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Philosophy of Food

November 8, 2010 | by Binyomin Forst

Medicine for the body or salve for the soul?

There have been attempts made to attribute the laws of keeping kosher to reasons of health. These ideas were expressed by no less an authority than Maimonides in his Guide to the Perplexed (3:48). According to Maimonides, all foods forbidden by the Torah are unwholesome and unhealthy.

Most other traditional scholars have rejected this theory outright. The 15th century commentator Abarbanel (Leviticus 11), argues that attributing the laws of keeping kosher to medicinal reasons, makes the Torah a mere medical text. This is obviously not the case as there are many poisonous herbs that are not prohibited by the Torah. If the purpose of keeping kosher is no more than a health issue, why were these herbs not included in its prohibitions? Furthermore, non-Jews who eat all the foods forbidden to us appear no less healthy than Jews who abstain from these foods.

A similar argument is made in the 16th century Torah commentary, Akeidat Yitzhak (60), which also strongly criticizes Maimonides' view. If in fact the laws of keeping kosher were based on health, the Torah would not distinguish between Jew and non-Jew, as King David in Psalms (145:9) declares, "His mercies are on all His works." Why were the laws of keeping kosher not incorporated into the seven Noahide laws [incumbent on all mankind]?

The commentator Abarbanel notes the fact that the Torah uses the Hebrew word tamei in regard to prohibited foods; the word tamei signifies spiritual defilement, not physical harm. Obviously, Abarbanel concludes, the Jewish laws are not intended to heal bodies and provide for their material welfare, but to heal the soul and cure its illnesses.

Perhaps Maimonides wrote these theories (as is the case with much of the Guide to the Perplexed) only as a means of explaining the Torah to those who were steeped in Aristotelian philosophy. He apparently did not believe these reasons to be primary considerations. Maimonides also cites the medical aspect merely as a secondary factor, as is apparent from his commentary to Leviticus 11:13 and Deuteronomy 14:3.

Indeed, it is highly implausible to attribute the laws of keeping kosher to medical and health reasons. The Torah is the word of God, eternal and inviolable. To relegate the Jewish laws to medical reasons robs them of these qualities. Medical knowledge is an evolving science which is refutable, while Torah is objective and immutable truth. To attribute keeping kosher to explanations that may be disproved is defining the eternal with the temporal, a rather stilted equation.

Related Article: Keeping Kosher, Kicking and Screaming

Consecrated Consumption

One of the most recurrent activities, and at times overwhelming responsibilities, of any observant Jew is eating. The Torah places extreme emphasis upon all aspects of eating. The food itself and the manner in which it is eaten is microscopically scrutinized by the Torah and sages. In kabbalistic and chassidic schools of thought, consecrated consumption plays an extremely important role in one's service of God.

The primal desire of man is to eat of the forbidden.

Rabbi Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin writes that the primal desire of man is to eat of the forbidden. Adam and Eve succumbed to that desire, and as a result it has remained predominant in the human psyche since that eventful day. The overwhelming sway of this desire dawned upon Adam when God confronted him with his treason. "The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me of the tree and I ate" (Genesis 3:12). The form of this phrase in the original Hebrew literally means, however, "and I will eat."

The Midrash explains this as a new awareness that dawned on Adam. At the moment of truth he realized how powerful a current had now been unleashed. He knew that he would eat the forbidden again, because food and its pursuit were now an intrinsic part of his "nature." Thus it was through "eating" that man emerged from the Garden of Eden into the darker world of sinfulness.

The night of the 15th of the Jewish month of Nissan, the first night of Passover, celebrates the birth of the "revised" and "corrected" version of the Jewish nation. For this reason their initiation to the sanctity of Israel occurs by means of consecrated consumption. The mitzvah of eating the Passover sacrifice, as well as the numerous other food-related Jewish laws delegated to the holiday of Passover, are indispensable in the formation of the "second edition" of man. Through food-related mitzvot, man's primal desire and basic flaw is redirected toward a higher purpose. This is the beginning of the corrective process.

Why is it that the focal point of man's free choice revolves around eating?

Food: Focus of Conflict

On the most basic level, the act of eating facilitates the remarkable fusion of body and soul. Man is defined as an earthbound creature who has the potential to reach heaven. It is through the life-sustaining process of eating that the "dust of the earth" is transformed into "a living soul." The righteous individual eats for the purpose of satiating the soul (Proverbs 13:25).

Man is unique in his stature as a creation combining the lowest and simplest in nature – earth, and the most sacred and spiritual – the Divine itself. Man in his physical body shares the nature of the animal kingdom, but his soul reflects the heavenly angels.

