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Eating disorders point to an imbalance in the body-soul dynamic.
Eating disorders of all kinds have become an all-too-common and familiar phenomenon in our society. Moreover, this problem appears to be on the increase and seems to hit closer and closer to home.
Many have suggested that it is a phenomenon, if not born of, then at least exacerbated by our culture's obsession with the human body. Physicality and external beauty is the major preoccupation and focus of the media (magazines, T.V. movies, etc).
Psychologists have observed that the person most prone to succumb to certain types of eating disorders is one with a perfectionist nature, who is under stress (sometimes self-generated), who feels a loss of control over life and a commensurate desperate desire to regain it.
The dysfunction manifests itself in overeating and then vomiting -- so called "binging and purging" -- as a means of achieving illusory control over one segment of life. Anorexia is another manifestation. A noted psychotherapist observes, "Food is the symptom for everything. Using food or weight to solve problems gives one a feeling of control and empowerment."
The Jewish View
How does Judaism see the body, beauty, and physicality?
Judaism in contrast to most other religions does not negate the physical world. Nor does it dichotomize the spiritual and the material. The Torah approach is that we should bring godliness to every aspect of our life. God is no less present and accessible in the boardroom and bedroom than He is in our places of worship. Moreover, tradition teaches us that it is a result of God's omnipotent will and His deliberate plan that we find ourselves not in a spiritual setting but indeed in physical surroundings.
Judaism does not negate the physical world, nor dichotomize spiritual and material.
Just a number of weeks ago, my husband and I celebrated our 40th Wedding Anniversary with a trip to Switzerland. It was at my urging (I don't want to say nudging) that we took this trip. One of, what I thought was, my most cogent arguments was that the Talmud advises that after 120 years of life on earth, when we come before the Divine tribunal for judgment, the Almighty will ask us if we fully enjoyed this world. We will be asked, I reminded my husband, "Did you fully the magnificent Alps?" (It's very helpful to have a religious argument when you want a vacation).
There is a Torah imperative to notice, appreciate, and relish the beauty of our surroundings in our world. They are God's gift to us and an expression of His love for us. As a means of heightening our sensitivity, we are in fact instructed to recite blessings when we encounter fragrant trees, awesome storms -- thunder, lightening, majestic mountains, beautiful people, etc. The Almighty's mandate for us is to bridge heaven and earth -- the spiritual and the physical -- though they might appear to us as opposite and conflicting dimensions of our existence.
Tension of Body & Soul
The human being reflects this tension. On one hand, there is the body with its needs, demands, impulses, urges, etc. On the other hand, there is the spiritual aspect, the Divine soul, our essence, our very link to eternity. The requirements and needs of the soul are not as readily discernable and tangible as the needs of the body, but, in fact, much more critical. The well-being of the body has to be maintained as the vessel, the repository of our God-invested essence. This vessel has to last a lifetime -- seventy or eighty or ninety years or as the expression goes "may you live to be 120 years old." That seems to be the maximum in life expectancy on earth. In contrast, the soul is of eternal substance, which means that we have to nurture it so that it can endure forever and ever and ever.
Hillel's body was the host for his soul during his journey on Earth.
Hillel, one of the great sages of Israel, was greeted on a Friday afternoon, by a number of his disciples. He had what was the equivalent of a towel swung over his shoulders which sparked the curiosity of his students who questioned him about his destination. "I am going to the bath house, to take care of my host," he answered. Upon further inquiry, he explained that his body was the host for his soul for the duration of his journey on earth and that there is a Torah obligation to treat one's host with respect, care, and concern.
The Torah recognizes that if one's body is neglected and in disrepair the soul will suffer.
Reb Avrohom -- known as the malach, "the angel" because of his enormously pious and spiritually focused nature -- was a young man whose service to God was so intense that he often forgot to attend to his basic physical needs such as eating and sleeping. When his father, Rabbi DovBer, the Maggid of Mezritch, was about to depart from this world, he called in his son. His parting words were "Avremele, Avremele be very careful, give great care to your health and physical well being, because a small hole in one's body will create an even greater hole in one's soul."
The challenge of our existence here on earth is to successfully negotiate the tension between body and soul. While we must give our body its due, it should not become the exclusive or even primary focus. After all is said and done, the body is only the outside shell -- the packaging that after it exhausts its usefulness will die and be buried. But the spirit of the human being -- which is dependant on a lifetime of spiritual awareness and investment and commensurate good deeds -- joins other souls in a world of eternal duration.
How can we fathom eternity? Someone once explained that if we filled Madison Square Garden with sunflower seeds and a bird would come once in a thousand years to remove a single seed, the time it would take for all the seeds to be cleared out would not even begin to capture a definition of eternity.
Torah enjoins us to be careful not to injure our bodies.
Yes, the body is very important. Our physical configuration, -- the brains, heart, kidneys, intestines, etc. -- are inspiring in their harmony and synchrony and serve as testimony to the presence of a purposeful creator. The Torah commandment "only be observant for yourself and greatly concerned for your soul" (Deut. 4:9) enjoins us to be very careful not to do anything that would be in anyway injurious to our bodies. We must eat well, sleep, exercise, seek medical attention, whatever will promote our health and well-being.
In addition, the Torah places value on an attractive appearance. Since the body is the garment of the soul its presentation is a commentary on its bearer. The Talmud states that a Torah scholar dare not appear in soiled clothing. We understand that to mean that a person who represents a Torah standard must externally reflect well on what he personifies.
Moreover, traditional sources are replete with exhortations to a husband and wife to groom, maintain, and dress so that their spouses will find them pleasant and appealing. This is especially relevant in an open society where men and women interact and interface constantly and freely. Opportunities and temptations out there are a constant challenge to every marriage. One of the antidotes to this reality is to enhance our vigilance and care to be presentable and appealing to our spouses ("attractive but not attracting of others," the saying goes).
At the same time, we must maintain a balanced approach, aware and cognizant that there is more to the human being than meets the eye.
Eating disorders are one of the many manifestations of the vulnerability and ensuing dysfunction in a society which excessively focuses on externalities.
The question of one of our readers was what to do if one suspects a friend, acquaintance, or family member of being anorexic. I would advise this person to immediately bring it to the attention of whoever would be in a position to get this individual professional help. It would not be productive to confront the person because undoubtedly they are in denial. The person with such a problem -- and some eating disorders are actually life-threatening -- is not in tune with their bodily reality.
When the crisis is over, ongoing therapy with a specialist in this specific field of eating disorders would be indicated. At the same time exposure to our rich Torah heritage would provide a critical anchor to a healthy, wholesome, and holistic approach and understanding to the balance between the physical and the spiritual.