Holy Feast, Holy Fast

Food, Judaism and Righteous Ambivalence; Nonfiction

By Jay Michaelson

Published December 23, 2005, issue of December 23, 2005.
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Mystical Bodies, Mystical Meals: Eating and Embodiment in Medieval Kabbalah

By Joel Hecker

Wayne State University Press, 296 pages, $44.95.

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Holy Men and Hunger Artists: Fasting and Asceticism in Rabbinic Culture

By Eliezer Diamond

Oxford University Press, 240 pages, $49.95.

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To put it mildly, Jews have a complicated relationship with food. On the one hand, we grow up with Jewish mothers and grandmothers who stuff our bellies full of high-fat food (“It’s good for you!”) and for whom, whether because of recent history or some collective Jewish unconscious, having “enough” to eat is the primary marker of living well. On the other hand, there are all those prohibitions: no shrimp, no cheeseburgers, no pork, no catfish; on Passover, no bread; on Yom Kippur, no food at all. Ashkenazic culture may have given the world the bagel & shmear, but maybe we’re still not sure how much to enjoy it.

Two recent studies, Rabbi Eliezer Diamond’s “Holy Men and Hunger Artists: Fasting and Asceticism in Rabbinic Culture” and Joel Hecker’s “Mystical Bodies, Mystical Meals: Eating and Embodiment in Medieval Kabbalah,” both grapple, in different ways, with the contradictory tendencies regarding food in the Jewish religious tradition. Diamond, professor of Talmud and rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, discusses talmudic culture, and Hecker, professor of Jewish myticism at ReconstructionistRabbincal College, covers Kabbalah. But both end up in similarly ambivalent places: Diamond’s rabbis seemed to yearn for asceticism but nonetheless couldn’t quite reject the Jewish emphasis on the this-worldly, and Hecker’s zoharic texts vacillate between seeing food as a necessary evil and praising it as a connection to God.

In fact, food was religiously significant, and problematic, from the beginning. On the one hand, the first sin in the Bible had to do with eating a forbidden food. On the other hand, Divine blessings are often expressed in terms of nourishment, and, other than That Tree, God describes Eden as a kind of all-you-can-eat vegetarian buffet: “Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for food.” (Personally, such descriptions invariably evoke a much later paradise: The Breakers hotel in Palm Beach, Fla., where I remember my grandmother taking me as a child — together with hordes of other Jewish grandchildren — to feast at the tables of elite Protestant culture.) Later on in the Torah, the celebratory theme continues: Israel is commanded to “eat, be satisfied, and bless God for the good land He has given you,” and is provided with manna, which miraculously appeared every morning (except on the Sabbath). But what did the Israelites do? Complain about the lack of variety — until God sent quails, which they then proceeded to overeat.

By the time of the Talmud, this tension had been augmented by new conceptions of the soul. Once the soul was posited as distinct from the body — a platonic idea that was crucial to Christianity’s “new covenant” and that quickly entered talmudic Judaism, as well — it was easy to see why asceticism, including fasting, and abstinence from sex and intoxicating beverages, was so appealing. If the body is a distraction from the soul, then of course it should be repressed — even starved. Asceticism works: The less one feeds and excites the body, the more one can focus on “spiritual” matters. Hence the appearance of monastic traditions, all around the world.

Now, many of us were taught in Sunday school that all this self-denial was a Christian value, not a Jewish one. They had monks and priests; we had rabbis with families. They denied this world in favor of the next; we insisted on the sanctity of life. Well, as Diamond convincingly shows in “Holy Men and Hunger Artists,” the situation was actually much more complex than that. Diamond is well aware of the Jewish rhetoric of anti-asceticism; his introduction convincingly shows how it has shaped even scholarly interpretations of rabbinic behavior. But, beginning with his own yeshiva education — with its material discomfort, lousy food and sexual abstinence — Diamond is also aware of the opposing impulse: to abnegate the body in favor of Torah.

Much of “Holy Men and Hunger Artists” is devoted to exploring the tension between those two impulses. On the one hand, talmudic sages were drawn to asceticism by what Diamond describes as a “single-minded focus on the Torah, a commitment — dare I say obsession? — that leaves little time, energy, or desire for life’s other pursuits,” and also by a belief that the pleasures one forgoes in this lifetime are enjoyed in the next. On the other hand, they never embraced the world renunciation of, say, the Christian desert fathers, and heaped scorn on those who did.

What results from this tension is, unsurprisingly, ambivalence. “Judaism teaches again and again that the path to spiritual excellence goes through self-denial,” Diamond writes. “This does not mean that the attitude of rabbinic Judaism toward the physical and material is negative.” But, he continues, “it does open Judaism to two ascetically oriented moves: the further minimizing of pleasure in the pursuit of greater spirituality, and the instrumentalization of this-worldly behavior, which deemphasizes its pleasurable components.”

In Diamond’s view, fasting was the primary site of this ambivalence. Biblical Judaism had prescribed (or at least described) fasting on occasions of mourning. Many talmudic rabbis, mourning the destruction of the Temple, now made it a regular practice; they believed that it was good to suffer for the Torah, and Diamond shows that fasting was one of the primary ways in which “suffering” was acted out. There were fasts to protect the community from peril, fasts to atone for individual and communal sins, fasts in place of sacrifices — even, Diamond claims, fasts as a kind of Nazirite discipline for the post-Temple period.

At the same time, there are numerous talmudic sources that take a diametrically opposed view. The rabbis insisted on three full meals to celebrate the Sabbath and occasionally heaped scorn on those who fasted too much. “Let the meal of a student who fasts be given to the dogs,” the Babylonian Talmud’s Rabbi Sheshet said.

