Last week my eldest daughter called me from Israel, where she is studying for a year in seminary, crying and terribly distraught. A girl she was friendly with from another seminary had died of anorexia. She was seventeen years old.
Hearing my daughter wail on the phone, and not being there to comfort her, was indescribably painful, but incomparable to the pain of the poor parents who had sent their daughter to Israel from the United States to study in a chassidic seminary, never to see her again. I asked my daughter how this could happen. Did no one notice that the girl was super-thin, that her life was in danger? My daughter told me that the girl appeared to her to be very small. She could not discern that the girl’s life was at risk.
When I discussed the terrible tragedy with my two other daughters who attend a very religious Jewish high school in New Jersey, they told me that there are several girls in their school who, no doubt, suffer from anorexia, and that the disease is all too common even in religious circles.
I just spent a week filming one of the most difficult episodes of my TV program “Shalom in the Home.” A fifteen-year-old girl hospitalized for anorexia was our subject. I came face to face with just how catastrophic, devastating, and intractable the illness can be. Indeed, anorexia kills one out of every ten girls who suffer from it.
In this case, the young girl we worked with explained that she had a voice inside her which she referred to as ED, for Eating Disorder, which constantly whispered to her that if only she would lose a few more pounds, she would be beautiful. People would love her. Other girls would want to be like her. Getting more attention all depended on losing just a few more pounds. But losing just ten more pounds for this girl would, God forbid, bring her to death’s door. And still the voice whispered.
There was no question that her eating disorder resulted from catastrophically low self-esteem and a determination, based on the culture in which she was raised, that she was all body and no soul. The world did not care for what she had on the inside, only the outside. She also desperately wanted to be famous. She spoke to me constantly about wanting to be a movie star and asked if I could get her on Oprah.
In my book Hating Women, I make the case that the values and mores of our secular culture are slowly killing our young girls as they get the message that to be attractive is the only way to get attention. The world will never appreciate them for anything but their body. To be overweight is to be repulsive and ugly.
The fact that anorexia has found a home in Orthodox circles is the ultimate proof of the tragic failure of contemporary Jewish education to cultivate a healthy self-image among young girls that is based on Torah rather than secular values.
The religious seminaries in Israel and the United States are filled with girls who are obsessively self-conscious about their looks. They know, as they approach marriageable age, that the teachings of the Eishet Chayil (Woman of Valor) prayer, written by King Solomon – “Charm is deceptive and beauty is naught; a God-fearing woman is the one to be praised” – have been utterly rejected by too many male yeshiva students who concern themselves primarily with a young woman’s looks.
Indeed, one wonders what the deceased girl’s seminary rabbis were doing as she slowly wasted away. Were they only teaching laws of Shabbat and Pesach? Did they forget that one of their first obligations in educating young women is to give them a healthy self-image that will render them immune to the misogynistic mores of our time? And where are the yeshiva heads in both Israel and the United States who should be educating their male students, as they get ready to marry, that real beauty is internal and to stop being so dismissive of girls who may carry a few extra pounds?
The Bible says that when a man and woman marry, they become one flesh. But in our time, elements in our religious communities are waging war against the flesh itself, as more and more girls are encouraged to become unhealthy bags of bones in order to cater to the vulgar and grotesque values of shallow men, however religious they profess themselves to be.
When I was in Israel a few weeks ago for Sukkot, I went to the Jerusalem markets where it was a wonder to watch Orthodox men using rulers to measure their etrogim and lulavim to make sure they were perfectly kosher. Certainly it is a praiseworthy thing to take one’s religion so seriously. But even as they did so, many of their young daughters were taking a ruler to their thighs and hips, hating themselves for being too large, and swearing that they would lose just a few more pounds.
And our blindness continues even as innocent little girls pay the ultimate price.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the host of TLC’s “Shalom in the Home,” which airs every Monday at 9 p.m. He has just released his newest book, “Parenting with Fire: Lighting Up the Family with Passion and Inspiration” (Penguin).