I believe the Hanukkah story, which transpired thousands of years ago, has shaped classical Jewish attitudes towards fitness, diet and exercise.
The ancient Greeks, led by Alexander the Great, conquered Jerusalem. Greek society idealized the human body and its citizens spent much time developing their physical attributes and thinking about their looks, and even held sporting events where competitors preened without clothing. The human body was so venerated in ancient Greece that its Olympians practiced and competed nude!
Getting healthier has been a CRUCIAL component of my journey towards greater simcha (Jewish joy). I’ve lost more than 27 pounds (27.5 lbs, 12.6 kgs) since the spring. I now have greater flexibility and endurance, and I’m healthier. But when I catch myself being a little too concerned with my outer appearance or the number on the scale, I try to take a step back and remember how Hanukkah has shaped Jewish views of exercise.
Judaism frowns upon vanity (picture those who stand in front of the gym mirror, flexing in different poses knowing that other gym-goers are watching). Sometimes people who are really into fitness can cross over into being self-obsessed. Instead, Judaism values modesty and emphasizes inner, as opposed to outer, beauty.
I’m not exercising for a six pack or bulging biceps, or in order to impress people with my new look. My fitness goals involve being healthier and happier.
Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski opens his book,Ten Steps to Being Your Best (published in 2004), by stating that proper diet and exercise are crucial for obtaining self-esteem, which leads to simcha (Jewish joy).
Optimum physical condition is essential for self-esteem. The body is an integral part of the self, and weakness or physical dysfunction drain away self-esteem. You cannot ignore your body and expect to feel good about yourself. If you are fatigued, do not exercise, do not eat properly or do not get adequate sleep, your physical self is not in optimal shape.
I agree on all counts. Let’s keep exercising (especially during latke and sufganiyot season), but for the right reasons!