The Holy Cow Diet
Essays 2018 / Finalists
MyLife Essay Contest 2018
This essay sets out to formulate a holistic approach to eating, by understanding the spiritual centrality of food in Jewish thought, ritual, and culture.
The 800 Pound Diet in the Room
A bizarre phenomenon is unfolding in societies today: a cultural obsession with weight-loss, and a concurring growing obesity epidemic. Can’t we make up our minds?
There are probably thousands of different diets to choose from, that guide us how to lose weight, gain weight, live longer; low carb, no carbs, vegan diets, high protein diets, point systems, etc.
Well here’s what a diet does for us: it educates us about a particular food’s biochemistry, as well as how our bodies respond biochemically to its intake. If the dietary information is compelling enough, we will likely shift our eating habits. We may even adopt a fresh, new way of thinking about eating: the types of foods we eat, intervals between eating, and portion control.
While these are clearly positive behavioral and psychological shifts, no essential change has occurred. For example: I may be able to refrain in practice from eating that donut on the kitchen counter; but I still have a natural urge to eat it everytime I see it. I may understand the exact process of how the donut will increase my cholesterol, but I also know with absolute clarity that donuts magically make me feel better. Would it be so terrible if I indulge?
And that’s where the “fun” starts.
Say I’m on a low carb diet, and I stick to the rules. I also happen to enjoy certain low carb foods, such as an omelet. When I’m done eating my low-carb breakfast omelet, and I’m walking the now-empty plate for a rinse at the sink, chances are I’m still going to experience an uncomfortable inner struggle, to the tune of “Gosh that was good—if only I could have more of that pure magic!” Because my relationship to omelets is driven by a love for omelets, any reduction of omelette consumption is an imposition.
The same is true for someone who has an obsessive desire, cultural or medical, to lose weight by refusing to eat. A persuasive diet may push me to eat a healthy snack in practice; but I still have that instinctive urge to not eat it. I may understand the exact process of how not eating is detrimental to my health, but I also know with absolute clarity that skipping a meal, or vomiting, magically makes me feel good. So why indulge? If my very relationship with food is ‘sour’, I’m going to experience discomfort even if I successfully force myself to eat.
Every diet serves a helpful purpose. Millions achieve their goals of weight loss, weight gain, or weight stability. But one thing a diet does not provide is a holistic relationship with the food sitting before you. “Do I like you or hate you? I am your master; yet I am your slave.”
Diets may facilitate the ‘body’ of healthy eating; an integrated perspective provides its ‘soul’.
Just how important, incidentally, does the world need a fresh approach to eating? According to a 2014 study, another person dies as a direct result from an eating disorder every 62 minutes.(1)
Coming to Terms with Our Human Frailty
Our relationship with food is complex: a physiological necessity, on the one hand. An emotional crutch, on the other.
You can’t live without breathing; but you probably don’t indulgently over-breathe.
Yet food is different. We say to ourselves: “I’d love to just live my life without the hassle of having to constantly feed you!”
And then—as if on cue—we spot the chocolate covered halva.
What is it about eating that exposes the frailty and vulnerability—both physiological and emotional—of the human spirit?
Why is the need for a bowl of cereal and milk to function in the morning, a prerequisite for being a human being—the crown jewel of existence, the apex of sophistication and enlightenment, endowed with and animated by a potent and lofty G-dly soul? Surely an omnipotent G-d could have designed the human body with the capacity to sustain itself some other way. Helium would be kind of cool.
What is it, oh G-d, about the mineral, botanical and animal kingdoms—lower on the ecological food chain spectrum—that nourishes and sustains the savvy human?(2)
Bread & Breakfast
Back in the desert three millennia ago, our ancestors survived the barren wilderness by being enrolled in a heavenly welfare program called ‘Manna’. Basically, you received a daily predawn “food” delivery (who could have anticipated Blue Apron?) in the form a white, crystal-like substance.
