By Jan Rabinowicz
The high value placed on health in Jewish tradition, despite its long history, can perhaps be summed up in a single word: sheyichye/shetichye, Hebrew for “may he/she live.” This alludes to Vayikra 18:5, where “You shall keep My laws and My rules, by the pursuit of which man shall live” is taken as the basis for pikuach nefesh, the halakhic principle according to which almost all other priorities can be set aside in order to preserve human life. Pikuach nefesh, which by extension includes the promotion of health, has been in the news in recent years as Orthodox poskim have repeatedly approved the use of medical cannabis (in Israel, it has been legal since 1999).
I was raised in a family where health is a high priority, but where any approaches beyond conventional, scientific Western medicine are viewed with severe skepticism: after all, your health is too important to entrust to some quack. Alas, charlatanry can be found in mainstream as well as ‘natural’ medicine; and although we should insist on remedies and care whose efficacy is verified in practice, we shouldn’t kid ourselves that modern medicine is some utopian project to optimize human health for its own sake, rather than a creation of modern capitalism, beholden to insurance and pharmaceutical corporations.
My grandmother, who worked for many years as a nurse, made sure we knew one of the most oft-heard imperatives in her field: “Use the equipment;” that is, always order lots of tests, drugs and procedures to generate billings and data.
Like a lot of people inclined toward holistic health, I came to it reluctantly (besides an idealistic spell in adolescence), after a year spent struggling with an uncomfortable condition several different specialists were unable to do much about. The doctors I saw didn’t ask what I was eating, how I was feeling or sleeping, or even seem interested in figuring out what exactly was wrong with me; their cursory inspections were inevitably followed by hastily scribbled prescriptions for more antibiotics and slightly different formulations of the same pharmaceuticals.
Clearly, part of the problem with our health care system is that it doesn’t give those who work for it adequate time to understand their patients’ situations, but the problem is also in how those ills are treated: in isolation from the whole person. Western medicine separates me from my body and sells my health back to me; it polices my illnesses, but ignores the source of my strength.
The issue I was facing has been strikingly reversed and almost beaten within a few months by taking the very first suggestion I got from a non-medical professional, a dear friend with a post-secondary degree in nutrition. The suggestion, deceptively simple – and deceptively daunting – was to stop consuming sugar in all forms (including glutinous grains, starchy vegetables, uncultured dairy, and alcohol). Like most Americans, I had way too much of all of this in my diet. If this doesn’t explain all my difficulties by itself, it’s not hard to see now that between that and the daily antibiotics, my body simply did not have what it needed to take care of itself.
Happily, this radical change in diet was easier to contemplate on the heels of my experiments in kosher eating. While it has long been debated how much of a role health concerns may have played in the formation of Jewish dietary laws, certainly their existence reflects recognition of the fact that we literally ‘are what we eat.’ Beyond the familiar prohibitions, the ethics of food and health have many halakhic implications, as for instance one who eats kosher food gluttonously or wastefully is compared to one eating trayf.
Kashrut, Natural Health and Jewish Ethics
For another: apart from the symbolism that the devout see in the distinctions between ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ animals, there exist undeniably health-based arguments for avoiding the meat of parasite-prone swine and allergenic shellfish. While western medicine has found methods to prevent death by anaphylaxis, the former issue lacks a happy ending: the modern, industrialized system of animal agriculture has made meat cheaper but unhealthier (not to mention much more ecologically destructive). I am not vegan, but much closer to it now, and point out in passing that a fully vegan diet is automatically kosher, as mentioned in Daniel 1:12.
Another blind spot modern medicine maintains with regard to holism concerns its grasp of time, almost unaltered since the first autopsies. We are not simply physical objects composed of certain nutrients, meat machines burning a certain amount of fuel per diem; as living beings, we are also dynamic, unfolding processes animated, traversed and linked by flows of energy. There is rhythm there which must be maintained in order for us to keep our balance. This recognition is at the root of the concept the Chinese call qi, Hindus call prana, Navajos call nilch’i, and we have long called ruach, the animating life-force of which breath is both example and emblem.
Of course, any staunch proponent of rationalism will tell you that any talk of ‘energy’ not hewing strictly to the definition set a century ago by modern physics is nonsense. If this bothers you, consider it as a metaphor developed over thousands of years of study of the incredibly complex human body, which has (for one thing) mechanical energy associated with it simply by virtue of being alive. Its many channels and vessels constantly cycle materials in and out, affecting and affected by each other and our environment in ways that science sometimes still falls far short of explaining. Jewish traditional medicine may have not been so very far removed from some of its Asian and Native counterparts, having long ago grasped the notion that energy is spirit is life.
The Jewish directive to take care of one’s health is also based on Bereishit 1:27, where the human form is said to be created “in the image of G-d;” Kabbalah explains the structure of our bodies and souls by the Tree of Life, which is found throughout creation at every level. Ethics are a huge part of Yiddishkeit, and health is one of our most important middot; this is part of our long endurance. Shalom, which we are so used to having rendered as “peace,” means in a broader sense something like “wholeness, balance, well-being” – a personal as well as communal, even cosmic, value that gives the concept of health a positive content (as opposed to a deficient understanding as the mere lack of acute dis-ease).
Whether or not you see it as a spiritual imperative, I hope you will continue to educate yourself about health – we can all always learn more – and practice it daily by eating well and moving around. I have to say from my own experience that even things that sound like they’re strictly for New Age weirdos may be well worth trying; several months into the sugar-free lifestyle I already feel, look, and sleep much better.
As a fundamental cultural value, the Jewish middah of health is not just about motivating self-care, but is a perspective from which to consider different approaches to personal well-being. We are blessed to have access here in New Mexico to beautiful outdoors, healthy food and a diverse spectrum of practitioners with all their knowledges and skills; it is up to each of us to decide what works for us to live well.
Shalom, y’all – may you live many long and good days!
Jan Rabinowicz is a philosopher, musician, mathematician, and cyclist living in Albuquerque.