Is Orthodoxy Unhealthy?

About a decade ago, a short time after I arrived in Oak Park, Michigan, I visited a doctor for a checkup. I already knew the drill. He’d come in, examine me, draw blood and adjust my medications based on the results. The examination began, and everything was going well–until the doctor started talking.

“If you don’t lose weight, in ten years you’ll have type-2 diabetes.”

Then the doctor, a secular Jew, added, “You Orthodox eat too much.”

“Why’s he picking on us?” I thought.

But upon further reflection, I realized that he was right. Consider a typical Shabbat. Friday night begins with a big meal: wine, challah, appetizer, soup, main course and dessert. Then we might attend a Shalom Zachar: some beer, a couple pieces of cake. Drag yourself home and conk out. We wake up on Shabbat morning with a piece of cake and cup of coffee before davening. (For now, I’ll ignore the halachic issues of eating before davening.) After davening, we head for the kiddush,  a mainstay at shuls looking to attract and retain members. At best, we sample a few pieces of cake and some chips. At worst, we’ve loaded up on cholent, kugel, maybe some herring–without a doubt a full meal on any other day of the week. And then we head home and do what? Eat another meal–and a large one at that. Again with wine, challah, maybe some chicken, cholent, cold cuts, and dessert. After minchah–seudah shelishit. At most shuls this is a simple affair, but it’s still a meal; maybe a roll, some tuna fish, and a piece of now stale cake left over from the kiddush. Often we were not even hungry for seudah shelishit, but it’s a social thing; everyone’s eating, and hey, it’s a mitzvah! And whether we call it a melaveh malkah or not, what’s Saturday night without a slice of pizza (or two or three), a movie, some popcorn too, perhaps?

Orthodoxy, of course, does not demand overeating and unhealthy living. Yet, especially in America, the Orthodox lifestyle has led many into a dangerous cycle of overeating and indulgence.

Orthodoxy, of course, does not demand overeating and unhealthy living. Yet, especially in America, the Orthodox lifestyle has led many into a dangerous cycle of overeating and indulgence.

A rabbi I know once lost a great deal of weight. When I asked him how he did it, he said simply, “I decided that at simchas I was only going to eat one meal, either at the shmorg or at the sit-down dinner.” Think about it: How many functions do we attend at which we eat more than one meal? How many Bar Mitzvahs, school dinners, weddings?

I started thinking about our unhealthy lifestyle after reading a recent issue of Jewish Action that featured an article about the challenges of eating healthfully at a kiddush (Shira Isenberg, “A Kiddush Conundrum,” [winter, 2010]). Soon after reading it, I received, via e-mail, a number of photos of a frum wedding. The people in the photographs were total strangers. Yet, looking at them, I was struck by the fact that they were all overweight–significantly so.

I remember when the frum community of Oak Park waged a battle to open a kosher Dunkin’ Donuts in the area (for reasons I cannot fathom, the parent company was giving the franchise a hard time about going kosher). After the battle had been won and the store opened, I got a call from a local columnist. When he asked me how I felt about the victory I said, “I’m not sure that we’ve struck a blow for the waistlines of Orthodox Jews, but it’s a great win for our community. I only hope we can bring the same energy to more important issues down the road.”

I call upon Jewish organizations to undertake a study of the collective health of Orthodox people. I worry about the long-term health of Orthodox Jews, especially in America. I fear an epidemic of heart disease, diabetes, and of course, unnecessary deaths resulting from complications of obesity.

Our community rightly protects the value of life. We’ll fight for the right to cling to every last second of life, devoted to the notion that every moment is precious and holy. And yet, at the very same time, under the banner of frumkeit, we’ve adopted a lifestyle that’s literally going to cut years and perhaps decades from our lives.

Rabbi Reuven Spolter is the director of student recruitment and teaches Jewish studies at the Orot College of Education in Elkana, Israel and coordinates programming for kollel fellows at Yeshiva University’s RIETS Israel Kollel in Jerusalem.

This article was featured in the Spring 2011 issue of Jewish Action.
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