What Passover Can Teach You About Dieting (And Life)

Jews worldwide are in the midst of celebrating the holiday of Passover, a weeklong celebration commemorating the biblical Exodus story. One of the distinguishing features of the festival is the practice of not eating anything leavened during the course of the week, in remembrance of the Israelites’ bread that didn’t have time to rise as they fled Egyptian slavery. Jews throughout history have taken this practice very seriously, seeing eating leavened foods as a major offense. Medieval European Jews were so concerned about the possibility of eating leaven that they added a large category of foods, known as kitniyot (literally “small things,” like rice, corn, and legumes) to the list of prohibited items, because they feared these items, while not able themselves to become leavened, could become confused or mixed in with other items that could.

This ban on kitniyot has stood virtually unchallenged for nearly 800 years, and, since most American Jews are of European ancestry, has become a ubiquitous feature of Passover for American Jews. However, this past fall, the moderate branch of contemporary American Judaism known as the Conservative Movement ruled that it was now permissible for Jews of European descent to consume kitniyot on Passover, arguing that the medieval concerns related to kitniyot are no longer relevant for our time.

For the purposes of this post, I’m not interested in the relative merits of the decision itself. Rather, I want to focus on the conversation about the decision within the Jewish community, which I think reveals something universally true for all of us, and points to a piece of Jewish wisdom worthy of our consideration.

Many rejoiced at the decision to permit kitniyot, as it made Passover observance far less burdensome. Many others, however, were upset. I was having trouble understanding the nature of the outrage. To my mind, there was no issue. If one wanted to eat kitniyot on Passover, one now could do so free of guilt. And if one wanted to continue observing the medieval custom, they were welcome to do so. What was the problem?

As it likely was for many Jews, the kitniyot controversy was a major topic of conversation at my Seder, the ritual meal that marks the beginning of the holiday, this year. So I had an opportunity to ask some of the folks who were upset by the decision to explain their feelings. One friend had, I thought, a particularly revealing response. She told me that she doesn’t “keep kosher” (observe the traditional Jewish dietary laws) during the rest of the year. Passover is the one time of year she scrupulously observes the food rules. She doesn’t want anyone to make those rules easier, because their extreme difficulty is what makes the challenge of observing them for a week – and only a week – feel meaningful to her. If it’s easy, then what’s the point?

As I reflected on her response, it occurred to me that her logic was precisely the opposite of why the permission to eat kitniyot on Passover is appealing to me (even though I haven’t personally pulled the trigger yet). I observe the traditional Jewish dietary laws during the rest of the year. This is a challenge, but not in my opinion an extremely prohibitive one. It requires a little knowledge along with some willpower, discipline, and attentiveness about what I’m eating. While I recognize the food rules of Passover are designed to be more extreme than the usual laws, and while I think all religious laws are meant to be challenging, I don’t think they were created to be painful. I don’t believe God is a Sadist. Rather, I believe the laws of Passover were created to elevate our consciousness about the experience of liberation and to bind us to Jewish communities past, present, and future. Similarly, the other Jewish dietary laws were created to elevate our consciousness about consumption generally and to connect us to the Jews of today, tomorrow, and yesterday. Thus, I welcome meaningful opportunities to make those laws easier to observe and more accessible, and see unnecessary stringencies as counterproductive.

So what does this small Jewish controversy over small things have to teach the rest of us?

Think of it this way: if I eat a well-balanced diet on a regular basis, I would welcome the opportunity to have a moderate amount of ice cream every now and then. But if I constantly ate ice cream, I’d probably want to have a strict ice cream fast at some point, and would resent someone who told me that, during my ice cream fast, a couple of spoonfulls wouldn’t kill me. Yet these subjective responses don’t tell the whole story, because it’s not as if both are equally valid. There is no question which way of living is healthier.

Earlier this year, I became worried about my weight. I decided to go on a diet. Since I wanted to feel better quickly, I looked into the most extreme, severe plans I could find. First I went on a week-long juice fast. It was terrible, of course, but I did lose a bunch of weight quickly. However, to my dismay, all the weight came back (and then some) once I reintroduced regular foods back into my routine. So I switched to a Paleo diet, consuming essentially nothing but meat, fruits, vegetables, and nuts. This, too, was a miserable experience. Like the juice fast, I gained weight back once I switched back to my normal routine. Unfortunately, unlike the juice fast, Paleo didn’t help me lose much weight in the first place because I apparently compensated for the lack of variety in my diet with an overabundance of quantity. As a result, I, with renewed passion, went back to the juice. The results, sadly, were the same as before.

Most of us know that any weight-loss diet that doesn’t involve eating fewer calories today than one did yesterday is utter malarkey. And most of us also know that we will gain weight if we regularly eat more calories than we expend. Yet many of us look to extreme diet plans for quick weight loss, despite the fact that those diets invariably fail as long-term strategies for weight-control.

This phenomenon isn’t limited to diets and weight-loss. Many of us do this all the time with behaviors of every kind: we feel we’ve been drinking too much, so instead of disciplining ourselves to consistently drink less in perpetuity, we pledge not to for a week or a month; we feel we aren’t active enough, so instead of disciplining ourselves to do a little physical activity each day, we do P90x; we feel we haven’t been spending enough time with our kids, so instead of disciplining ourselves to spend 10 extra minutes of quality time with them each day, we take them to Disneyworld for a week. In every instance, the result is the same: we accomplish a lot in a little amount of time, only to fall back into our old patterns, with their related deleterious results on our lives, shortly thereafter.

Oscillating between extreme behaviors is not a path to thriving. Rather, we would be wise to follow the guidance of Rabbi Moses Maimonides, a 12th Century sage, who taught, “Neither of the extremes within any way of being are appropriate ways to live” (Laws of Human Dispositions 1:3-4). Instead, Maimonides wrote, one should work to keep themselves on the “straight path,” the middle way within each disposition, neither temperamental nor apathetic, neither an ascetic nor a glutton, neither lazy nor a workaholic. This task requires vigilance and discipline, perpetually staying as close to the mean as possible, rather than living in one extreme and periodically compensating for it by temporarily adopting another. Maimonides identifies this way of living as “the good life,” saying it promotes “wholeness.” In contemporary terms, I think we would term this flourishing, harmonious physical and mental wellbeing.

It’s tempting to spend 51 weeks of the year not paying attention, and compensate with one week of hyper-vigilance over the smallest of things. But like so many temptations, this one comes at a cost. To be sure, it’s more challenging to walk on the straight path, but it’s the only path to wholeness.

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