'We need to be careful not only about what we eat, but why'

How the Talmud helped inspire one scholar’s case for eating ethically this Purim

Jonathan K. Crane of Emory University draws upon sacred and secular sources — including midrashic wisdom — to remind us that enough is as good as a feast

The 1804 painting, 'Der Voller,' or, 'The Full One,' by George Emmanuel Opitz. (Public domain)
The 1804 painting, 'Der Voller,' or, 'The Full One,' by George Emmanuel Opitz. (Public domain)

Just in time for the Purim holiday, a new book by an Emory University professor of bioethics and Jewish thought urges readers to reconsider reaching for that extra helping during the holiday feast.

In “Eating Ethically: Religion and Science for a Better Diet,” author Jonathan K. Crane promotes the concept of ending a meal before one is full. He argues this approach is supported by ancient religious texts, modern philosophical insights and contemporary scientific research.

“The healthiest, holiest, smartest way of eating is ‘more than nothing and less than what you bodily can handle,’” says Crane, the Raymond F. Schinazi Scholar in Bioethics and Jewish Thought at the Emory University Center for Ethics and an ordained Reform rabbi. “What the book tries to tell is that story.”

It’s a story that is dramatically different from the prevailing practices on a recent Super Bowl Sunday, for example. Crane says that more calories are consumed on the day of the Super Bowl than any other day in the calendar year except Thanksgiving.

He calls the big game “a continuation of the bread and circuses of the Greco-Roman world, a brilliant way to keep people satisfied.”

But, he said, many fans in the stadium and at home become satisfied through “mindless consumption.”

Crane says that in general, many of us in the modern Western world eat mindlessly, unaware we are actually eating, and we often tend to pay little attention to what it is we are actually consuming. “We need to relearn these roles and relationships,” he says.

Jonathan K. Crane, author of ‘Eating Ethically.’ (Courtesy)

The book arose, in part, out of a daringly titled op-ed that Crane wrote for The New York Times in March 2013: “The Talmud and Other Diet Books.”

“When I first arrived in Atlanta, I was surprised when looking at religious bioethics,” Crane says. “I saw little attention given to food-related issues.
During preliminary research, I found these resources in the Talmud and other religious texts quite pointedly being conscientious of how we eat, of our consumption of the world. It was quite interesting.”

‘Eating Ethically,’ by Jonathan K. Crane. (Courtesy)

And, he says, “contemporary science about eating told a similar story: As human beings, we need to be very careful not only about what we eat, but how and why we eat.”

The op-ed developed into courses for Emory undergraduates and graduate students — including one course that was set in a kitchen, in which students shopped for, prepared, cooked and served meals. Student interest exceeded capacity, and, Crane says, “the more I studied contemporary science, philosophy and theology, they agreed on the issue of what eating well looks like.”

Crane found that philosophy had undergone significant changes from the days of the ancient Greeks — when, he said, fullness was seen as an ideal — to the 20th century, when thinkers such as Lithuanian-Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas promoted a different understanding of what it meant to lack something.

“It was seen not as a negative, but a feature of existence,” Crane said. “Because we lack things — knowledge, nutrition — and have unmet desires, it drives us toward pursuing answers to the questions of food and relationships. Because our lacks enable us to live, modern philosophers understood it to be a good, what encourages and motivates us to live life to the ‘fullest.’”

It is not necessary to fill up your entire plate, says ‘Ethical Eating’ author Jonathan K. Crane. And when you do, meat is best consumed in moderation. (Courtesy)

Scientifically, Crane says that there are contemporary studies that show our bodies digest poorly when glutted, and that “maladaptive eating strategies” of eating too much or too little can lead to ailments. He says that these modern-day philosophical and scientific developments parallel millennia-old religious texts.

“What we find among religious resources on food and eating, time and again, especially in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, strong warnings against eating till one is full or overly full — surfeit consumption,” Crane says. “The notion of gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins. For thousands of years, religious leaders wrote sacred texts against eating till one is that full.”

One text that attracted Crane’s attention early on was a discussion between the Prophet Elijah and the second-century Rabbi Nathan in the Babylonian Talmud, in which Elijah advises Rabbi Nathan to only eat until his belly is two-thirds full: “Eat one-third, drink one-third, retain one-third.” A millennium later, Maimonides gave similar advice: “Eat yourself up to three-fourths full.

Both Judaic sources champion the idea of righteous eating, good eating, holy eating, healthy eating, says Crane. More than nothing, more than halfway, yet less than full.

Maimonides (photo credit: Wikimedia commons)
Maimonides (photo credit: Wikimedia commons)

Crane followed Jewish philosophical thought on eating over the centuries, including Baruch Spinoza in the 17th century and Hans Jonas in the 20th century.

“The theme of eating well for the organism is sprinkled throughout the Judaic textual tradition broadly construed,” says Crane.

The professor says he was intrigued by how Christian, Islamic and Jewish traditions agreed we should pay attention to the fact that we are eaters individually and collectively, and that there are holy and unholy ways to eat.

He addresses the role of both feasting and fasting. Crane says that the Jewish calendar “not only has special liturgies, special texts, it’s crafted culinarily as well.” In order for our holidays to be special, he says, should reserve that manner of eating for the special days and avoid consuming so heavily the rest of the year.

“We ought not have a Passover feast every single day,” he says.

Regarding the upcoming holiday of Purim, Crane says he “[raises] an eyebrow” at the Talmudic statement to drink until one cannot differentiate between “blessed is Mordechai” and “cursed is Haman,” although he says he “[appreciates] the psychological import of that tradition.”

He has high praise for another traditional Purim commandment, mishloach manot, when “we are bidden, even in costume, to give food and treats to friends and neighbors, especially to the disadvantaged. Giving over our sustenance makes Purim so special.”

He notes that the Christian calendar also has feasts and fasts, special holiday meals, and dishes made in certain ways. From the Eucharist, to wine and sacraments. Crane says that food is regulated in the Islamic calendar year, as well.

While it’s okay to indulge in some hamantaschen this Purim, it is best to set aside a healthy portion beforehand. (Courtesy of Roladin/via JTA)

When it comes to secular holidays in the US such as Thanksgiving and the Super Bowl, Crane says his experiences at stadiums have been “disconcerting.”

“Psychologically, the athletic prowess of the players down on the field is seen as all the more awesome and impossible to the average fan,” he says. “They [the fans] have less physical capacity to perform similar [feats]. The gap between fans and players is widening.”

While New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady might be famous for his many Super Bowl appearances — had his team won earlier this month against the underdog Philadelphia Eagles, he would have had a record-setting six Super Bowl victories — he has also become famous off the field for his dietary regimen, which Crane says fans can learn from.

“I echo Brady’s call to pay more attention to what one eats, how much, and why,” says Crane. “A plant-strong diet continues to receive the highest ratings by nutritionists, and doctors – for promoting excellent health and preventing eating-related ailments.

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady usually keeps his diet extremely healthy. (YouTube screenshot)

“Humans evolved to eat animal products only sporadically, and eating according to our biology is typically wise. There are also myriad ethical reasons to limit one’s consumption of animals. Moreover, Brady encourages exercise despite our increasingly sedentary lifestyles,” he says.

Whether the holiday is religious or secular, Crane has some advice for revelers. Enjoy some of the special foods associated with the event, but instead of allowing yourself unlimited access to the consumables, set aside a healthy portion beforehand and stick to it.

He also recommends people drink water instead of calorie-rich beverages — something that can also help keep bodies healthy as they imbibe intoxicants this Purim. And, he says, don’t be afraid to join in the Purim dancing: get up and move!

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