It is always important to counter the negative stereotypes and misconceptions that are raised by people who do not understand eating disorders, especially when a rabbi writes an article that says that anorexia is a punishment for sinning. The article by Rabbi Ben-Zion Spitz, chief rabbi of Uruguay did open the door to the very important topic of religion and eating disorders.
To suffer from an eating disorder while identifying as a religious Jew can be incredibly difficult. If the individual is in a treatment center, this may be one of the first times s/he will be living with others who do not have knowledge of Judaism, and the process can feel isolating. Those who have never entered treatment may have a hard time incorporating therapy and nutrition in accordance with their religious identities. There is—for many—an additional challenge, beyond the disorder, to maintain the their religious identity. This issue is complex to say the least, but I will attempt to touch the tip of the iceberg by offering my insights and some practical tips.
Recovery is a multi-faceted process; one must work on physical as well as mental health, and oftentimes address other issues, whether they are social or psychological. To throw religion into the mix can be scary, overwhelming, and altogether tiring. Some religious sufferers of an eating disorder try to create a balance by finding a clinician who works with eating disorder patients and the Jewish community. (To find some clinicians near you who fall under this category, take a look at the Resources section of the TikvahV’Chizuk website.) This can be very helpful as the patient does not need to explain all the intricacies of our religion and practices, and can help the patient plan ahead with an understanding of Shabbat, holidays, Kashrut…etc.
This is also valuable because the clinician can work with the patient on recovery goals while incorporating religion/spirituality. The distinction between these two ideas is that religion refers to behaviors and mentality, while spirituality is more abstract. One who is spiritual but not religious believes in the concept of a “Higher Power” and something greater in this world, beyond what we see. I believe it is important that one in recovery works to use her religion or spirituality to help, though this is not always possible.
There are some individuals suffering from an eating disorder who choose to not see a Jewish clinician as these individuals feel this may hamper the recovery process. As is usually the case when discussing recovery from an eating disorder, different tactics work for different people.
There are some people, though, who feel extremely ostracized from the Jewish community, as well as from Judaism during their recovery. Many people in the community lack understanding and therefore make assumptions and speak negatively about those suffering from an eating disorder. As a community we must work together to conquer the negativity, to show those who are suffering that we support them. I have encountered too many young women who felt strangled by those in the community who did not support them and they abandoned Judaism because of the ill feelings. Rather, those who suffer should feel that they have a community that stands behind them. We constantly talk about our nation and how during the good and bad, as Jews we must stick together. We must also stick together in understanding the reality of eating disorders.
Individuals need to be supported and can use their Judaism as an aid in their recovery. A few weeks ago, I invited the young women who attend the support group that I run to stay for Shabbat. Shabbat is an incredibly difficult time for people in recovery—the meals are intense and there is plenty of down-time, time that often results in unhealthy temptations. However Shabbat is also a time to reflect on the week, to take time for oneself and to connect to Judaism. The young women and I had an excellent time as we used Shabbat to take a break from our intense week.
Religion can help in recovery. Since Shabbat and holidays be overwhelming, doing mitzvot like Brachot seems pointless for someone who does not want to eat in the first place, but there are things to be grateful for anyway. When someone feels like she is completely alone, she can turn to tefillah, mitzvot, tzedakah, to connect to something greater than herself. Moreover, knowing that there is a Higher Power—HaShem—and that there is a future, can provide tremendous hope for those who feel distraught and hopeless. People struggling from an eating disorder often feel alone and as if they lack a purpose…religion can provide this purpose through a sense of connection to something shared with others, and through charitable acts and kindness. Shabbat can be a time of rest and relaxation; Brachot can remind us that we are privileged to have the ability to get our food. When I was an inpatient, I never missed tefillah; while I may not have connected with what I was saying, I was reminded that I was not alone. Religion can be a source of strength if one learns to accept that she can find more meaning by leaning on religion and/or spirituality. Such connections should be encouraged in the recovery process; it can be a guiding light to lead one out of the chaos that is an eating disorder.
Temimah Zucker is the founder of Tikvah V’Chizuk which provides eating disorder support for the Jewish community. www.tvcsupport.org Additionally she is a public speaker on eating disorder awareness and the Student Liaison for iaedp NY. She can be reached at informationTVC_gmail.com
By Temimah Zucker