The Rashbi (Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai) authored the Zohar, a major Kabbalistic text while living in a cave. We are taught that after commenting on the selfishness of the Romans, for which he was sentenced to death, the Rashbi and his son hid in said cave for thirteen years. There they immersed themselves in the study of both mystical and practical Jewish wisdom.
My prosaic mind immediately wonders how the Rabbi and his son did laundry and if the lack of light (cave=dark) bothered them. And what about the guano? My next question, what did they subsist on for thirteen years in a cave, has already been answered. Tradition has it that Rashbi and his son were nourished by the fruit of a carob tree that grew at the entrance of the cave; also, they had their thirst quenched by pure water from a spring.
Spring water and carob. The Kabbala caveman diet. As far as I know, this is the only time in history that cave-dwellers had their exact daily menu recorded for posterity. But there’s a hearty bunch of people today who declare that they’re subsisting on the authentic caveman diet.
The Ugh Diet
They call it the “paleolithic”, “paleo”, or, simply, the “caveman” diet. It was created in the 1970s and is based on a theoretical menu that describes mankind’s so-called original hunter-gatherer diet. The diet’s creator presumed that cavemen dined mostly on meat and fish as well as foraged roots, nuts, seeds, and the occasional taste of honey. (I love the juxtaposition of the words “cavemen” and “dined”, don’t you?)
Proponents of the caveman plan say that we aren’t physiologically suited (or “evolved” enough, in their parlance), to eat grains and other complex cultivated and processed foods, hence the meaty menu. Those who adhere to the diet therefore don’t usually eat grains, legumes, dairy products, refined sugar, and oils or other processed fats. Some only eat game (hunted) meat and some even eat insects (in which case, the diet isn’t kosher).
The Lug, Slug, and Bug Diet
Another related diet is the forager diet which consists largely of raw, uncooked foods that can only be found by foraging, including various uncultivated roots, tubers,ferns, mushrooms, and insects. Proponents believe that this diet is even closer to mankind’s theoretical original diet than the paleolithic diet since everything’s eaten raw and therefore doesn’t require fire-making skills. Or Jenn-air ranges.
The Crave and Grab Diet
There’s yet another version of the caveman diet, the Anapsology diet, which is based on another dietary theory that posits that the human-as-(primitive)-organism naturally recognizes and therefore craves whatever foods contain the nutrients it needs for its own optimum health. The food in this diet is also uncooked. Probably no napkins, though.
The followers of these three “primitive lifestyle diets” find the story of the primitive human compelling. To an extent they glorify, theoretically at least, the primitive urge. Most adherents also believe these diets provide the optimum nutrition for physical wellbeing and vitality—researchers say there is some evidence that some people do benefit from this way of eating (but a consensus has not been reached).
Enlightened Lifestyle Diets
At the other end of the spectrum are the “enlightened lifestyle diets”, which believers say not only improve physical health but also improve spiritual awareness and/or emotional health, too. These diets are based on moral and/or philosophical systems (at least in part). The most well-known are Macrobiotics; religious or ethical veganism and vegetarianism; health-oriented veganism and vegetarianism; raw and living foods; Ayurveda; and what might be called holistic or food-energetics, and which is rooted in Traditional Chinese Medicine.
Some of these enlightened diets are actually part of larger life-systems or religions and may incorporate medical, philosophical, and religious beliefs and practices (including meditation and exercises). In some cases they also incorporate political activism into their practice.
Others are semi-religions themselves, as evidenced by their tenets, which meander into many other spheres of life that are not strictly related to the consumption of food. Hey, that’s to be expected—that’s what holistic means. But if you’ve ever been involved with any of these enlightened or even primitive lifestyle diets, you’ll have already found that they are in a sense dietary dogmas or creeds. (And yes, they do bump up uncomfortably in many ways with Torah Judaism).
Each of these diets has enough evidence (some more than others), to support their ability to improve physical health. But what about improving spiritual or emotional wellbeing?
Toast and Rocket Science
You’ll remember that the Torah has quite a lot to teach about eating mindfully. The texts contain many commentaries on food and eating, both general and specific, and both practical and mystical. When you examine the allure of these various types of lifestyle diets through the lens of Torah, some of the insights are startling.
For example, wheat is considered the food of wisdom or the intellect. The Talmud teaches that when a child is old enough to digest wheat (and perhaps other grains in non-wheat eating cultures), we begin to see his or her intellect develop. The caveman-type diets (and often the raw and living food diet), eschew wheat and other grains, and therefore, at least by default, deny the value of the human intellectual prowess needed to cultivate, harvest, thresh, grind/mill, and bake grains into bread. On the most visceral level the caveman/hunter-gatherer/forager diets are a rejection of one of our defining qualities—our human intellect.
