Choose life!

An 86-year-old Jerusalem scholar expertly explains in a new book how to live a healthy life and practices what he preaches.

December 24, 2017 02:07

MICHAEL KAUFMAN. (photo credit: Courtesy)

By now, everybody in Israel and the Jewish world abroad should know that tobacco, overweight and obesity, inactivity and a junk food diet cause disability and kill, but if it’s so clear, why do so many people still smoke and abuse their bodies?

The haredi (ultra-Orthodox) and to a lesser extent the modern Orthodox communities in Israel and in the Diaspora are at higher risk of heart attacks, stroke, cancer, diabetes and other chronic maladies than the secular population. They are less exposed to the media that warn against harmful lifestyles and how to avoid them. Smoking, while banned inside the yeshivot, is still widespread outdoors and in the homes of observant Jews and even their rabbis, despite the declaration in Deuteronomy of ve’nishmartem meod lenafshoteichem (“And you shall take very good care of your bodies”) that is understood to prohibit one from endangering one’s health. Young haredi boys are often seen smoking cigarettes given to them by family members on Purim and to show they have “become a man” on their bar mitzva.

On average, these groups have more children and lower incomes and thus spend relatively less on vegetables, fruits, whole grains and fish. Parents buy children cheap sweet or salty snacks in honor of Shabbat. They also eat a lot, as Shabbat and Jewish festivals are all accompanied by special dishes – not all of them healthful – and there are many weddings, bar mitzvas, circumcisions and other events to celebrate with extended families.

It is for this growing audience that Michael Kaufman, a healthy 86-year-old distinguished scholar, author and lecturer has targeted his new, English-language, hardcover volume called Am I My Body’s Keeper? Torah, Science, Diet and Fitness for Life.

Just as Cain rhetorically asked God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” after he murdered his brother Abel out of jealousy, the answer is yes also to the question in the title whether you are responsible for promoting and preserving your own health.

Kaufman, who studied at Yeshiva and Mesivta Torah Voda’at, Telshe Yeshiva, Brooklyn College and the University of Louisville, has written extensively and published nine books on Judaism and Jewish art and culture, including A Timeless Judaism for Our Time; Love, Marriage and Family in Jewish Law and Tradition; Feminism and Judaism; The Art of Judaism; Land of My Past, Land of My Future (on the mitzva of living in Israel); and a memoir, In One Era, Out the Other.

The author lives at Jerusalem’s Beit Tovei Ha’ir Orthodox retirement home where he does research and writes on the latest developments and scientific studies on health, nutrition and fitness while standing at his wooden shtender (stand-up prayer and study desk). Kaufman says he maintains an active, energetic schedule, including fitness workouts and brisk early morning walks around the hills of Jerusalem.

His new 332-page, $27 book issued by Urim Publications is a superb piece of research and writing. Although he not a scientist or physician, he has somehow managed to find and understand large numbers of authoritative medical studies proving the benefits of healthful lifestyles, combining them with quotations from the Torah, Talmud, the works of Maimonides (the Rambam) and other Jewish scholars to back them up. He also gives advice from his research and his own life experience on how to lose weight, exercise and become and stay healthier at any age. The extent of his research is evident from the impressive 798 endnotes attributing the information to religious and medical sources quoted in the 11 chapters.

Prefacing the chapters are endorsements from 11 prominent rabbis and physicians, many of them from Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center (SZMC).

Israel Prize winner Rabbi Prof. Avraham Steinberg, a senior pediatric neurologist at SZMC and author of The Encyclopedia of Jewish Medical Ethics, wrote: “Encompassing the vital principles for good health care and proactive medicine based on the latest medical research studies, this book will hopefully serve as a catalyst to transform many to good spiritual and bodily health.”

Prof. (emeritus) Shimon Glick, a founder of Ben-Gurion University’s medical school and former ombudsman for Israel’s National Health Service, said, “The author is to be congratulated on his gathering of scientific literature and integrating it with Torah so that all can live a better and longer life.”

“A compendium of advice as to how one can fulfill the Torah mandate to guard one’s physical health as a necessary component of one’s spiritual well-being in an effective manner,” added Rabbi Zev Leff, rosh yeshiva and rabbi of Moshav Matityahu.

“A truly outstanding book!” wrote Prof. Jacob Klein, director of SZMC’s cardiac rehabilitation institute. “Michael Kaufman has given us an important, extensively researched work on the benefits of living a healthy lifestyle. It should be required reading for everyone seeking to live a long, healthy life.”

“Michael Kaufman’s superb, timely book is an easy-to-follow manual to optimize health and enjoy a long, active life. It is truly a masterpiece that can change people’s lives forever,” endorsed Prof. Petachia Reismann, chairman of the surgical department at SZMC.

“A truly life-changing work – a realistic guide for all of us to eating well, staying fit and living a long, healthy life into a hearty, disease-free old age,” wrote Dr. Chana Levin, the chief medical officer of Meuhedet Health Services for the Kiryat Yearim region.

None of them has exaggerated.

