I Am How I Eat

How often is family dinner a spiritual time? In our household, not nearly as often as I would wish. Especially now, with only one child at home, it is so easy for the conversation to devolve into an inquisition of that object of my wife’s and my parental affection and obsession – how was school, what did you learn, is your homework done, do you see how you’re sitting….blah, blah, blah. Add onto that a type-A personality (me) coming home after a day commuting into the city for work, and you have – to say the least – a recipe for…stress? Irritability? Strain? All of the above.

So I read with great interest an article in last Wednesday’s New York Times titled “Mindful Eating as Food for Thought.” I commend it to you wholeheartedly, which is the right way to approach anything related to mindfulness – b’khol l’vav’kha. I especially commend it because I am starting to think a great deal about mindful eating. I was raised in a Classical Reform Midwest home in which kashrut was, literally, one of the main things that distinguished us from our Conservative and Orthodox extended family members. All that I knew about Jewish eating was that there were Jewish foods (yes, we did have bagels – not very good ones! – and pastrami in Omaha!) and blessings, the motsi and birkat ha-mazon. (I should mention, in full disclosure, that we recited those only when at Temple events.)

In raising our own family, we’ve wrestled over the years with these questions, dealing with issues such as forbidden foods, eco-kashrut and such. And we’ve introduced the blessings into our family meals from the earliest years. But I don’t think we’ve brought mindfulness to our dining practice – not yet.

Yet Judaism has much to say on mindful eating. Consider the recent CCAR publication, The Sacred Table, edited by Rabbi Mary Zamore and a nominee for Best Jewish Book of the Year. For me, the point of mindful eating was taught, if not fully absorbed, in the first days of my engagement as a member of the 4th Rabbinic Cohort of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. There we engaged in an exercise of profound impact – thought it may sound silly to hear of it. We spent half-an-hour eating raisins. No, not just popping them into our mouths, though I would happily do that! No, we experienced them – one raisin at a time; savoring texture, smell, appearance, taste and even the sound of our own chewing and swallowing. A whole world opened up from a single tiny piece of fruit. And in those moments of awareness, I was all about gratitude for the moment and the gifts. And there was a calm that went with that awareness, and an awe I would never have expected to have felt. If I could bring that awareness to the family meal, how might our discourse and experience and companionship be changed, enhanced, blessed.

So, in partnership with my family, I’m hoping we’ll start to do just that and experience the difference it can make. I challenge you to do the same, if you don’t already. Happily, there are great resources available – including a wonderful chapter by Rabbi Bennett Miller in The Sacred Table on the spiritual meaning of our blessings for food. And, with the permission of IJS, I share with you this meditation by Norman Fisher:

As we make ready to eat this food
We remember with gratitude
The people, animals, plants, insects,
Creatures of the sky and sea
Air and water, fire and earth
All turning in the wheel of living and dying
Whose joyful exertion
Not separate from ours
Provides our sustenance this day.
May we with the blessing of this food
Join our hearts
To the one heart of the world
In awareness and love
And may we together with everyone
Realize the path of awakening
And never stop making effort
For the benefit of others.


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Rabbi Rex D. Perlmeter

About Rabbi Rex D. Perlmeter

Rabbi Rex Perlmeter was ordained at HUC-JIR in 1985 and went on to serve as spiritual leader of Temple Israel of Greater Miami and the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. After serving on staff at the Union for Reform Judaism for five years, he has gone on to found the Jewish Wellness Center of North Jersey, a practice dedicated to supporting all engaged in "seeking Oneness in body, heart, mind and soul."

6 Responses to “I Am How I Eat”

  1. avatar

    As a liberal, non-halakhic movement, can we PLEASE start thinking more about eco-friendly, cruelty-free, ethical eating as well as spiritualizing meals through blessings and prayers of thanks, and LESS about Biblical or Rabbinic dietary concerns, which are not constructive? Though I could never be a vegetarian, I would much rather see Reform Jewish institutions pushing vegetarianism than abstinence from pork and shellfish.

    I would love to see Temple events at which sustainable and cruelty-free foods are served, possibly including items or combinations of items which are traditionally considered “treif”, with those assembled proudly and unselfconsciously reciting ha-motzi and birkat hamazon, sanctifying the experience. That would be a beautiful and holy statement that we can apply modern, rational standards of ethical eating to a traditional religious framework.

  2. Larry Kaufman

    I haven’t yet read Rabbi Zamore’s book, and perhaps it would clarify for me the distinction I infer from Rabbi Perlmeter’s post but do not find explicitly stated between mindful eating and Jewish eating.

    All the wogue considerations of eco-sustainability-healthy-humane
    treatment of animals and workers, etc etc are to my mind important components in formulating “the sacred table,” but the sacred table and the Jewish table are not synonymous — even though the high-minded
    Classical Reformers wanted to make them so. (And our latter-day CR proponent want not just to eschew or abrogate the historic laws of Kashrut but to elevate and institutionalize them by publicly flaunting them. Who can forget the scene in Meyer Levin’s The Old Bunch where the
    Passover seder among the young couples rebelling against their parents’ traditionalism features a baked ham?)

    And the Jewish table is not defined as one containing bagels or gefilte fish or tsimmes. But we need a better formulation than the Reform movement has given us for what the Jewish table IS.

    Rabbi Perlmeter’s “confession” that his CR family recited motzi and birkat only at temple events reminds us that one of the functions of the temple is to teach Judaism to the congregants, and that includes role modeling Jewish behaviors and demonstrating Jewish practices that all will not choose to adopt as their personal practice.

    I look forward to reading The Sacred Table . I hope that it does move us toward a Reform dietary halacha. Thanks, Rex, for calling it to our attention.

    • avatar

      Though framed in disagreement with me, your distillation of CR concepts is frankly brilliant. If ethical eating makes for a “sacred” table, then this sacred table can be had even if one is not Jewish, or not anything. What makes a sacred table also Jewish is sanctifying the meal with Jewish prayers of thanks before and/or after the meal. Hamotzi and Birkat Hamazon certainly do the trick. So, the “sacred table” combined with Jewish prayer is the Jewish table, even if the roasted free-range chicken was seasoned with organic herb butter under the skin, or if there is lean, organic, cruelty-free pork tenderloin on the table. The outrageous “cleanliness” distinctions made in the written and oral Torah come from a cultural context. We truly observe the spirit of Judaic Ethical Monotheism when we make ONLY such dietary distinctions as actually reflect ethics and health. We must make a point that ANYTHING that is not unethical is okay, and can even be holy if sanctified Jewishly. Otherwise, we are saying that anything not cruel is permitted for them, but less is permitted for us because we are “holier”. Liberal Jews should know better than to behave that way. “Chosenness”, to the extent that it should be affirmed at all, is about the spiritual responsibility of being an upright ethical example and the custodians of Ethical Monotheism in the world. Eating differently does nothing to further those goals.

  3. Larry Kaufman

    So, Jordan, if the local Presbyterian church begins its supper gathering by reciting a Hebrew motzi, ends it with a Hebrew birkat, serves oysters and baked ham, pauses in mid-meal to support Israel divestment,they have created a Jewish table.

    Judaism is not about words of liturgy, in any language, nor is it only about ethical monotheism. It is tied to the history of the Jewish people, and to the symbols the Jewish people has taken unto itself from time to time and place to place, which includes the sanctification of the table, often by making it disttinctive from the tables of others.

    A table can perhaps include pork tenderloin and be a Jewish table if the pork is there because the cook had a taste for pork that day — but your table where the pork is there to make a statement about the errancy of Jews who won’t eat pork is not a Jewish table.

    I wonder if you would persist in the desirability of flaunting treifkeit if you recognized how badly it reflects on the Classical Reform Judaism you purport to love!

    • avatar

      How disappointing that you think this is about “flaunting treifkeit”. The “treif” isn’t there to abrogate kashrut or combat “the errancy of Jews who won’t eat pork”–it’s there because someone had a taste for it and wants to make a positive statement out of NOT avoiding it, as if to say “yes, we’re Jewish too and this is okay–being Jewish does not demand of us that we be less culinarily excellent”. It is exactly as you said in your penultimate paragraph–it’s a matter of taste, and affirming that we can be Jewish without compromising taste. For those such as myself, who happen not to really even like most “treif” items, the point is moot except on principle.

      I’m stunned that I even have to respond to the Presbyterian analogy–of course they have not created a Jewish table, because they’re not Jewish and have beliefs which are incompatible with Judaism.

  4. avatar

    My earliest memory is riding the Philadelphia subway at age 2 with a small box of raisins my parents gave me to keep me occupied. Eating one raisin at a time, I would finish the box precisely when the subway pulled in to the (former) terminus at Broad & Snyder.

    Before I retired some of my colleagues used to tell me that I spent too much time thinking about where to eat the next meal, and not enough on the work that was supposed to be done first. Maybe. But my desire to savor food and be mindful of it started with those raisins.

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