Ruby Namdar's Gospel of Mindful Meat-Eating
Ruby Namdar/ Courtesy Beowulf Sheehan
The acclaimed author wants you to think more about the steak on your plate
The acclaimed author wants you to think more about the steak on your plate
Ruby Namdar cares deeply about symbols. And meat.
“A piece of meat is not just food… it is a very charged and potent symbol. The fact that meat is morally questionable, and always has been, makes it such a powerful symbol,” Namdar told me in a special interview for the Jewish Week Food and Wine.
Namdar is the Israeli-born author of The Ruined House, which appeared in English translation in 2017 and was highly praised in the Jewish Review of Books and The New York Times. (Read The Jewish Week’s take here.) Naturally, we conduct the interview at Deli Kasbah on the Upper West Side, a kosher meat restaurant decorated with pictures of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. On the door there is a quote from Psalm 51: “Bulls Will Then Be Offered.”
Throughout our lunch, Namdar, who is also a teacher of Jewish literature, assumes a lecturer’s cadence as he traces meat’s symbolic significance in Judaism back to its earliest beginnings. In the bible, he explains, blood is equated with the animal spirit, and eating the blood is taboo because of its significance within the cosmic order. The bible repeats the prohibition against eating blood next to the permission to eat flesh in several places, first in Genesis among God’s admonitions to Noah after the flood, and again in the laws given by Moses to the Israelites in Leviticus and Deuteronomy.
While eating meat is permissible, the Bible’s word for the desire to eat meat, ta’ava, etymologically links it with the other carnal desire, and both desires are always fraught. In Genesis, the aging and blind Isaac asks his son Esau to hunt venison for him and cook it so that his spirit may bless him. Isaac is not merely hungry, explains Namdar. He desires hunted meat, so fresh that life and death are still contending within it, to revive his animal spirit so that he will be able to confer the spiritual power of his blessing upon Esau. “This meaningful moment is often overlooked,” notes Namdar, adding, “a blessing is not a mere wish, but has spiritual power to affect the universe. Every time we order steak at a restaurant, we should remember that moment.”
The power of this blessing was certainly understood by Rebecca, Isaac’s wife. At Rebecca’s behest, Jacob deceives his father by bringing him the meat of a slaughtered goat from the heard, not the venison Isaac craved, and steals his brother’s blessing. This deception arouses deadly enmity between the brothers and causes Jacob to flee for his life.
The desire for meat has deadly consequences again in the Book of Numbers, where, during the Israelites’ wanderings in the desert, they cry to God for meat to satisfy their craving. In response, God punishes them with an overabundance of quail meat and scourges many of the gluttonous Hebrews with death.
As his lecture gains pace, Namdar gives the impression that he is trying to formulate a thought that has been building inside him for a long time. His train of thought meanders and he needs no prompting from me. It was his idea, after all, to devote our meeting to his thoughts on meat. He continues.
The book of Deuteronomy develops the distinction between the profane meat eating out of carnal desire and ritual meat eating as an act of high spirituality. Upon their entry into the land of Israel, the Israelites are given special permission to eat meat “…within all thy gates, after all the desire of thy soul…the unclean and the clean may eat thereof, as the gazelle and as the hart is eaten.” (Deut. 12:15) However, meat eaten with high spiritual intentions as an offering, a vow, or a sacrifice, may only be eaten in the temple according to the ritual proceedings and purity requirements.
“We forget that at the time of the temple, people rarely ate meat, some perhaps no more than three times a year during the festivals,” Namdar remarks. Eating meat out of pure desire would have been a rare occasion.
Getting to the temple worship, I can’t avoid brining up Namdar’s novel, The Ruined House, in which the awe and splendor of the ancient temple worship dramatically encroaches upon the present. The novel tells of a modern-day professor of comparative culture, Andrew P. Cohen, who is thrown into spiritual crisis by visions of the ancient temple. The novel contains two memorable scenes revolving around meat, one in which Cohen prepares a sumptuous roast as if performing an elaborate ceremony, and the other in which a fine cut of meat becomes the object of revulsion.
To Namdar, the temple worship epitomizes the profound importance that the ancient Jews ascribed to the slaughter and consumption of meat. “The animals sacrificed in the temple were always the most beautiful animals, and everything about the ceremonies was spectacular,” he explains. In an age when even dyed cloth was a rarity, seeing the priests resplendent in their pristine white clothes dyed with scarlet and azure, adorned with gold and precious stones, and carrying vessels of copper and gold would have been a marvel to behold.
The ceremonies reached their zenith on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, when a long procession of animals was slaughtered in ever more intricate ways, their blood ceremonially splattered on the altar and inside the temple.
“The sacrificial worship of the temple had something of the erotic excitement of the corrida (Spanish bullfighting),” thinks Namdar. “Death is very fascinating and arousing. Seeing an animal go from being alive to dead arouses great curiosity that is practically erotic,” Namdar observes, referring to the classical meaning of eros as desire or love, not necessarily of a sexual kind. “It all goes back to the notion that blood is the sprit. The temple was the beating heart of a cosmic economy or spirits.”
Namdar laments the loss of the ancient Jewish intentionality around meat eating. While the laws of kosher slaughter retained some of the original spiritual understanding of meat-eating in Judaism—such as the prohibition on eating blood, the requirement that the animal be healthy, the quick and relatively painless slaughter technique, and the shochet’s special blessing—what we think of today as Jewish food has sometimes become the butt of jokes, or thought of as filling but uninspiring comfort food.
As meat became more industrialized and abundant, it lost its place as a rare delicacy. In addition, Jewish food, as it developed in Eastern Europe and came to America, was originally a poor man’s food, using the coarsest cuts of meat that had to be overcooked and flavored with other ingredients to be tasty. “Part of the reason people have turned away from Jewish cuisine is because the aesthetics are not pleasing,” remarks Namdar.
At the same time, argues Namdar, modern Jews have not abandoned the spiritual symbolism of meat, but merely derive their fantasies about eating meat from the French brasserie or the American steakhouse.
“For a large portion of Jews,” observes Namdar, “this is a metaphor for the desire to assimilate into the general culture and turn one’s back on Jewish cooking.”
Namdar expounds his concept of the symbolic fantasies associated with foods: “A steak is always more than a steak. A glass of wine is always more than a mere glass of wine,” he says. The more a food is symbolic—and meat and wine are the most symbolic foods of all—the greater the fantasies we build around them.
“When you go to a fine restaurant and order a steak, you imagine yourself as if you are a European aristocrat or an American cowboy,” notes Namdar. “When you step into a steakhouse, with its oak-paneled walls and expensive bottles of wine, it’s like stepping into a movie. You enter a fantasy.”
Here, Namdar brings his idea full circle, back to the spirit: “…the greater the tension of fantasy, your experience of existence is increased, and so we return to the spirit – your very spirit is increased.”
We ask for the check, and Namdar concludes the interview on this thought: “Think how far we are from appreciating the true essence of our culture and how much more interesting it is from the humdrum Judaism we talk about today. These concepts are spectacular! … After the destruction of the temple, Jewish culture took all that magnificence and grandeur and turned it from 3D to 2D and put it in a book. But it’s all there, we just need to open the books and read them, and these things will come out again... we need to do it creatively out of attention and intention.”