The first post-Pesach portion describes Israel as a land of milk and honey (Lev. 20:24). Scharfstein points out that this is certainly true of some of the land, but not of the Negev desert. So is the Torah wrong? Not necessarily; presumably, the fertile areas were those that the Jews were likely to settle in after Moses’ death. But it does bring up a broader question about truth: when is a generalization so exaggerated as to be untrue?
This came up last year in the context of President Obama’s infamous assertion that “if you like your health insurance, you can keep it.” This claim was apparently not literally true for every single American; on the other hand, it seems to have been true for the overwhelming majority of Americans (at least in the short run) since most Americans either have private group insurance or government-provided insurance such as Medicare or Medicaid, and thus are immune from the vagaries of the individual insurance market. Only 6 percent of Americans had individual health insurance before the new health care law came into effect- and many of them presumably were able to keep their prior plan.
So were the statements by the President and his minions true? I’m not answering that question, but the “milk and honey” line did give me a somewhat different perspective.
In his commentary to Lev. 16:16 (which discusses Yom Kippur offerings) Scharfstein mentions the custom of kapparot (basically, swinging a chicken over one’s head and then sacrificing the chicken). He writes that “in very Orthodox homes this ritual is performed the morning of the day before Yom Kippur.”
His use of the term “very Orthodox” implies that the Hasidim (who are the Jews most likely to follow this custom) are more Orthodox than other Orthodox Jews- that is, somehow more authentically so. But Nachmanides condemns kapparot as coming too close for comfort to the ways of idol-worshippers, and the Shulchan Aruch opposes it as well. Surely we don’t think that today’s Hasidim are more authentic/Orthodox/whatever than these eminent sages?
Scharfstein’s slip-up illustrates a common but not-always-correct view: that the most countercultural and non-modern-looking Jews are more authentically Jewish than the rest of us (or, from an Orthodox perspective, than modern Orthodox Jews who observe halacha but do not observe every concievable stringency or unusual custom). In fact, our extremists innovate as much as our liberals; for example, Israeli’s haredim often avoid working, while the Talmudic sages like Hillel and Shammai mostly had jobs.
“If the saliva of someone with a discharge is spat on a ritually clean person, that person must wash his clothing and his body, and remain unclean until evening.” (Lev. 15:8).
Scharfstein remarks that the ancient Jews “understood the value of washing as a way of stopping the spread of infection.” Even when baths were hard to come by, religious Jews washed their hands after going to the bathroom, upon getting up in the morning, and before eating bread- not to mention occasional immersions in the mikveh. By contrast, medieval Christians almost never bathed and suffered from the Black Plague as a result. We don’t know for sure whether Jews suffered less from such diseases. However, Christians certainly thought this was the case, and occasionally blamed Jews for the plague as a result.
So is bathing a good thing or a bad thing? Normally, of course, a good thing- it saves lives in all kinds of ways. On the other hand, I don’t know whether, in the 1340s, the Jewish lives saved by bathing outweigh the Jewish lives lost in massacres. I suspect that it did, but I can’t really back that statement up.
Last week’s Torah portion mentioned all kinds of colors in relation to skin diseases and mildew- houses turning red and green, skin turning pink and red and yellow and white and black. So I had a color-coded meal:
red beans with spicy red sauce
tofu with more spicy red sauce
pumpkin with parsley and mustard (needed more- I don’t really like parsley THAT much)
black beans with green curry sauce
a piece of white chocolate
a cheese blintz from Bagel Boss
This week’s Torah portion begins by noting that after childbirth, a woman must wait over a month to bring an offering and become ritually pure (Lev. 12). *
Why so long? Scharfstein says that according to medieval Italian commentator Sforno, this waiting period is “geared to her peace of mind…[only after such a period] the birth mother can now pray with kavanah (intent) and concentrate on the holiness of the sacred offering.” In other words, giving birth is really distracting- especially in those days, when women often died in childbirth and babies often died within the first month or so.
