Reprinted from A Book of Life: Embracing Judaism as a Spiritual Practice (Schocken Books).
Judaism’s concern with care of our bodies is also reflected in issues of physical appearance and wellbeing. Societal standards determine what constitutes modest attire, and many of the specific statements in our tradition no longer seem applicable. In broad terms, however, the tradition attempts to maintain an appreciation for the beauty of the body and its sensuality while consistently reminding us that we are more than just bodies.
Each of us is created in the Divine image. It is natural for us to want to be attractive to others and to be noticed by those around us. Unlike secular society, Judaism does not have an idealized model of beauty. We are all created in God’s image. In all our diversity, fat and thin, tall and short, we are all equally God’s creations.
As the vessel that holds our soul, Judaism seeks most of all to have our outside selves be a reflection of our inner beings. Our inner beauty is what counts and it is always reflected on the outside. The important thing is to focus on who we are and how we live rather than how we look. Indirectly, Judaism addresses those who may be dissatisfied with their outward body by pointing out that all individuals differ:
“Therefore people were created unique, in order to proclaim the greatness of the Holy One. For if a person strikes many coins from one mold, they are all exactly alike. But though the King of kings, the Holy One, has fashioned every person in the stamp of the first human, not a single one of them is exactly like another.” (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 37a)
This is not to deny that our body image is important or that it may often be a conflicted part of our self-image. Nor does it mean that clothes don’t make a difference in how we feel about ourselves or how others feel about us.
“When you dress or otherwise do something to improve your appearance, putting on nice clothes or ornaments, your intention should be holy and for the sake of heaven–to beautify and adorn the Divine Image….” [Noam Elimelekh, by the 17th century Polish Hasidic teacher Rabbi Elimelekh of Lyzhansk]
Caring for Our Bodies
Nor does Judaism’s focus on inner beauty release us from our obligation to care for our bodies. This is especially true with regard to matters of health, such as eating the right foods, losing excess weight, and regular exercise. In fact the tradition regards the body as a precious gift to us from God.
” ‘He who does good to his own person is a person of piety’ (Proverbs 11:17). Such a one was Hillel the Elder. After taking leave of his disciples, he proceeded to walk along with them. His disciples asked him, ‘Master, where are you going?’ He answered, ‘To perform a precept [mitzvah].’ ‘What precept?’ ‘To bathe in the bathhouse.’ ‘But is this a precept?!’ ‘It is indeed. King’s statues set up in theaters and circuses are scoured and washed down by the official specially appointed to look after them, who receives a salary for the work. More, he is esteemed as one of the notables of the empire. How much more am I required to scour and wash myself, who have been created in God’s image and likeness, as it is written: In the image of God, God made people’ [Genesis 9:6]!” [Leviticus Rabbah34:31]
Our Bodies Reflect the Divine
So doing good to one’s self is not regarded as being “self-indulgent,” but rather as being pious, for we are created in the Divine image. Almost paradoxically, Judaism asks us to accept and appreciate ourselves as creatures of the Creator and yet calls on us to strive to improve ourselves. Finding the correct balance is not always easy.
This is especially true when it comes to feelings about our bodies and our appearance. Nevertheless, the tradition is clear about the need to refrain from self-destructive activities. Judaism calls on us to alter habits, such as overeating or excess drinking, which may endanger our lives. For this reason, in recent halakhic literature a prohibition on cigarette smoking has been promulgated.
“By keeping the body in health and vigor one walks in the ways of God. Since it is impossible during sickness to have any understanding or knowledge of the Creator, it is therefore a person’s duty to avoid whatever is injurious to the body and cultivate habits conducive to health and vigor.” (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot De’ot 4:1)
Pronounced: khah-SID-ik, Origin: Hebrew, a stream within ultra-Orthodox Judaism that grew out of an 18th-century mystical revival movement.