FOR FRIDAY NIGHT: "Is My Body Mine?" (Shoftim)
Elul 5, 5772 · August 23, 2012
Is My Body Mine?

The idea that "my body belongs to me" has been an important factor in making modern life more secular and libertine. "My body belongs to me," some people say, "and therefore I can do what I like with it, as long as I do not harm other people." It sounds logical enough. We live with our bodies all the time. We can understand that there should be rules about what we do to other people. But my body is "me", so why should anyone else care? Why should the Torah care? Why should the Torah give rules for how I treat my own body?

In fact, many of the rules and teachings of the Torah are precisely about our own bodies. The laws of kosher concern what kind of food we feed to our bodies. There are special blessings to be said before and after eating. There are laws and ideals of modesty and of personal morality. There are laws against physically damaging our bodies. There is even a law against tattooing.

Now, we understand that G-d is the Master of the whole universe and therefore He is able to give us rules through His Torah which affect every detail of our lives. G-d created the world, and our bodies are part of the world, and therefore it makes good sense that there are Torah teachings and rules about what we do or do not do with our physical bodies. However, there is a further step.

The Torah perspective is that our body in fact does not belong to us, it is totally Divine property. In this it is different from the possessions that we own, our money, computer, house, car. It is true that in general terms "the whole world belongs to G-d"1 but nonetheless, G-d has given us material possessions which we actually possess, although of course we have to use them in the right way, as guided by the Torah. By contrast, our physical bodies do not actually belong to us. The Sages tell us they are lent to us by G-d, and they retain their spiritual quality all the time. This is brought out by a comment on a law in the Parshah (Torah section) read in the synagogue this Shabbat-- the parshah of Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9).

The Torah tells us about the ancient Jewish legal processes, which included capital punishment for certain serious crimes. It states that such punishment can only be applied when witnesses have testified against the person.2 Maimonides explains that this means that Jewish law does not permit such punishment of a person just because of his own admission. If he claims to have murdered someone, and there are no witnesses, he is not punished as a murderer. Maimonides says "This is a Divine decree."3 By contrast, in everyday legal cases concerning disputes about money and material possessions, if someone admits that he is in the wrong, this is accepted as the strongest proof possible. In the words of the Talmud, in such cases "admission by a litigant is the equivalent of a hundred witnesses".4

Why is there such a distinction between the legal rules concerning one's physical body, and those concerning one's material possessions? One explanation is because of the idea that our bodies, unlike our material possessions, do not belong to us. They remain Divine property. We are not entitled to harm our bodies by our physical actions, nor even by our confession in the law court. Only the full legal process, which in Temple times was very rarely applied, can lead to actual capital punishment.

If our bodies remain Divine property, lent to us by G-d, we understand why there are so many laws about them. They are especially holy.

The task of life is to respect the holiness of our own bodies, and also ultimately, through keeping the laws of the Torah, to bring holiness to all our material possessions as well, and to the whole world. Then we and everyone will perceive that all existence, in all its details, expresses the Glory of G-d.5

1. Psalms 24:1.
2. Deuteronomy 17:6.
3. Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Sanhedrin, 18:6. Maimonides also suggests that the person might be using a devious method to commit suicide.
4. Talmud, Gittin 40b.
5. Freely based on the Lubavitcher Rebbe's Likkutei Sichot vol. 34, 106-113, discussing Rabbi David ben Zimra's comment on Maimonides.

By Tali Loewenthal    More articles...  |   RSS Listing of Newest Articles by this Author
Dr. Tali Loewenthal is Lecturer in Jewish Spirituality at University College London, director of the Chabad Research Unit, and author of Communicating the Infinite: The Emergence of the Habad School.
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