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The Brisket King

If I had a brisket for every time I have heard “I’m interested in spirituality, not religion”, I’d be … um, The Brisket King, I guess.

I never ate brisket growing up. I ate coq au vin, or greasy tinned British steak-and-kidney pie, raclette aux pommes de terre nouvelles, or roast beef; and for a time when I was young, toward the end of each pay period, ketchup sandwiches. Sometimes we went to a ‘kosher-style’ restaurant to eat ‘kosher-style’ chopped liver and smoked meat. This was partly nostalgia, partly well-meaning ethnic tourism. My mother, born in Belgium, escaped with her family to London in 1940, where she was raised in an assimilated (though nominally Orthodox) family. Brisket and all the other trappings of eastern-European-dominated North American Jewry were presented to us, and consequently seemed, along with Yiddish words, Yiddish accents, east-coast Jewish-American accents, kvelling, big bar mitzvah celebrations, and certain kinds of interior décor and display, as vulgar, sectarian, ‘not-us’. ‘Us’ was upper-middle-class, assimilated-but-separate, polyglot, British-Canadian—underlain by conventions rooted in the Anglo-American Jewish, German-Jewish and even Sephardi sensibilities of our ancestors: the strongly visible and prestigious elements of my mother’s (partly) illustrious ancestry. Disdain for certain elements of Jewish culture has led, in many contexts, to disdain for Judaism, as much among Jews as among non-Jews.

Many North American Jews today also have trouble distinguishing between Judaism and its current North American cultural avatars:

– Etiolated, Christianized Reform Judaism, with its college-educated congregations, organs, pastor-rabbis and ‘temples’ empty on Saturdays, the most important service of the week deliberately displaced to make room for secular, private activities;

– Largely suburban, middle-brow Conservatism, with its lavish low-rise shuls set in immense parking lots, its showy, hugely expensive b’nei mitzvah celebrations (Reform is guilty here too, of course), its dowdy, ‘participatory’ 1960s liturgy—in which the Saturday morning service might well be the only one of the week—and the well-meaning embrace of ‘traditional’ Judaism without much concern for actual observance outside of the synagogue;

– And increasingly know-nothing, pietistic, right-wing Orthodoxy, in which crude ‘creationism’ (a Baptist or at best chassidishe literalism which you could hardly have found in an Orthodox shul twenty years ago) is making serious inroads into much more sophisticated traditional Jewish ideas about how to understand Bereishis; and in which a domineering rabbinism is once more in the ascendant.

These three mainstream movements are in serious trouble—not merely demographically and generationally, but also ontologically, in terms of their self-understanding. Renewal and Reconstructionism seem to be making gains—for the same reasons as the main denominations are in trouble, probably. All three mainstream movements are entangled in struggles of self-definition and self-legitimation vis-à-vis the others, and all seem to be on the defensive rather than actively articulating a living and viable Judaism.

No wonder many secularly educated Jews are quick to dismiss ‘religion’ and embrace ‘spirituality’, as though religion were just a disposable husk and ‘spirituality’ its valuable, essential core. We go shopping, literally, for new ‘spiritual’ experiences, as though one could isolate and purchase ‘spirituality’ via retreats, healing sessions, etc. – as a commodity. New Age, Wicca and Buddhism are major alternative destinations for disaffected middle-class Jews, followed by Christianity—though ‘secularism’ is admittedly the default destination for the vast majority, with assimilation coming close behind, probably in the generation following those who see themselves only as ‘secular’ or ‘cultural’ Jews. But for many Jews with some sort of religious itch, a synagogue is the last place they would go looking.

It’s a marginal irony that Madonna and many other non-Jews have turned to our mystical tradition, Kabbalah, for similar reasons. As the entire generation of flower-children learned to their dismay, ‘spiritual’ practice without religion of any kind generally (though perhaps not always) runs into the sand. New Age Jews have given up what they see as a stale and ‘unspiritual’ religion for crystals, chakras and energy vortices (all bound to things and places); Wiccans, many of them of Jewish descent, buy into anti-Judaic understandings of Judaism as part of a patriarchal conspiracy against the Mother Goddess, thus replicating Christian narratives of Jewish obsolescence, but also transposing narratives of survival and victimhood from real survivors and real victims (Jews as well as others, including those tried as witches) to imaginary ones (supposedly pagan [female] ‘witches’). Jewish followers of the Buddha replace the Talmudic and later Sages with an Oriental one because they cannot or will not read (or understand) the Jewish Sages’ writings. And quietism, while attractive in so many ways to privileged people of tender sensibilities, has never been a Jewish virtue. Many secular Jews yearn, ironically, for ‘spirituality’ while acting like the people who defined spirituality out of the world: (post-) Christian, (post-) Enlightenment westerners—the educated, secular but ‘Christonormative’ majority whom secular Jews emulate. But why should Voltaire and his children (legitimate and illegitimate) be allowed to disqualify and dismiss something they were radically unprepared to understand? Our ancestors did not agree with early Christians when they dismissed Judaism; they did not yield to the Crusaders or the medieval mobs or the Cossacks or even the Nazis; and we should not yield to secular Enlightenment critiques that are, after all, implicitly dualist in their attack on (some) religions as ‘formalist’, ‘obscurantist’ or ‘merely ritual’. Such attacks are dualist because theistic Enlightenment universalism, just like the Christianity in which it paradoxically has its deepest roots, presupposes a human spirit separate and in some sense separable from the body.

