The New York Times ran a piece this week on the high incidence of eating disorders amongst Jewish observant adolescent girls. I have to admit that I was unaware of this unfortunate reality and it pained me greatly to learn of it. In part, it was out of empathy for these poor girls, but also because it indicates just how far even very religious Jewish people have drifted from our core values – which dramatically emphasize character, kindness and emotional balance over physical virtue. (Obviously, there is also an aspect of legitimate disease at play here that cultural mores will have no bearing on).
Why is this happening to these young women? It’s abundantly clear from the article: “matchmakers feel no qualms asking about a prospective bride’s dress size — and her mother’s — and the preferred answer is 0 to 4, “extra small.” And why are these matchmakers asking this question? Obviously because that is what the guys all want. And why are they so focused on form over all of the classically valued traits that used to inform the deliberations of these young men? Because Judaism (all of it) has been badly infected by the dermal, transient and immature aspects of pop culture. And it’s quite hard to avoid. Walking to work this morning, I saw (but tried not to look at) ads for: Lady Gaga’s upcoming tour, scantily clad Cole Haan and Victoria’s Secret models, and several immodest Broadway productions and films. And the list goes on – block by block, ad by ad – everywhere we turn.
None of this is new, of course. We all know it and many people at least pay a certain amount of lip service to its detrimental effects. This is a free country and everyone is at liberty to express themselves as they see fit, but generally, as a society, when we see epidemics, we tend to want to address them. Why is that not happening in this case? Perhaps it’s because we don’t think it’s all that bad. Well, I can assure you as someone whose job description frequently includes listening to people, that virtually every time a woman asks me to meet, it’s to discuss her dating woes. The guys just so often seem incapable of pulling the trigger and when you speak to them it almost always boils down to attraction. Now, there’s certainly nothing wrong with attraction. In fact, from a Judaic perspective it’s a pre-requisite. At the end of the day, everyone needs to take responsibility for what they think and feel, but maybe these guys are not fully at fault but are also victims of the unceasing marketing onslaught. If so, a decision needs to be made. We could simply go with the flow and do our best with the circumstances as they are, or we could take stock of what has occurred, take a firm stand against it and begin to reclaim the true beauty – of our tradition and of our people.
The central theme of Passover is freedom, which from a Jewish perspective is more than the ability to choose where to live or what to eat or where to work. Freedom is the ability to opt in to what is right and good – despite societal pressures, family expectations or simple inertia. When we are compelled to behave in ways that are inimical to our own professed values, we are slaves. Everybody agrees in theory that you should value someone for (as Martin Luther King said) the “content of their character.” Few people will do that to the exclusion of skinny and cute and now, in a population that really ought to know better, we have a glut of mental illness in the form of anorexia and other eating disorders as a result. We are slaves. We are enslaved to so many things that don’t truly matter – to our wallets, our self-image, our zip codes…and our mate’s appearance.
Judaism has long emphasized that there is at all times a battle raging within us between the spiritual and corporeal aspects of our selves. The more we choose to identify with our transcendent nature, the more lofty, spiritual and actualized we become and the more we choose the body, the more base, self-indulgent and narrow-minded. In the latter case we end up being just what we choose…a body, and nothing more. Naturally a body will only consider the body of its potential spouse – as like attracts like. The pity of it all is that it won’t be satisfied long term in any event as King Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes “the eye is never sated with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.” The body can be a beautiful thing, but it’s a dead end…literally. This is the true intellectual root of our modesty laws – to de-emphasize the body in order to promote the values of an eternal soul.
I propose that this Passover we commit ourselves to the difficult work of freeing ourselves from the slavery of the faulty and dangerous misconception of that which is beautiful.
“Grace is a lie, and (physical) beauty is empty. A woman who reveres God, she is to be praised.”