“And He afflicted you and let you go hungry, and then fed you with Manna… so that He would make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but rather by, whatever comes forth from the mouth of the L-rd does man live.”
Got that? The Manna functioned as a reminder for the Jewish people that absent bread, they could not survive the wilderness; it’s the Manna, issued forth by the word of G-d, that is sustaining them. Pretty straightforward.
But things start getting mystical with this novel reading by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi(3): “It is not only the material bread itself that nourishes the human, but rather, the life-giving word of G-d embedded in the bread that nourishes the human soul.”
One more time: It’s not the bread that fuels you; it’s the “word of G-d embedded in the bread” that does the trick. What does this even mean?
In the human-food relationship, we interface only with the food’s ‘front end’, the visual elements of the slice of pizza we’re eating. We observe the rich sauce, creamy cheese and just-right crust. Similar to the user experience when visiting a website—we interface with the design, layout structure, and flashing banners. Our eyes are not privy to the meticulous coding which is animating the frontend at every moment. Mess up the code and you’ll get an annoying error message on your screen.
Food—and every particle, atom, and cell, for that matter (pun intended)—pulsates every moment with a flow of spiritual code, “the word of G-d,” constantly projecting it into being. Were G-d to withhold that energy, even for a moment, from creation, the universe and all contained therein would revert back to the nothingness it was before creation. Nature—the hardware—is up and running only because the software—G-d’s desire for it to be—keeps on refreshing.(4)
Let There Be…. Philosophy
Let’s get philosophical for a minute. The intensity of the original spiritual code that inhabited this space was overwhelmingly powerful; the spiritual voltage essentially eviscerated the hard drives. No being could sustain being self-aware. G-d therefore diminished the intensity of the light, thereby allowing for the creation of a space, a theater, in which the self-oriented, non G-d-conscious human could live and choose to be in a relationship with G-d.
Let’s call these two phases of creation Vitamin A and Vitamin B.
The original, and current, spiritual source code of the intensely self-oriented universe and intensely self-conscious self, is the more intense Vitamin A. It’s obviously condensed; extremely diminished and distilled. For it to enter and animate this world without sending it back to the spiritual Stone Age (utter nothingness), it’s intensity is restricted from us. But it hums in the background, every moment, powering every seemingly orderless and independent electron, galaxy, and organism in the universe.
G-dly souls, spiritual IT workers, the one who are here to restore the Oneness, to reveal the organic connectivity of this multi-faced universe, emanate from Vitamin B. We need to be calm, cool and collective.
And now let’s get back to the food.
You know those hunger pangs you get—that all-consuming desire to eat? That annoying, bottomless voice that craves food intake? Well, what if I told you that that urge is none other than your soul, calling upon you to pump it with its Vitamin A divine fix? “Give me my spiritual nutrients! Feed me my daily dose of intense spiritual energy! Infuse and power me with divine nourishment!”(5)
When I feel hungry, a spiritual phenomenon is what’s really taking place: My soul’s spiritual sensors have been activated, alerting me that its become aware of nearby, soul-compatible, high-velocity sparks necessary to fulfill my divine mission (à la Super Mario’s coin collection obsession). It craves the nourishment of the divine sparks implanted within bagels and lox. And that soul-appetite effectuates(6) the physiological sensation caused by a lack of food.
To be more precise, three things are happening simultaneously with every bite(7):
● The body is enjoying the biochemical nutrients and tasty flavors;
● The soul is enjoying the spiritual nutrient intake and uber divine connection;
● The body and the soul are enjoying the beautiful and purposeful fusion of matter and spirit that we call life.
Why would a deeply spiritual being like the soul, crave to interact with something so inherently unspiritual, like meatballs? Because(8) the soul’s deepest desire is that G-d’s deepest desire—that physical matter which seems intuitively un-G-dly, become transparent to its inherent G-d-consciousness—be fulfilled.
