Does Judaism Generate Eating Disorders?

One key aspect of Jewish culture that disorders women’s relationships with their/our bodies is the expectation of feeding, serving, and managing everyone’s appetites. “As a mother and a wife. There is an expectation that I will put food on the table. And that is really hard for me. To be so engaged with food,” says Naomi Malka. Malka is High Holiday Coordinator and Mikveh Director at the Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, DC. She is also a recovering bulimic. 

Shabbat meals are often a place where many eating disorders take shape. “Lisa”, a woman interviewed for this article who wishes to remain anonymous, remembers: “All these meals, the abundance of food, you make tons of dishes, and then you sit around and eat all this food, and you just sit and grab, and the longer you sit the more you grab.” The emphasis on sitting around for hours on Shabbat and holidays, surrounded by copious amounts of food, is a risk factor for Jewish women, according to eating disorder specialist Tanya Berg. In an article for National Eating Disorders, she writes, “Preoccupations with food can exacerbate eating disorder issues for those who struggle. Eating disorder thoughts and pressures tend to be stronger during holiday times. The individual might ’save‘ her calories during the week in order to indulge at the Shabbat or holiday meal, however, this usually leads to either bingeing or further restricting, due to the intense fear of overeating. Those who struggle may begin to omit traditional Shabbat foods, or participate but purge later.” 

“We don’t expect men who struggle with alcohol addiction to serve drinks for two hours every evening, but we give no thought to assigning at least two hours a night of food preparation (plus 17 holidays, 52 Shabbats and numerous life cycle events each year) to women who struggle with disordered eating behaviors and/or obesity,” eating-disorders consultant Dr. Marjorie Feinson said at a conference of the Renfrew Center on eating disorders in the Jewish community. The Renfrew Center has a program specifically designed for Orthodox Jewish girls.

The language of discipline, control and will power can forge unhealthy relationships with one’s body. In that sense, kosher rules can exacerbate the issue. As Kate Bigam writes at Jewish Women’s Archive, although many women are fine with kosher restrictions, “for others, orthodoxy offers the perfect guise under which to develop anorexia, bulimia, binge eating and other serious disorders.” She explains that “because Orthodox Judaism enforces a litany of rigid food rules and restrictions – no mixing meat and dairy, a bevy of off-limits foods and brands – Orthodox women who keep strict kosher learn from an early age to resist temptation and adhere to stringent meal guidelines. For the sake of religiosity, they become experts at saying no to foods that might otherwise appeal to them – and in some cases, such as on Yom Kippur and Tisha B’av, to saying no to food, period.”

What distinguishes eating disorders among religious women are factors such as, “the mixed and contradictory obligations embedded in the religion, the importance of food, the significance of family and the shidduch (matchmaking) phenomenon,” writes Dr. Caryn Gorden, an expert in eating disorders in the Jewish community, in Psychology Today, “as well as incompatible demands to observe a traditional, spiritual way of life, while functioning in a modern, secular world.”

Religious women have multiple expectations around them—to be thin yet covered, to have large families, with pregnancies in quick succession, to serve tons of food but not eat too much. Dr. Gorden writes, “There are laws dictating the modest clothing women are permitted to wear, married women must cover their hair when in public, and women are allowed only limited contact with men, including their husbands. The observant female’s attempt to reconcile these contradictory imperatives can catalyze the body shame and sexual discomfort that often underlie eating disorders.”

The Shabbat table was also a place of trauma for “Hannah,” a 42-year-old autistic mother of three who has severe food allergies. She told me that she is triggered by “memories of years of fasting.”  She spent her childhood “being beaten at the family meal table for refusing to swallow and gagging basic foods.”

“Shirley” described how the body-shaming engulfed her on Shabbat-especially around the issue of getting married. “’It’s not healthy’, they would say. ‘You’ll never find someone who will want to sleep with you’. ‘Boys don’t want just personality. They want looks’. ‘Try eating only one slice of challah’. I can go on, but if I told you all of it, we would be here forever.”

