Judaism and Eating Disorders

by Jill Lewis, MA, LCSW, CEDS

Why is that girl moving back and forth? She must be over-exercising.

Why can’t he just eat the burger and the cheese? That must be a ritual from the eating disorder.

Why is she refusing pork and shellfish? She must be restricting.

These are just a few of the comments that religious Jewish patients have encountered. According to Jessie Brownstein, an expert in Jewish education: “Food is to be enjoyed. God gave it to us and brought it to this world…We should not be serving food. Food should be serving us.” When someone who comes from a Jewish religious background is struggling with an eating disorder, we need to be aware of their customs and rituals. The values and morals that observant Jews uphold are based on what was written in the Torah thousands of years ago. We must seek to understand the customs and the importance they have for the patient, and not just assume they are based on an eating disorder. A patient asked to have only meat products for lunch and refused a snack that had dairy only a few hours later. The patient had to explain to the treatment team the concept of not mixing milk and meat, and where the customs stem from. The therapist, dietitian and patient were able to have a healthy open dialogue that this patient wasn’t avoiding or restricting food, she was imply honoring the laws of Kashrut (the bodies of Jewish religious law concerning suitability of food).

If you meet someone who is religious, ask questions about their customs, ritual, faith and how it plays a part in their eating disorder and their recovery.  Provide a nurturing space for them to explore and understand their customs, why they practice them and the importance that they hold. Encourage them to question the ways that their customs intersect with their eating disorder and help them to explore the changes that need to be made for their recovery without judgment.  Seeking knowledge about someone’s needs is crucial in the recovery of anyone with an eating disorder, there is no reason it should stop with someone who is religious.

Jill Lewis, MA, LCSW, CEDS provides individual, group, couples, and family therapy for people struggling with eating disorders. Jill has worked at the Renfrew Center and Balance Eating Disorder Treatment Center. She has psychodynamic training from The New York Psychoanalytic Society, as well as group training from Eastern Group Psychotherapy Society. She maintains a practice in New York City and Atlanta.