"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Talmud, Thomas Aquinas, And Obesity

I have heard it all now that I have read Rabbi Jonathan Crane’s article on turning to religious instruction to stop gaining weight. Writing in the New York Times (3.27.13) he says,

Christianity, especially through the teachings of Pope Gregory I and Thomas Aquinas, identifies gluttony as a mortal sin. More than just excessive desire for food, gluttony involves eating irregularly (snacking), being preoccupied with eating, consuming costly (sumptuous or unhealthy) foodstuffs and being fastidious about food. And the Koran insists that improper and wasteful eating incurs God’s wrath. Eat well and live well, Islam teaches.

Control your own satiety, he says, inspired by this long religious tradition.  Find your personal set-point, know when to push away from the table, and don’t tuck into the second bag of chips.

This approach is personalized: everyone is empowered to be in control of his own satiety. It is adaptable, changing as a person ages and ails. And although it is not exactly nonhierarchical if you believe it’s God’s will, at least it is not imposed by any human government. Finally, it is sustainable, as it promotes a culture that views limitless consumption with suspicion. Capitalism may abhor contentedness, but our bodies need us to heed it.

I first learned of the Seven Deadly Sins when I was a child; I always got them mixed up with the Ten Commandments, and never really understood them. Take wrath, for example.  Now, what did that actually mean?  “It is getting really mad”, explained my father; but this had nothing to do with the Biblical wrath described by Father Murphy on Sundays.  When God got really mad, he threw lightning bolts down from the firmament, roiled the seas into tempests, caused raging fires, catastrophic earthquakes, devastating floods, pestilence, locusts, and burning heat.  So, my wrath was not the problem here; it was keeping God happy.

Greed was another good one.  I understood that one better because I heard it all the time.  “Don’t get greedy”, said my mother as I snatched the last cupcake from the dish before my little sister could get to it.  Greed, according to my father, was the sin of all business people, especially Jews.  They were so greedy, he said, that they were avaricious misers, slaves to Mammon, who cackled over their gold at night and returned to their jewelry stores, furriers, and haberdasheries by day to exact their pound of flesh from the rest of us.  “That’s what greed is”, my father yelled.

I saw none of that.  Mr. Bernstein who ran Jimmy’s Smoke Shop always let us take a peek at the girlie magazines he had in the back of the store.  Mr. Schwartz always told my mother that he could get my new trousers wholesale and was doing her a special favor.  And Dr. Berman sewed me up for nothing when I tripped over a flagstone on his walk he had never fixed and split my lip. From the warnings of my parents, I assumed that greed was everywhere – from cupcakes to Wall Street – and again concluded that it really was nothing that I had to worry about since everybody did it.

Sloth was something that I could never have because growing up at home was worse than the most austere Scottish boarding school.  I was never allowed to sleep more than 7 hours a night.  My first generation Italian-American mother got this bad advice from some Parade article about “WASPs in America”.  Apparently WASPs, following the English Puritanical tradition believed in parsimony, hard work, discipline, and very little sleep.  Not like Italians who took siestas; or the Irish who were drunken grifters who passed out; or the Polacks who were too dumb to do anything but sleep.  I was always tired, but if I started to fall asleep over my homework, some inner prod jabbed me awake.  I was conditioned for life.

Lust was something I had in abundance.  I couldn’t stop looking up Nancy Booth’s dress, peeping at the bare titties at Jimmy’s, or  trying to get a look at Mrs. Vibberts’ when she went to have a pee. Every other boy I knew was in the same irons – we all were trapped in this horrible and painful frustration.  We were too young to know exactly what we wanted or what it looked like, but we knew it was underneath girls’ clothes.

Envy was like greed.  As far as I could see, everyone envied everyone else. “So, the Carlsons just bought themselves a fancy new Cadillac”, my mother would say, turning her nose up at the gloriously chromed and finned El Dorado in their driveway; and a few months later we had one with even more do-dads and leather than theirs.  I wanted a baseball glove just like Herbie Long; my sister pestered my mother because Susie Brown had a two-wheeler; and I wished I had rich Florida relatives like Bruce Barker who got a roomful of presents for his birthday every year from them.

