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.