Judaism and Healthy Eating

May 9, 2009

7 min read


Help! My son is a junk food addict!

Dear Rebbetzin Feige,
I have a 22-year-old son who survives on junk food. I know that there is a commandment to take care of one's body. Can you please tell me more about this mitzvah?

Rebbetzin Feige's response:

In describing its healthful approach to life, the Torah says, "Only beware (take care) of yourself and greatly beware of your soul" (Deut. 4:9). The Jewish position does not negate or marginalize the importance of attending to the needs of our bodies. On the contrary, Judaism views the body and soul as inextricably linked partners, interdependent in a joint effort to successfully negotiate life's journey.

It is interesting to note that in biblical times, lapses of a spiritual nature manifested themselves in eruptions on the body. "Tzaraat", loosely translated as leprosy, was a skin affliction caused by a spiritual deficit, namely that of gossip, selfishness or other violations of acceptable speech. Consistent with the source of the affliction, a Cohen, a member of the Jewish priestly caste, was summoned in those situations rather than a medical doctor

It was understood that the "patient" required moral and ethical healing, and that only a spiritual "professional" could direct and manage the process of restoring the person's health. Most significantly, it was eminently clear that the body could not be healthy in the absence of spiritual integrity and, conversely, a compromised body could not generate the requisite energy to optimally serve its Creator.

The key word is balance.

The great commentator Maimonides, himself a physician, devoted much time and space to teach about healthful eating and ways of conducting one's physical existence as part of mandated Jewish practice. In the Mishna Torah, Maimonides emphasizes the critical role of a balanced diet and lifestyle. An ascetic stance or denying healthful nutrition is not recommended. On the other hand he clearly eschews excesses. A middle of the road approach, somewhere between denial and excess, is the ideal standard. Don't fill your bellies to the maximum. Excessive indulgences in unhealthy food, he warns, are the source of all illnesses. Balance is the key word. He also advises those who are hooked on excesses to go to the other extreme and totally give up their addiction cold turkey in order to eventually arrive at the desirable middle of the road position.

Nachmanides, a 12th century commentator and noted physician, on the verse exhorting Jews to be a holy nation, offers the classic insight that it is possible to be a "navol b'reshut haTorah" -- to present despicable behavior even within the parameters of Torah. He explains that even as we eat only kosher food and recite all of the requisite blessings, one can be so immersed in excessive, gluttonous behavior that the objective of "holiness" is rendered inaccessible and out of reach.

Ignoring the Torah's exhortations and the counsel of our sages to interact respectfully with our bodies is a failure in recognizing that our body is the vessel that hosts our soul. Indeed, it is the vehicle that sees us through our journey in our earthly existence. Clearly, the body is a gift from the Master of the Universe entrusted to our care. Concomitant with this gift is an implicit contract that obliges us to observe the gold standard of balance.

Dear reader, unquestionably, your son's eating habits have less to do with religious convictions and more to do with his psychological well being. He needs to know that the prerogative to choose his behavior is his alone. Point your son in the direction of his own innate wisdom and health. Help him understand that no one needs to nag him because the power to move in a healthy direction resides exclusively within himself.

Behaviors begin with thoughts, endless streams of thoughts that come and go and vie for our attention. The ones we choose to indulge will shape our behavior. Each individual alone has the power to determine which thought they will bypass and which one they will focus on. Negative, destructive thoughts that are indulged contaminate our ability to access the good common sense available to all of us. When the junk food thought presents itself with all its compelling force, he would do well to view it as an "unwelcome guest" in his head, ignore it and move on.

Unhealthy eating, like all other destructive behavior, begins with thoughts.

A Chinese wise man observed that there were two dogs inside of him, constantly fighting and vying for his attention. One was evil and one was good. When asked which one ultimately won, he responded that it was the one that he fed the most.

Indeed, all of us have thoughts that are "unwelcome guests" in our head. They come uninvited. The trick is not to feed them, get hooked on or be preoccupied with them. If we move on, we make room for our intrinsic innate wisdom to rise and inform our behavior.

Unhealthy eating, like all other destructive behavior, begins with thoughts. Since we are the thinkers, thoughts are no more than a product of ourselves. The only reality and life they have is the one we choose to give them. The thoughts we choose create our experience in life and define us. Our well being and psychological health depends on this dance between the thoughts we reject and the thoughts we choose.

As for yourself, dear reader, consider the anecdote of the worker whose boss gives him a ride home when his own car breaks down. The worker invites the boss to come in and meet his family. The boss accepts the invitation. As they approach, the boss curiously observes as the worker stops for a moment in front of a bush before proceeding to the front door. At the conclusion of a pleasant visit as the boss is leaving, he cannot resist asking the worker about the little ritual he had observed.

"Oh, that's my trouble tree. Many upsetting things happen daily that I have no control over, such as today's event of my car breaking down. I know that these troubles don't belong in my home with my wife and children. So before I enter my house I hang my troubles on this bush. And, amazingly," he added, "in the morning when I come to pick them up, there don't seem to be as many as I left there the night before."

The mezuzah on the front door of a Jewish home that bears the name of the Almighty is the perfect place to unload our worries and let God carry them on His broad shoulders for us. Indeed, these worries are beyond our control but totally within His control. Hence, dear reader, be aware that worrying, while always considered the prerogative of a mother, is no more than a collection of non-productive thoughts. Be assured that when our heads and minds are obsessing with concerns that we have no control over, there is no room left for our intuitive, innate and Divine wisdom to surface and guide our lives.

Ultimately, the best we can do is point our children in the right direction. We can give them the tools, the education, the information, the instruction, the guidance and the values that should serve them well. Above and beyond that, we can only hope and pray that they will disabuse themselves of contaminated thinking and reach inward to access their own God-given wisdom.


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