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Jewish World Review
Jan. 30, 2006
/ 30 Teves, 5766
Girth vs. worth
Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir
Yes Judaism believes in cultivating health and well-being, but the most important kind of health is the spiritual kind
I received a number of questions and objections about
my recent column where I
wrote that moderate overeating is not unethical . I
feel that this is a very important ethical topic, and
so in response to the cogent questions I received I
want to further explain my position.
First of all, I wonder if the claim that overweight is
an ethical failing is clearly thought out. Most
Americans, after all, are overweight; should we
conclude that most are unethical individuals?
Let's go a little further. The site or newspaper
carrying my column also treats you to inspiring pieces
by a wide array of individuals of outstanding ethical
stature. As your character is strengthened by learning
from these gifted individuals, do you ever wonder
about their girth?
I doubt that you do, and I certainly don't believe
that you should.
Many readers objected that being overweight shortens
life. This claim has some ethical weight, but it is
limited. Taken to extremes, it would dictate a life
dedicated to increasing longevity, mortgaging our
quality of life to its mere quantity. A severe
"calorie reduction" diet seems to increase life
expectancy even for thin people, but I don't think the
average thin person is thereby unethical. Many (not
all) people find that such a diet involves significant
discomfort or loss of functioning, just as many
overweight people find dieting unbearable. Studies
show that getting more sleep increases life
expectancy, but the number of waking hours is
diminished. Is it unethical to get the most out of
life by managing on five hours of sleep a night?
But the most important objection I have is spiritual.
Of course Judaism believes in cultivating health and
well-being. Maimonides the rabbi devotes an entire
chapter of his authoritative legal work to giving us
the benefit of the medical knowledge of Maimonides the
world-famous physician. The chapter begins: "Since
having a healthy and whole body is among the ways of
G-d for it is impossible for a person to understand
or know anything of the knowledge of the Creator when
he is sick therefore a person is required to
distance himself from anything which damages the body,
and to conduct himself according to those things which
invigorate and cure." The chapter goes on to detail
the importance of a healthy and moderate diet, regular
exercise, and adequate sleep.
But the most important kind of health and well-being
is the spiritual kind. We can find a profound metaphor
for this in Oscar Wilde's famous book, The Picture of
Dorian Gray. In the book, a handsome young man named
Dorian Gray becomes obsessed with maintaining his
youthful appearance, and wishes that his portrait
should age while he should remain youthful. His wish
is granted, and his life of sin and dissipation make
his portrait uglier and more repulsive from day to day
while his own appearance is unaffected. At his death,
the picture suddenly reverts to its original youthful
appearance and the actual Dorian Gray dies an ugly old
Many Jewish sources describe a similar process,
whereby our earthly deeds affect our supernal or
spiritual selves. A common way of describing this
process is to state that each of the 613 commandments
of the Torah corresponds to one organ of this
idealized human body.
A life of corruption degrades this self, as
experienced by Dorian Gray. Some of the classic
moralistic works try to concretize our understanding
of sin by an imaging exercise, whereby we imagine
ourselves missing some vital limb or organ as a result
But a life of virtue has the opposite effect. Even as
our external appearance inevitably deteriorates and
our health declines with age, our unique spiritual
"portrait" gains strength and beauty from year to
year, even from minute to minute. While the
materialistic culture surrounding us perceives a
shriveled and frail old person, our inner vision may
enable us to see a man or woman of striking beauty,
which cannot be matched by any young person. As our
days on earth reach their end, we continue our
likeness to Dorian Gray; we change places with our
portrait and enter the World of Truth with the traits
we have cultivated with our deeds during our life.
The difference is that according to Judaism, we can
continue to develop even after death. The Talmud tells
us that the righteous go "from strength to strength"
even in the world to come, for their good deeds do not
end with their passing but continue to have an impact
for years or even generations.
I know many individuals who waddle or wheeze their way
to the bus stop, but run like gazelles to help others.
While physical fitness is definitely praiseworthy and
desirable, the most important key to a good and long
life is our ethical fitness.
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THE JEWISH ETHICIST, NOW IN BOOK FORM
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JWR contributor Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir, formerly of the Council of Economic Advisers in the Reagan
administration, is Research Director of the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem, Jerusalem College of Technology.
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© 2005, The Jewish Ethicist is produced by the JCT Center for Business Ethics