Suddenly, eating is not just another job, or burden; it’s a spiritual calling. A Holy Cow moment.
The Manna Meditation
“So eating is a spiritual exercise, but I’m human and pretty excited to sink my teeth into that hot pastrami sandwich.”
Hold it! Marinate your mind in this bitesize meditation anytime this happens.
Remember the Manna? Here’s something interesting. Even after eating and digesting the Manna, you were left hungry, unsatisfied. Why? Human nature(9). The Manna’s supply lasted only one day, and when your pantry is always on empty, such is your satiation level.
That which is predictable and foreseeable, elicits a sense of satisfaction and contentment; what is unpredictable and unforeseeable, anxiety and discomfort.
Whenever I’m hungry, I know that if I go to the store and pick up some bread, I’ll feel full again. On the 28th of the month, when my bank account is nearing $0.00, I can anticipate the direct deposit is coming in soon. When I go to sleep in a lousy mood, I know I’ll wake up tomorrow, breathing, still inhabiting a predictably magnificent universe, governed by the enduring laws of Nature. I can be calm.
That’s what we’ll call the Bread Paradigm. Where does my food come from? Simple! The grocer, via the distributor, via the manufacturer, via the farmer. G-d is uninvolved in this ‘predictable’ process. It’s farm-to-table, no-frills. I eat until I feel satisfied, and then I move on. Where does my paycheck come from? My hard work and my boss’s signature. My health? My exercise and healthy dieting.
But then there’s the Manna Paradigm(10): Where does my food come from? I actually have no idea. But it’s an undeniable, observable reality: here I am, munching on something that just this morning fell from Heaven’s Depot. I’m eating tangible, physical food, but I can’t intellectually ‘digest’ and assimilate the spiritual ‘Infinite-to-farm-to-table’ process. My mind is not equipped to absorb and comprehend how spiritual, Infinite energy is currently suspending its transcendent nature, and landed on my plate in the form of baked ziti. There’s a spiritual pipeline of powerful divine energy flowing to my plate right now, nourishing my soul. It’s unbelievable! Likewise, how did a divine blessing that originated in the cosmos, just drive another customer to enter my store, or cause the direct-deposit notification to appear my inbox? I’m experiencing something miraculous! The sun came up again? G-d’s doing it again!
Every time we eat (it’s not an all or nothing proposition), we are faced with a moral and spiritual conundrum:
What do I want my relationship with this piece of sushi to look like?
When our relationship to the food before us emanates out of a Bread Paradigm, my objective is self-oriented: survival, self-preservation, self-enhancement, and even self-gratification. It’s just me here getting my nutrients in, and enjoying my emotional fix (or lack thereof).
When our relationship with the food before us is driven by a Manna Paradigm, a Manna mindset and worldview, what’s transpiring is a historic, spiritual and religious experience: a lofty soul is getting spiritually charged with an even loftier dose of divine energy!
Notice how I’m not emotionally invested in this picture? It’s just my soul doing its job of extracting the sparks embedded in this tuna sandwich, so that my soul has the spiritual energy it needs to power my body to do G-d’s good work in the world.
So here’s the irony: If I crave to fill myself with the food on my plate, I’m left feeling unfulfilled.
If I eat food with an insatiable craving to connect with the divinity on my plate, I’m satiated.
There’s a famous expression in the dieting world: Eat to fuel your body, not to feed your emotions. The Holy Cow Diet version would read: Eat to fuel your soul, not to feed your emotions.
Keeping it Real—and Simple
“But how will I eat mindfully and hear that Manna Meditation play in my mind over my far louder growling stomach? What about after I’ve eaten, when I no longer need G-d to put that schnitzel on my plate?”
Excellent point, I’m glad you asked. Fortunate for us, the sages instituted and ritualized a concrete way for this to happen—by reciting a formal blessing before and after we eat and drink. “Baruch atah Hashem,” “Blessed are you, L-rd our G-d etc.” is not just about being grateful and offering our thanksgiving; it constitutes the very formula by which the spiritual energy hidden in our food is released(11).
