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Jewish World Review
Jan. 18, 2006
/ 18 Teves, 5766
Ethics of Being Overweight
Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir
Being overweight in a world full of hunger
Q. Is it ethical to be fat when there are so many hungry people in the world? I know that my weight loss doesn't translate directly into food for the hungry, but I do feel kind of guilty about the contrast.
A. It's saddening for me to encounter this question, because I view it partially as an extension of society's current obsession with health and body image. Obviously it is healthier to eat in moderation, but overeating is a relatively harmless indulgence and certainly not "unethical".
Some of our greatest sages were fat.
It is true that we should be sensitive not to overindulge in the actual presence of those who are deprived. In earlier times, it was even customary to give the waiter a little bit of each delicacy he serves so as not to deprive him. (1) So great is the importance of this principle that Jewish law tells us that whenever possible we should not even eat in the presence of a dead person. (2) There are also other restrictions which our Sages placed on us, even in private, in actual times of famine and shortage. (3)
But that doesn't mean that anytime there are deprived individuals anywhere it is forbidden for us to enjoy the pleasures of life. We need to exercise appropriate concern for the needy, and in any case excessive indulgence is counterproductive, but there is nothing "unethical" about eating more than is needed for sustaining life! Judaism advocates moderation, not abstinence, and most overweight people are not living a life of conspicuous excess.
It is certainly praiseworthy to eat in moderation, and the Talmud tells us that ideally we should eat and drink only to two-thirds of fullness. (4) But I wonder about a society where people ask if it is unethical to engage in excess of eating, which is in itself a constructive activity, but no one asks if it is unethical to engage in excess of television watching or other activities that endanger our spiritual health much more than overeating endangers our physical health.
SOURCES: (1) Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 169:1. (2) Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 341:1 (3) Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 240:12. (4) Babylonian Talmud Gittin 70a.
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JWR contributor Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir, formerly of the Council of Economic Advisers in the Reagan
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© 2005, The Jewish Ethicist is produced by the JCT Center for Business Ethics