The Anapsology diet takes this rejection of our humanity very far—it rejects the use of our intellect in the choosing of our foods, preferring to rely on “cravings”. This couldn’t be more antithetical to the seminal Torah wisdom that teaches us that our intellects must guide our hearts (and our stomachs). The Jewish way, while acknowledging personal aptitudes and inclinations, doesn’t encourage us to “just do your own thing”.
Unlike the prevailing Western advice, we don’t just follow our hearts. We don’t just do what feels good. We don’t just “do it”. Our goal is to allow our wisdom, knowledge, and understanding to inform and shape the desires of our hearts, even while we respect those little kicks from our kishkes (guts).
If the caveman-type diet is defined by our limitations, some of the enlightened lifestyle diets are about not recognizing our limitations. At the extreme end, adherents of religio-spiritual-ethical veganism and some raw foodists strive to go beyond. They view our human limitations as shackles. I love raw/living food (and the light, bright energy it yields), but like those in the macro scene its leading lights are certain that they—and only they—have the key to humanity’s problems. If only we ate raw, there would be no pollution. If only we were, macrobiotic we’d be better people. If only we ate sprouts, we’d have world peas∞.
Some adherents to the “enlightened lifestyle diets” believe that non-partakers are simply unenlightened “cavemen”. In truth, there is more than a touch of self-righteousness and entitlement associated with these dietary movements.
The overarching quality these diets share (I know I’ll get flak for this), is the sense of elitism. The adherents want to change the world, but they’re more Nietzsche than noble. They love pointing out the the differences between themselves and those lowly people who eat pizza and kugel and brie.
Perhaps they’re right in a way. One of the very positive things about all the lifestyle dieters (putting aside the snobbery for a moment), is that they do recognize that food is more than, well, food. They recognize that food is a part of the big picture. They recognize that it’s a gift. Many of these people are spiritual seekers. They are striving to connect with something higher.
What that something higher is varies with each lifestyle-diet (though ultimately, I believe, they are searching for G-d).
Macrobiotics has more than a glimmer of wisdom in it, hence its reliance on whole grains as the dietary staple. There is something about Macrobiotics that attracts large numbers of Jewish followers—I think it’s that macro-appreciation for human intellect and reason and logic.
The general downside, from a Torah viewpoint, is that Macrobiotics, which means “great life”, is a closed system. It’s a tape loop of self/world/self. It’s all about balance—balancing the opposing life-energy forces, the yin and yang, within self and personal environment. There is nothing above or beyond the system. The means and the end blur.
Torah teaches us that G-d encompasses/surrounds everything and also fills everything. There is no room for G-d in classical Macrobiotics. It thinks it’s the whole donut but it’s really just the donut hole (so to speak, as donuts are not exactly a staple macro menu item).
Macrobiotics has evolved from its early days as a heavily-Japanese influenced lifestyle-diet to one that more or less is open to all the worlds’ cuisines, even the various Jewish cuisines. However, there is a ton of misinformation about what a macrobiotic diet actually consists of. Some macrobiotic counselors still seem to (erroneously) believe that it means eating a lot of (dangerously) salty soy products and brown rice and no fruit. FYI: You can be macrobiotic and never eat soy foods at all.
Veganism and vegetarianism have some openly acknowledged basis in Torah wisdom. From the Creation of Adam and Eve until the flood, humankind was forbidden to eat animals. In Breishis (Genesis), Adam was told he was given seed-bearing herbs and seed-bearing fruit tree for food.
After the flood, G-d told Noah that humans were now allowed to eat animals. Before the flood, mankind equated the value of the lives of man and animals. The killing of a man was considered to be no different than the killing of an animal. But commentary says that G-d wanted us to recognize the distinction, so he allowed us to eat animals, albeit with several restrictions.
One of the reasons we were told not to eat certain foods was to prevent us from acquiring the negative traits of certain animals, which is why, for example, birds of prey, hyenas, and donkeys aren’t kosher. Neither are snakes.
This is very different from the belief of some vegans that human and animal-life are just about equal. In fact, the Torah expressly forbids us from being cruel to animals. It is a Torah law that you must feed your animals before you feed yourself, for example. Also, we are not allowed to torture or hunt or kill animals for sport or for any reason except food or self-defense. That’s probably why there are no matadors named Dweck or Goldstein.
Still, the Torah laws actually call attention to the fact of humankind’s superiority. We must treat animals particularly well and not cause them suffering not because they are our equals, but because they are weaker and dumber than we are.
