A NY Times article titled “Eating disorders on rise for Orthodox Jewish girls” caught my eye, and I wanted to offer an opinion on the subject of Jewish food habits in general as well as fasting.
Briefly, it goes like this: We cannot – as individuals, as families, and as a community – allow our religious observances to become a form of idol worship itself. That is, to hold the observance in higher esteem than God. It is one thing to cling to the mitzvot and allow them to inform our actions and inspire our lives. It is another to allow them to consume us entirely.
Not Evil, but Un-Restrained
The Yetzer ha-ra (the evil, or more accurately un-restrained, inclination) speaks in two voices. The first is the one we immediately think of – the voice that says “skip it (a mitzvah). You don’t need to do it today. You’ll do it twice tomorrow.”
But the Yetzer ha-ra’s other voice is more insidious. It says “You call THAT observing? HA! If you can’t do better than that you should just not try at all. Do it better or you are nothing.” This voice, cloaked in the disguise of greater piety, causes us to give more than we can afford, to wear the badge “workaholic” with pride, to study to the detriment of work or family, and to fast even when it damages our health.
Fasting as an Idol
Fasting – and especially fasting on Yom Kippur – is challenging for everyone, but moreso for those plagued with eating issues because of the weight placed on the day.To help combat that, common sense (as well as a clear message from religious leaders) must prevail.
I don’t think we need another Rabbi Yisroel Salanter who (rumor has it) ate a sandwich on the bima during Yom Kippur. (There was a cholera epidemic and he was trying to make the point that people needed to remain healthy. He also insisted that Jews work during the holiday that year to assist in relief efforts.). But I believe we need to foster in people the same passionate he had for the health and well being of everyone in the community.
Our leadership has to be clear with the community, even if it requires a rebuke. This story comes from my friend Jeff:
A congregant who was in poor health s asked his Rabbi whether or not he should fast for Yom Kippur. The Rabbi was emphatic, telling him it was neither required nor was it a good idea.
“I’ve fasted my whole life,” the man replied, “I wouldn’t feel right eating. I think I will fast anyway. I’ll probably be fine.”
The rabbi looked him in the eye and said, “If you fast, I will issue a cherem against you . You will never have an aliyah in my shul again. Nobody will have anything to do with you.”
“You can’t do that! I haven’t sinned to deserve a cherem.” exclaimed the man.
The Rabbi replied, “You most certainly have. You are worshipping an idol – in this case, you are worshipping the fast itself. You are putting its importance higher that God’s desire that we live – not die – by the commandments.”
Not Blaming the Victim
None of this should be taken to mean that people who live (and God willing, continue to live and recover and thrive) with eating disorders are somehow at fault. Instead, I want to express my opinion (based on the article) that these conditions can be made worse by the combination of the emphasis eating (and not-eating) gets in Judaism as well as a lack of emphasis in on realistic expectations; on the “real point” of these big-ticket observances (kashrut, fasting, et al); and the general avoidance to the entire subject of eating disorders that pervades not just the Jewish community but our society as a whole.
Sometimes, We Should Understand Before We Do
At Mt Sinai the Israelites said “Naaseh v’Nishmah” – “We will do and [then] we will listen [attempt to understand].”
But the implication, the underlying teaching, is that the Israelites had the willingness to take on the mitzvot even before they had the full list of what they were. They wanted to do the commandments even if they didn’t make internal sense. That kind of eagerness is commendable.
Nobody said they actually started performing mitzvot without understanding how to do them. In fact, midrash shows how they avoided actions until they could better understand the related mitzvot – one of the reasons given for only dairy meals for Shavuot is because those Israelites – having JUST received the commandments – were so concerned about violating the laws of kashrut which they barely understood that they simply avoided meat entirely.
This is important because I think we sometimes go off eager and enthusiastic but uninformed when it comes to mitzvot, and that can lead us to make mistakes both when we perform the mitzvah and when we teach it to others.
As my friend Phil teaches:
“As always, this is my lay opinion, but I truly believe that it is universally and always a bad idea to take on a new observance without a basic understanding of the mechanics thereof. Note that I do not say “the philosophy” or “the derivation” or “the origin” thereof – the mechanical, operational, “how-to” of a mitzvah is that to which I’m referring. All those other things are important – but you will make yourself nuts if you don’t learn WHAT to do. Once you learn the basic steps – in our context here, for example: “What time does the fast start? What time does it end? What am I not allowed to do on this particular fast? What about medicine?” – and begin to practice them – then go find out what it means. In that order, always.”
The fast Asara B’Tevet is this coming Friday. Ta’anit Esther (the fast of Esther) is a little less than 100 days away. Passover – with all of it’s additional food restrictions – begins 20 days later. Looming large on the calendar’s horizon is Yom Kippur 5772, just 300 days from now.
Let’s use the intervening days to ensure these moments – along with all the other important dates on the calendar (Jewish, secular and personal) – are celebrated in a state of full health by our community, our family, and ourselves.