Friday, February 20, 2015
A Diet for the Soul
I have to admit, I wrote this piece about 10 years ago. It’s actually a bit silly—meant to be humorous—and I’m not sure it really belongs on The Religious Humanist blog, but then again, it is about food rituals. I’ve been thinking for some time about a religious humanist perspective on food rituals, as, for example, the Jewish dietary rules. This is not that. This is just for fun. I hope you enjoy it, but I hope it may also get you to begin thinking about how food works as a ritual—religious or otherwise.
Diets are back—with a vengeance. It used to be simple. We only had to keep track of a few things: calories, fat, cholesterol. Now, we are all veritable chemical laboratories. I have two friends, both of whom have diagnosed themselves with a form of hypoglycemia that is undetectable by medical science. In fact, that’s how they know they have it—because the doctors haven’t detected it.
One friend told me he knows he has this condition because he’s experienced mood swings after eight months of unemployment. So he went on a special diet, got a job and is feeling much better. He can’t eat wheat—something about the carbs in wheat tuning into sugar. He can eat other grains, just not wheat, but he can’t eat corn syrup. We went out to eat at a restaurant once. He could have the tofu dog without the bun, but he couldn’t have the barbecue sauce that it was cooked in because that had corn syrup. Pheeew. What an ordeal. I’m sure the server breathed a sigh of relief when we left.
Another friend is on the Atkins diet because he was having trouble loosing weight. The Atkins diet is my dream diet—all fat. Eggs, cheese, fatty meats. You thought they were out? Nope! Eat all you want. Just don’t eat anything else. When I die and go to heaven, I want to be put on the Atkins diet.
Don’t laugh! Even as venerable a publication as the New York Times Magazine is taking a new look at the Atkins diet. You see, when you eat carbohydrates, your insulin level goes up and your body burns the carbohydrates, not the fat. Deprive your body of carbohydrates and your body will burn fat. After all, our bodies are very finely tuned repositories of salts and sugars, electrolytes, enzymes and amino acids—all of which have to be very carefully calibrated. I feel like maybe I should start carrying around a few test tubes, a petrie dish and a portable Bunsen burner.
But I shouldn’t make fun. I’m also on a very strict diet. My diet’s different than all of these diets. It’s called kashrut, aka keeping kosher. It’s not a diet for the body, but a diet for the neshoma. What’s a neshoma? The Torah tells us that when God created humans, God took a lump of earth (adamah) and fashioned a little earthling (adam), but the earthling was still just a lump until God breathed into it the neshoma of life and it became a living being. My life force is God’s breath, God’s neshoma. The Siddur, the Jewish Prayer Book, tells me that when I pray, that neshoma in me reaches back to God, its source, in the form of prayer. Without that neshoma, I can’t reach God. So I really want to take good care of my neshoma.
Now, this neshoma is very delicate and must be very carefully nurtured and nourished. You can’t just feed it anything, or you might damage it—I guess kinda like what cholesterol does to your arteries, or alcohol does to your liver. Fortunately, God has given me very careful discharge instructions—what I can and can’t eat. I can eat all the wheat I want. In fact, I can eat all the fat I want, but I wouldn’t for health reasons, of course. But—and this is really important—I can only eat the meat of certain animals: the nice peaceful kind of animals that have cleft hooves and sit around all day chewing their cuds. No vicious lions and tigers and bears for me, O My! Maybe it’s because you are what you eat. If I let that viciousness in, it might attack my neshoma and destroy or damage it.
I can eat fish, but only normal fish—you know, the kind that have fins and scales. I can’t eat those weird fish that aren’t really fish at all, like crustaceans that live in water but walk with legs and look more like big bugs than fish. It’s just too weird—kinda like eating a spider or a cockroach.
Also very important: I can’t eat blood. That’s because blood is the essence of life. The Torah tells us that the nefesh (another word for neshoma) of the flesh of the animal is in the blood. When the Temple stood, we would spill the blood against the altar in the Temple. That is, we would return the nefesh, the neshomah, the life force of the animal back to God, the source of the life force. I wouldn’t want the nefesh of the animal getting mixed up with my nefesh. It could cause a serious, even spiritually fatal nefesh imbalance.
One more thing: when I eat, I can’t mix any dairy product with the flesh of birds or mammals. I’m not quite sure why this is. The Torah simply tells us not to cook a kid (a baby goat, not a child—that’s forbidden under any circumstances) in its mother’s milk. From this, our sages have devised the system of keeping milk and meat separate. I even have separate pots and pans, dishes and utensils. What’s most perplexing is why it applies to chicken and turkey. I’m hardly going to boil a baby chick in its mother’s milk. Eating a chicken and an egg is okay, though I still don’t know which came first. So what gives?
The way I see it, milk is a symbol of life. Baby’s feed on it before they eat anything else, and there’s nothing quite so peaceful and reassuring as watching your child feed at her mother’s breast. Animals give us this milk willingly, without a big fuss, with no threat to them or to us—peacefully, symbiotically. Meat, on the other hand, is a symbol of death. In fact, it is death. The Torah tells us that humans were not originally meant to eat meat. In gan eden (the Garden of Eden), we were vegans. It was only after the vicious nature of humans was discovered in the days of Noah that humans were granted permission to eat meat. I don’t want life and death struggling inside me, so I keep these things separate.
So I highly recommend the kosher diet for those seeking to boost their neshomas. Some people think it’s hard, but it’s really not. When you shop, the labeling on the packages is pretty clear, and there are lots of kosher varieties. Kosher restaurants are sure shots, though, frankly, they’re usually not very good. I’ve found some truly fabulous Chinese vegan restaurants—no milk, no meat, like in the Garden of Eden. Otherwise, you might just ask a question or two, far fewer than my hypoglycemic friend. Just make sure the marinara sauce is really marinara. “Hey Joe, is there any meat in the sauce?” “Nope!”
Bete’avon! Or, as we say in French, Bon appetite!!