Certain sages, including the 20th century Rav Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of the modern state of Israel, believed that though it wasn’t required of us, G-d really preferred us to not eat animals. Hence Rav Kook’s vegetarianism. Some of the arguments for Torah-based vegetarianism include: Adam and Eve were created as vegetarians; also the complicated laws of kashrus (the laws of how to prepare and eat kosher food), may be designed, at least in part, to make it more difficult for Jewish people to prepare meat; also killing and shedding blood, even animal blood, isn’t something the Torah admires and in fact generally forbids.
There are texts that mention, almost in passing, that some of the great sages and Rabbis were vegetarian during the weekdays but ate animal foods on Shabbos and Holy Days. Fish, chicken, and meat are, by most opinions, considered to be requirements of the Shabbos and holiday meals for both mystical and practical reasons. They are expensive, special foods that honor the holiday and generally are enjoyed—so if you dislike fish, chicken or meat and it won’t bring you joy, some opinions say: don’t eat them*.
The predominant Torah view is that even though meat isn’t a necessity on the physical level, there is spiritual value in its consumption. We make a blessing on both vegetarian and animal foods before consuming them. We should be eating them, according to Torah, to use the energy they give us to serve G-d. Also, there are more complex spiritual sparks or souls in animal foods. By eating the animal we release these holy sparks and allow the animal to complete its life-cycle for a higher purpose. When we use the energy we gain from eating any food, especially animal foods, to learn Torah or do mitzvos (mitzvot, commandments), we sanctify—“raise up” the energy we consumed.
Does It All Boil Down To Politics?
You will find that in addition to spiritual or even religious affiliations, some political affiliations tend to align more closely with some of these diet outlooks—in fact, in order to be accepted within many of these “diet-based cultures” you’ve got to conform politically or keep your mouth shut (except when eating or protesting something).
I’ve dabbled and even lived in these worlds at various points in my life. While they have so much to offer (yes, you do feel better when you eat natural, whole-foods and especially when you eat smaller amounts of food), the truth is there is a kind of schoolyard bullying that infects natural-foodie groups. Hey, there is way, way more to life than food. When you are so food-obsessed (whether you are a lifestyle-dieter, a gourmet or gourmand), it can be hard to keep things in perspective.
I guess that sounds strange coming from someone writing a food blog.
What Type Are You?
It seems to me there are also personality/psychological/sociological types that are attracted to each of the specific lifestyle diets, each one with its own special flavor, though many people inclined towards these diets diet-hop over time. For some, being aware, mindful of what they are putting in their mouths is enlightening. It changes how they view the world. It gives them a very real sense of freedom of choice; they don’t have to be slaves to their appetites or habits.
When you eat mindfully, whatever the platform, you generally tend to consume less and that in and of itself (combined with making better food choices), can lead to health improvements. For some, health, is the only reason to try eating better, and mindfulness may or may not follow.
For others, there is a sense of entitlement, elitism, and just plain snobbery. There is also intolerance. I’ll never forget waiting for a table in a famous natural food restaurant hearing two diners (from which lifestyle diet I won’t say), tear apart a dedicatedly un-hip Midwestern-looking couple—it was brutal. Or the time I heard a macrobiotic television-celebrity author announce to a French-fry munching girl in her teens that “potatoes were a food for slaves”. She literally cried on my shoulder (the young woman, not the author).
Obviously, despite the energetic influences of foods, lifestyle diets won’t turn you into a tolerant, sensitive individual if you aren’t already one to begin with or if you don’t want to change. Add Torah to the mix and you’ll find that it simply goes against Judaism to put down or insult your fellow, about his diet or anything else.
So on the one hand you have the “enlightened lifestyle diets”, which tend towards either the Hellenist or Pagan. On the other, you have the primitive lifestyle diets, which imply that the best we can be is grunting primitives. The enlightened lifestyle diets say we’re above it all or that there simply isn’t anything above us at all. The caveman diet says we’re defined by our physiology. Torah says balderdash to both.
Note: This post contains thoughts about some aspects of the general Torah view on eating mindfully. I’m not comparing kashrus/kosher observances, which are specific to Jews, to any of these lifestyle-diets many of which have health benefits to offer everyone.
∞And there are also really wonderful, caring people involved in the natural food world and I am blessed to know many of them.
*Don’t listen to me, ask your Rabbi. And note: According to the Bible (aka Torah) both Jews and non-Jews are required to be sensitive to and avoid the suffering of animals, including the ones they eat, though according to Judaism, only Jews need to observe kashrus.