Reverend Michael Minor arrived at his new church and immediately began to make changes. No one was surprised – after all, new clergy often introduce new melodies, new insights and new approaches. That is certainly what we have already enjoyed with the arrival of Cantor Moses here at TSTI. But while Reverend Minor’s congregation expected things to be different, they never imagined the kind of changes he would bring. He did not change the worship liturgy. And he left the melodies exactly as they had been for years. But he did make a significant change…. Reverend Minor, he changed the menu.
In a sermon one Sunday, Reverend Minor announced that, because he cared about his new community, he would focus not only on their spiritual health but also on their physical well-being. Sure enough, on that Sunday morning, he announced that effective immediately, the church Sunday dinner would no longer include fried chicken, cobblers or macaroni and cheese.
And unlike the phony changes I talked about implementing in my Rosh Hashanah sermon, he wasn’t kidding. No, at least in church, the Pastor said, his community would begin eating a healthier diet.
People were outraged.
After all, it is one thing to change the liturgy or melodies of worship, and it is quite another to mess with Sunday dinner.
The pastor knew he was treading on sacred turf and that he would encounter resistance; he knew that for many people, “it’s not Sunday dinner without fried chicken.” But he held firm. Because he was committed to helping create a congregation that was both spiritually AND physically fit.
In an interview with NPR, Reverend Minor was asked if he had experienced some sort of health crisis or epiphany that caused him to change his own lifestyle.
“Well,” he replied, “…a few years ago, I had some health issues [and ] I [now] know how important it is to maintain your health.”
“Look,” he said, “once you lose your health, it’s hard to get it back.”
A great deal has been made in recent months about the ways in which the American diet is hurting us, and the amount of dialogue and debate surrounding the issue has increased since Mayor Bloomberg introduced legislation limiting the availability of jumbo-sized soft drinks.
But rarely has this discussion taken place within the context of a religious community. And rarely has it involved Jewish values. That is a shame, since we Jews have a long, proud tradition with regard to food.
We celebrate a new marriage… and we eat.
We welcome a new child into the covenant… and we eat.
We mourn a loved one… and we eat.
We atone… and we… refrain from eating.
Yes, Judaism and food go hand in hand- with food playing a central role in every single Jewish observance.
Moreover, through the long-standing tradition of kashrut, our tradition teaches us what we should and should not eat.
The basic understanding that emerges from the detailed dietary laws of Judaism is that [are you ready for this?]:
God CARES about what we put in our MOUTHS;
God CARES about what we put into our BODIES.
Now I did not grow up keeping kosher. For my family, a celebratory meal often consisted of shrimp scampi. And when we vacationed in Maine, oh those lobsters were delicious. Things changed during the week of Passover, however. And while we didn’t sell our chometz, our leavened products, we did put them into a single, off-limits closet. But with the exception of that week, I grew up in a household that did not make much of a connection between food and Judaism.
I did, however, keep kosher during much of rabbinic school. After all, how could I make an informed Reform Jewish choice about whether or not to keep kosher unless I experienced a period of time when I did so?
Initially, keeping kosher was meaningful to me, and it enhanced my connection to our tradition and history. But when I found that it ceased to enrich my spiritual life, that I had actually begun to resent it, I stopped.
You see, here at TSTI, the clergy don’t just teach Reform Judaism’s approach of “informed choice”- we actually live it in our own Jewish lives. We believe in the importance of learning about the traditions we have inherited and then making choices about which traditions we observe and which we do not.
And we do so without fear that we are better Jews if we observe more rituals and worse Jews if we observe fewer.
I stopped keeping kosher and I have no regrets.
Lately, however, I have been thinking about food and tradition yet again. This time, though, it is in an entirely new light. For I believe it is time for us to talk about the connection between food and Judaism, but not through the limited lens of kashrut.
Instead, I want to speak about food and Judaism and our health, and I believe that a day dedicated to NOT eating is the perfect time to do so.
A few statistics first.
According to a survey from January 2011, nearly 90 percent of Americans believe they eat a healthy diet. They are wrong. The vast majority of us have horrible diets, and things are going from bad to worse.
We eat twice as much meat now as we did in 1950, and by and large, the quality of that meat is lower than it was back then.
We eat roughly 570 calories more per day now than we did in the 1970s. Many of the additional calories come from high fructose corn syrup. Without even knowing it, we consume more than 40 pounds of it per person per year. Compare that to sixty years ago, when we consumed… none.
These changes correspond frighteningly well with the rise in Type II diabetes, heart disease and other ailments. There is little doubt that our eating habits, as well as other related aspects of our modern lifestyles, not only impact longevity, but impact the quality of our lives as well.
It is for these and other reasons that I would like to spend a few minutes this morning looking at three Jewish strategies I believe can help us help ourselves.
Jewish Health and Wellness Strategy #1- Don’t Eat Treif
The word kosher (kashur in Hebrew) means “fit,” or “proper for use.” The opposite of kosher is Treif, meaning “forbidden” or “not suitable for consumption.” Traditionally kashrut was all about determining what was fit for Jewish consumption and what was not. It was all about asking the question, “Is this good for a Jew to eat?”
Now there is a lot of food that is good for us to eat and I could spend all day listing it. So let’s ask the question the other way. What is not fit to eat? Or to use the Hebrew: What is treif?
The first thing that comes to mind is ever-present in our modern diet and it tastes great… Sugar.
