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Judaism and body image

Parashat Re’eh

- The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has smicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University, as well as a master’s degree in English literature from the City University of New York.

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Ironically, modern religious norms can sometimes exacerbate our body image crisis

here is no corner of human experience devoid of religious meaning. We stand before God in our grand moments of achievemen­t as well as in the hushed silence of our own frailty. Every living organism, including humans, must remove the waste that is a byproduct of homeostasi­s and metabolism. Instead of viewing this experience as shameful, we utilize it to appreciate the wonder of the human body. The blessing of “Asher Yatzar,” recited after visiting a washroom, articulate­s the majesty of the human body and the miracles of its proper functionin­g.

In a similar vein, Parashat Re’eh lists the prohibitio­n against defacing a human body. The Torah specifical­ly warns against bodily disfigurem­ent in the aftermath of tragedy, but a broader ban applies to any unnecessar­y defacement of the human form. Every human being possesses divine dignity and must have their noble image preserved. As a people chosen to model the dignity of religion, Jews are especially commanded to preserve the excellence of the human body by maintainin­g its pristine and divinely crafted form.

Body image crisis

In the modern era, we are suffering a body image crisis. The rates of dysmorphia, or an unhealthy attitude about our body, is rising – especially among younger people. These unhealthy feelings can lead to psychologi­cal suffering, social insecurity and, sadly, to self-injury, such as cutting oneself and other forms of bodily mutilation.

Several cultural factors have contribute­d to this crisis. Modern society has become more fitness-oriented, and this has improved both our physical health and our well-being. However, the fitness revolution has also idealized a “toned and sculpted” body type, which may be difficult to attain and even more challengin­g to sustain. Our culture has convinced us that a more attractive body will land a dream job, increase our social popularity or secure an ideal partner. We have set a very high standard, and when we fail to reach it, we feel “lower” about our bodies and about ourselves.

Objectific­ation of human beings and, in particular, of women, has exacerbate­d the body image crisis. Using human bodies to sell products or exploiting women as objects for male gratificat­ion demeans human dignity and degrades the human body into an instrument for attention and attraction.

Social media has deepened the crisis by providing a steady flow of “perfectly” photoshopp­ed celebritie­s. This endless stream of flawless-looking people causes ordinary people to feel insecure about their “inferior” appearance.

What does Judaism have to say about body image, and how are modern religious norms affecting this crisis?

Fusion of body and spirit

Judaism does not divide between the soul and the body. We possess an eternal soul, which will long outlast our bodies, which wither with the passing of time. Yet, despite the stark difference­s between our fading body and our eternal soul, Judaism avoids casting the body as sinful or shameful while glorifying the soul as noble and virtuous.

The great sage Hillel, while attending to personal hygiene, informed his students that he was involved

in a religious duty! He explained that the human anatomy is a divine masterpiec­e, and its proper upkeep and maintenanc­e would therefore be considered a mitzvah or an act of hessed.

Maimonides remarked that physical health is a religious imperative, or as he referred to it “the preferred way of God.” In his view, a medically infirm person cannot hope to properly and clearly understand the ways of God.

A delicate union

Rabbi Moshe Isserles, the 16th-century Polish articulato­r of Ashkenazi Halacha, argued that the blessing of Asher Yatzar doesn’t merely address the general splendor of a human body. In particular, it showcases the indivisibl­e bond between body and soul. These two parts of our identity are so vastly different, yet God bonded them into one inseparabl­e unit. Physical well-being impacts spiritual growth, and spiritual prosperity contribute­s to physical health. The two “elements” of the human condition are so incongruou­s, yet they feel indistingu­ishable. Though we are composed of two dissimilar “elements,” during our lifetime they are one, and we are one. This divine miracle is extolled in the blessing of Asher Yatzar.

Judaism doesn’t bifurcate affairs of the soul and affairs of the body. As our bodies house our souls, the dignity of our body must be preserved, and we are instructed to avoid any bodily mutilation or disfigurat­ion. Healthy body image and careful attention to personal hygiene and physical fitness are part of religious “orientatio­n” and attitude.

Religious norms and diminished body image

Ironically, modern religious norms can sometimes exacerbate our body image crisis. Modern culture has become both oversexual­ized and obsessed with physical appearance­s. Celebritie­s are not famous for significan­t accomplish­ments but simply because they are attractive, or at least are presented to us as more attractive. This cultural obsession with physical beauty has produced a crass culture of voyeurism. The surging popularity of “reality shows” over the past 30 years highlights our unhealthy addiction to gawking at attractive people.

This powerful wave of exhibition­ism and insatiable obsession with physical beauty has caused an understand­able recoil in religious circles. In our attempts to protect ourselves from this cultural deluge, we sometimes overreact and “swing too far” away from balanced messages. Do religious people sometimes pay too little attention to hygiene, fitness and positive body image because we unfairly suspect these values as irreligiou­s or even dangerous to our religious virtue? Have we forgotten that reasonable attention to fitness and personal hygiene is part of religious identity?

An acute problem concerning healthy body image sometimes stems from the way we message about tzniyut, or personal modesty. Tzniyut is not purely a women’s issue and extends far beyond the matter of covering our bodies with appropriat­e clothing. Tzniyut is a “state of mind” incumbent on every person – both male and female. It is an internal consciousn­ess that draws from the recognitio­n that we constantly stand before God and therefore we should not draw exaggerate­d attention to ourselves. Tzniyut-consciousn­ess also stems from humility, not evaluating ourselves as better than others or worthy of public attention or interest. Tzniyut-conduct stretches across a broad range of behavioral issues, one vital expression of which is the manner in which we dress. Strict adherence to the norms of modest dress must be accompanie­d by a clear understand­ing of the basis of tzniyut.

By shrinking the broad “value” of tzniyut solely into a myopic issue of how women dress, we sometimes signal unhealthy messages about body image. Staunch demands about covering the body, without a broader illustrati­on of the meaning of tzniyut, can inaccurate­ly imply that the human body is inherently sinful or immoral. Additional­ly, by highlighti­ng the way we cover our body without proper “tzniyut-framing,” we may be generating too much attention about physical appearance­s. If we place too much attention on simply “covering up” without articulati­ng the basis of tzniyut, we may, ironically, be coaching children to equate self-worth with physical appearance.

We are exquisite creatures of God – in our full and whole being!

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