Holistic Health & Feminism


I recently came across a statement made by Wilma Scott Heide in her book, Feminism: Making a Difference in Our Health:

Health policy decisions are made in the context of a value system that is white, patriarchal, and capitalist…The expressive component refers to nurturant qualities reflecting the “feminine” (and generally subordinated) values toward which women primarily have been socialized. The instrumental approach represents the “masculine” (and usually dominant) values toward which men primarily have been socialized. Both sexes are being freed to express feminine and masculine behaviors by feminism, which also insists on valuing feminine qualities privately and publicly.

Heide demonstrates how feminism teaches us to have a holistic approach when addressing any aspect of our lives. Feminism teaches us to pay attention to things or people that previously went unacknowledged. Similarly, holistic health encourages us to consider the physical, the spiritual, and the emotional when assessing one’s health. Just as we would be remiss to neglect women’s needs when creating health policy for society as a whole, it would be counterproductive to treat a person’s physical health without considering his or her emotional health as well.

Feminism teaches us to pay attention to things or people that previously went unacknowledged.

We can take this lesson to heart particularly within the Orthodox community, where there is often a tendency to bifurcate the various aspects of our life. This is an issue about which I’m particularly passionate. I’d like to share two examples of what it would mean to acknowledge a person’s holistic health within the Orthodox community.

A lot of great work has been done and is being done within the community to address and destigmatize mental health. Mental health doesn’t differentiate based on gender. However, men have been socialized to suppress emotions. This undoubtedly increases the stigma that men face when they are dealing with mental health problems or just some of the natural human emotions we all face. As an Orthodox community, we should be working to create more awareness and sensitivity around issues of mental health, and fostering an ability for all, (including men) to speak more openly about their mental (and other) health needs. Something we could all do practically is around the use of the wish of a ‘refua shleima.’ This is used often for physical healing but literally translates as ‘full health.’ Let’s use it more for a wish for us all to have holistic, all- round healing and health.

Just as we think about how mental health should be a part of our Jewish communities, we should also consider how Judaism impacts our mental health.

Just as we think about how mental health should be a part of our Jewish communities, we should also consider how Judaism impacts our mental health. As human beings, we constantly face pressure to conform. We are expected to have great physical and emotional health at all times, regardless of what is going on in our personal lives. We face pressure of conforming to the stereotypes of our assigned gender, as referred to in Heide.

On top of this, we sometimes feel pressure from ourselves, family or the community to be striving to be the ‘best Jew’ we can be. This can be from the standard of kashrut we observe to how much Torah we learn per day. All this pressure affects our health and can lead to decline in health in any of the areas mentioned above, be it physical, emotional or spiritual.

As a community, surely we ought to work together to establish how individuals can bring their individuality into religious practices whilst still maintaining tradition. If we consider that we are all whole human beings and look at individuals holistically, we will come to see that the areas of health are so intrinsically connected and vital to our everyday lives. We feel pressure to be a ‘perfect Jew.’ Just as we work on expressing our individuality in our personal lives, we should carry that sense of individuality in our Jewish lives. Let’s also try and emphasize to ourselves and others that we are all doing the best we can and erase this idea that we need to be the ‘perfect Jew’ since the pressure this creates isn’t healthy.

As a Jewish community, I believe it is important that there is a holistic approach to health and the values of feminism (regardless of our individual gender). As part of the prayers offered in many shuls after the Torah reading on shabbat and festivals, we ask Hashem to bless those who ‘occupy themselves with the needs of the community.’ Awareness and positive action on bringing together these two ingredients is a need of the community in this day and age. I have suggested a few practical ideas of way we can bring this into our everyday lives and the society we live in. This will hopefully result in more people living more all-round healthy and fulfilled Jewish lives.

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