The Digestible Torah

We know that Torah is compared to food, but have we ever stopped to consider the simplest of culinary considerations pertaining thereto, namely, what pairs with it? Don’t start naming wines; wine is also Torah, and this isn’t one of those weird gastropubs where everything is made from the same ingredient.

The fact is, Torah is a difficult food to pair since it comes in so many variations. Some teachers serve Torah juicy, some serve it dry. Some Torah is sweet, some bitter. The Torah is prepared on some days to suit the tastes of children and on others the preferences of old men. Which food goes with gematria spice as well as with pshat crackers? What does kitchen science avail us when complex Talmud proteins need to be broken down and letters of the Aleph Bet need to cohere?

Perhaps Torah is like the manna from heaven, acquiring every taste the eater desires. This shall make Torah pairings very simple, to wit: everything pairs with anything! But experimentation in the metaphysical kitchen has shown this approach to be a disaster. Rabbis pair Torah with quantum physics and the meal has a soporific effect, like smarmy sermons drizzled with just a dabbling of unprepared intellectualism. Other Jews serve Torah with politics, and it smells like aggressive narcissism imbued with biting aftertaste of regret. These are not flavors unique to Torah; we can get them for free on Facebook every day.

It’s not that the Torah doesn’t go with these things. The Torah doesn’t seem to make much difference to them. It’s strange; you bite into, say, the Torah’s teachings about animal cruelty, and are greeted with a rush of tastes, a wash of tangy lime rushing through the registers to the keening burn of peppermint, filling every corner of your gut. But take those teachings and grind them over an activist website, and all you taste is activism, worldly, sincere, simple, like a hearty bowl of cornflakes. The Torah is an anti-spice. It only seems to have a taste on its own.

So maybe the Torah shouldn’t be paired with anything else at all? But the Torah itself says the Torah is a condiment! It calls for other foods as peanut butter calls to jelly. The Torah is meant to render the evil inclination edible, somehow, like salting a stone or peppering cyanide.

I think it’s the anti-spice the job calls for. The evil inclination, after all, tastes like the fruit of a certain tree that mixed good and evil; it is a taste of freedom that sours to nihilism on the human tongue. Our goal is to centrifuge the mix, separate good from evil, to see the evil inclination for what it is. We are in need of a spice that turns the mirror on things, makes them taste ever more like themselves…

“But quantum mechanics really is related to Torah. I don’t just want to see my political goals for what they are now. I want to show they’re part of Torah!”

Oh. For that, you’ll need bittul, the same mixing method that helped King David and Hillel House make the thoughts of their earthly brains a part of the eternal word of G-d.  Otherwise, the oil will float, your opinions will sink, and the absolute best-case scenario is we remember you on holidays with a named food like “hamantashen” or “maror”. Study with humility, mix only a sixtieth of what you think into things you learn from sages, and, whatever you do, don’t forget the blessing beforehand.

Abraham, Isaac, and Pizza

This post is dedicated to my friend Mordechai/Max, who would not leave me alone until I wrote about kosher pizza and creativity.

 

Kosher Pizza Sucks

Abraham and Isaac recline at a low table, eating a new food prepared with ingredients and a recipe from the west. Around sit students and guests from far and wide, leaning forward to catch the diamonds that drip from the forefathers’ mouths.

Abraham chews thoughtfully, swallows, and turning to a mustachioed traveler says, “This isn’t very good, is it?” He hands a piece over by its crusted underside and Mario opens his mouth to eat. “Uh-uh,” Abraham says, wagging his finger and withdrawing the food. “The blessing.” Laughs all around at Mario’s astonishment. “Thank G-d for the bread he has brought forth from the earth.”

Mario haltingly gives his thanks to the Lord and chomps into the morsel. His grimace as he chews tells them all they need to know. “They make it better in Italy.”

“Is the recipe you gave me incorrect?” asks Abraham.

“It’s the same recipe as always.”

“Is my Jewish cheese or my Jewish dough inferior?”

“What’s Jewish?”

I’m Jewish. Comes from Jew, which comes from Judah, one of my great-grandsons. It also means the cheese has to be made with special milk supervised by someone from my family, and the wheat and vegetables follow certain harvesting laws.”

“That’s weird. But no, no reason why it should be worse. Your mozzarella is excellent.”

“And yet it is worse.”

“Who cooked it?” asks Isaac.

“I did,” says Ishmael, appearing at the tent entrance. He takes a seat next to his brother, across from his father. “And I think it’s a little odd that you forefathers should complain. What do you care what food tastes like?”

“You assume that the kosher community is not interested in craft and artistry in their diet, because honestly most of us just have like thirty kids and need somewhere that will deliver sustenance into their gaping maws?” asks the Father of Many Nations.

The crowd gasps. Things are heating up.

Mediocrity Isn’t Us

“Even if just the three of us were eating, father,” replies Ishmael civilly, “I don’t see why we need ‘craft and artistry.’ Food is fuel; it exists only to give us the strength to serve G-d.”

“Don’t you want to make great things, instead of mediocre things?” says Abraham, with a smile. “That is what G-d wants of us! To be great! If a Jew makes pizza, it should be the best pizza the world has ever seen. When the pizza is great, when you fill someone’s stomach in the most pleasant way through mastering your ingredients, your recipe, and your method, you make greatness G-dly. Or is it that you make G-dliness great? I always forget.”

Don’t Be “Nothing”

Ishmael turns to face his brother Isaac, who has been eating quietly. “What about you, O paragon of self-negation, offered up as a lamb of G-d, without any identity of your own. Surely you think it madness to want to do great things? Aren’t we meant to be nothing?”

