Eating disorders are famously misunderstood.
Earlier this week, The New York Times shed some light on them in an article detailing the high rates of these illnesses among American Orthodox Jews. The writer, Roni Caryn Rabin, reports on the various pressures Orthodox girls face, and looks at whether eating disorders might be the result of these pressures. She writes that, in some cases, those disorders seem to be symptoms of their desire to stave off menstruation to postpone marriage, the hope of losing weight with the ultimate goal of reaching the chuppah, or of their lack of time to develop a sense of self in a home filled with many siblings.
It’s the topic that the Forward has written extensively about in recent years.
While Rabin’s piece focuses on the American Orthodox community (though she doesn’t make completely clear whether she is referring to the Modern Orthodox community, the ultra-Orthodox community or Orthodoxy’s entire spectrum), the consequences of control, power, socialization and media impact everyone. Attempts to avoid acknowledging important psychological issues run rampant in most societies. In order to promote healing, the therapeutic approach must be holistic, and must not ignore the religious context.
The relationship between these Orthodox girls and their religiosity is worthy of inspection. Rabin writes: “Most of the young women interviewed for this article said they did not blame the culture for their health problems and said they derived support from their religious faith ….But they spoke openly about the enormous pressure they feel to marry young and immediately start families , and the challenges of balancing professional careers with the imperative to be consummate homemakers who prepare elaborate sabbath meals.”
For many, halacha seems to play a role in both prompting and treating such disorders. In Naomi Feigenbaum’s recounting of her eating disorder, she only fully realized the extent of her disease after her rabbi mandated that she be allowed to break halacha in order to treat her illness, as it was a case of life or death. In her situation, is halacha the problem, the saving grace — or both?
Rabin overlooks the fact that Orthodox girls are used to responding to and respecting rules and barriers. Halacha provides certain structures, such as the laws of kashrut, that Orthodox Jews are to follow. Does observing kashrut, and more generally halacha, render Orthodox girls more vulnerable and impressionable to exerting control over food outside of the intentions of the law?
In a community dominated by male spiritual leadership, it’s not surprising that women are turning to their rabbis for guidance and support when coping with life-altering events. But in a situation as painful, anxiety-laden, desperate and personal as an eating disorder, would it not be better for women to have the option of talking to other women? Even if women aren’t seen as halachic experts, can’t they be seen and valued as experts in the experience of being female? Eating disorders are not exclusively female territory in any community, but female support must be available to those who seek it .