The word “Baruch” of course means ‘blessed’, but can also mean “to bring down.” Each time you eat or drink something (kosher and soul-compatible) with the express mental and verbal intent to fuel your soul, redeem the hidden sparks, and sublimate the physical—you have experienced a Holy Cow moment. The shallow and coarse veneer of nature has cracked; its inherent G-dly undercurrent is exposed. My plate oozes with Oneness.
For this reason, words of Torah and inspiration shared at an otherwise ordinary and mundane meal elevates the physical, and summons the divine presence.(12)
The Mooosaf Prayer
A soul achieves a greater degree of connection and closeness to G-d when its body’s bloodstream pulsates with the biochemical energy converted from the steak purposefully eaten with a higher consciousness—.
And when that new dose of energy generated by the steak is then channeled and utilized to recite the Shema prayer with even more fervor… “And you shall love the L-rd your G-d with all your heart, with all your might, and with all your soul…”, the physiological dimension of that cow, and the veins thru which it traveled as it spread its energy, are subsumed and sublimated back into the Oneness from which it came. The cow has professed its love for G-d.(13)
Centrality to Judaism
So why do the Jewish people, their religion and their culture, seem to have a millennia old relationship with food? Why are so many of the Mitzvot bound up with time, land, agriculture, food, civil societies? Why is every holiday, and certainly Shabbat, celebrated and colored with its unique food? Isn’t it counterintuitive that a religion be so obsessed with food and the material.
Indeed! The very purpose for which G-d created, and continuously sustains, this imperfect, seemingly independent, self-oriented world, is so that we human beings— imperfect and self oriented, half hungry and half full—every time we take a bite, can partner with Him and bring the world one step closer to its inherent Oneness, when the seemingly un-G-dly will experience its Holy Cow moment.
● When I feel hungry, a spiritual phenomenon is what’s really taking place: My soul’s craving the high-powered nourishment of the divine sparks implanted within bagels and lox.
● Eating is not just another job, or burden; it’s a spiritual calling
● There’s a spiritual pipeline of powerful divine energy flowing to my plate right now, nourishing my soul.
● When I eat food with an insatiable craving to connect with the divinity on my plate, removing my ego from the equation, I’m satiated.
● Each time you eat or drink something (kosher and soul-compatible) with the express mental and verbal intent to fuel your soul, redeem the hidden sparks, and sublimate the physical—you have experienced a Holy Cow moment.
● When that new dose of energy generated by the steak is subsequently channeled and utilized to recite the Shema, the cow, too, has professed its love for G-d.
I offer a special thank you to Rabbi Michoel Seligson for helping me with maare mekomos.
1. Eating Disorders Coalition (2014) http://eatingdisorderscoalition.org.s208556.gridserver.com/couch/uploads/file/fact-sheet_2016.pdf
2. Likkutei Torah Parshas Tzav, pg. 13:B
3. Likkutei Torah Parshas Ekev, pg. 14:B
4. Shaar HaYichud Vehaemunah chapters 1-2.
5. Kesser Shem Tov, Volume I, Siman 194
6. Likkutei Sichos Chele Alef, Purim Katan, pg. 177
7. Shabbos Shelach, 5742 (Hisvaaduyos 5742 Vol. III, pg. 1697)
8. Shabbos Lech Lecha 5741, Likkutei Sichos Chelek Chof, pg. 52 fn. 46
9. Yuma 74b, based on the verse (Deuteronomy 8:3) “And He afflicted you and let you go hungry, and then fed you with manna.”
10. Sefer HaMaamarim Melukat Daled, pg. 359 (Shabbos Ekev, 5723)
11. Likkutei Torah Parshas Ekev, pg. 17:A
12. See fn. 7
13. Likkutei Torah Parsha Tzav, pg. 13:C