If not defined by it, our lives are enhanced by it, enriched by it and sometimes troubled by it. Our days are marked less by hours than by meals. From the beginning of creation, food has been a lure and a curse.
Cookbooks and diet books dominate bookstore shelves. Food reviews capture our attention. There are celebrity chefs. Cooking shows are discussed at work with the same passion and ardor as major sporting events. Youth group events are even patterned after some of them! Television commercials entice us with scrumptious meals at one restaurant after another even as other commercials tout the inevitable cures for our various gastric distresses.
It is true, we all eat to live but the majority of us truly live to eat. We think about what we will have for lunch while we are still eating breakfast. We conjure up scrumptious dinners before we’ve digested lunch. While we are enjoying our delicious dinners, our most compelling conversations are about other wonderful meals we’ve enjoyed or what we will be eating the following evening. We imagine scrumptious and outlandish desserts. We think of food between meals.
We even get up in the middle of the night to have a little “snack.”
Our individual and communal lives are centered around “breaking bread.” It is not just that we “are what we eat” – we are the people we are because of what we eat; Manna in the Desert; matzah at the Seder; Challah at Shabbat; Latkes at Chanukah and Dairy at Shavuot.
If you hear someone say, “I’ll have a sch’meer of…” and you know you’re in a real Jewish deli or home! Borscht! Kreplach! My mouth waters just typing their names!
This is true for Jews and it is true for all people. What would Thanksgiving be without turkey?
Food is central to how we live and how we associate with our friends and neighbors.
And there is nothing wrong with this – nothing at all. In fact, the only flaw in this from Judaism’s perspective is that we don’t go far enough in our “love” of food. One would think that our need for, and our fascination and obsession with, food would prompt us to elevate our relationship with it. Yet it remains for too many of us, a mere physical act. Love of food for food’s sake reduces eating to nothing more than an activity that is shared with every other creature on earth.
As a result, food has become as much our “enemy” as our friend. That there is an obesity epidemic in our culture is so sadly obvious that it demands no comment. Worse than our own ability to control our eating habits, danger seems to lurk in food itself. Produce carries salmonella; Meat, e-coli and mad cow disease hiding in the brains of the cattle, cattle that becomes the hamburger meat we consume in such quantities.
Food – necessary, enjoyable, and beloved – can also be dangerous and this danger often rests with how our food is harvested and prepared. The desire to make money and the need to feed our voracious appetites has prompted food producers to sometimes cut corners. As a result, we not only see a growing incidence of food-borne pathogens but we also note a rise on incidences of food sensitivities and allergies.
Is there a place anywhere in America where the thought of a simple peanut butter and jelly sandwich does not strike fear into the hearts of parents? Is there a family that does not cater to some member’s special dietary needs?
It seems that everyone is either – or knows someone who is – lactose-intolerant, allergic to nuts, or dairy, or sesame or gluten, or… the list goes on and on. The reason for the spike in food allergies is not clear but it has created a real challenge to the food preparation industry – the industry that delivers food to the vast majority of consumers. Robert Powitz, Ph.D, MPH points out in his article, “Allergy Consciousness for the Retail Food Industry,” that unlike food-borne infections that strike without warning, people who suffer from food allergies are generally successful in avoiding the foods that trigger their allergies. In fact, that is the preferred strategy when dealing with food allergies – avoidance.
Avoidance of problem foods is a sound strategy – so long as the food delivery system cooperates! However, too often it doesn’t. A recent court case in England found a purveyor of Indian food to be guilty in a man’s death because of its cavalier attitude toward the man’s nut allergy.
It is not only a cavalier attitude that poses a danger. As Dr. Powitz makes clear, problems with accurate food labeling and cross-contamination – when a product that is “free” of the particular allergen is prepared in factories or on machinery that had been used to prepare other foods which may have contained the allergen – sometimes makes avoidance tricky, or impossible.
How can we ensure that people with allergies will know the foods they eat do not contain the allergens they need to avoid? In this context and in addressing this question, Dr. Powitz refers to an interesting model – kashrut. As Dr. Powitz notes, “…the model for ‘allergy consciousness’ enforcement has been around for at least six thousand years. It is commonly known as Kashrut: Jewish Dietary Laws. Contrary to popular misconception, rabbis or other religious officials do not bless food to make it kosher. Rather, they examine the foods and how they are processed to assure kosher consumers that the food… complies with dietary laws…”
Kashrut is rigorous; it is a system of divine laws and regulations that demand strict adherence to cleanliness, verification of ingredients and formulas, equipment maintenance, production records and on-site visits and supervision. Without question, it could serve as a model for addressing the shortcomings in food preparation and labeling. However, if one views kashrut simply as a method to keep the food supply “clean” one misses the fundamental beauty of kashrut entirely.
Judaism values the physical and the spiritual. For one to exist without the other is to lose a fundamental aspect of existence. If eating is merely a physical act, if it is devoid of the spiritual awareness of God’s role in providing the food, then regardless of the quality of the food, or the elaborateness of the table, it diminishes us as people and as God’s creatures.
Eating, like everything else that we do, demands our attention, our care and our self-respect. As it turns out, we really are what we eat. The laws of kashrut make clear that God is central to even our most physical acts – elevating them to the spiritual.
Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran has been serving as Editor in Chief of Behind the Union Symbol since its inception in 1997.