KAUFMAN RECALLS that years ago, he used to jog very early in the morning in the Shaare Hessed quarter of the capital and then go to study with Rabbi Shalom Mordechai Schwadron, the head of the Mekor Haim Yeshiva, who was known as the Maggid of Jerusalem. One night, he saw a mature man running in the streets and identified him as the esteemed rabbi. After showering and meeting him in Schwadron’s home, Kaufman was astounded when he was asked: “Did you remember to say a hineni muchan (“I am prepared,” a formulaic text of intent recited before performing certain commandments)?”

Puzzled, Kaufman asked what he meant.

“Behold, I am preparing myself to fulfill the Torah percept, ‘And you shall take very good care of your bodies.’ Did you remember to say it before running?” the rabbi asked.

Today, however, many yeshivot regard physical exercise as a waste of time taken from Torah studies.

Although Kaufman no longer runs, he does go on brisk walks with his wife Marcia, exercises on his elliptical machine while listening to Torah recordings; and lifts weights.

He also swims laps three times a week.

Anyone who visits an Orthodox synagogue will note that worshipers constantly move (shokel) back and forth, bow when God’s name is said and rise and sit down regularly. It is certainly good exercise. Kaufman also endorses the use of the shtender, noting that he stands up much of the day, as the body in motion is much healthier than one that is constantly sitting, as most people do in front of computer screens and TVs. Kaufman even presents six pages of excuses that people give for not exercising – and refutes each of them.

He cites Dr. James Levine, director of the Mayo Clinic Obesity Solutions Initiative, who endorsed NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis), which means hundreds of daily, small, low-intensity muscular movements, which fires up nerves and “converts calories you have consumed to energy by contracting muscles.”

He notes that many Israelis – and a growing number of children – are overweight and even obese. Eat nutritiously, mostly fruits, pulses and non-starchy vegetables; avoid red meat and processed eats; limit sugar and avoid sugary drinks, the author stresses.

“Weight loss is generally 75% diet and 25% exercise. It’s much easier to cut calories than to burn them off,” he writes.

His “Top 10” most healthful foods are apples, almonds, broccoli, blueberries, oily fish, leafy green vegetables, sweet potatoes, wheat germ, avocados and oatmeal.

He recommends to people of all ages any exercise that people enjoy doing, as well as stair climbing, elliptical machines, treadmills and stationary bicycles if they can manage it. He also suggested walking as much as possible on Shabbat; one can even run, he writes, to get to the synagogue.

ALMOST A millennium ago, the Rambam – an outstanding physician – wrote that diet alone is not enough to be healthy; one should exercise as well, the rabbi advised.

“It’s never too late to begin to integrate physical activity into your daily routines.” He suggested what we call aerobics today – to “move all one’s limbs.” He advised getting up from the dinner table before you feel satiated; it takes some 20 minutes for the stomach to feel full after a meal. Maimonides also endorsed getting eight hours of sleep per night; rising early; avoiding anxiety and unnecessary fasting; not putting off going to the bathroom; chewing and eating slowly; and eating while sitting down rather than when moving around – all sound advice even today – and advocated moderation.

In the fascinating Chapter 3, Kaufman notes that while Judaism has always put much emphasis on cleanliness and handwashing, Christian Europe regarded “dirt as a way of life.” The Middle Ages, during which the Black Plague killed as many as 200 million people, was epitomized by a total lack of sanitation; Christianity had a “culture of filth” that it equated with spirituality.

“The Church Father Jerome fervently welcomed dirt and proclaimed it a virtue; he made it a practice never to wash or bathe.” Many other examples of this are given. But the Jews – who are instructed to wash their hands before eating and after going to the bathroom and men and women go to ritual baths – remained clean and healthy. Mostly avoiding plagues led to them being falsely accused by Christians of poisoning wells.

Kaufman devotes much space to the scourge of smoking. Although the Chafetz Chaim (Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, 1839- 1933) condemned smoking, most rabbis of his day and even in modern times claimed it improved health, relaxation and concentration, and many leading rabbinical leaders today are reluctant to order all of their congregants to kick the habit. The the great sage Rabbi Moshe Feinstein did not forbid smoking, based on the statement of the Talmudic sage Rabbi Papa who said that if many people breach a specific threat to health, one may ignore it because of the principle that “God watches over the foolish.” However, the late Rabbi Eliezer Menahem Shach and Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman (who died earlier this month) of the Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak ruled that anyone who refuses to quit violates the Torah.

Kaufman also writes against “kiddush clubs” in which observant Jews in the US drink in synagogues, often to excess. Drink a lot of plain tap water instead.

While aging undoubtedly reduces one’s physical abilities, Kaufman speaks from experience that observing a healthful lifestyle can delay and even eliminate many problems. He is tall and lean and his back is straight as a rail. Exercise is good not only for the muscles, heart and lungs but also for keeping the brain young.

In Chapter 11, he lists the main causes of death and advises how to prevent heart disease, cancer, chronic lower respiratory disease, stroke, diabetes and even Alzheimer’s – with recommendations backed by authoritative medical experts.

“So be kind to yourself. Stay lean, stay active. And eat well. Should there still be a question about which path to choose, the Torah provides a clear guide: uvacharta bachaim – “Choose life.”

Kaufman’s volume should undoubtedly be translated into Hebrew as soon as possible for the general observant audience in Israel. Its principles must be presented in sermons and at social gatherings and in the religious media.

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