So much of this was familiar to me. Staying thin so that boys would like you, incessant observations of how looked, magnifying-class inspections of how our chins looked, our waists, our hair—all this was standard fare in my house growing up. And the challah thing, that brought up some recordings in my head. Discussions about how many pieces of challah I should eat were the mainstay of my Shabbat table growing up, too. Challah was a comfort for me around the table, in which the girls in the family served copious amounts of food to the men sitting around the table, before we sat down and started counting each other’s calories. We would sit at the table for hours, and for me, the soft, warm, white bread provided some kind of internal salve that I was desperately craving.

“Orthodoxy privileges traditional gender expectations: a good shidduch (marital match), marrying young, having many children, skillful domesticity and physical appeal while in modest dress. How can a woman balance the requirements of secular success with those of significant domestic responsibility?” Dr. Gorden adds.

Shirley’s response to the shaming was to starve herself. “I started to go on these 500-calorie diets where I would starve my body to lose weight,” she told me. “I eventually lost the forty pounds. I remember going to a wedding and being surrounded by around 20 girls who were yelling and screaming about how gorgeous and skinny I was.” But that  only emphasized how stuck she was in the cycle of gaze and shame. “The next day began the binge. Eventually, I gained 50 pounds back.”

Food, religion and abuse

There’s more. For many women, these experiences with food are part of larger patterns of abuse. Some women shared with me how the abuse contributed to their tricky relationships with food. For Hannah, for example, who experienced food with forced-feeding, the experiences of body control at the family table made her see fasting as “a major relief from the mealtime trauma.”  

Similarly, “Chaya”, a 43-year-old social worker who converted to Judaism 20 years ago, shared with me how Yom Kippur was used as a particular excuse for inflicting harm by her physically and emotionally abusive ex-husband. “One of the worst experiences of abuse happened half an hour before Kol Nidre one year, after which I crawled into bed and refused to get out,” she shared with me. “He then sickeningly was super nice to me and convinced me to get out of bed because it is the holiest night of the year – which is ironic that he would do that to me right before the holiest night of the year.” As a result, she no longer wants to have anything to do with fasting or Yom Kippur. “It makes me feel negative about being Jewish.”

Indeed, there is a strong correlation between eating disorders and abuse. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, 30% of people who have eating disorder have been sexually abused, because body shame sparks many eating disorders. Body-shame can trigger habits of self-harm, like resulting in starvation, purging, or binging. And anorexia, or extreme fasting, can be a means of trying to gain control where a girl feels that she has no control over what is happening to her body.

Chaya also struggles with body issues because of the abuse. “He would stand me naked in front of a mirror and point out all my so called ‘disgusting parts of my body’,” she shared. “He called me a disgusting fat pig every day,” she recalled, echoing Donald Trump’s toxic language about women. “He would stare at my naked body in the mirror and physically touch the parts, and saying to me, ‘Look how disgusting you are’, ‘Look at this’, pointing to my belly, ‘Look at this’, pointing to my breasts.” Chaya is now remarried and free from abuse, but the scars of physical and emotional abuse remain. And in this case, it is also a case of spiritual abuse, in which the religion is used as an excuse to inflict harm.

There are other stories of Yom Kippur being used as a form of emotional-spiritual abuse. The emphasis on penance can be used by abusers as a form of emotional manipulation and blame, where an abuser reminds his or her victim about all their “flaws” or “sins.” about all the apologies that she needs to be making. It is hard to know how common this form of spiritual abuse is because there is no research on it that I know of. But it is out there in Jewish life, and still unnamed and unacknowledged. My own history includes some very painful spiritual abuse around Yom Kippur.   

In fact, the lead-up to Yom Kippur this year, coming at a time when the world is watching Trump move and speak like a sexual predator, is especially triggering for women like Chaya. “It is all crazy-making,” she told me. “It is the accumulation of my lived abuse, assaults, dismissiveness, egotistical, mansplaining, sexist, misogynist, ‘women don’t know anything’ experiences as a woman all wrapped into one person.”