Here’s my new piece at Tablet Mag. It’s about the publication of a translation of Likutey Moharan, thirty years in the works as well as a bit about my own life-story. Please read and pass along if you like it. Thank you!
You may have already read the following because it’s a republication of part of Cheese and Tigers. It is being sponsored by request as a merit for Yaacov Yehudah ben Shaindel, Shalom Mordechai Halevi ben Rivka, and Yonatan ben Malka, so here goes:
What we eat (as well as how we eat it) is very important for our physical, spiritual, and even mental health. I think a lot of Jews (and a lot of people in general), sense this. That’s why we try all kinds of meshuggeh diets, each one more extreme than the next. We’re looking for answers and we “feel in our guts” that food is important.
Intrigued? Please check out this article at one of my other blogs, on Dr. Martha Herbert’s new book, The Autism Revolution. If a pediatric neurologist who teaches at Harvard (and runs a cutting-edge research center) has identified the link between brain and what we eat as vital to our well-being, it’s time for us to really pay attention. Also, I’ll shortly be reviewing another terrific book on anxiety and diet. I’ll be sure to link you.
It is really, really hard to change your diet. Ask anyone who’s been told by a doctor to avoid salt, meat, or sugar. Food is about so much more than nutrition. But I’m convinced that if you experience the results, you’ll make some changes. Sure, you’ll have a relapse or two. But the hardest part is that initial step.
I had a friend many years ago who would get brutal migraines ever time she ate chocolate or aged cheese, two of her favorite foods. She chose to have surgery on her septum (which didn’t work at all) rather than stop eating these foods even for a week! Now, for many people eating chocolate and dairy doesn’t trigger unpleasant symptoms. Others don’t know what’s causing their digestive problems, headaches, rashes, and so on (a lot of them don’t even realize it’s related to what they eat). But my friend knew. Like most of us, she was just so attached to the tastes and physical and emotional sensations she was used to that she would do anything to avoid changing how she ate.
Diet affects us at the deepest levels. What we eat literally changes who we are, after all, food molecules eventually become a part of us at the cellular level. For many years I was vaguely conscious of this, I had even become vegetarian for many years in response to this concept. Then the idea of food becoming our flesh began to take on a much more visceral reality for me via an unusual route.
Siberia is A State of Mind
A couple years ago, I went to sit shiva* with an older friend, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor who was imprisoned in Siberia, who I had met a few times.
She told me details about her father’s life and wartime heroism, and I became fascinated with both his faith and bravery, as well curious about the testing ground for them, that was Siberia. I wanted to know, to feel, what this brutal, bleak, environment was like. Siberia apparently hasn’t changed all that much since then.
I read a bit about those imprisoned in Siberia, and then I read The Tiger, by John Vaillant, hands down the best book on the land and the mindset of non-native Siberians I’ve ever read. The author convinced me that being eaten by a tiger, becoming part of the actual beast, is perhaps the most horrible death imaginable. One’s body is shredded by claws and teeth, digested, and parts of it excreted. One feeds his own killer, and one’s very soul merges with the tiger. Of course, being eaten by a shark or a bear or ants is equally as chilling.
Judaism treats the meis, the deceased person’s body, so tenderly, with so much holiness, that the difference couldn’t be more stark. But the tiger, even one that willfully hunts and eats man, doesn’t have free will—he has to respond to his hunger and even his rage in the only way he knows how.
We do have free will, more than we think we do, about how, what, and why we eat. We get to choose—and this is one of the deeper essences of eating kosher. It’s about who we are, who we choose to be, who we identify with.
Kosher means “fit”. If you ask the average person on the street, they’ll readily admit that what we eat affects our bodies. If they’re up on the science, they’ll tell you that it can affect our minds, too. But most people will tell you it’s nonsense, food cannot affect our souls. Or, if they do think it can affect our souls, they’ll tell you that not eating animals, or eating only raw and living foods or a macrobiotic diet or so on is the way to go. (They all have valid points, by the way.)
I see it this way. If I believe that G-d cares that for me personally and has a commitment to me, and has for some reason beyond my ken chosen the laws of kashrus to best way to nourish a Jewish soul and body, then eating kosher makes sense. For me, over the years, it’s become something I feel in my bones: All people are created by G-d, each of us has a soul, and G-d has asked Jews to eat kosher. (And requires all people to avoid treating animals cruelly in the production of food, though eating animals properly killed and prepared is okay).
My friend and writing client Minto asked me why, if kosher food is good for us, do Jews make and sell kosher candy and junk food (have you ever seen the kosher junk-food aisles?), and so on. He’s absolutely right to point this out. Is this what G-d intended kosher food to be? I believe not. Sure, having a festive, even a sugary dessert for the occasional simcha, is okay within reason. But over-eating, impulse-eating, binging, excessive gourmandism and gourmetism, and so on, are at the root of so many emotional and physical health problems in Jewish and non-Jewish Westerners. Judaism teaches that the health of the mind and body is intimately related to the health of the soul, and Rebbe Nachman of Breslov teaches that we need to eat mindfully.
*Sitting shiva is part of Jewish mourning customs—for seven days, relatives and friends of the deceased and his or her immediate family visit family members, sitting on low stools as a sign of mourning. (They usually bring prepared meals, too).
Tiger photo by Patch at Stock Exchange.