Now, personally, I’m a fan. I have a huge sweet tooth and always have. I LOVE sugar. Gummy bears, Entenmann’s Louisiana Crunch Cake, Smarties, M&M’s, mocha cupcakes… I LOVE them… all. But when I eat them, I don’t feel well. And research explains why this is so.
Those studying sugar’s effect on our bodies have actually begun to use the word “toxic” when describing the substance. They have discovered that large quantities of sugar are not fit for consumption. Sugar… is… treif.
Last spring 60 Minutes ran a story on sugar and noted that the head of a Harvard study examining the relationship between sugar and certain diseases now, quote, “rarely eats sugar.”
In fact, according to 60 Minutes’ Dr. Sanjay Gupta,
“…almost every scientist that we talked to in researching this story told us they are eliminating all added sugars. They’re getting rid of it because they’re concerned about the health impacts.”
When the researchers themselves make specific changes in diet as a direct result of their findings, it is a pretty good bet that there’s something real going on.
So while sugar is delicious… it isn’t good for us.
The good news, as many of you know, is that there are plenty of great-tasting, healthy foods we can eat, and through our new TSTI Health and Wellness Center, we will be highlighting many of them during the coming year.
Jewish Health and Wellness Strategy #2- Yesh Gvool- Set a Boundary…
Jewish tradition is clear- if you are strictly observant of Shabbat, you are not only prohibited from driving, but you are prohibited from coming into contact with a car. The car is considered MUKSAH- untouchable. If you cannot touch the car, the rabbis of old theorized, you certainly cannot drive the car.
The same holds true for what we eat.
As is the case for many people, the food I like most is often the worst for me. Moreover, I know that if I have those foods in my house, I will eat them. I don’t have the self-control not to. It is that simple.
The solution is, fortunately, even simpler. I try not to keep foods that are bad for me at home.
Now, I’m not talking about going to extremes with regard to my own dietary habits. Yes, I can still treat myself to a Wendy’s Frosty on occasion when I’m out. But I no longer keep highly processed and sugary foods at home. After all, if only foods that are healthy for me are in my home, the question of “is it good for me” doesn’t even have to be asked in the first place.
Yesh Gevul- setting a boundary is something that each of us can do for ourselves and our families. And even small changes can help put us on a healthier path.
This kind of mindful consumption becomes even more important when children are involved. You see, Judaism has always taught that the best way to teach the next generation is to model the behaviors we want to instill in them.
If we want our kids to give tzedakah, they have to see us giving tzedakah.
And if we want our kids to be polite, they need to see us being polite.
If we want our kids to go to temple, they need to see us going to temple.
And if we want our kids to eat well so that they can lead long, healthy lives, then they MUST see us making good choices and eating healthy foods.
Which Leads to Jewish Health and Wellness Strategy #3: Make Your Table a Mikdash Me-at, a Small Sanctuary
Jewish tradition is clear that our table can be a place of spiritual sustenance- even as it is a place for physical nourishment. That is why Jewish tradition refers to the dining table as a mikdash me-at – “a small tabernacle- a small sanctuary.” The problem is, as fewer and fewer family meals occur, our tables are seeing less use than ever.
Instead of eating at the table with our families, an increasing large number of our meals are consumed alone in … our CARS.
In fact, 20% of all meals are now eaten there. And that number is growing rapidly.
It is not a healthy trend, particularly because many of those meals take place after a quick visit to one of the almost 50,000 fast-food restaurants currently in the US.
But that is just the tip of the iceberg, because eating in our cars is a symptom of a much larger problem. We are simply moving too fast.
Our ancestors understood the importance of balance between being on the go and taking time to slow down. It is why, of all the gifts Judaism has given the world, the greatest gift, the greatest innovation, was the Sabbath. When our tradition introduced the Sabbath, it was the very first time an entire day was dedicated to slowing down and doing less.
Unfortunately, in our world of constant connectivity and never-ending obligations, we now rarely stop.
Moreover, the decline in the shared meal around the dining table has been cited as both a cause and a symptom of the decline in family connection.
Slowing down and eating a healthy meal together more frequently is good for our bodies and our families.
Part of my role as your rabbi is to care about you. That means caring about you in a holistic way… that’s why I’m giving this sermon.
And I choose to give this sermon on Yom Kippur, the most serious day of the year, because I truly believe that the vast majority of us do not take our diet, and by extension, our health, seriously enough. And we need to, because, as Reverend Minor noted, once we lose our health, it is difficult to get it back. All the rest is commentary.
But I want to be clear about something.
When I talk about food, I’m not talking about dieting and weight loss.
I am talking about eating better so that we feel better and can be our best.
I am talking about changing our diet so that we can live healthier, longer lives for our benefit and for the benefit of the people who mean the most to us.
And I want to be clear that I am not talking about making radical changes in our diet.
But I am suggesting that there is no better time than at the start of the new year for us to begin making small, incremental changes, for our sake and for the sake of those we love.
And I am talking about it on Yom Kippur, a day of fasting, because of Isaiah chapter 58, where the prophet says,
…this is the fast I desire: To unlock the fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke to let the oppressed go free… [ ] It is to share your bread with the hungry…
Isaiah calls on us to use our fast as a reminder for us to be better to one another.
Today, I ask you to use this day of fasting as a reminder to be better to yourself and to your loved ones.
Being better to ourselves means eating a better diet, but not only that. Being better to ourselves means finding new ways to lower our stress. It means finding opportunities to exercise more. It means finding ways to get more sleep. It means finding ways each and every day to improve the quality of our lives, because we deserve it and because the people we love deserve it from us.