Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Food in Jewish Thought, part 1

Post 1: The Problem

Over Pesach I spoke at Sha’arei Tefilah (a new shul in Yad Binyamin) on the topic of “Food and Eating in Judaism”, basing my talk on an essay from the Rav that appears in the book Festival of Freedom, published after his death. So, none of this is from me – it’s all based on the Rav’s first essay entitled, “An Exalted Evening: the Seder Night.”
So what’s the problem with food? We all like food. Most people I know have no problem with food – and in fact like it very much. (I consider myself strongly in this category, especially with regard to grilled meats.) Generally, food tastes good. It serves as a source of nourishment. It brings us a sense of physical well-being and even pleasure. So what could be bad? It boils down to biology.

Generally, human beings keep their biology to themselves. We consider biological function private and personal, to be shielded from the view of others. Think about the different types of biological functions that our bodies perform: defecation, lactation, cohabitation. We perform each function in private, as we should. And then there’s eating. Functionally, there’s nothing that distinguishes eating from any other biological function. And yet, for some reason, we perform that particular act in the most public of settings. Why? Frequency -- we use the bathroom every day. Pleasure -- sexuality certainly fits that bill, and despite changing societal norms, that still belongs in private. So what’s different about eating? Why should the biological function of eating enjoy a place in public while other functions languish in private?
We can also ask the question another way: in what ways can and should we humanize eating? Humanity considers itself substantially different than the animal world. We use our cognitive capacity to elevate ourselves both physically, but also ethically and morally. But the biological function of eating is substantively no different than that of the animal world. We eat – but so does the beast of the field, the fish of the sea, the termite in his wood. Each needs biological sustenance, so he consumes nourishment. We’re no different. We’re hungry, so we consume food. But we’re supposed to be different. We’re not supposed to simply fulfill biological needs; we must elevate them and even sanctify them.
In recent years, a new “sport” has cropped up called “competitive eating.” This sport pits contestants from around the world in a competition to see who can consume the largest quantity of – whatever food it is – in a specific amount of time. While this practice probably began harmlessly enough, with the pie-eating contest at the county fair (remember the great scene though, from Stand by Me) – it has mushroomed into a full-fledged sport complete with sponsorships, prize-winnings, and television deals. Who can forget Kobiyashi’s memorable championship performance during this year’s July 4th Hot Dog eating contest, where he suffered a “reversal” (that’s industry-speak for “vomiting”) but was able to re-ingest to avoid disqualification, and soldiered on. (Full disclosure: I missed the broadcast. Sadly, I was probably eating hot dogs on July 4th – not watching others). In any case, any objective observer who can take a step back would realize just how animalistic, vulgar and profane “competitive eating” truly is. It’s really unfair to call it “animalistic”, because no animal would ever eat in this way. An animal might eat a huge amount – but only because he’s been programmed biologically to store his food for an extended period of time. No animal would intentionally eat a quantity of food that would make him sick. What would be the point of that? No – “competitive eating” is an endeavor that only human beings engage in.
Hot-dog and matzah-ball eating contests only highlight the problem for us. They demonstrate the quandary food presents to us all: our biological functions have the ability to degrade below the level of the animal world. It carries that much danger – but also the same amount of positive potential. Just as food can denigrate us, in can elevate us – make us better people: more human, more spiritual and more exalted. The question is how.
The Rav, articulating the problem in his eloquence, notes that the Torah requires that we introduce God into the process of eating.
If man wants to redeem his eating activity and sanctify it, he must invite God to partake of the meal, or to join him and his friends while they are engaged in something so carnal and "primitive." This strange experiment of introducing God into the circle of men enjoying their food is not a homiletical image, but a solid biblical idea. Man eats his bread before God:
Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, took a burnt offering and sacrifices for God; and Aaron came and all the elders of Israel to eat bread with Moses' father-in-law before God (Ex. 18:12).
Upon the nobles of the children of Israel He laid not His hand: also they saw God, and did eat and drink (Ex.24:11)
There you shall eat before the Lord your God, and you shall rejoice in all that you put your hand unto (Deut. 12:7).
"Eating before God": how strange this phrase would have sounded to the Greeks of old! Thinking before—or rather with God was a truism in late Greek philosophy, particularly among the Stoa, who considered the finite human intellect an infinitesimal component of the infinite divine logos, and who regarded thinking as a reflex of the divine poetic gesture. Whenever man engages in cognition, he submerges in God, because only through Him is acquisition of knowledge possible. To come close to God or to unite with Him through such an unrefined carnal activity as eating would simply evoke ridicule.
Yet our religious conscience felt differently: one eats with God, in His presences How? By sacrificial action, which converts the food of man into the bread of God:
You shall sanctify him therefore; for he offers the bread of your God (Lev. 21:8).
Command the children of Israel and say unto them: My offering and My bread for My sacrifices made by fire ...(Num. 28:2).
Judaism developed a new institution, the se`udah. It is neither an ordinary meal nor a feast; it is more than that. It is the crucible in which the bread of man is transposed into the bread of God; it expresses the fellowship between God and man and the participation of God in all human pursuits and activities.
The realization of the idea of se'udah can occur only when man eats differently than the animal, when he displays uniqueness even with regard to the physiological processes in which he must engage in order to satisfy the demands of his body.
Judaism answers the challenge of sanctifying our eating in a number of different significant ways, each addressing a different aspect of the process of eating. Appreciating the significant demands that Judaism makes during each step of the process can transform the way we look not only at the food that we eat, but the very way that we live our lives.