Rabbi Areyah Kaltmann is the first to admit he doesn't fit the profile of a disciplined dieter.
He craves chocolate and sweet potatoes. He hasn't exercised much lately. And he really hates feeling denied.
Still, the executive director of the Schottenstein Chabad House in Columbus, Ohio, is a weight-loss success story.
Kaltmann, 5 feet 8 inches tall, once weighed 265 pounds. Now he's at 205, on his way to a goal of 183.
He made it this far by turning not to diet gurus or personal trainers but to the teachings of his own faith. He focused on Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, which he defines as a spiritual quest to understand God and the soul, and how limited beings such as people can accomplish extraordinary things.
He has taken this perspective and made it into a six-week course that will meet Wednesdays, starting Jan. 27, at the Lori Schottenstein Chabad Center for a Jewish Tomorrow.
Every weight-loss program needs a name and tag line, of course. Kaltmann chose "Diet Divine: The Kabalistic Secret to Weight Loss."
The course is planned as a mix of theology and practical advice, plus lots of scriptural and personal stories from the gregarious rabbi. What it won't offer is a specific diet and exercise plan -- Kaltmann is the first to acknowledge he's no nutritionist or personal trainer.
He's simply trying to help people look at food and self-control differently. There's plenty of basis for that in Jewish texts, he said, including some by a Kabbalist rabbi who lived 250 years ago and wrote about imperfection. Kaltmann will teach that God is most happy when imperfect people overcome their limitations, such as a tendency to binge. "According to Jewish mystical teachings, it's OK to be imperfect," he said. "If God just wanted angels, he didn't have to create the world." He will talk about the belief that the human head sits above the heart because the mind must rule over emotions, which often lead to compulsive eating. He'll cite Maimonides, the great rabbi who lived 800 years ago and wrote a book about nutrition. Maimonides said to eat until you're three-quarters full and then stop, Kaltmann said. The Talmud teaches that food should be eaten slowly and savored. And Kaltmann will point out that "saying no is really saying yes." "When you say no to unhealthy food, you're saying yes to your family, you're saying yes to a healthy life," he said. "You're saying yes to feeling like a human being and not an animal." Kaltmann started losing weight about six months ago, inspired to be healthier for his wife of 18 years and his eight children, ages 1 to 17.
He also felt like a hypocrite counseling people to give up their addictions when he had his own -- food. The idea of faith-based weight loss is not new. Christian programs, in particular, have existed for decades. In March 1981, First Place 4 Health was started by 12 men and women at a Baptist church in Houston. Described by its director as "a Christian Weight Watchers," the program now boasts 12,000 chapters in the United States and 20 other countries. Participants join a class that meets once a week for 12 weeks. The meetings include a weigh-in, Bible study and prayer, said Carole Lewis, the program's national director. Dieters are expected to keep food diaries and memorize Scripture verses. The Bible offers plenty of grounding for healthful eating, said John Byl, a professor of physical education and kinesiology at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario. He is author of the 2008 book Christian Paths to Health and Wellness. The Bible teaches that humans are made in God's image, and for some, that belief is motivation to take care of that image, he said. Scripture speaks of the importance of "abundant living" and treating one's body as a temple of the Holy Spirit; it decries gluttony and laziness. Weight gain is often a symptom of emotional distress, Lewis said, and religion can remedy that. Kaltmann will help the people in his class see that being fit will allow them to enjoy life more. But that doesn't preclude a little chocolate on the Sabbath.