The Nanny State: Super-Sized Slurpees and Shopping on Shabbat

If I want to go into a restaurant or fast food joint (I don’t count these as restaurants) and buy a 64 oz coke and drink all 1000 calories worth of it myself, why shouldn’t that be my right? Why should Michael Bloomberg or any other politician have the right to tell me what I can or cannot eat? What’s next, coming into my house and telling me that I’ve had enough junk food for the week? Is the State going to set calorie limits on meals at restaurants? Prevent me from entering Dunkin Donuts more than once a week? Take away my nightly spoonful of Ben and Jerry’s! I live in a democracy,and I have a right to eat whatever I want!

True, true, true. But all of these complaints are missing the point. When the city of New York banned the sale of super-sized drinks, it did not curtail a person’s freedom to drink as much Coke or any other sugary soft drink as he desires. Rather, the state has facilitated the right choice (or in this case, at least a better choice)–a smaller portion.

Understanding the modern state as facilitator of physical (and mental) health is an important way of looking at how the government can have a role in the parts of life that individuals find hard to control. Leaving an individual to make unguided, unfettered choices about health and exercise dooms a weak human being (which we all are) to make wrong choices. An average human being cannot consistently stand up against the immense marketing power of the big businesses whose products urge us to make unhealthy and unwise choices. In a sense, our free choice has already been whittled away by the constant bombardment of advertising to consume ever more. The state should see its role as combating these forces. It can do so by making eating healthy foods cheaper by subsidizing them, instead of the current situation in which junk tends to be food to be a cheaper source of calories. The state should make exercise facilities available and even free to all. It should provide incentives for healthy and environmentally sound living. Citizens in a democracy should be free to make wrong choices (as long as they don’t harm others). However, making better choices should be consistently easier and cheaper than what are by consensus considered wrong choices. Smoking, unsafe sex, unhealthy eating, and sedentary living are just some wrong choices that come to mind.

I believe that something similar can be said about one of the most sensitive topics in Israel–the role of Judaism in a modern liberal democracy. The American experiment testifies that when government stops enforcing religion, religious practice and belief can thoroughly flourish. Indeed, I think a cogent argument can be made that what makes religion such a vital force in America is the utter separation of church and state. But in Israel such an utter separation of religion from the state is not possible nor is it desired by most of its citizens. Israel was born as a “Jewish” country and most of its Jewish citizens wish its essential character to remain Jewish, even if they argue about the details.

However, this does not mean that Israel must enforce religion, have a chief rabbinate, or dictate to people how they can convert, marry, divorce and be buried. Rather, the State of Israel can look to the issue of health as a rough guide to the role it should play in Judaism. Public policy should be used to make religion accessible to its entire populace (including access for members of other religions). But freedom to observe religion as an individual or community sees fit must be within their prerogative (again, as long as it doesn’t hurt others).

An excellent test case is Shabbat. Immigrants to the United States in the beginning of the 20th century were often forced to work on Shabbat for fear that they would not retain their jobs or their businesses if they didn’t. It would be exceedingly sad if the same was true in Israel. The state should facilitate Shabbat observance by ensuring that employees do not have to fear for the loss of their jobs due to their refusal to work on Shabbat. This is especially a concern for members of the working class, who are more vulnerable to the desires of their employers to leave their businesses open on Shabbat. I don’t know exactly how to simultaneously allow people the freedom to observe or not observe Shabbat and yet avoid the situation where for financial reasons businesses feel the need to be open seven days a week. It’s not an easy issue to resolve and I am torn. But it would be a sad situation if freedom from religion meant that observant Jews would have to make the same difficult choices in a Jewish state that they had to make living in the Diaspora.

Finally, since this is a blog about endurance sports, I should lament the situation here in Israel. In Israel most triathlons and almost all biking races are held on Shabbat. In accordance, you just don’t see that many religiously observant triathletes out there. In comparison, most marathons (and shorter races as well) are held on Fridays and its easy to see the strong participation of datiim in these events. I’ve complained to the Triathlon organization about this many times, and the situation has improved, but it still saddens me that to really participate in the sport I love so much, I have to race in America (or elsewhere). The same lament could be made about many other sports. A religious kid who wants to observe Shabbat but at the same time participate in a sport such as swimming, biking, soccer and probably just about any other sport, will quickly hit a wall and face the choice–stop keeping Shabbat or stop advancing in sport. Asking that events occur on other days of the week is not asking for religious coercion. It is simply asking that the state facilitate the values in which it is supposed to believe.


About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Joshua Kulp is the Senior Scholar at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem. He has rabbinic ordination from Hadar and a PhD from Bar-Ilan University. He is the author of three books, The Shechter Haggadah, and Reconstructing the Talmud, v. 1 and 2. He lives in Modiin with his wife and four children. When not writing, teaching or studying, he can be found out running, biking or swimming or drinking delicious Hazy IPA's.