Serving up Judaism as Soul Food

Did the biblical heroine Hannah, mother of Samuel, whose story we revisit each Rosh Hashanah, suffer from anorexia nervosa? Yes, according to Lori Hope Lefkovitz, professor of gender and Judaism at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and opening speaker at “Insatiable Appetites: Food, Body Image, and Judaism,” a program at Hebrew College in Newton, Massachusetts in December.

Lefkovitz linked Hannah’s refusal to eat—self-starvation being a known inhibitor of ovulation—to her inability to get pregnant. Once Hannah “unburdens herself emotionally,” Lefkovitz said, she is finally able to eat, and then to conceive. With this reinterpretation, Lefkovitz rendered a woman’s triumph over anorexia nervosa biblically visible, offering it as a lesson in healing and hope. Lefkovitz acknowledged that this reading is by no means traditional. Which was exactly her point.

“What we discover in our past depends, in no small part, on what we are looking for,” she said. Yes, Jewish women and girls too often internalize damaging cultural stereotypes lurking not only in the dominant culture, but also in Judaism itself But, she insisted, that can change. “Critical reading puts us in a position to reinterpret that which is problematic, and to reclaim what we discover that is worthy, useful, and even redemptive,” Lefkovitz said. “Our task is to expose and exorcise negative stereotypes and popularize a new reality for Jewish women.”

Subsequent speakers continued the thread begun by Lefkovitz, that is, that Judaism is a powerful tool in the prevention and healing of eating disorders. Alison Adier, a rabbinical student, discussed her use of traditional sources for the workshops that she conducts on eating, body image, and Judaism. Among the sources she refers to are Jewish blessings (“Blessed are you, our God, the sovereign of all worlds, who shaped the human body with wisdom, making for us all the openings and vessels of the body”), the Psalms (“You open up your hand, and satisfy the desire of every living thing.” Psalm 145:16) and the Torah (“When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the Lord your God for the good land which He has given you” Deut. 8:10).

“In Judaism, the body is the temple of the soul,” Adler said. When the culture says other-wise, “women need to tell their daughters, ‘I will fight the culture.”‘