We’re told that if we eat the right foods, take the right supplements, eat at the right times (and with the right people), exercise, and so forth, we’ll see powerful changes in our lives.
The teachings of the Hassidic mystics, which can be simply defined as “applied Kabbala”, show us another food-related way to power-up. It seems that what we eat, while important, is less important than what our spiritual experience of eating actually is. In a way, eating is ¹prayer.
Likutey Tefilos is a collection of indelibly moving prayers on every topic–you can say the prayers as is, or use them as a springboard to your own personal prayers. It was written and complied by Reb Noson, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov’s primary student. Reb Noson was instructed by the Rebbe to take his ²teachings and turn them into prayers. He taught that knowledge accumulated without then applying it to one’s life and using it to strengthen one’s personal connection to the Creator, isn’t really knowledge at all.
It isn’t just Breslov Hassidus–Jewish wisdom across the sects and centuries has always insisted that one who is a scholar must be changed at his core by his scholarship–otherwise his scholarship is hollow, indeed.
In the introduction to prayer 47, in Volume 3 of the collection called The Fiftieth Gate (a translation of Likutey Tefilos published by the Breslov Research Institute), we read: “When a person eats only to satisfy his soul and not due to physical desires, G-d feeds him from the trait of truth. Then, when he praises G-d with the power that he derives from such eating, he speaks words of truth. Then this person can perform miracles.”
And: “If…a person is steeped in the desire for eating, G-d hides his countenance from him, and the person is far from truth.”
At the highest level are those who eat only in order to say the blessing over the food as well as because they must in order to live and serve G-d. That level is truth. The rest of us must start from “where we’re at”. Where we’re at can vary widely. Are we mindlessly pigging-out on entire bags of chips or containers of ice cream? Is there a reason that overeating and binging invokes the name of an unkosher animal rather than, say, the kosher goat, which also eats everything in sight?
Are we gourmets, constantly focus on creating and/or consuming tantalizing dishes whenever possible and not just in honor of Shabbos and the holy days? That was one of my weaknesses—I loved the process of creatively cooking and lovingly feeding people and, I admit, receiving praise for my efforts.
Are we rigid about the nutritional content and energetic balance of our foods, unable to bend at special occasions or when guests in people’s homes or unable to allow others to eat what they like?
For me, keeping the weekday meals simple, usually vegan, with the focus primarily on health, was a great place to start. I was first inspired to do this a few years ago when I heard someone say that “she couldn’t help it if she simply preferred the best of everything”. She insisted on travelling out of her way and mine to purchase an extremely expensive, hard-to-find chocolate (one with all the foodie bells and whistle). I don’t recall all the details but what springs to mind was that the chocolate had a delirium-inducing cacao percentage, was made with beans grown organically at the top of a mountain on a tropical island, hydrated by spring water hauled by hand up the mountain in golden buckets, then, when ripe, handpicked by poetry-spouting children under the age of seven, wrapped in handmade linen paper and flown business class directly to the Upper West side. Or something like that. I might be exaggerating a bit.
I had a horrifying shock of self-recognition, although I wasn’t that extreme or that extravagant. Seriously, anyone can spend their life cultivating and refining their tastes and strengthening their desires so that they constantly long for the rarest and the best. This does not a meaningful life make.
Yet, this has largely become America’s mainstream food culture. Think the Food Channel and designer kitchens that take two years to build. Think Chicago suburbanites who can easily tell you where the real foodies eat when in Sardinia, Madrid, or Taipei.
We’ve been Frenchified! The American Coasts (and places in between) are now rife with deadly earnest oeno-gastronomes who pepper everyday chat with terms like affineur, artisanal, and achiote.
This lurch towards Roman-empire scale food obsession (what next, ³vomitoria?), has had an effect on America’s sub-cultures, too. American Jews of all stripes from the most secular to the *Super-Orthodox have their share of gourmandising/gourmeting going on at a scale never-before seen. And not just at weddings and bar mitzvahs. Jewish magazines are packed with glossy food photos, recipes by Kosher-chef superstars, and glamorous table settings. There seems to be a food-style war going on between the two glossiest of these magazines.
For some reason, it’s easy to forget that Judaism is less a religion than a totally-encompassing life path. It’s easy to forget that how we approach eating is intricately bound with how we approach Judaism and and also tied in with what we understand our life-purpose to be.
In case that’s all a bit too heavy, here’s something light: my latest favorite hot-weather Jewish power lunch.
Jewish Power Lunch for 2
1 ripe avocado, peeled and diced
1 cup mixed sprouts (clover, broccoli, alfalfa is nice)
1 cup sprouted chickpeas (optional)
2 scallions, sliced
handful of sprouted or toasted pumpkin seeds or almonds
1/4 cup chopped fresh herbs such as cilantro, parsley, mint
2 cups mixed lettuces
Juice of one lemon
Pinch of chipotle chile powder
1 teaspoon Bragg’s liquid aminos or your favorite soy sauce
Wash lettuce and scallions and check for insects. Toss all ingredients together in large bowl.
¹Prayer in the Jewish sense isn’t about pleading with G-d to give you what you desire. (Although that is sometimes part of prayer). The Hebrew word for prayer is tefilla which is related to the word for judgment, lehitpallel. Prayer is the time where, while conversing and connecting with G-d, you also reflect on (hence, judge) yourself.
²Each of these prayers can be used as part of a comprehensive applied study of one of the Rebbe’s lessons from his powerful magnum opus, Likutei Moharan.
³There probably were no such things as vomitoria at Roman banquets. Scholars say the vomitorium is most likely a myth.
*Super sounds so much nicer in these times than Ultra.
Wonderful post. My favorite part is this:
Jewish wisdom across the sects and centuries has always insisted that one who is a scholar must be changed at his core by his scholarship–otherwise his scholarship is hollow, indeed.
These days, this seems to me to be the essence of Judaism. See Pirkei Avos, Perek III, Mishnah 12: Col shemaasir mrubin machochmoso, chochmaso miskayemet. “Anyone whose deeds exceed his wisdom, his wisdom shall endure.” or “Anyone whose deeds are many as the result of his wisdom, his wisdom shall endure” (Bunim translation).
You have some real gold nuggets in this post. Truly, food should serve religion, not become a religion. Thoughtfully, you included both ends of the spectrum of eating styles.
This article is a must-read, to get us back onto the middle track, the shvil ha’zahav as the Rambam — our eat-right mentor, has recommended [in all aspects of our lives as well as in eating].
Keep up your valuable, wonderful, entertaining and informative writing.
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