I was listening to a Jewish podcast the other day on which the hosts were doing a segment about different kinds of food. Toward the end of the segment, I realized that I had spent the entire 20 minutes bracing myself for the invasion of diet culture into their conversation.
The invasion never came. There was exactly zero moralizing about the foods they were discussing. None of them had a bad word to say about themselves or anyone else for eating certain kinds of foods, nor was anyone praised for restricting their intake or only eating foods that were deemed morally “good.” This lack of moralizing around food was as refreshing as it was rare.
In contemporary culture—and Jewish culture is certainly no exception—diet culture and moralizing around food are so pervasive as to be nearly unavoidable. It is almost impossible to get through any event that involves eating without someone making a comment about the moral content of their food choices—chastising themselves for “being bad,” or making sure you know what kinds of food they are currently avoiding for some reason or another. At one kiddush table, back when we still ate in with one another in synagogues, I heard a gentleman say to the complete stranger next to him, “You know what they say: eat the protein and leave the carbs to the goyim.” I had not previously imagined how well this moralizing around food could be layered on top of Borscht Belt xenophobia, but in retrospect I should not have been shocked by diet culture’s adaptability. It is inescapable, or it can certainly feel that way. It is also harmful: It reinforces fat-phobia and it can be triggering to people of all sizes who are recovering from (or not yet recovering from) eating disorders. And it keeps us from being able to simply be with ourselves and our food as we are.
I am often asked about what the Hebrew Bible itself has to say about fatness, diet culture and fat-phobia, and I usually say, “Not much.” There is a fat king (Eglon) who is made fun of and killed off in a part of the Book of Judges that never comes up in the Jewish liturgical cycle of readings. And there is a clear connection between fatness and plenty (like the healthy, fat cows in Pharaoh’s dream in Genesis 41). Sometimes (e.g. in Deuteronomy 32:15) this becomes a concern about plenitude and fatness leading to complacency and forgetting what it is like to be poor. However, mostly tanakh seems quite “weight neutral.”
And yet fat itself is all over our Torah, especially in these weeks when we read from the book of Leviticus and learn all about the sacrificial system. In this week’s Torah portion, Tzav (Leviticus 6:1-8:36), we read of the asham (the guilt offering) and how “all its fat shall be offered: the broad tail; the fat that covers the entrails; the two kidneys and the fat that is on them at the loins; and the protuberance on the liver, which shall be removed with the kidneys” (Leviticus 7:3-4). And there are also various roles that shemen (oil or fat) plays in preparing grain offerings. In all these “pleasing odors to the Lord” we catch not one whiff of concern for the moral health of the people—in this case the priests—who eat some of the offerings; there is no conversation here about calories or portion control.
During this pandemic, our anxieties about our bodies and our eating habits have skyrocketed and social media has been an outlet for sharing all about it. For those of us in larger bodies, this has meant that we cannot look at any media (social or otherwise) without constantly being reminded that our size is seen as a sickness and a burden on society, and that our thin friends and family members are deathly afraid of any hint that they might look like us.
And so, for the first time that I can recall, I found myself reading Leviticus with a sense of relief. Instead of finding the details about entrails and ashes and various animal parts to be a mix of boring and gory, I felt transported into the ease of simply being with bodies as they are: the bodies of the priests, of those who slaughter and those who carry away the waste; the bodies of the animals themselves. There was no preemptive cringing about what insult might lie around the next corner.
When we gather for our Passover seders, in person or by Zoom, we will learn about the Pesach offering. Unlike those sacrifices that are consumed only by priests or by fire, the Pesach sacrifice is to be eaten by everyone—with matzah and bitter herbs—in remembrance of the first Passover when we stood on the threshold of freedom. While the Temple stood, the tradition was that the Passover offering should be the very last thing we ate at the end of the meal. Since the destruction of the Temple, we no longer eat this Pesach lamb (and Ashkenazi Jews refrain from serving any lamb at their seder). Instead, the afikomen (the last bit of matzah we eat) does its dry, crumbly best to stand in for the offering’s juiciness. But we are still taught that the afikomen should be the last thing we eat and its taste should stay on our tongues.
After the story has been retold and the songs have been sung, after we have relived the Exodus from mitzrayim (the place of narrowness) for ourselves, the last part of our Passover seder is this: without any blessings, without any fanfare, and, God willing, without any cringe-inducing invasion of diet culture, we let this last bit of nourishment be the thing that lingers. My hope for all of us this year is that we can allow ourselves and one another to enjoy this moment in its awesomeness and in its simplicity.
Rabbi Minna Bromberg is a singer, songwriter, rabbi and voice teacher who lives in Israel. She was ordained at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College and received her Ph.D. in sociology from Northwestern University. She is the president and founder of Fat Torah, an organization dedicated to smashing the idolatry of weight stigma and fostering belonging for every body.