In recent weeks, an article written by Rabbi Ben-Zion Spitz, chief rabbi of Uraguay, was brought to my attention. In his writing he quotes the Ibn Ezra on Vayikra 26:26 regarding punishments that B’nai Yisroel will endure if they distance themselves from God. One such punishment is hunger—about which the Ibn Ezra says, “You will eat an abundant amount of food and still not be satiated.” Spitz understood this to mean that people will not be satiated because they will refuse to eat. He claims that this suggests Anorexia, and he therefore considers this eating disorder one of the curses. It should be noted that nowhere did the Ibn Ezra say that people will refuse to eat; rather he states that the curse is that they will not be satiated from the food that they do eat.
I address Rabbi Spitz’s article because he categorized Anorexia Nervosa as a curse. This is preposterous and raises countless misconceptions about eating disorders that must be disproven.
If an individual should hear that—God forbid—someone in the community has been diagnosed with cancer, he does not for one moment think “That man has cancer as a curse or punishment from God, because that person went off the derech.” The idea of someone even thinking this is repulsive; it is not anyone’s place to “play God” and try to determine why an individual has been diagnosed with any illness.
And an eating disorder is very much an illness; it is not something that an individual chooses, or takes upon him/herself. Rather, it is a mental disorder and one that cannot be “instantly cured.” The recovery process, which involves therapy, support, a treatment team, and more, is slow and has its ups and downs. Spitz writes “…The solution and the blessing [for Anorexia] are achieved by getting closer to God, by adding spirituality to the menu.” This implies that to cure Anorexia, all one has to do his bring him/herself closer to God, and the eating disorder will instantly disappear. No one would say that an individual suffering from cancer should bring himself closer to God and he will then be instantly cured.
In a recent conference,noted professor and author Cynthia Bulikcited that the involvement of religion can have a positive effect on recovery, namely that it can lessen the recovery time. As mentioned in previous articles, I strongly believe that religion should be a component in one’s recovery. Religion in recovery can be understood on many different levels.For some people this may mean to focus on behaviors—davening, chessed, tzedakah—to alleviate feelings of self-loathing by acting in a selfless manner. For others this may mean focusing on philosophy rather than behaviors; to know that there is a Higher Power and an outlet one can turn to, might be the religious component and support one needs. However, for the author to say that simply “returning to God” will cure an eating disorder is a fallacy; it must be treated on many levels, just as one suffering from another serious illnessoftentimes undergoes various treatments in order to be cured.
A person who suffers from an eating disorder may feel incomplete and to “fill this void” s/he may turn to religion. But it must be made clear that this does not mean that there is one magic cure for those suffering; forcing a Torah into a young woman’s hands, hands that can hardly bring food into her own mouth, will not rapidly “cure” her eating disorder. Judaism—faith—should be incorporated into recovery along with other components of treatment.
Spitz’s work reflects on Anorexia as a curse that can be cured by returning to God. Rather than viewing an eating disorder as a curse, we must be mindful that this is an illness, and while the involvement of religion/spirituality can aid in the healing process, it is not akin to snapping one finger’s and bam, the individual is “cured.” Proclamations like Rabbi Spitz’s must be protested before new stereotypes and nasty remarks are made toward those who are truly suffering from this possibly fatal disease. With greater understanding we can all play a part in helping those who unfortunately have it.
By Temima Zucker