More broadly construed, really stressful experiences can sometimes make prayer hard. After a truly scary experience, one can pray with renewed gratitude or intensity- but (at least for some people) more so after the experience is over than when one is in the thick of the crisis. The Torah is perhaps saying that even if there are no atheists in foxholes, it is still easier to think holy thoughts once you are out of the foxhole.
*Why does birth make her ritually impure in the first place? For one perspective go here.
In this coming week’s Torah portion, Moses tells Aaron that his descendants may not “drink wine or an other alcoholic liquor when you enter the Meeting Tent, or you will die.” (Lev. 10:8). Scharfstein turns this statement into a sermon on the “plague of drunkenness.”
Quite ironically, we read this portion a few days after Purim, when many Jews celebrate by getting, if not drunk, at least more tipsy than usual. Kind of an interesting juxtaposition, don’t you think?
Reading Purim and Lev. 10:8 together, Judaism’s overall message is one of moderation. Drink, and maybe even drink enough to affect your consciousness. But don’t go crazy, and don’t drink in certain situations, like driving or officiating the Temple. This view is a bit different, I note, from that of Islam or that of many Protestant sects that completely oppose alcohol.
This week I went Persian in honor of Purim, with a meal from Kolbeh: lamb kabobs with cherry rice (wouldn’t get the cherry again, too sweet), split peas with rice, israeli salad. In honor of the parsha (which discusses lots of wheat/olive oil blends), I made olive oil pancakes, which tasted very olive-oily. Also in honor of Purim, kreplach and hamantashen from home (PS Lior is the best brand for you New Yorkers- not sure you can get in Manhattan, but definitely in Flatbush and Kew Gardens Hills).
In this week’s Torah portion, God instructs Moses that the Jews shall not eat certain fats (Lev. 7:23). Scharfstein writes that the Torah is teaching the Israelites “a cardiovascular lesson” about the cholesterol-inducing evils of fat. Of course, the Torah still allows plenty of fatty meats, so Scharfstein is stretching the Torah quite a bit. Moreover, it isn’t clear that Scharfstein is right nutritionally; while some nutritional commentators still swear by low-fat diets and even veganism, others favor fat and villify carbohydrates.
Nevertheless, the whole issue makes me think. It seems to me that the wide variety of nutritional stringencies common among the American upper-middle-class are a bit like religion, or perhaps a substitute for same. How so?
*Just as there are a wide variety of religions, there are a wide variety of nutritional “sects”: the bread-phobes, the fat-phobes, the vegetarians and vegans, the organic eaters, and some who even make distinctions among prohibited and permissible fruits and vegetables. Each claims that their way is best (though to a much greater extent than in the religious area, syncretism is common- vegans may also be worried about fat or bread).
*But just as there is some similarity between 90 percent of religions, there is some similarity among 90 percent of nutrition-conscious Americans. Almost every religion (except the extreme fringes of Islam perhaps) says love your neighbor and love God, almost every diet book says love fruits and vegetables (whatever those phrases mean) and hate obesity.
*Religion and nutrition are to a large extent based on faith. What of science, you may ask? Surely, nutritionists have all kinds of studies proving their varying points. But how many people who follow one doctor or another have read the studies he cites to examine whether he has interpreted them correctly? Not many, I suspect. From other disciplines, I know that studies are easy to mis- or overinterpret. Even if a study seems to say that people who do X really do get more of disease Y, maybe the study has not controlled for all the differences between the X-users and the non-X-users (which is why one study alone is less trustworthy than dozens of studies).
Does this mean that nutrition and religion are useless? Not at all. I suspect that on balance, religious people of all types are probably happier than nonreligious ones (though I have not done the research necessary to prove this) and I suspect that nutrition-conscious people of all types are healthier than those who are completely apathetic. (In addition, some people really do know what is good for themselves through trial and error). But we should all be wary about asserting that what is best for us is best for all people./