I have been struggling with weight loss my entire life. I have tried every avenue possible from dieting to hypnosis. Nothing works. I was wondering if there is some light that can be cast on this great effort of mine from a Jewish perspective; is there a Jewish approach to weight loss?
As you might guess, I think that there is a Jewish approach to everything, and certainly to food. But to dieting? Well, I will give it my best shot. To begin, one could say that the very first expectation God had of human beings was of a dietary nature.
After being placed in the Garden of Eden, God turned to the first human beings and commanded them: “Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it; for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” How’s that for diet consequences?
Humor notwithstanding, I find it illuminating that the one and only prohibition placed upon the first humans was that of a consumptive nature. Perhaps it was a not-so-subtle foreshadowing of eons of weight control foibles to follow, hitting its peak of course in the year 2005, when headlines decry the current state of the national waistline.
This directive at the very get-go of our stay on this earth is instructive. It tells us right away that inherent in an individual’s intake is a primal notion of self discipline, that endemic to the human function of eating is the human opportunity for restraint.
It is an expectation set out early on, perhaps for the People Israel a harbinger of elaborate and intricate guidelines of kashrut yet to come: humans must employ control in their ingestion of food. So critical is this expectation that it is indeed, in a sense the first commandment: “Thou shalt not eat of it.”
How’s that for a postable soundbite for that most ubiquitous of billboards employed by each of us, the refrigerator door? Those terse five words might just do the job. Certainly they are a step in the right direction.
Would that it be so simple, but fear not, there is more to the Jewish approach to dietary self-restraint than this parsimoniously worded instruction.
Perhaps a less pedantic and more philosophical approach to this ever-present human shortcoming is the philosophical path of Maimonides, a 12th-century Jewish great; he was at once a scholar, philosopher, codifier and physician.
Maimonides lays out his renowned ideas of discipline in his introduction to Pirke Avot, the ethical treatise of the Mishnah. His short but extremely edifying work is called Shmoneh Perakim (Eight Chapters). Here Maimonides unveils his simple but profound thinking on the perfecting of the human body and soul.
Good conduct is balanced between two extremes, each of which is unfavorable; one is excess and the other restriction. Personal virtue refers to tendencies of excess and restriction. For from one’s character traits comes one’s conduct. For example, restraint is the intermediate quality between indulgence and the lack of any feelings of desire. Gluttonous desire, by contrast, is one extreme and the lack of desire is another extreme.
Though this seems quite basic, it is deeply profound; Maimonides cites examples both in reference to the healing of the soul and to the healing of the body. Ultimately, together these both lead to the formation of good character. This thinking of Maimonides forms the core of his belief, known as the Middle Path or the Golden Mean.
Summing up the concept, he writes, “a person should realize the importance of directing his conduct to the middle path and that it is improper to deviate to either extreme except for the purpose of healing his conduct.” I hear dieting.
According to Maimonides, in order to correct a specific inappropriate behavior, one must temporarily embrace the opposite extreme behavior. With extraordinary generosity one can heal miserliness; with excessive humility one can heal arrogance.
Extreme behaviors are introduced to correct the misalignment; less eating in order to correct overeating, disciplined consumption in place of chaotic out-of-control eating.
Most important though, is the concept that the center is the place to be situated. The Goldilocks approach, if you will: not too small, not too big, life not in the fast lane, but rather in the middle lane.
Of course, from personal experience, this is much easier said than done. Discipline in regard to eating is a mammoth challenge, particularly given the food-centered nature of Jewish life. One barely gets the diet stared and suddenly it is Shabbat again. This calls for quite the inner fortitude. Perhaps knowing that it is indeed a Biblical command to maintain one’s health might be of assistance in this conversation. Deuteronomy 4:15 reminds us that we must guard ourselves very carefully; lead a healthy life.
The Torah expects us to take care of ourselves. It is a specific mitzvah and an essential element of leading a Jewish life to be healthy and to look after the body that God has lent to each of us for the balance of our lives here on earth. Our bodies house our souls and are the instrument through which we each are able to achieve our mission here on earth.
Think of yourself as the custodian, the noble trustee of your Divinely bestowed body. Our physical beings are a magnificent gift given to us by God, none of them perfect, but each one blessed with great potential. Part of each one of our callings here on earth must involve the maintenance of our body. How much time in your day have you set aside for attention to your Divine gift?
The Jewish approach to weight loss would then be an elegant blend of discipline, responsibility and spirituality. The discipline of the original command, the responsibility of leading a balanced life and the spirituality in knowing that we are both body and soul.
Finally, keep in mind that at the end of our lives here on earth, we will appear before our Maker. According to the Talmud we will be asked, have you enjoyed the delights of My world? Hopefully, our well-toned souls will respond yes — but in moderation.