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VCU Menorah Review Winter/Spring 2008
Number 68
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

The Spiritual Path of Kabbalah

“Mystical Bodies, Mystical Meals: Eating and Embodiment in Medieval Kabbalah” by Joel Hecker.
Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

A review essay by Kristin M. Swenson

How does Madonna do it?! I admit a certain wonder bordering on real admiration for people who have adopted Kabbalah as their definitive spiritual path… and are still able to maintain a superstar lifestyle. This stuff is terribly complicated. It’s much easier to imagine Medieval Jews hunkered down over desks covered with reference documents and engaged for countless hours in study and debate, rising every now and then only to shake the dust out of their hair. As for the appeal of religious traditions that allow for a person’s full humanity – physical as well as spiritual – this I can understand, having explored dimensions of pain in biblical poetry. And lately, I’ve been thinking about food and religion – how food and the mundane physical business of eating can have spiritual implications and so bear on the whole person.

So Joel Hecker’s “Mystical Bodies, Mystical Meals,” subtitled “Eating and Embodiment in Medieval Kabbalah” promised to feed my curiosity. After all, it chronicles Hecker’s “[search] to uncover mystical experiences of the fictional rabbinic illuminates who populate the narratives and homilies of medieval kabbalah with an aim, ultimately, of finding the place of eating as an aspect of embodiment within the kabbalistic ethos.” Body and mind, the spiritual in the physical, food and religion, embodiment and mysticism—so far so good. Indeed, Hecker (associate professor of Jewish mysticism at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College) confesses in the introduction that he believes a person’s stomach can house the spiritual as well as the matzo brei. Nevertheless, by the end of the book, Hecker does not definitively demonstrate a balance of body and soul in the kabbalah. Instead, despite the priority that eating has in the texts that he explored, Hecker finally concludes that real physical matters play second fiddle to the spiritual for these Jewish mystics. But no matter, getting to that conclusion through Hecker’s exploration is fascinating, and it illuminates a constant ambivalence that at least allows both food and the body a place at the kabbalists’s spiritual table.

Hecker suggests that it’s how the kabbalists think, that it’s the mystical imagination, which bridges the gap between food and spirit. He writes of the kabbalists’ “eating with sacramental intent,” of participating through flights of mystical imagination in the manna and quail picnics of the ancient Israelites and dining with Temple priests on the showbread of long ago while eating in the present. In the process of eating like this with such intention, the food consumed feeds the kabbalists’ spirits, too. But much of their discussion of food serves a metaphorical or symbolic function to describe the give-and-take between God and people that may well have nothing to do with actual meat and bread.

The book begins with a survey of the relationship between food and religion in the Hebrew bible and in Judaism before the development of the kabbalah. Although preliminary, I found this chapter especially interesting and helpful. Hecker divides the biblical references into the following categories and sections: Miraculous Foods, Covenantal Meals, Metaphorical Meals, Human Consumption of Sacrificial Offerings, Food for God, Dietary Laws, Ritual Slaughter and Blood Prohibition, “You Shall Not Seethe a Kid in Its Mother’s Milk,” and Celebrating Passover. After a brief discussion of how the Pharisees understood and controlled food choices of the Second Temple period, Hecker turns his attention to a more extended explanation of the “rabbinic development of eating practices.” This latter includes the idea that a person could be nourished by the Shekinah just as definitely as by the food-stuff in one’s pantry. Of course it’s to the rabbis that we owe the tomes of dietary legislation called kashrut. And Hecker notes how these laws served to distinguish not just what one should and shouldn’t eat but also who is Jew and who is not. The kabbalists were aware of and made use of all of these ideas, and Hecker writes, “Out of the profusion of materials, they carved a coherent, if not homogeneous, set of approaches for thinking about food and ingesting and incorporating the divine blessing they sought” (56).

In the second chapter, titled “‘A Blessing in the Belly’: Mystical Satiation,” Hecker notes how the feeling of satisfaction that comes from eating enough was considered by the kabbalists to be a prerequisite for blessing. Consequently, even if one hasn’t exactly filled up on the material goods of food and drink, it is important to engage the mind in such a way as to trick the body into feeling full. Hecker also addresses in this chapter the matter of fasting and sacrifice as paradox – losing in order to gain, giving up in order to get. He also touches on the relationship of the pleasures of eating to the pleasures of sex, a topic Hecker picks up again toward the end of the succeeding chapter concerning “The Role of Idealized Foods.”

Relationship – the connections between an individual’s body and soul, between two people, and between people in a social context – lies at the heart of kabbalistic theology and is inseparable from the relationship of a mystic to the Shekinah. Desire, hunger, satiety, and pleasure are as much a part of the mystic’s experience as they are of the basic human necessity of eating. Even, Hecker observes, the simple act of sitting down to a meal has a cognate in the activity that prepares the contemplative for a visionary experience.

The kabbalists believe that a person can influence God, and Hecker notes that according to the kabbalah such “theurgy” tops the list of why the commandments exist. In “‘Blessing Does Not Rest on an Empty Place’: Talismanic Theurgy,” Hecker asks how the kabbalists worked to get God to give them food – food, that is, in its most spiritual sense as well as its material sense. The blessings of God flow out from the Divine in a great river of excess and run all the way down to the person at table, when things go as planned.

But the divine blessings that the kabbalist seeks are not only a function of the individual’s communion with God but also a product of the individual’s charitable relationship to others. Hecker observes a tradition within the Zohar of associating the act of caring for poor people, especially of feeding the needy with this flow of blessings. “Furthermore,” he notes, “the commandment is perceived by the Zohar as an expression of the interconnectivity of one’s physical environment, one’s own body, the bodies of one’s guests, and the body of the Divinity” (178).

All this talk of body would seem to suggest that for the kabbalist, the material expression of humanity – our bodies and our need for food – would be primary, the basic means of attaining a mystical union with God. But finally, according to Hecker, it seems not. For all the food-based symbolism, metaphors of eating, sexuality and the senses, eating to the kabbalists is finally more a way of thinking about spiritual matters than a practical bodily necessity with implications for the spiritual life. As Hecker puts it, “Eating for the Zohar is highly stylized, without explicit interest in food per se, but it is interested in how the activity is framed” (179). Finally, for the kabbalists, the spiritual is firmly fixed as of greatest priority – the rich metaphorical world of foodstuffs and bodily pleasures are valuable not so much for what they say about food and body but more for how they serve to imagine the dynamic relationship that is the self-and/in/of-God.

Kristin M. Swenson is a professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and a contributing editor.

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