The modern conception of Muscular Judaism was born into existence through the words of Max Nordau in a 1898 speech to the Second Zionist Congress. In his speech, Nordau urged the creation of the “new Jew,” a Renaissance man with a refined mind, body, and spirit capable of leading the Jewish people out of diaspora and distress. He would be balanced, the antithesis of the overly spiritually-minded, esoteric Rabbinical scholars and the overly physically-minded, equally detached Haskalah intellectuals of the day, which Nordau dubbed “old Jews.”
This movement has largely been lost to the past, due to its overwhelming success. Muscular Judaism had an outsized effect on shaping the culture of modern Israel, influencing the early Halutzim, the Kibbutzniks, and the three pre-IDF paramilitary organizations alike. Sports organizations like Maccabi and Hapoel were created with Muscular Judaism in mind, still around today in varying capacities. Israeli youth groups like Maccabi Hatzair and Beitar were also founded with a heavy emphasis on Muscular Judaism, both still in existence. In the diaspora, the B’nai Brith Youth Organization gained prominence mainly through its basketball and debate competitions. Even today, many diaspora Jews live a few minutes drive from a JCC, typically complete with a basketball gym, a weight room, and sometimes swimming pools.
Jews of all types have a special and lasting affinity for their Jewish sports legends. Sandy Koufax, Hank Greenberg settling records and refusing to play ball on Yom Kippur, Daniel Mendoza developing boxing and paving the way for future Jewish champions Benny Leonard and Yuri Foreman, Lipman Pike developing baseball as the original homerun king, Jeff Halpern leading various NHL teams to victory, etc. In the present day, we have stars like Deni Avdija, Nili Block, Ryan Braun, Sagi Muki, Michael Schwartz, Julian Edelman, Dmitry Salita, Natan Levy, and many others to look up to as our Jewish sports legends.
The tremendous success of muscular Judaism has caused it to fade into the background, something that we have begun to take for granted, but the growing polarization of global Jewry necessitates its comeback into the global Jewish consciousness. Today, mainly in the diaspora, there is a rise in secularization. Typically from families who in previous generations identified as either Reform or Conservative now mark themselves down as “unaffiliated Jews.” Globally, there is a rise in Orthodoxy, becoming the fastest growing sect due to its kiruv (outreach) efforts and its towering birthrates. It is an incontrovertible statement that this polarization is building an increasing animosity within world Jewry.
A comeback for Muscular Judaism would provide the growing number of both secularized, unaffiliated Jews and yeshivish, intellectually-focused Orthodox Jews and a basic, grounding, real, unifying, tangible, necessary sense of Jewish identity and pride. This would be accomplished through two factors, religiosity, the sense of common holy purpose and duty, and practicality, the necessary uniting duty to fight for the survival and success of the Jewish people, with an additional optical benefit.
Rav Kook, one of the most influential rabbis of the 20th century, made the strongest religious case for Muscular Judaism, writing in Orot:
“Great is our physical demand. We need a healthy body. We dealt much with soulfulness; we forgot the holiness of the body. We neglected the physical health and strength; we forgot that we have holy flesh; no less than holy spirit… Our teshuva (repentance) will succeed only if it will be–with all its splendid spirituality–also a physical return, which produces healthy blood, healthy flesh, mighty solid bodies, a fiery spirit radiating over powerful muscles…”
Rav Kook’s religious appeal is twofold. We are made not only spiritual but physical, physical in the image of G-d, no less. To neglect your physical self is to neglect G-d, his image, and the gift which He has given to you. Conversely, to work towards this image, to cultivate your physical capabilities and appearance is a compliment to G-d. Eight centuries earlier in the Mishneh Torah Rambam hit this point home, arguing that “maintaining a healthy and sound body is among the ways of G-d” specifically stating that one “should engage one’s body and exert oneself in a sweat-producing task each morning” to meet the bare minimum of this end.
Rav Kook’s second argument is one that reflects the deep connection between the physical and the spiritual. The cultivation of physical health advocated here by Rav Kook and Rambam serves to demonstrate and cultivate spiritual health. Look at the virtues one needs to maintain and improve one’s physical wellbeing; strength, courage, discipline, etc. These are not just virtues, but prerequisite virtues, virtues necessary in order to exhibit any other virtues and fulfil any further mitzvot. In this way, the cultivation of physical health cultivates these basic prerequisite virtues, and opens the door to a more virtuous life of mitzvot.
Rav Kook’s case for the relationship between the physical deed and appearance and the spiritual value reflects the concept of Hiddur Mitzvah (beautification of a mitzvah vessel.) This is the principle that states it is preferable to, for example, make a Kiddush on an ornate Kiddush cup rather than a dixie cup. The reasons for a seemingly silly principle are, again, twofold; it is a compliment to the mitzvah and it makes the mitzvah more attractive to fulfil. Such is the case with our bodies, the greatest vessels of mitzvot. The more hygienic, strong, attractive we are, the more attractive the mitzvot we perform will become.
There is and always has been a counter-sentiment to this argument; favoring instead unattractiveness as a sign of righteousness, perspective, detachment from the sinful physical world. Such a sentiment is examined and decried in the Talmud (Shabbat 82:a), which recalls the story of a young Rabbah complaining to his father Rav Huna that his prospective teacher Rav Hisda focuses excessively on matters of hygiene and anatomy, which he calls secular matters. Rav Huna retorts, “he (Rav Hisda) speaks of health matters, and you call them secular!” Our job is not to detach ourselves from the physical world but immerse ourselves in it, not letting go of our spiritual holiness but rather installing it into the physical world making it holy. Promoting unattractiveness, poor health, bad hygiene, and physical detachment is counterproductive to our goal as Jews to be or l’goyim (a light upon the nations) and an offense to our Creator.
Finally, there is the case of practicality and necessity. There is a reason you maintain a Jewish identity; Torah, mitzvot, the sense of peoplehood and community, tradition, holidays, etc. Whatever it may be, whatever you care about as a Jew, it is good, but only as long as you can keep it. Every year at the seder we read the poem Vehi Sheamda, a reminder that every generation there will be an external threat to the existence to the Jewish people. What is standing in this way? Yes, bitachon, our reciprocal, spiritual love and faith for G-d, but equally so histadrut, our physical initiative, power, and strength, the tools G-d has given us to face down the constant threats of the physical world. Fitness is a central, necessary tool we must employ if we are to maintain our survival as a people, much less build our success.
While Nordau’s Muscular Judaism defiantly built the new Jew, the Jew that was able to build its own nation-state in its ancestral homeland for the first time in two millennia and the Jew that continues to defend and strengthen it to this day, the Muscular Judaism of the modern day should seek to bring those detached and alienated into its shelter. For those struggling to find something Jewish to connect with, fitness can be a constructive path to a stronger Jewish identity. For those struggling to find a place for their spiritual holiness in the physical world, Muscular Judaism can be your bridge. Together, under the banner of Muscular Judaism, world Jewry can once again find a common purpose, a common duty to both the spiritual and the physical, the material and the immaterial, the tangible and the intangible, a duty to ourselves, each other, and G-d.