The goal of the human experience is to subdue the beast in man and to live one's life in accordance with a standard unique to humans alone. The goal of a Jew goes beyond that: to bring holiness from the soul to the body, to raise the mundane to a level of spirituality, and to sublimate and transform the temporal into the sublime.

"The heavens belong to God and the earth was given to man" (Psalms 115:16). Said the chassidic commentator, the Chiddushei HaRim, "and the earth was given to man – to turn it into heaven." At the same time however, the animal in man wishes to overpower and rule over the spirit, to make heaven into earth. Thus, life is a struggle between the animalistic and spiritual aspects of man.

The ultimate victory is to subdue and transform the animal within oneself.

In essence, human existence is a partnership between body and soul, in which each "partner" seeks controlling interest. All the vicissitudes of man's life – his triumphs and failures, ascents and descents – are linked to this ongoing struggle. The ultimate victory is achieved when man, who rules over the animal kingdom, can subdue and transform the animal within himself.

Thus, the act of eating, which grants life to the human being, is itself the point of fusion between the spiritual and physical. It is the place where the combatants engage, where the ongoing struggle to forge a productive relationship between the physical and the spiritual is at its fiercest. Since eating, more than any other Jewish law, brings about the integration of these two opposing forces, it stands forever at the crossroads of life.

Perhaps this helps to explain why the kabbalistic work, the Zohar, refers to the time of eating as a "time of war." This primal desire is the "front line" in the ongoing battle for primacy between body and soul. This may explain the connection between the Hebrew words for lechem (bread) and locheim (warrior).

Strategies for Sanctity

In the battle for supremacy of the spiritual, two strategies are available to man. Man may either practice abstinence – seeking to totally decimate the innate desire for consumption, or he may seek to redirect and focus that inclination by sublimating it to a higher purpose.

The Talmud (Brachot 8b) describes the Jewish legal obligation to eat on the eve of Yom Kippur: "He who eats on the ninth [of the Jewish month of Tishrei] is considered to have fasted on the ninth and the tenth" (Yom Kippur occurs on the tenth). The Sages seem to infer that eating on the ninth is itself deemed, independent of the Yom Kippur fast, as two days of fasting. Why would eating be considered more sanctified than abstinence? Is not Yom Kippur the holiest day of the year?

The underlying idea is that everything God created has an integral role in the Heavenly symphony. All of Creation sings to God, and man is the master conductor. The non-eating of Yom Kippur is risk-free, but the greater glory of God is served on the eve of Yom Kippur, when man eats in a sanctified mitzvah fashion. Rather than excluding consumption from the Godly symphony, we set a tone whereby food adds to its harmonious melody.

The Talmudic sage, Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, the redactor of the Mishnah, is the prototype of this approach to life. Of his own life he said: "I have not derived any pleasure in this world, never having tasted any delicacies" (Talmud – Ketubot 104a). This is a rather intriguing statement considering the Talmud's statement regarding his extreme wealth: that all seasonal foods were to be found at his table during both winter and summer (Avodah Zara 11a). This type of conspicuous consumption would seem to be the antithesis of holiness, and yet he is known for posterity as Our Holy Rabbi due to his extreme piety and holiness.

Perhaps we need to free ourselves of foreign ideas and focus on a Torah definition of holiness in order to resolve this seeming anomaly.

People of Holiness

The Kotzker Rebbe explains the verse, "People of holiness you shall be for me" (Exodus 22:30), not as an exhortation to be angels, devoid of any darker side, but rather to be people of holiness, fully human yet totally sanctified. Holiness means not abstinence but rather full participation in all facets of life, albeit without any pursuit of personal pleasure. God is not looking for angels; of those He has no lack. It is human beings, with all their frailties and foibles, living on an inspired and exalted plane, that give the Almighty endless pleasure.

It is in this sense that Maimonides calls the section of Jewish Law that deals with morality in relationships and the laws of keeping kosher – "Holiness." True holiness is extending the spirit of God and the enhancement of His honor to the areas of life which are most prone to egotistical pleasure.

His eating was solely to sustain the body for the sake of the soul.

The Talmudic sage, Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, had a table filled with the finest of gastronomic delights yet he could honestly attest about his own lifestyle, "I derived no personal pleasure whatsoever." All of his eating was solely for mitzvah purposes, in order to sustain a body that carries a soul – God's instrument in implementing His will in our world. This is the true holiness, a real live person vibrantly living an exalted existence.