Touche,” thinks the crowd as they hem and haw. They know Abraham and especially Isaac to be quite fond of self-negation. They invented it at the Akeida, after all.

Isaac swallows and says, “Look at us.” He holds his face next to Abraham’s. They are each other’s’ reflection. “We are of a mind, as we are of a face, even though my father is known as G-d’s salesman and I as a bound sacrifice. The entire goal of my self-negation is self-expression. How does nothing benefit anyone? Did the creator create us that we return ourselves to the void? No, we must be great. But to be great, we must be nothing.”

“What,” asks Ishmael, “are you saying, exactly?”

“Look, this strange tomato’d and cheese’d wafer of the sunset lands probably requires genuine artistry and craftsmanship. That means you have to put your back into it, and you have to put your soul into it. You must enslave your intelligence, talents, and heart to something else. Does that sound selfish or self-negating?”

Instead, Let Things Happen

“Aha! But you are still putting your soul into it. That is self-expression, and for self-expression you need an excuse. A reason. Random self-expression is klippah and sitra achara; it conceals G-d. You surely agree.”

“All of that’s true. Almost everything the average person does is klippah and sitra achara. Most of us don’t pray or speak G-dly wisdom all day long, and the motives behind our eating, business dealings, and personal interactions are rarely perfectly selfless. That doesn’t mean we should stop. All of our relationships take place through self-expression, especially the selfless ones. Our goal isn’t to be nothing, a vacuum. Our goal is to be open to higher things, even in areas of klippah and sitra achara. That’s what it means to be joyous, you dig? Don’t get stuck in your own conception of reality. Be nothing but the mission. In this case, don’t invest yourself in making food to earn money or impress others.”

“That’s enslaving the food to your motivations, instead of the other way around.”

“Correct! It is fake and inauthentic because it’s merely an expression of your invested effort. And that’s rarely worth much. No matter how tasty it is, the food will remain only an effort. But if you make the food into a truly noble goal, it will be excellent, because you will not be making it happen. You will be letting it happen. Counter-intuitively, you’ll both enjoy making that dish more, and G-d will enjoy it more, because you are no longer living within your own boundaries but have opened up to the beyond.”

The Slave Of A King Is A King

Ishmael digests this for a moment, then says, “We are animals. Our self-expression is an animal’s. Isn’t G-d here to help us control and limit ourselves?”

“On the contrary. We are great. Just not as an end unto ourselves. When we harness ourselves to greater ends, we become great. The slave of a king is a king. Like Alfred Pennyworth.”

“Who’s Alfred Pennyworth?”

“Is your prophesy on the fritz again? Nevermind.”

Not Anything Can Be Self-Expression

“I don’t get it. I want to eat meat with this eight-sliced cheesy pastry, yet G-d says that’s not allowed. Sounds like the rules are getting in the way of my self-expression.”

“Does having two hands get in the way of your self-expression?”

For a moment there is silence. Mario scratches his head. Ishmael decides to move on.

Why Now?

“If creativity is so special,” says Ishmael, “why does it only sometimes seem to be a thing? For most of your people’s history, they will not need great pizza chefs in their service of G-d. They will have great Rabbis and communal leaders, warriors and saints. To come at some point in history and say self-expression is G-dly seems to be too convenient. Are you not using religion to justify something you want to do anyway, for other reasons? Is there any internally consistent reason there should be such a creative/culinary explosion at certain points in history?”

“Why, Ishmael,” says wise old Abraham, taking over from his son,“they are reading this story in what one might call the postmodern, premessianic age.”

“They?”

“You can’t see them?” asks Abraham. “Look at them there, staring at a piece of glowing plastic as these very words shoot through their optic nerves. They probably think I never even heard of an optic nerve.”

“Won’t they be uncomfortable if you talk about them?”

“Not particularly. It’s common to break the fourth wall in postmodern writing. It’s all about self-awareness and the alertness to subjectivity. It’s all just perspectives, different ways of looking at things. We are inside the story, but we also have an existence outside of it, to the reader. And that’s kind of the situation all of history builds toward, the time when we humans break the fourth wall and realize that our small universe is a substory of a greater divine whole.”

“But people have always known that! In fact, you were the first one to say it, father!”

“Too true, my son. But I and those like me, the Moses of every generation, are like the author’s representative in the story. We come from beyond the fourth wall. Sure, with our help everyone can break out of the story a bit. But that’s cheating. Why can’t the characters in the story go from a ‘no author’ perspective to an author perspective on their own?”

“But it’s very hard to see that the story has an author without someone constantly reminding you.”

“It’s not that hard, my dear Ishmael. After all, it is a story, and every story requires an author. This is why some thinkers in history will find the idea of a story to itself be appalling and will work to destroy it. But we’re getting too far afield.”

“Yes. What does all of this have to do with creativity?”

“Don’t you see? If that premessianic postmodern time is the one when they will break down the wall from the inside, then it will also be the time when the call of the hour is to serve G-d using the tools that are available, instead of stuff shoehorned into reality from beyond the veil like learning Torah or performing holy commandments and the like. In the past, the world wasn’t ready to try making its own garbage a vehicle for G-dliness. But one day, it will be.”

“I’m not sure I fully understand.”

“Yes, well, like I said, the world’s not ready. I think what’s best for now is to implore you to make better pizza next time, please. For goodness sake. That sauce could be Egyptian mortar. And never put corn on it again. What are we, Israeli?”

“Sorry, father.”

With a twinkle in his eye, Abraham turns to his manservant and student.

“Eliezer, the benchers, if you please.”

 

Originally posted on Hevria.