It was a long time ago – at least 30 years. I was in junior high school and I don’t remember the circumstances. But here’s what I do remember: there was some food that we didn’t want to throw away, and someone said “I’ll eat it, so it doesn’t go to waste.”
Then my teacher said the line I would never forget: “Your stomach is not a garbage can.”
Visual imagery is powerful, but that wasn’t the only reason it stuck with me. As a grandchild of Holocaust survivors, we understood well that food must not be wasted. What was both avant-garde and spiritually ancient about my teacher’s proclamation was the notion that our bodies are temples; that they ought to be treated with respect; that shoving unwanted food in them is merely another form of waste and worse, mistreatment. To me, this was revolutionary.
In our age of eating disorders and body dysmorphia, these concepts are more relevant than ever.
I don’t feel like enough Jews have heard these ideas in Judaism. In yoga, maybe. In therapy, maybe. In meditation, maybe. In Judaism? Not so much. Maybe we have a PR problem, but young Jews seem so much more curious about spiritual concepts outside of Judaism.
“Your body is a temple” is quite literal in Jewish philosophy. Your body is holy because it houses your soul, and you are holy for carrying a spark of the divine. So the food you eat is fuel for this divine structure – nothing more and nothing less.
And I was grateful to know this when I had the following conversation with my 8-year-old daughter:
N: Mommy, there are five more corn nuts in this bag. I guess I’ll finish them.
Me: Do you want them?
N: Ummm not really.
Me: Then throw them out.
N: Throw them out??
Me: Yes. Your stomach is not a garbage can.
Me (launching into teachable moment): Do you know what that means, Nomes? It means your body is holy and special because it carries your soul and because you can do so many good deeds with it. So you have to treat it with respect. And we don’t just stuff food in our bodies if we don’t want it.
More silence. She’s processing. Which is fine, because she’s eight. And she has time. I told her that a smart teacher of mine once taught me that and now I’m going to teach it to her.
We have a lot of work to do with our daughters and body image and self-respect. Parents face media onslaughts which our kids now carry around in their back pockets everywhere they go, with images of perfect-looking people and none of the backstory of how those images came to look so perfect.
So we need tools. We need weapons. We need answers and information with which to empower our daughters and, for that matter, our sons. And if Judaism has a tool or two, well, I feel compelled to share.
Your body is holy. It deserves respect. It is not a garbage can. Now go teach it to someone else. Pass it on.