven times more likely to be obese as other Israelis. The ministry noted, “The haredi lifestyle focuses on the dinner table…. At the same time, they don’t engage in any physical exercise.”
Other factors included a lack of practical health education in haredi schools and the poverty of many within this community, which leads to consumption of cheaper, simple carbohydrate-based foods (such as potatoes, pasta, rice, and sugar) combined with high-fat meat rather than more expensive complex carbohydrates and protein-rich foods.
There are many excuses people use to deny the seriousness of this problem, such as the claim that professional athletes are often “obese,” using current BMI charts. However, there are relatively few professional athletes among us, so in the overwhelming majority of cases obesity is a critical risk factor for many diseases.
Others do not think they are obese. Researchers at the University of Illinois found that 80 percent of individuals in the normal weight range correctly reported their weight as normal. But an alarming 58 percent of overweight individuals incorrectly categorized themselves as of a normal weight. In the overweight category, only 10 percent accurately described their body size.
Judaism addresses this issue; the sages even joke about the correlation between religiosity and health. Reish Lakish was in great shape until he became pious and lost his athletic ability, missing his typical leap over the river. Further, the great sage Hillel explains that we must take care of our bodies, since we are created in the image of God (Leviticus Rabbah 34:3).
Rav Kook (Orot HaTechiya33) suggests that exercise is actually a mitzvah. We not only sustain our lives but prepare our bodies to serve:We need a healthy body. We have dealt much in soulfulness; we forgot the holiness of the body. We neglected physical health and strength; we forgot that we have holy flesh no less than holy spirit…
Our return (teshuvah) will succeed only if it will be – with all its splendid spirituality – also a physical return, which produces healthy blood, healthy flesh, mighty, solid bodies, a fiery spirit radiating over powerful muscles….
The exercise the Jewish youths in the Land of Israel engage in to strengthen their bodies, in order to be powerful children of the nation, enhances the spiritual prowess of the exalted righteous, who engage in mystical unifications of divine names, to increase the accentuation of divine light in the world. And neither revelation of light can stand without the other.
In addition to neglect of exercise and over-consumption of meat and sugars, we should be concerned about the Jewish prohibition of achilah gasah (overeating). By learning moderation, improving our diets, and taking care of our bodies, we not only fulfill the mitzvah of preserving our lives and caring for our loaned bodies created in the image of God, we also teach our children the importance of living a balanced, holy lifestyle.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is founder and president of Uri L’Tzedek; director of Jewish life and senior Jewish educator at the UCLA Hillel; and a sixth -year doctoral candidate at Columbia University in moral psychology & epistemology. His book “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century” is available on Amazon. In April, Newsweek named him one of the most influential rabbis in America.