How to Become a Person
It all begins in the body.
Some years ago, while studying Maimonides’ introductory chapters to the Mishnaic tractate of Avos, I came across a passage that shifted the course of my life. You might also find it interesting.
First, some context. Maimonides was explaining how good people don’t renounce earthly pursuits, substituting body for soul, quashing self in favor of God. Instead, they use their minds to manage every detail of their character, feelings, attitudes, and desires. Although often tempted to careen out of control - like a car whose gas is floored and steering locked to the right or left, spinning around itself until something bad happens – they’ll stick with the straight course, the middle way, moving onward and forward on the path of life.
But what’s the destination? Where am I headed in life when not lost in pursuit of prestige and pleasure? It’s very nice to be on the right road, but what should I put into Waze?
That’s an important question, of course, and Maimonides addresses it. But it’s not the first thing to to contemplate. The spiritual journey, explains Maimonides, doesn’t begin with metaphysics or theology, but with something much more basic: actively choosing to becoming a genuine person, not an animal in a human body.
This turning point between animal and human must be something elementary. It can’t be a profound insight or outstanding accomplishment, or anything else that skips any steps on the ascending ladder of life forms. We’re not looking to understand why lowly lizards don’t make talented computer programmers, because there are a thousand and one stages separating them. Lizards can’t talk, read, or even think words and numbers. If a mosquito blocks their view of the screen, they’ll be off to lunch before you can press enter.
Life on earth comes on a large spectrum, beginning with species such as the lizard’s lunch and ending with the best possible person I can become. But if I’d like to head in that direction, I must know what value-based decision separates the most advanced ape from the most primitive person. I must find the trailhead and head out from there.
I actively become a person, explains Maimonides, whenever I consciously focus my bodily desires and action – that is, all I have in common with other mammals – toward a constructive purpose, so that no action I take is “an act of nothingness.” Once I’ve left nothingness and joined purposefulness, I’m a card-carrying member of the human race, because only people can direct their actions toward wellness and wholeness of body, mind, and spirit. Then I can take my personhood further and ponder the spiritual purpose of all the purposes, knowing and emulating God.
Here's how Maimonides described the fellow who has entered personhood:
He places the intent of his eating and drinking, intimate relations, sleeping and waking up, movement and rest, only towards his body’s health.
Maimonides continues to provide detailed examples, outlining a model of healthy, balanced living. Today I want to share with you the part that touched me so deeply that I embarked on a new career, entering a 3-year college program to become a certified health coach.
Therefore, the profession of medicine is a very important path toward acquiring intellectual and character assets, knowing God, and attaining true success. Learning and seeking this wisdom are from the most important tasks; it is not just another vocation like weaving and carpentry. For here we evaluate our deeds, and they become human actions that bring achievement and truth.
If a person will eat any enticing food that’s tasty to his palate and has a good aroma, even when it’s damaging, wasting, and may cause dangerous disease or sudden death – he and the animal are equal. This isn’t the action of a person as a human, but the action of a person as an animal. “They are likened and compared to animals (Psalms 49:21).”
The human action will only ingest beneficial food, and sometimes will leave tastier foods and eat more repulsive ones, according to what’s beneficial. This action is guided by the mind, and with it man is separated from all other creatures.
These words jarred me, which was probably Maimonides’ intent. I can observe the full program of my religion, even see myself as a holy and spiritual fellow, but in truth am just an animal, nothing qualitatively different than a cow or a cat. A religious rabbit, holy hare, or spiritual snake, but an animal just the same.
There’s no skipping steps. I want my life to have meaning and purpose, to be a journey towards something larger then myself, to live well here while heading toward there. I must begin by directing my simplest physical actions towards healthfulness, establishing myself as someone who acts for a purpose. Once my mind directs my body at that most basic level, I’ve become an genuine human being, and am free to travel on to the realm of the spirit.
One Suggestion: Next time you eat something, or do anything that may or may not support your health, ask yourself: “Is this good for my health or not? Do I see how in this choice I’m deciding whether or not to become a person?”
Please Note: This is an updated version of The Healthy Jew’s debut article. Many later columns expanded on this idea, such as these: