Is Exercise Kosher?
Against my better judgement, I got involved in a Facebook posting conversation. The topic was one dear to my heart: Orthodox Jews and exercise. And of course, there were the lengthy list of excuses of why we couldn’t exercise–too many kids, too tired, not a priority when we could be learning. I also noted that this conversation was one that felt somewhat risqué. Some people were ‘admitting’ to exercising, but tying it to a very practical outcome “It helps me with back pain,” or “My doctor told me to.” What has become evident to me is that many of us have latched on to a fixed mindset of what is ‘religious,’ both in culture and in theory, and as such are walking down an unnecessary path, and missing an amazing opportunity.
In a perfect world, not only is exercise and physical fitness kosher, it is a mitzvah. The Talmud relates a famous episode in which Rabbi Hillel told his students he was going to perform a mitzvah, and then went to the bathhouse to cleanse himself. When his students asked him if bathing himself was a mitzvah he said of course! If a king would build a statue in the public square, someone would be appointed to keep it clean. We, who built in G-d’s image, have a responsibility to keep ourselves clean and healthy. Maimonides gives us tips for proper exercise. Rabbis have ruled you can allow yourself to suffer in the short term for the long-term benefit of health, and the self-esteem boost related to looking good. So why is it that we have don’t see the clear connection between Judaism and exercise? Why is it we must accompany our gym hours with an excuse to our friends?
The term fixed and growth mindset is from the book Mindset by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck . In the book she explains that there are two ways we can relate to ourselves. The fixed mindset is that our skills and methodology is implanted from birth. We are smart or stupid, strong or weak, etc. The fixed mindset mentality rejects challenge because it could lead to failure; ie we aren’t as strong as we thought, or as smart, and lead us into the labyrinth of self-identity crises. As a result we don’t innovate or change because we are afraid to lose ourselves. Growth mindset is that, yes, we may have natural inclinations, but that we can become whatever we want. Therefore challenges and failures are needed to grow our skillset.
In my experience as a ba’al tshuvah, I’ve often felt that while many things certainly are not forbidden, when I would embrace them openly, I would be sent to the fringe in a religious community. What concerns me is that as our world develops and we learn more, this ‘fixed’ mentality unfortunately creates an artificial barrier to self-development in the name of religion, with significant consequences.
One of the most compelling pieces of Judaism that spoke to me as a secular Jew looking to explore my roots in college was the teaching of R’ Noach Weinberg who speaks about “Toras Chaim”–that the Torah is the ultimate guidebook for life. The G-dly authored document seeks to bring out our greatness and leads us to have the most meaningful experience possible. As a rabbi and a history buff, I would regularly teach students two facts: That our morality system, the Torah, is at times contrarian to modern morality, and at other times in line with it. Our rights and wrong stay constant while other societies change. As such, modern Jews will find themselves sometimes on the outside of what is contemporary, and at other times in the main stream, or trail blazers.
Since I start with a premise that the Torah is never antiquated, but rather something to optimize our lives both in this world and the next, I feel distressed when I see the modern Jewish world not using the tools of the modern world to reach peak performance. As innovative ideas and tools become available to us, I feel there is an imperative for those who are rooted in Torah to figure out how to deploy and use those tools to help apply Judaism in the newest medium. Rambam was seminal in using Aristotelian philosophic structures and arguments to present Judaism to the Jews of his day. When many Jews were losing their connection to Torah because of the assault by highbrow German intellectuals in the 1800’s, it took someone like R’ Hirsch to speak the language of his generation to show that Torah could be equally intellectual and scholarly.
Fast forward to today. Health and wellness have reentered the societal picture in a profound way. It’s a response to many things. It is because our modern working lifestyle doesn’t promote exercise, but instead sitting and staring at a computer screen. The food we eat is highly processed. Thank G-d our abundance of material wealth has led to us consuming a ton more food than ever before. And as such, in America at least, well over ⅔ of the population is overweight. It’s not unusual to see a skinny guy get married, and within a few years, he’s huge! And not only that, we might think that it’s a good thing as a sign of a happy marriage.
As someone who’s had to struggle with my weight and eating decisions throughout my life, I am very aware of how being overweight and unhealthy affects not only your health long term (I used to get chest pains), but affects your self-esteem. Despite arguments to the contrary, I really believe that most people who are overweight don’t want to be. People want to look and feel good. On top of it, and this is the crucial point, there is now SO much evidence that shows regular exercise is good for us both physically and mentally.
So, here’s where I get on a soapbox and get controversial. What plagues men around my age (I’m in my almost mid-thirties) is the sense that they aren’t enough. Sure, they are good husbands. Yes, most have good jobs. They support their families. They go to shul, they learn, etc. But they don’t feel good. They lack a powerful sense of self-esteem and confidence. It carries over to their enthusiasm and how they show up in life. And yes, I know you should learn more. And I do feel wonderful when I learn. But another game changer is starting to exercise seriously.
What I must stress here is that exercise doesn’t mean work out like an old person, sauntering on a treadmill. Exercise needs to be intense and fun. Rivers of sweat should be dripping off your face. You should be progressing in your physical fitness OTHERWISE ITS NOT WORKING! This means you need to find things you enjoy doing. Try new exercises. I started weight lifting. I love it. Crossfit. Cycling. MMA. Jiu Jitsu. Changing up the game, being uncomfortable, creates two things; self-confidence and self-development.
Here is the point; exercise is good; emotionally, mentally, and physically. When you see progress in your body or your physical ability, it leads to self-esteem. IT’S TANGIBLE. In a lot of other areas of life, its hard to see tangible results. We don’t get graded as parents. For many of us, we don’t see a daily increase in our professional lives. Our marriages don’t have benchmarks. Spiritually also we don’t see our progress because it’s a long game. It IS IMPORTANT to have goals in these areas but setting and achieving goals in one area sets in motion the others.
So, when I hear Jews feeling like they must justify why they are working out, or hiding that they work out, or just not going to the gym, it makes me sad. We shouldn’t over correct ourselves, reject physicality, and not want to have good looking or healthy bodies. That’s a different religion! In life, we shouldn’t stay “afloat” (i.e. just enough to be considered healthy). Confidence comes from excellence. We should feel great and challenged about how we look and feel, and that only comes with pushing it. As a guy who was FAT for most of his life, when men tell me they want to look like me, or that I don’t need to do anything to look better, it makes me sad. It’s like they see there is a benefit, but they aren’t willing to do anything about it. If I can do it, anyone can.
The way to start is to open and admit that it’s ok to exercise hard and to try to build a physical body of which you are proud. Just like you are building a soul, and a family, and a Jewish life of which you should take pride. And that takes hard work, focus, COACHING, accountability, and dedication. But the payoff is amazing. You see results, and as such, build the self-esteem to put in real hard work in other areas of your life. So yes, I do work out, I’m not ashamed of it, and I think others should do it too. Get up earlier, or go to bed later, but make it a priority. I do feel like it’s a Jewish obligation, because the macro concept here is that we want to make our world a better place, and getting ourselves in the best position to do that is imperative. The growth mindset, that we can get better, trumps the fixed mindset, that this is the way it is.