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Why Food Matters

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We all eat to live, but the vast 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 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. Family gatherings and even national holidays are defined by the meals we eat. In the Jewish tradition, we celebrate the central event in our history with a Seder meal. What would Shabbat and Yomim Tovim be like without regal and festive meals?

There is a saying that if you feed them, they will come. The truth of this is simple, and shared by people the world over – a successful meeting or gathering is guaranteed by providing food. The better the food, the better the meeting. Call people together without food and you needn’t expect them the second time you call.

Food is central to how we live, how we define ourselves and how we associate with our friends and neighbors.

And there is nothing wrong with this. 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 our need for and fascination and obsession with food would prompt us to elevate our relationship with it. Just as the most intimate of human interactions can be reduced to 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.

One would think the centrality of food in our lives would awaken our consciousness to something more than its taste or our physical satisfaction after we eat. Too often, it does not.

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 it demands no comment. But even worse than our inability to control our eating habits is the danger that seems to lurk in food itself. Produce carries salmonella, meat has e-coli, and there’s mad cow disease hiding in the brains of the cattle that become the hamburger meat we consume in such quantities.

Food – necessary, enjoyable, and beloved – can also be dangerous.

Nothing, however, speaks to our complex relationship with food more than the increase in the number of food sensitivities and allergies. Is there a school in America that is not a nut-free zone? How many parents fear the peanut butter and jelly sandwich, once a staple of young people’s lunch boxes?

It seems that everyone is – or knows someone who is – either lactose-intolerant or allergic to nuts, or dairy, or wheat, 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 an article titled “Allergy Consciousness for the Retail Food Industry” that people who suffer from food allergies are generally successful in avoiding the foods that trigger their allergies. In fact, avoidance is the preferred strategy when dealing with food allergies.

Avoidance of problem foods is fine – so long as the food delivery system cooperates. But, as Dr. Powitz makes clear, problems with accurate food labeling and cross-contamination (when a product “free” of the particular allergen is prepared in factories or on machinery used to prepare other foods that may have contained the allergen ) sometimes makes avoidance tricky or even impossible.

How can we ensure that people with allergies know the foods they eat do not contain the allergens they need to avoid? In this context and in addressing the question, Dr. Powitz refers to an interesting model – kashrut. As Dr. Powitz writes, “…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….”

Yes, kashrut could very easily be a model for how to avoid cross-contamination in foods. Kashrut is rigorous. However, if one values kashrut simply as a method of keeping the food supply “clean,” one misses the fundamental beauty of kashrut entirely.

Judaism values the physical and the spiritual. They exist hand in hand. It is good to enjoy things in this world, but not if it is done without recognizing the spiritual in it. 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 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.

About the Author: Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran is an educator, author and lecturer. He can be reached at e1948s@aol.com.

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