A size­able chal­lenge


As Britain’s ob­se­ity prob­lem hit the head­lines again this week, we set out what rab­bis should do to coun­ter­act ex­ces­sive weight-gain in the com­mu­nity.

On a re­cent trip to London, I vis­ited my grand­par­ents’ graves at Willes­den ceme­tery. Strolling through the grounds, I spot­ted the tomb­stones of friends and re­la­tions who had played for­ma­tive roles in my child­hood. But as I read the in­scrip­tions on the graves, I was shocked to dis­cover how young these peo­ple were when they died. Thank­fully, im­proved medicine, hy­giene and diet means that peo­ple are now liv­ing a lot longer. But all of that could change. With a quar­ter of Bri­tish adults obese, we’re car­ry­ing a sugar-coated death sen­tence and the na­tion’s health is at risk. Re­li­gion and fit­ness can go to­gether. But are the rab­bis pro­mot­ing it?

We know from de­bates around smok­ing that rab­binic opin­ion ad­justs ac­cord­ing to med­i­cal ad­vances. Smok­ing which was once ac­cept­able in ha­lachah is now pro­hib­ited by many lead­ing rab­bis. But food for Jews is al­ways com­pli­cated. It’s been sug­gested that “reli­gious cook­ing is gen­er­ous cook­ing”, which sounds at­trac­tive, but to­day we know that “gen­er­ous cook­ing” can kill us.

One yeshivah pub­lished its re­sponse to an anx­ious stu­dent, who asked how to bal­ance his health re­quire­ments with the rules of eti­quette when he is bom­barded by over­sized por­tions dished up by a pa­rade of wellmean­ing Jewish fam­i­lies who host him for Shab­ba­tot.

The To­rah re­peat­edly com­mands us to guard our souls (Deuteron­omy 4) and the rab­bis un­der­stood this to im­ply an obli­ga­tion to look af­ter our health. The Ram­bam in par­tic­u­lar wrote ex­ten­sively about the need for mod­er­ate eat­ing and reg­u­lar exercise. He felt these were im­por­tant spir­i­tual val­ues be­cause we should look af­ter the body that God has given us. More­over, to live the fullest pos­si­ble spir­i­tual life, we need to be as healthy as pos­si­ble. Fi­nally, the Ram­bam saw an eth­i­cal obli­ga­tion to live a life of mod­er­a­tion, ab­stain­ing from over-in­dul­gence.

Per­haps, it’s never been harder to stick to the Ram­bam’s recipe for healthy liv­ing. To­day, our su­per­mar­ket shelves are stacked with foods that are full of salt, sugar, fat and preser­va­tives. Ob­ser­vant Jews must not only ask what’s kosher, but also which foods meet our di­etary re­quire­ments for well­be­ing. For­tu­nately, guid­ance is at hand. Eliezer Me­lamed is a con­tem­po­rary Is­raeli rabbi whose se­ries of books Peninei Ha­lachah coura­geously de­fine ha­lachah for our times.

Rabbi Me­lamed stresses we should make ev­ery effort to eat healthily, avoid un­healthy food and ed­u­cate oth­ers to do so too. But he ad­mits this is not al­ways sim­ple since med­i­cal ad­vice is con­stantly chang­ing. Foods that were once con­sid­ered un­healthy are now deemed ac­cept­able, whereas foods that we thought were healthy turn out not to be. De­spite this baf­fling sit­u­a­tion, he rec­om­mends those wish­ing to meet the re­quire­ments of ha­lachah fol­low cur­rent main­stream med­i­cal opin­ion.

In set­ting out his ap­proach, Rabbi Me­lamed ac­knowl­edges that there are many other fac­tors that a rabbi must con­sider when mak­ing a ha­lachic ruling. This is par­tic­u­larly rel­e­vant to his dis­cus­sion of junk foods. The rabbi recog­nises that even foods which are not good for us won’t do great harm if they are eaten by healthy peo­ple in mod­er­a­tion. We all like the oc­ca­sional treat, so he’s reluctant to place a blan­ket pro­hi­bi­tion on them. More sig­nif­i­cantly, his re­luc­tance to ban junk food stems from a sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity to those on mod­est in­comes.

Healthy eat­ing is ex­pen­sive and if he were to pro­hibit eat­ing con­ve­nience foods, he fears that some poor peo­ple would go hun­gry rather than dis­obey. The re­sult­ing de­pri­va­tion would cre­ate un­rea­son­able suffering which might lead to even worse health com­pli­ca­tions. Fi­nally, Rabbi Me­lamed sug­gests that peo­ple who are used to eat­ing pro­cessed foods might re­act badly to go­ing cold turkey which could lead to de­pres­sion with its own for­mi­da­ble dan­gers.

While Rabbi Me­lamed is cau­tious about is­su­ing an ab­so­lute pro­hi­bi­tion on junk food, there are times where com­mon sense and ha­lachah de­mand dras­tic ac­tion. Where pa­tients have been warned by their doc­tors that eat­ing cer­tain foods will kill them, he rules that these items no longer “kosher” for them. If they do suc­cumb to temp­ta­tion, the pa­tients are sin­ning and they may not re­cite a bless­ing over these items since you don’t thank God for foods that poi­son your body. In a more con­cil­ia­tory note, the rabbi ad­vises those of us who are just over­weight to diet with mod­er­a­tion be­cause ex­treme di­et­ing can be mis­er­able for the mind and bad for the body.

It’s vi­tal for rab­bis to pro­mote healthy life­styles, but our sages were also with­er­ing about hyp­o­crit­i­cal teach­ers who “preach well, but do not live up to their own words”. Since I prob­a­bly fall into that cat­e­gory, I am go­ing to clam­ber off my couch and head for the gym now. Bon ap­pétit!

We’re car­ry­ing a sugar-coated death sen­tence and our na­tion’s health is at risk’

Gideon Sylvester is the United Syn­a­gogue’s Is­rael Rabbi



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