Disaffected Jews’ yearning for spirituality, it seems to me, derives ultimately not from problems in Judaism itself but from a (generally unconscious) participation in a Christian and Christonormative critique of Judaism as non-spiritual, as merely ‘fleshly’ or carnal. The carnal is, or course, bad by comparison to ‘the spiritual’ on the conventional ladder on western values (and those of some oriental religions too). Paul’s subordination of flesh to ‘spirit’ requires separation, and produces alienation. Consider this: if there is no real distinction between ‘flesh’ and spirit’, but rather an indissoluble union, as much of the Jewish tradition posits (along with certain others), when we look merely for ‘spirituality’, we are trapped by a badly posed question. The dualism that sees spirit and flesh as separate is, however, fundamental to Christianity.

It was one of the basic differences that caused Jesus-following Jews to split with their Temple-faithful brethren in first-century Judea. For Paul, the spirit could be willing but the flesh weak: a very unlikely dichotomy in traditional Judaism, in which thinking about transgression is not at all the same as transgressing. The yetzer hara (‘evil inclination’) is dangerous, but cannot do damage unless enacted by the body: because they are inextricably bound together. When our ruach (breath) leaves, our body dies, the Psalmist sings (Ps. 146). The body returns to its earth, and our plans all collapse. As for the nefesh (‘life-force’), we know that it resides in the blood and it too ‘departs’ upon death. Of the neshamah, the individual soul, we know very little. Traditional Judaism looks forward not to a ‘spiritual’ afterlife in some kind of ethereal Heaven, but to the bodily resurrection of the dead when meshiach comes: our bodies will be made perfect, revivified with our ruach, nefesh and neshamah—a lovely tale, an antidote to dualism, a human future (of sorts).

Traditional Jewish learning has all but collapsed in suburban North America —Aramaic is not easy to read, especially for people with only rudimentary prayerbook Hebrew (or no Hebrew). Other kinds of education are more accessible, have more prestige and acceptance among non-Jews, and promise more immediate, practical rewards. Spirit-flesh dualism is no longer merely a Christian doctrine, but a commonly accepted part of western (theistic) ideas about how body and soul might relate: as separable entities. Many Jews, even many regular synagogue-goers, get their ideas about the relationship of body to soul, flesh to ‘spirit’, from the surrounding culture, not from the main sources of Jewish tradition, TaNaKh and its learned discussion by the great rabbis and sages. If we imagine body and soul as separable (except in death, which leads to we-know-not-what), we are caught in a trap not of our own devising: we are caught looking for something Judaism does not provide or cater to, at least not in isolation: ‘spirituality’. Rather, Judaism provides integrated whole-body exercise of the ‘spiritual’ *capacity*. Kavanah (roughly, devotion, but that’s a weak word for it; focused intention is as good) does not happen merely in the head. It is attained by disciplined, regular, learned activities that require body and mind to act together. Laying tefillin might look just plain weird: but what does yoga look like from outside the studio? In fact, they are very similar. Crystals might focus energy, but so too might the fringes of a tallis, or the carefully made scriptural amulets that are tefillin boxes. Some oriental religions recommend using a mantra for meditation; Judaism recommends the unending recitation of the text of the Torah, starting with the core Jewish mantra, the Sh’ma, as a point of intense focus evening and morning, every day, forever.

Since I became observant ten years ago, I have cooked and eaten brisket—hardly surprising, given the limited selection of kosher meat available where I live. And lo and behold, brisket actually is good. But I no longer see any kind of reason to think of brisket as Jewish—not unless it’s kosher. If it’s merely ‘kosher-style’, it’s also just ‘Jewish-style’. Kung-pao chicken can be kosher and brisket can be treyf. Eating ‘kosher-style’ is, of course, one way to ‘be Jewish,’ or at least to identify with (some) Jewish people— but it’s a way that gives in to the idea that ‘spirit’ (ruach) and flesh *can* be separate. Kosher food is simultaneously ‘spiritual’ and ‘fleshly’ food. Kosher meat has been handled in a way that acknowledges that the life-force of the animal and its flesh together are important and deserve to be treated with due respect and (fully ‘spiritual’) ritual. Just as the brisket—or for that matter, the coq au vin—is most *meaningfully Jewish* when it is kosher, so too is the Jewish body most truly Jewish when it is caught up with ruach in kavanah, when we practice the mind-body-soul ‘unitarianism’ or monism that the Sh’ma implicitly recommends.

No-one is going to find ‘spirituality’ in Judaism because it does not exist as a separate function of Judaism, neither in practice nor in theory. But people who know where to look might discover the ways in which Judaism is ‘spiritual’, or they might find something Jewish that we might very approximately call ‘spirituality’. They will discover along the way that English words designed to express Christian concepts don’t necessarily represent Jewish ones very well—and words like kavanah or ruach will start to seem more necessary and more obvious.

Images: Sleepwalking, Hosannas, and Weep tapestries by Niradhara Lynne Marie.

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