I’m very pleased that the current season of MasterChef is finally over. My family is whole again; the kids are able to go to bed at their regular time; we are able to plan events during that timeslot without protest. I never took a liking to the show; I was put off by the huge amount of production that creates the drama and suspense around what would otherwise be an ordinary cooking competition. The whole thing seemed so overdone (no pun intended) and fake. Indeed, I was quite shocked at the degree some people had emotionally attached themselves to the show and some of the contestants.
The question it raised for me is this: what does MasterChef have to do with being Jewish?
Our religion has an intimate relationship with food and eating. In times of the Temple, sacrifices were brought and eaten in Jerusalem, most notably the Pesach lamb spit roast, enjoyed with matza. Every Jewish holiday has traditional dishes that we all love (or hate); and traditional Shabbat meals are a foundation of the family unit.
Various classical sources explain that there is a hierarchy of four ‘types’ of creation, listed in increasing consciousness, and increasing ability to connect with God:
- Domem (lit. silent) – inanimate objects like the earth, minerals
- Tzome’ach – plants (lit. that which grows)
- Chai – the animal world
- Medamer – humankind (lit. that which speaks)
What happens when a cow eats grass? The cow digests the grass, and through this process, grows bigger. In terms of these levels of creation, what has actually occurred is that one level (tzome’ach - plant) has been transformed into a higher one (chai – animal). A similarly thing happens when humans eat from the plant or animal world, the tzome’ach or chai is transformed into medaber.
Thus the process of eating is one of elevating matter from one level to another. However, it’s important to recognize this hierarchy, our place in it, and therefore, our relationship with food.
As is often the case, this is nicely illustrated with a Chassidic story: someone once asked their Rebbe, “what is the difference between a Jew and a non-Jew?”
The Rebbe called over Bentzion, a ‘simple’ Jew who worked around the household and quizzed him: “Did you eat well today?” to which he replied “Yes”. “Why do you eat?” asked the Rebbe. “In order to live”, he responded. “And why do you live?” Bentzion replied: “In order to be a good Jew and do as God wants”.
Then the Rebbe called over one of the local peasants for a similar exchange.
Rebbe: “Did you eat well today?”
Rebbe: “Why do you eat?”
Ivan: “In order to live”
Rebbe: “And why do you live?”
Ivan: “To enjoy a good vodka!”
While eating is such an integral part of being Jewish, eating for its own sake is shunned. I’m not suggesting that we live an ascetic lifestyle; on the contrary, the world is meant to be lived in and enjoyed. The great Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, who compiled the Mishna, asserted that he enjoyed every pleasure on offer in this world (exactly how that should be interpreted is an entirely different discussion). Rather, it’s a matter of keeping material enjoyment in context, and remembering that eating is a means, not an end.
So who’s the real Master … You? Or your food?