The Body: Themes & Theology
The essence of Judaism’s approach is to channel, not repress, such physical needs and pleasures, and to keep them within defined bounds. Sexual activity between husband and wife is not only permitted but indeed commanded and intended for mutual pleasure, with restrictions in connection with the woman’s menstrual cycle.
Jews have long prayed for physical health as a prerequisite for a good life, along with "fear of heaven and fear of sin," but Jewish culture has never particularly exalted the muscular, toned body. In the Diaspora, where the military and organized sports were often important parts of the host culture, Jews gave priority to study, both of Torah in the yeshivot (institutions of traditional Jewish learning) and of the academically-demanding professions open to them.
Still, Jewish farmers and city dwellers of various periods engaged in much more physical activity than many contemporary individuals in our increasingly sedentary society. And some Zionist writings emphasized images of physically invigorated, fit pioneers, a cultural image which gained potency in light of near universal service in the Israeli army and the physical return to the land.
Physical beauty has often been a vague concept in Jewish writings. A handful of biblical characters are described as "good looking," but no particular attributes are ascribed to them. Personal qualities are given higher priority, as in the biblical story of Ruth in which the central characters display admirable human traits like generosity and loyalty. This emphasis on inner characteristics reaches theological proportions in I Samuel 16:7 where God tells Samuel: "A person looks at outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart."
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