I had no clue about pride except that my father said he was proud of me when I got good grades, when I walked away from a fight, when I went to Mass without complaining, and when I did what he said.  Pride was a good thing as far as I could tell, and I couldn’t imagine how too much of it could suddenly make it bad.

Which brings us to gluttony. My mother told me stories of how her uncles would stuff themselves on lasagna, eggplant, and ham pies, go throw up in the bathroom, and, emptied, come back for more food.  “An old Roman tradition”, my mother reported with disgust.

I used to eat so much food at Easter at my Aunt Leona’s that I would get a stomach ache. I couldn’t stop eating seconds and thirds of antipasto, my Aunt Angie’s manicotti, Aunt Carmen’s corn fritters; the main courses of ham and turkey; and ricotta pie for dessert. No one ever told me that I was a glutton, and everyone at the table ate as much as I did. Nor did anyone ever suggest to me that eating too much distended my stomach, overworked my intestines and bowels, and turned me into a hyena on the veldt who ripped and tore at his meat until he was so stuffed he couldn’t roll over.

It wasn’t just religious thinkers who inveighed against gluttony, reminds Rabbi Crane:

The Greeks, for example, worried that excessive consumption would disrupt the four humors constituting the human body. They, like the ancient Buddhist and Confucian traditions, encouraged moderation as the golden mean.

So, Crane concludes, we should pay more attention to these enduring philosophical and religious precepts – moderation, satiety, discipline, and self-awareness will make us more appreciative of what we have and how much we need.

Among these old arguments is the novel idea of eating less than what fills one’s belly. The Talmud teaches that people should eat enough to fill a third of their stomachs, drink enough to fill another third, and leave a third empty. (A hadith in the Islamic tradition also teaches this.) Rashi, a medieval French rabbi, interpreted the Talmud to mean that the final empty third is necessary so that the body can metabolize emotions. If one ate until one’s belly was completely full, there’d be no room left to manage one’s emotions and one would burst asunder.

Now this is a compelling argument.  It links at least two of the deadly sins.  If you ate too much (gluttony), your emotions would explode (wrath) and except for lust (who can think of sex on a bloated stomach?) the rest would probably follow.  Gluttony was, in this view, the central sin; and if one could avoid it, the road to purity and salvation would be easy. In my experience, refusing a third helping of lasagna was far easier than stanching my envy of Bruce Barker’s birthday haul or looking down Nancy Booth’s blouse.

In practical, social terms – the serious contention of Rabbi Crane’s piece – this ascetic approach is very definitely un-American.  In our materialistic, individualistic, acquisitive, and commercial world more is always better.  If it weren’t for greed we wouldn’t amass wealth; and if it were not for envy, marketers would come up empty.  Sex sells and without tits-and-ass, the economy would be more hurting than it already is.  Satiety? Hell, we don’t even know the meaning of the term.

The old WASPs of my neighborhood would have been Rabbi Crane’s heroes if they hadn’t kept Jews out of the Country Club.  They were abstemious, restrained, wore sweaters and drove old cars, ate tiny portions of simple food, and were models of rectitude and old-fashioned propriety.  Above all, they were not fat.  In fact, many of them were stringy.  My mother used to sniff at Mrs. Porter.  “There she goes in that ratty car, dressed in her doughty clothes, scrawny as a scarecrow when she has the wealth of Croesus in the bank”.  Envy, jealousy, wrath, pride all rolled into one; but Mrs. Porter was the ideal to which my mother aspired, and thanks to her, my sister and I are lean and hungry.

The WASPs are just about all gone.  My wife likes to point out that the Cosmos Club and the Society of the Cincinnati are still features of Washington; and old-line ladies still dodder about various women’s clubs; but they are a fading breed, and with them any hope of moderation, discipline, and satiety.

We have to realize that enough is enough. We should stop asking ourselves, “Am I full?” and start asking, “Am I satisfied?”

It all depends on what ‘satisfied’ means.  A good, red-blooded American will defiantly say ‘Never!’ and we cheer his ambition, drive, desire, and will to attain.  How about something simpler like, “Hey, fatty, stop eating so much”.

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