Jewish religion is good for you. According to Dr. Jeff Levin of the University of Texas, and as reported by Haaretz, that’s one of the conclusions to be drawn from the Survey of Health, Aging and Retirement in Europe, which was recently published in The Israel Medical Association Journal. The study found that regular synagogue attendance is a good predictor of a person’s health.
There are many factors that might account for this incredible correlation. For instance, synagogues are centers for companionship and community, and people with extensive networks of friends and family tend to live longer, happier, and healthier. In addition, Jewish religion emphasizes hope, a stubborn insistence that even the most difficult of obstacles will be overcome, and the direst of situations turned around. The practitioner of Jewish prayer is called upon to affirm a belief that the sick can be healed; that the Holy Temple, destroyed two thousand years ago, will be rebuilt; that the Messiah, millennia delayed, will ultimately arrive; that even those who are dead and buried will one day be restored to life. As the book of Proverbs teaches, “Hope deferred sickens the heart,” whereas resilient hopefulness can enable one to hold onto life.
Another possible reason why Jewish religious practice can lead to better health is Judaism’s emphasis on gratitude: Those who attend synagogue are overwhelmed with opportunities to express gratitude, as it is emphasized in Jewish prayer over personal petition; the Talmud adjures us to say at least one hundred blessings, one hundred acts of thanks, every day; and in the Jewish tradition, nearly every act is preceded and/or followed by an expression of thanksgiving.
There is a growing body of research correlating gratitude with health. According to a 2011 article in the New York Times, grateful people sleep better and have less anxiety. Grateful people are less likely to suffer from depression, and are more likely to be happy and satisfied with life. The health benefits do not end there. Cultivating an “attitude of gratitude” can also enable us to avoid obesity and its related illnesses.
I most strongly experienced the correlation of gratitude and health between ages 16 and 26. During that decade I drove across the United States nine times. Most of those trips were on a coach bus with over forty teenagers, on a program called USY on Wheels, an extraordinary tour that fuses the best of experiential Jewish education with the fun cross-country travelling with peers.
On each trip, I gained weight. One summer, I gained over twenty pounds. Some of the weight gain was due to the sedentary nature of cross-country bus and car travel. But there was also something else: Life on the road gave me a kind of food anxiety. I eat only kosher food, and since good options for hot kosher meals are scarce in much of the United States, I feared missing meals. To compensate, I would eat all the time, buying candy at every rest stop, compiling a stash of cookies, procuring kosher food wherever I could find some (to date, I can list all the best ice cream shops in several states).
Looking at the situation objectively, my fears were always totally unfounded: USY on Wheels provides three delicious kosher meals a day for all participants and staff, and even when I was travelling independently, I always found full kosher meals each day. However, I was so irrationally obsessed with the food I felt I was not going to get that I ate myself sick trying to compensate.
Over time, the lesson from these experiences became clear: When I recognized the blessings of what I had, I stopped feeling the need to constantly put food in my mouth to fill the void. I ate healthiest when I was most grateful.
Americans today live in the most food-rich society in history, with the most diverse food options and greater food security than any other civilization ever. Yet, we face epidemic levels of obesity, which today is one of America’s top killers. Could part of the reason for this be that we Americans suffer from an ungratefulness epidemic, too? That we spend substantially more time focused on what we want than on what we are thankful for? Is our food slowly consuming us, like the children on Willy Wonka’s factory tour, because we can’t help ourselves from constantlywanting more and more?
It is, I argue, for this very reason that Jews are commanded not to eat anything without offering a blessing, an expression of thanks, both before and after. The rabbis derive this principle from Deuteronomy 8:10, which teaches, “You shall eat, you shall be satisfied, and you shall give thanks to the Lord your God for the good land God has given you.” Over the past few months, I have been arguing that this verse offers an approach to eating that might help us avoid obesity along with its related diseases. I called it the “Deuteronomy Diet,” and claimed that it teaches us – to borrow a phrase from contemporary food writer Michael Pollan – to eat real food, not a lot, and mostly plants.
To this cluster of values, the Torah adds a unique lesson, one not commonly offered as a critical component of diet and health, but one that is, upon deeper reflection, crucial: gratitude. When we appreciate the food we have, we tend not to overindulge in order to compensate for perceived, fictional deficiencies.
The Deuteronomy Diet teaches that a key path to a healthier life is to appreciate what we have, always remembering to offer thanks.