Ethics of Being Overweight

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 to 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, and the Talmud relates that Rabbi Yishmael the son of Rabbi Yosi and Rabbi Elazar the son of Rabbi Shimon had such large stomachs that when they met, a team of oxen could pass between them without touching them. And our commentators point out that the Talmud mentions these and other anatomical extremes of our great Rabbis specifically so as not to shame other people who have these characteristics! (1)

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. (2) 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. (3) There are also other restrictions which our Sages placed on us, even in private, in actual times of famine and shortage. (4)

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. (5) 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) Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 84a and Tosafot commentary (2) Shulchan Arukh Orach Chaim 169:1. (3) Shulchan Arukh Yoreh Deah 341:1 (4) Shulchan Arukh Orach Chaim 240:12. (5) Babylonian Talmud Gittin 70a.