Judaism and Diabetes

A fairly broad topic, meriting a simple question: "Why?"
What should religion have to do with diabetes? What makes diabetes similar to any religion – much less the one I consider my own?

More to the point, what is it that brought me to this bit of philosophical musing?

Today I learned that still another friend from outside the active diabetes community has been diagnosed. While this is not the first time something like this has happened in my life, I am reminded of other friends’ recent sign-ups to another social organization’s diabetes-related mailing lists.

In some ways, diabetes is sort of like an exclusive “Club D” with particular entrance requirements. We meet the qualifications… and by some magic of investiture, we understand each other’s diabetes-related issues and concerns (at least to some degree)… On the other hand, it’s an exclusive club to which we do not want our friends and relatives to qualify. The medical concerns, the carb-counting, medication-taking, complications-avoiding… it’s not something that any sane person would wish upon any other person.

So it’s a bit of “Sorry that you qualify – but welcome to the club.”

Now, despite some people’s perceptions to the contrary, diabetes is something one has for the remainder of one’s life. Even those of us Type 2’s who manage to control our blood glucose levels without medication still have beta cell damage, insulin resistance, and all of the other risks that come with diabetes. We may ignore diabetes, but it does not ignore us.

To quote The Eagles, “You can check out any time you like – but you can never leave.”

Which brings me back to something Rabbi Mark Golub said on Shalom TV. In his Judaism 101 series, he described being Jewish as being a member of a global family – and that while one might choose to ignore Judaic tradition and Law, or to follow a different religious path, once you are part of the family that is Judaism, you are always a member of that family.

Kind of like diabetes.

Exploring this religious metaphor a bit further…

Every religious path has a number of rituals attached to it. Whether it be wearing special garments, carrying objects of reverence, following a specific order of prayer, observing specific feast days and fast days, following a specific religious canon (e.g., the Biblical Law)… there are words, signs, symbols, and body language that identify one adherent to another – and sometimes, to the non-believing world as well. (Consider the Sikh’s turban, the Muslim woman’s hijab, the Jewish man’s kipah or yarmulkeh, the Roman Catholic’s rosary…)

In Club D, there are also secret and not-so-secret signs. It could be the furtive fingerstick under the table (or the open one on top of it), the quick through-the-clothing jab of an insulin pen, the manipulation of a pump controller, a mother handing her child a single Smartie, or even just seeing a stranger’s loved one mentioning the amount of time until dinner and asking him if he is “okay” until then. We know the signs because we belong to Club D. Or because we’re close to someone who belongs to the club.

Like many religions, we have dietary restrictions. Muslims avoid pork and alcohol; Hindus avoid beef; Mormons avoid caffeine as well as alcohol; observant Jains and Sikhs are vegan. The “dietary laws” of Club D are just as diverse, and at times just as intricate as the laws of Kashrut (Jewish dietary laws, aka “keeping Kosher”) – not to mention, as seemingly arbitrary as a game of “Mother May I” or “Fizzbin” (“You may have one starch serving of a low-glycemic starchy vegetable of glycemic load under 65, but only if your blood glucose is under 100 and you have had no other carbohydrate as part of the meal, except if your blood glucose level is under 70 you may have one fruit serving…”)

But as religiously as we follow the rules, “Club D” is not a religion… and sometimes, the rules of our religions must be freshly interpreted to deal with Club D. While I can’t speak for every faith, there are a whole host of issues in which Judaic observance and diabetes management can collide – whether it be glucose testing over the Sabbath, adjusting basals for Passover, or even figuring out how to deal with ritual meals and fasts. Fortunately, we have the work of those who came before us – including Rabbi M. M. Weismandl and Rabbi Meisels of Jewish Friends With Diabetes and Nechama Cohen of the Jewish Diabetes Association, and a support group right here on TuDiabetes.com. (TuDiabetes also has religion-and-diabetes support groups for Christians and Pagans.)

In the end, we are here to help each other and support each other – in our diabetes care, in our faith, in our lives – much like a family. No matter how seldom we visit, when we do, we are welcomed as family. Perhaps, rather than an exclusive club, we are Family D. And perhaps our strength is our faith that together, we will survive.

Shabbat Shalom.

Very well written. You must be a writer, this sounds like an article I would read in a magazine. I felt all alone for a long time after my diagnosis, and even went through a period of denial. When a lady I met at the Dr’s office pointed me to TuDiabetes I finally began to feel like a part of a much larger whole, even though I’ve never actually seen any of you face to face–except Penny, that is. I too am a Sabbath keeper, who sometimes can feel alone in the larger community, so I gather every Sabbath with people of like faith, and we share a common interest and faith in God. Its sort of ironic, because I too have viewed the community of Diabetics as a sort of religion if you will. All my church members know I’m Diabetic but only the ones who are Diabetic really relate, and we share a common bond within the Church that others do not share. Well, the parallels are endless it seems, but I am glad God pointed me to this community of believers also. I now have two different communities I meet with, and they both provide something that both my head and heart are in need of.
A peaceful Sabbath to you too, my Friend,