Body-Building or Healthy Exercise

I’ve never understood the body-building culture, unbalanced over-exercising only certain muscles (and often abusing steroids and other dangerous drugs) in order to achieve a look that most people would describe as freakish and muscle-bound.  It’s not just an aesthetic or cultural issue, since there is also a very high premature death rate associated with this distortion of the normally-healthy activity of exercise.  Utilizing the same tools, in this case weights, one can either apply them towards enhancing life or tempting death.

Although it might sound an exaggeration at first thought, applying his model to religious expression, in other words mitzva (commandment) performance, reveals disturbing parallels.  There are generally-accepted, long-standing ways of fulfilling our obligations and there are extreme approaches which, like body-sculpting weight-training, seem more directed at enhancing a “macho” self-image of SuperJew than it does with complying with God’s stated goals for us.  The result, I can’t avoid saying, are freakish, a distorted self-definition of “piety”, mostly driven by a combination of narcissism (literally seeking that good-old “holier than thou” feeling), ignorance (of both the purpose of halacha and what is the actual halacha and not the חומרה, chumrah, excessive severity (actually based on the work חמר, chomer, which, ironically is opposed to נבדל, nivdal, transcendent/spiritual, means worldly/non-spiritual)), and fear (perhaps the most common motivation for blind allegiance whether in religion or other aspects of life). Not only is it counterproductive for the practitioner, but repulses that majority of our people who are not thoroughly “observant”, actively discouraging them from even beginning to participate in the spiritual culture we share together.

What, you may say, of the vast literature and tradition that generates and advocates stricter interpretations of halacha?  What (a question I find in this context hilariously ironic) about religious pluralism?  Obviously, this principle is usually invoked to accept less observant styles of Judaism, but is it just as applicable to those who pile chumrah on chumrah, promoting ever stricter and more extreme interpretations of halacha?  Should that also be endorsed, let alone promoted, just for the sake of an external concept such as egalitarianism?  (Remember, if you’re open, by principle, to the extremist left, you must also be equally open to the extremist right!)

I’m not going to offer my own preferred mode as having, somehow, greater validity than others.  As it evolves it does increasingly works for me, but we each have uniquely configured neshamot/souls.

However, I’m as sure of this as I am of anything in this world:  The Divine Will, ‘רצון ה, Ratzon HaShem, does NOT desire, let alone mandate, our neuroses and compulsive behavior.  Although it doesn’t always appear this way in every expression and manifestation, Torah is a path of mental health.

Although much of Oral Torah dwells on exploring the extreme cases of mitzvot, I don’t think that it thus recommends, let alone mandates, these extreme interpretations. Rather, as part of the healthy training Torah study provides for our minds and hearts, these are the interesting and challenging areas to explore, the “advanced calculus”, as it were.  Although we live our lives in the realm of Newtonian physics, most of that model has long been filled in so that truly exciting physics study and exploration now resides in the realms of quantum mechanics and astro-physics, neither of which really impinge our daily perceptions or decisions.  That’s where, in physics, we need to visit in order to challenge our minds, just as in Torah we expand our abilities by analyzing the extremes. But this is not necessarily the neighborhood where we should live our day-to-day lives. I’m not sure I can definitely say it, but I strongly suspect that at least until a certain time period, all of our Talmudic and Halachic masters understood this as the Jewish people, immersed in our tradition, already knew and lived the common-sense, moderate, definitely-observant but healthy, elements of our religion such as kashrut, tefilla, Shabbat, Holidays and other commonly practiced mitzvot.

We need to remember that God wants our love, not our misery, our humility and not our showing-off.

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7 Responses to Body-Building or Healthy Exercise

  1. shaynanaveh says:

    Wow, this is really good. I believe I asked if I could post some of your teachings on my website but don’t remember getting a response (or possibly I just intended to ask). I hear honesty and an open mind to entertain both sides of the paradox in your teachings and this is the most important thing for me.


    Shayna Nechama

  2. olivierbenhaim says:

    Amen! Beautiful. Thank you.


    Rabbi Olivier BenHaim Bet Alef Meditative Synagogue (206) 527-9399

    “The higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments.” A.J. Heschel,


  3. Mr. Cohen says:

    Rabbi Zeitlin said:
    “I’ve never understood the body-building culture…”

    From this remark, I deduce that Rabbi Zeitlin was not
    beat up and bullied countless times by other children
    because he was smaller and weaker.

    • Not true at all–I grew up in a neighborhood that had its very rough elements. But, trying to be realistic, I knew that no matter how much weight I’d pump, I’d still be shorter and weaker than most. There are other ways, often much more effective, to protect ourselves. Witness the IDF and it’s ongoing transition to being the smartest army in the neighborhood.

  4. Andreas says:

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