Reform looks at ways to reinvent the movement
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Reform looks at ways to reinvent the movement

Returning food to its rightful place: Eating disorders in the Jewish community

This piece is excerpted from Rabbi Zlotnick’s chapter in “A Sacred Table” (CCAR Press).

[M]any of us were raised with the philosophy that it is always better to have too much rather than too little food at a special event. Holiday tables are laden with dish upon dish placed before the family, while relatives urge one another to “Eat, eat!” Some people speculate that this phenomenon may be attributed to our history, during much of which we experienced periods of dire deprivation and starvation….

Perhaps the power of Jewish history subconsciously plays itself out every time we gather with food as our centerpiece.

This sets the scene for eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating / compulsive overeating) to become silent yet destructive forces in our families and our community….

Jews, especially but not exclusively Jewish women, are particularly vulnerable to eating disorders. People who are high achieving, well educated, and middle class are more susceptible to eating disorders than other people are. And this is often an accurate description of many of our families in Reform congregations.

Those who work in the field of eating disorders insist that … [e]ating disorders are not about food. They are about emotions and psychological wellbeing…. Hunger and nourishment are no longer connected to the nutritional value of the food on the plate but to meeting emotional needs that are not satisfied in other ways….

Occasions on which families gather for the Jewish holidays can be particularly nerve-racking for people with eating disorders. With every course, family members make comments and suggestions: “Try the kugel”; “Oh, take another piece. You can afford it”; “Sweetie, you’ve had enough dessert.”

…Anorexics often regard Yom Kippur as a day of licit fasting, a day in which everyone else experiences the “high” of self-starvation. For binge eaters, the overabundance of sweets at an Oneg Shabbat can be both tempting and painful. Passover seders, Yom Kippur break-fasts, and Chanukah latke-eating parties can all be extremely anxiety-provoking for those with eating disorders. Yet family members at these events often do not even realize that their loved one is counting calories, pushing food around on the plate, running to the bathroom to vomit, or inspecting each bite that everyone else is taking…. Jewish families have a difficult time accepting that a loved one is self-destructive….

As a community, we have begun to chip away at the denial that compels us to say “not my loved one” or “not in my synagogue” when we see someone engaged in self-destructive behaviors….

Jewish values can pave the way to a healthy relationship to food and nourishment. Our Sages teach that in each generation since the destruction of the Temple, every table in every Jewish home has become an altar – that is, a center for the sacred in our lives. Judaism emphasizes that food should be enjoyed as one of the gifts of Creation, but it should be enjoyed in moderation…. According to tradition, every meal begins and ends with a b’rachah, a blessing, of gratitude for the food we are about to eat, which enables us to live, to work, and to love. Kashrut can also be a means to attaining a deeper reverence for the way in which we nourish ourselves, leading to an experience of wholeness in the world….

In Judaism, we believe that all human beings are created b’tzelem Elohim – in God’s image. For people with eating disorders, this belief has been submerged. As a community, we can help return a sense of their own sacredness to people with eating disorders by being sensitive to their needs at family and temple events, by focusing on who people are rather than how they look, and by reaching out to the entire family, not just the individual with the eating disorder. Together we can return food to its rightful place: not as a weapon that our loved ones use to destroy themselves but as a pleasurable part of our Jewish experiences and memories and as a means to nourish the best in ourselves. As Rabbi Akiva taught in Pirkei Avot 3:14, “Human beings are loved because they are made in God’s image.” We can help people with eating disorders discover that they, too, are loved and that they, too, have within themselves a spark of the Divine.

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