Because of his focus on fasting as a form of asceticism, Diamond does not discuss the practice in the context of its opposite, i.e., eating. He does note, in passing, that the laws of kashrut might themselves be seen as an almost ascetic discipline, and that holiness, in both biblical and talmudic sources, was consistently associated with proper diet. Generally, though, Diamond presents fasting as just another form of self-denial; that it concerns food seems almost incidental. Yet according to talmudic scholar Jacob Neusner, “approximately 67 percent of all legal pericopae deal with dietary laws, ritual purity for meals, and agricultural rules governing the fitness of food for Pharisaic consumption.” It would have been interesting to situate the rabbinic dicta on fasting in the context of such concerns.

Nonetheless, “Holy Men and Hunger Artists” is a clear, convincing rebuttal of the conventional view that mainstream Judaism lacks the practices of self-denial that mark our sister faiths. They are present, not as fringe phenomena, but at the heart of rabbinic culture, in its ancient and contemporary manifestations. When only one thing in the world is of value — be it Torah or anything else — the rest of the world suddenly looks more like a burden than a gift.

If the rabbis of the Talmud were ambivalent about eating, the circle of the Zohar was obsessive. As Joel Hecker remarks in the introduction to “Mystical Bodies, Mystical Meals,” the Zohar abounds in culinary metaphors, imagery and practice. This accords with the Zohar’s general worldview, which was

much more complex than the philosophical dualism of body and spirit. For the Zohar, unlike for rationalist philosophers, human existence is not measured according to a single scale of intellectual knowledge of God; the body and the heart are equally important, and problematic, sites of religious observance, metaphor and myth. Thus, food’s value is not measured simply according to how it best furthers philosophical speculation. As Hecker’s study shows, its significance depends on context, meaning and a large web of signification.

First and foremost, Hecker claims, the Zohar sees eating as representing the acquisition of knowledge, and as a primary metaphor for attaining union with God. There’s a charming Jewish folk custom of smearing words of the Torah with honey so that schoolchildren associate the Torah with sweetness. For the Zohar, the words of the Torah really are meant to be consumed, and the act of eating is itself an enactment of the human “hunger for wisdom.” The Torah is, again and again, referred to as a kind of nourishment. Sabbath and other meals are among the primary locations for discourses on mystical secrets. And the act of eating itself, which unites two separate entities into one, is a kind of living metaphor for union between the various Divine potencies, or between the mystic and God.

Second, every aspect of eating is symbolic. Even the seating plan matters, and every detail of the festive table — from kiddush to dessert — is imbued with mystical significance. Everyone knows that food and sex are related, but most wouldn’t go so far as to say that “because the letter vav corresponds to the masculine potency of the Godhead, the marked part of the [challah] bread corresponds to the point of the mark of circumcision of the divine phallus.” In fact, there is so much symbolism in the Zohar’s understanding of eating that one can forget there’s actually physical food on the table.

Indeed, Hecker observes, there is precious little about the actual menu at any of these mystical meals — and less still about the women who, presumably, prepare them. As Hecker rather quaintly notes, “Like a coffee break in which coffee is the occasion for rest rather than the point of the interval, here it is not the food so much as the liturgical function it serves that is relevant.”

As did the rabbis, the Zohar navigates a narrow path between condemning asceticism on the one hand — by inviting guests to the table, the Zohar says, we reflect the way we are invited to God’s table, and we must ensure that plenty of food is present to draw down the Divine blessing — and condemning gluttony on the other. For all its metaphorical significance, eating is still something humans have in common with animals, and for the Zohar, turning toward the animal is the wrong trajectory for human activity. Hecker thus concludes that the Zohar’s overall attitude toward food is “austere,” focused more on the appearance, context, liturgy and symbolism of food than on the food itself.

It’s not known to what extent the Zohar circle was influenced (in one direction or the other) by the ideals of medieval Christians, who, if they observed all the church’s set fast days, would have fasted for about one-third of every year. Certainly there are passages in the Zohar that can be read as veiled critiques of Christian celibacy — there is no worse sin, for the Zohar, than not procreating. But there were — again contrary to what I was told in religious school — many Jewish ascetic movements, as well, including the German Hasidim of the 12th and 13th centuries, who heavily influenced the evolution of Jewish mysticism. These kabbalists might just as well have been responding to internal debates as external ones.

Unfortunately, “Mystical Bodies, Mystical Meals” contains little of this historical context, and mentions currents in non-Jewish thought only in passing. Additionally, the book at times reads like a concordance of culinary references in the Zohar, with attention to detail but not much in the way of the bigger picture. Notwithstanding its subtitle, the book is really only about food; other central issues of embodied mysticism — sexuality, for instance — get only cursory treatment. Presumably this narrowness of ambition was by design, but the general reader’s experience of the book would have been enriched by a bit more creative, theoretical thinking on Hecker’s part, or by an effort to situate attitudes toward food in the Zohar’s larger theological commitments.

Then again, as Moshe Idel and others have noted lately, Kabbalah resists theory: To systematize the Zohar is to misunderstand it. This is all the more true in a subject as fraught with ambivalence as eating. In a way, though, both the talmudic and zoharic anxieties around food are little different from our latter-day concerns over body image and health — which may themselves be, in part at least, merely new rationales for age-old fears of enjoying sensual pleasure too much. In the past, festive meals and mystical significations were accompanied by dietary laws and asceticism. Today, super-size Slurpees and ubiquitous food advertising exist side by side with eating disorders and diet pills. Man may not live by bread alone, but that hasn’t stopped us from talking about it.






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