I’m a runner, a three-time marathoner. Whenever someone asks when I took up running, I say I started 12 years ago. But the truth is that the first time I really ran was for a rabbi: I was 14 and he wanted cigarettes. He was my eighth grade teacher, a towering man, with a full beard, a long black coat and a black hat. He summoned me to his desk, handed me a wad of money, and told me he wanted a pack of Benson and Hedges. And so I became a runner. I ran my teenage guts out, to the store and back, breathlessly handing him his cigarettes and change – all with the rabbi’s stamp of approval.
Today, I am a member of a closed Facebook group for Jewish (mainly observant) female athletes. Most of the postings share victories, milestones and inspirational moments. Members typically offer or ask for the usual advice about running. And then, one member, we’ll call her Sarah, posed the following query:
Anyone have issues with frumkeit [religious observance] and athleticism? For years I didn’t run or do working out [sic] at all because I learned that it was a tznius [modesty] issue, that women shouldn’t run in front of men, and I couldn’t afford a gym. Now I am trying to get in shape and I’m being lax on the no running in front of men rule that I learned, but I am keeping the spirit of it and only running when it’s dark, so I’m not in full view of everyone. Anyone else hold similarly, and had to find a compromise they’re comfortable with?
Questions loomed in my mind: Shouldn’t frumkeit and maintaining one’s health be synonymous? Isn’t athleticism an integral part of overall well-being? Shouldn’t we all be encouraged to exercise? And of course, I was reminded of the time I was given rabbinic approval (minus the actual supervision) to run.
When asked to explain, Sarah added, “It’s for the same reason we don’t dance in front of men- because of jiggling body parts.”
Jiggling. Body. Parts.
In her Facebook comments, Sarah insists a refusal to ask a rabbi for guidance, all the while asserting her desire to be fit and healthy. She shares that she has struck a compromise and runs in the dark so no one sees her. That effort to find a happy middle ground has to be commended as well.
But she never questions the initial premise that women shouldn’t exercise when there’s a chance men will see them and still worries that she is in the wrong.
Those who abide by halakha accept that there are times when women’s voices are silenced or when women are relegated to the other side of the mechitza. Even so, many of us have seen first-hand women’s great creativity in balancing halakhic concerns of modesty and participating in a number of physical activities – including singing, dancing, and exercising. Women will swim during “women’s only” hours or will go to “women’s only” gyms. If they choose to swim in a public venue, in an effort not to expose their skin, they will wear modest “bathing suits” (shirts, skirts and leggings made of water repellent fabric). When running, they may opt to wear long-sleeve shirt and skirt attire, all-the-while covering their hair (if they are married). And while these athletes may not look like the norm, they are doing their best to walk a tight-rope, striking a balance between halakha and health, an effort that should be applauded. There are countless other women of different faith traditions who make similar efforts to accommodate their own religious requirements.
As a runner myself, I love that Sarah wants to run. I want her to feel that same sense of accomplishment as I do when I finish a race or hit a new personal record. If need be, I want Sarah to push back at the rabbis and teachers who tell her women should not run. I want her to challenge them to allow her to exercise her freedom – and to be free to exercise. As someone familiar with the halakha, I want Sarah to remind them that our tradition commands us to keep our bodies healthy because refu’at ha-nefesh and refu’at ha-guf, healing of the spirit and of the body, shouldn’t wait until either is completely broken down – and running has the capacity to heal both the body and the spirit at once. I want to encourage women to take care of themselves and to encourage other women to do the same.