In a similar vein the Midrash characterizes Hillel the Elder. Whenever Hillel the Elder took leave of his students to go home for his meal they would accompany him. They asked him, "Rebbi, where are you going?" To which he replied, "To show kindness to the guest in my house."

"But, Master, do you have a guest every day?" they inquired. He answered "Isn't the soul but a guest in the body? The body remains in this world while the soul is like a guest – here today, gone tomorrow – moving on to the World to Come."

Hillel came to teach his students the proper approach to what could become a hedonistic obsession. Man in this world is like a guest at an inn. The horses are already hitched to the wagon, ready to leave. There is no time for anything more than a quick bite, a snatched drink -- and off on the road.

The message of Hillel was that food is a medium with which to show kindness to the soul – by giving it life. Therefore "Eat to live – don't live to eat!"

Food and the Soul

    "It was said among the students of the Talmudic Sage Rabbi Yishmael, 'Sin dulls the heart,' as it says, 'Do not make yourself impure through them (prohibited species) lest you shall become contaminated through them.' Do not read the Hebrew as venitmeisem (you shall become contaminated). The same letters can also be read as venitamtem (you shall become dull hearted)." (Talmud – Yoma 39a)

The issue of keeping kosher, in light of the above, is at the core of the struggle. The food one eats has a profound impact upon one's nature. Modern medicine has only recently discovered that the DNA present in every cell controls the nature of that organism. Similarly, every cell possesses a spiritual nature which is carried through the food chain. One who eats any particular animal ingests its nature and characteristics as well. The fact that this is not recognized by current medical knowledge is of no moment.

Science has only begun to scratch the surface of the mysteries of the human body and knows little of the unquantifiable spirit. It requires no great leap of faith to speculate that in due time science will discover the truth that Jews have accepted as faith for 3,000 years.

Hence, food is central to the struggle between the animal instincts in man and his soul. Certain foods strengthen the animal traits. Vegetative matter has no character and cannot affect man in any way. Animal matter, however, carries the nature of the animal and may be harmful to the spirit of man by influencing and strengthening his own animal traits or imparting to him a harmful nature. Ingestion of animal matter may affect a Jew adversely through absorption of debasing and defiling elements which will corrupt his soul. Absorption of these carriers of corruption will make it most difficult to grow in sanctity and closeness to God through the ascendancy of soul and the transformation of the body.

It is no wonder that all vegetative species are permitted by Torah law. These have no soul or character that can be absorbed by one who eats them. Indeed, the animals permitted by the Torah are all ruminators that subsist on vegetative matter alone. Thus the food chain is one of simple foods that cannot affect man in a significant manner.

Species of animal and fowl that are carnivorous are those forbidden by the Torah, since one who eats of their meat will be influenced by their cruel nature. While we cannot expect to understand why each of the forbidden species is prohibited, we can understand and accept that God, who created all these species, understands their nature and prohibited those that may impact negatively in a spiritual sense.

Triumph of the Soul

    "For not by bread alone does man live rather through the word of God does man live." (Deut. 8:3)

In all of Creation, it is through the word of God that all was brought into being, and it is His utterance that sustains the existence of all that He wrought (see Psalms 33:6). It is the inherent word of God, the sustaining pulse of all of existence, which is imparted to man through the vehicle of food. This is what provides man with life.

In food of a forbidden nature it is the negative that controls and subverts the nature of man. The laws of keeping kosher regulate human intake, allowing the spiritual life-giving element in food to connect with all that is Divine in man.

The Baal HaTanya writes that all forbidden foods receive their vitality from the lowest, most evil forces in Creation. They are completely imprisoned and bound by the forces of negativity and are for this reason they are forbidden foods. Thus, if one ingests these foods unwillingly, even with the intent that they provide him with the strength to serve his Maker – nevertheless the vitality contained therein is entrapped by the evil and can make no contribution toward energizing man in his search for the spiritual.

The vitality of permitted foods is unbound and unleashed in order to propel man in his quest upward. (see Tanya, ch. 6-7)

    If one looks more deeply into the matter, one will see that the world was created for man's use. In truth, man is at the center of a great balance. For if he is drawn after the world and is distanced from his Creator, he becomes ruined and ruins the world with him. However if he exercises self-control and cleaves to his Creator, using the world only as an aid in service of the Almighty, he is uplifted and uplifts the world with him...

    And if he shall be the warrior, victorious on all fronts, he will be the man of perfection meriting to cleave to his Creator, to leave the corridor and enter the palace to bask in the radiance of life. (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato – Path of the Just)

Reprinted from "THE LAWS OF KASHRUS" –

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