The Talmud and Other Diet Books

[here is what religious tets say about the proper way to eat]


HARDLY a week goes by without yet another study documenting the increasing prevalence of obesity in America. Most of us take seriously the fact that close to 70 percent of American adults are now either overweight or obese, and most are willing to consider various ways to mitigate the problem.

Yet the solutions frequently trumpeted, like taxing sugary beverages, are top-down and invariably meet with strong resistance. In fact, Mississippi recently passed a bill essentially barring federal restrictions on what its people may eat or drink. Most Americans don’t want to be told what to consume. They want their fill.

Perhaps a different approach can be considered, one that begins from within. Instead of fixating on indulgence and excess, as do so many top-down and outside-in efforts, we should focus on what it means for each individual to be sated.

Satiety, the feeling of being satisfied, is inherently idiosyncratic: everyone has her or his own sensation of being full. What sates my hunger will be different from what sates yours. Nevertheless, what sates our hunger will be less than what you might imagine.

Long before cooking shows and diet fads, many ancient civilizations understood this balance. The Greeks, for example, worried that excessive consumption would disrupt the four humors constituting the human body. They, like the ancient Buddhist and Confucian traditions, encouraged moderation as the golden mean. Judaism, Christianity and Islam added to those arguments theological overtones: eating too little could be as spiritually damning as eating too much.

The prophet Isaiah, for example, inveighed against the Israelites for vainly fasting when so much injustice surrounded them. Such fasting, and particularly fasting only for self-affliction, was sinful, rabbis of the Talmud said. But the Talmud also counseled “removing your hand from a meal that pleases you.”

Christianity, especially through the teachings of Pope Gregory I and Thomas Aquinas, identifies gluttony as a mortal sin. More than just excessive desire for food, gluttony involves eating irregularly (snacking), being preoccupied with eating, consuming costly (sumptuous or unhealthy) foodstuffs and being fastidious about food. And the Koran insists that improper and wasteful eating incurs God’s wrath. Eat well and live well, Islam teaches.

Of course, every civilization and religious tradition has its exceptions. Many Jewish households are celebrating lavish Passover Seders this week, and many Christian ones will have Easter feasts on Sunday. Celebrations like these are highly regulated, however. Not every day or every meal is meant to be a feast or a fast, and the one who feasts or fasts too much sins. It is far better, these traditions hold, for people to eat only the amount that satisfies them.

Among these old arguments is the novel idea of eating less than what fills one’s belly. The Talmud teaches that people should eat enough to fill a third of their stomachs, drink enough to fill another third, and leave a third empty. (A hadith in the Islamic tradition also teaches this.) Rashi, a medieval French rabbi, interpreted the Talmud to mean that the final empty third is necessary so that the body can metabolize emotions. If one ate until one’s belly was completely full, there’d be no room left to manage one’s emotions and one would burst asunder.

However absurd this may seem to us today, it made physiological sense in the premodern world as the emotions were considered physical things that, like food and drink, were metabolized by the body. A body stuffed with food and drink is full only of biology; it leaves no room for biography, for what makes us human.

The medieval physician and legal scholar Maimonides similarly instructed people to eat and drink less than what filled their bellies (he thought the stomach should be three-quarters full). Moreover, they should eat slowly. Modern science corroborates Maimonides: it takes about 20 minutes for the brain to receive messages from the stomach that it has had enough. Satiety can be achieved with less food than one might think, and it requires more time to reach it.

Of course, one need not be a theist to experience satiety. One needs only a belly. Perhaps these old ideas could inspire new ways of addressing the complex weight problem in America. They could help us reduce the amount of food we put on our plates, which would lower the tonnage of otherwise good food discarded every day. And they could mitigate the costly and debilitating diseases associated with our current eating practices.

This approach is personalized: everyone is empowered to be in control of his own satiety. It is adaptable, changing as a person ages and ails. And although it is not exactly nonhierarchical if you believe it’s God’s will, at least it is not imposed by any human government. Finally, it is sustainable, as it promotes a culture that views limitless consumption with suspicion. Capitalism may abhor contentedness, but our bodies need us to heed it.

We have to realize that enough is enough. We should stop asking ourselves, “Am I full?” and start asking, “Am I satisfied?”

Jonathan K. Crane, a rabbi, is a professor of bioethics and Jewish thought at Emory University.
By JONATHAN K. CRANE

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