Friday, December 16, 2011

I and Thou

My son’s oral history project took him to a local landmark; a druggist turned ice-cream parlor, to interview the current owner. Along with the marble counter and barstools stood a wooden turn-of-the-(last)-century phone booth. Teens had been in the past week and puzzled over this oddity: why would anyone close themselves in a little room to make a phone call?

Even before technology changed our definition of personal, a dramatic shift in mores had begun. Women stopped wearing gloves; post-JFK, men no longer donned hats; soon, more than just arms were bared. “If you’ve got it, flaunt it,” said prevailing wisdom. It was just a matter of time before TV replaced the psychiatrist’s couch, as people shared the deeply personal with millions of viewers.

Judaism has always had a different ethos. Many of the peak moments of our heroes’ lives occurred away from the public eye, between man and G-d: Abraham and Isaac on Mount Moriah; Jacob wrestling with the angel; Moses on Mount Sinai; Aaron in the Holy of Holies. No klieg lights, no press or paparazzi, just “I and Thou.”
The same is true of the Jewish marriage. It’s not shame that keeps us quiet on matters of the bedroom, but the understanding that holiness and blessing dwell most harmoniously where there is privacy.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Hands-On, Back-to-the-Earth, Grow-Your-Own!

In the past three years, sales of home-canning supplies have risen 35%; sales of the Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving have doubled over the past year. Bee-keeping, cheese-making, and backyard chicken coops are gaining in popularity. What’s behind all this hands-on, back-to-the-earth, grow-your-own? The latest homesteading efforts go far beyond making your own bread or putting up home-made soup instead of canned. While some might chalk it up to the weak economy, I suspect it goes deeper than that, to the very core of what it means to be a human being.

Chassidic teachings peek behind the mechanics of the digestive system to lay bare what’s really at the root of eating. We’re all familiar with the food chain, whereby entities at each level gain nourishment from the elements below; grass absorbs minerals from the earth, cows eat grass; people consume the cow and its milk. This food chain has its spiritual counterpart, too.
Traditional Jewish thought sees all of creation as inhabiting a particular kingdom: mineral, vegetative, or animal; above animal, hovers man. Trapped within each creation at every level are sparks of G-dliness waiting to be elevated back to their source. By preparing our food according to kosher laws, reciting a blessing to receive G-d’s permission to eat, and consuming our food in a mindful manner, we elevate all of these sparks.

Thus, eating kosher powerfully captures our mission on Earth, and G-d’s purpose in Creation: to transform the physical into the spiritual. Whatever we ingest literally becomes part of us, our flesh, our blood, our synapses and nerves. Eating kosher is a supreme service to G-d. So this urge to sink our hands into food preparation at its most elemental levels? Perhaps its a sign of our deepest need, to connect with the G-dly concealed within nature.
“The way we eat represents our most profound engagement with the natural world. Daily, our eating turns nature into culture, transforming the body of the world into our bodies and minds.” Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals.