Not A Pie In The Sky | The Jewish Week | Food & Wine

Not A Pie In The Sky

The Great British Baking Show Tent. Courtesy The Great British Bake Off

Television’s surprising affirmation of ideal judgment

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If chastising your soul in a synagogue pew is not your thing and you prefer to spend the High Holidays binge-watching television, I venture to propose that one show reflects the deep symbolic meaning of the Days of Awe. I am talking, of course, of the Great British Baking Show (now blessedly back for another season on Netflix).

Set in a big white tent within a vast elysian English garden, each episode puts its cast of amateur British bakers through three baking challenges to produce heavenly delights judged by master bakers Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith.

To be sure, the mouth-watering cakes, baked-to-perfection pastries, scrumptious pies, and show-stopping towers of sugar and icing are eye-catching, the amateur bakers’ race against the clock to complete their creations adds suspense, the little vignettes introducing the contestants are sweet and relatable. But it’s the scenes of judgment that elevate this television cream puff into something much more profound and spiritually cathartic – an affirmation of ideal judgment.

The desire to see divine judgment manifest in the face of the seeming injustice of the world is deeply human. The psalmist David writes in Psalm 37:5-6, a prayer for justice against the wicked: “Commit thy way unto the Lord; trust also in Him, and He will bring it to pass. And He will make thy righteousness to go forth as the light, and thy right as the noonday.”

Job, raging against his suffering, demands open trial with the Lord (Job 23:2): “Oh that I knew where I might find Him, that I might come even to His seat! I would order my cause before Him, and fill my mouth with arguments.”

Pru and Paul with a contestant. Courtesy The Great British Bake Off

While the real world remains stubbornly unfair, imagination is left to fill the maddening silence of the divine. One such imagining of heavenly judgment is the cornerstone of the High Holiday liturgy, the piyut “Unetaneh Tokef.” Expanding upon the Mishnaic idea that all the world’s creatures are judged on Rosh Hashanah and their fate sealed on Yom Kippur, “Unetaneh Tokef” paints a rich image of the heavenly throne of God, with angels scurrying about and shofars blaring, as God judges all his creatures. It a is a powerful drama that repeats itself year after year.

Reciting “Unetaneh Tokef,” we ask, trembling, “who will live and who will die … who will be brought to a low state and who will be uplifted.” Thus also stand the contestants on the Great British Baking Show at the close of each episode, knowing that one of their number will suffer a notional death, banished from the tent, while another will win high praise. The tension is palpable. When the clock runs out, in walk the judges, imperiously surveying the creations and the contestants, inspecting and tasting each dish in turn “as a shepherd inspects his flock, making his sheep pass under his rod.”

Although all of humanity’s deeds are written in God’s book of records, God’s calculation is inscrutable and the verdict can be overturned until the very last moment of Yom Kippur. Similarly, contestants score no points in the Great British Baking Show. The judging is purely qualitative, a matter of taste. This allows for dramatic reversals of fortune. A baker can suffer a disaster in one challenge only to astound the judges and redeem herself in the next. Miraculous comebacks and devastating upsets are common. 

Heavenly Delights. Courtesy Wikipedia

Such Judgement can still be fair, however, because the rules and criteria are known by all. “But Repentance, Prayer, and Charity annul the severity of the Decree” we recite in “Unetaneh Tokef,” announcing the three acts that will win favor on the Day of Judgement. In the Great British Baking Show, fairness is manifestly upheld by laying out the rules of each episode’s three challenges: In the first signature challenge, the contestants are critiqued on their unique interpretations on a common pre-announced theme but are not ranked. In the second challenge, the contestants are given identical technical instructions, are judged blindly, and are ranked from best to worst. In the third challenge, the showstopper, the contestants each bake their own very challenging creation. Each episode reaches its denouement with the crowning of a star baker and the expulsion of one contestant from the tent for their performance on all three challenges.  

Compared with television contest judges notorious for their nastiness, the judging style in the Great British Baking Show is extraordinarily civil and polite. Bad bakes get mild technical criticism from the judges and are described with phrases like “a pity” or “a shame.” A successful bake will receive a smile and a “well done;” an astounding bake may receive one of Paul Hollywood’s rare handshakes.

At the end of each episode, the contestant who is sent home gets sympathetic hugs and pats on the back from the judges. It’s the kind of “hard to anger and easy to appease” judging we devoutly pray for in the High Holidays ritual. Indeed, the harshest judgment in the show comes from the contestants themselves, beating their own breasts and reciting their mea culpas for their baking mistakes in the cutaway interviews after each challenge.

And finally, there is forgiveness. For, after judgment has been rendered, praise and criticism passed, and winners and losers announced, what symbolizes forgiveness better than the ability to see past flaws, flops, and baking disasters and enjoying a table full of imperfect baked goods, like the satisfying first bite ending the fast after the long Shofar blow at the closing of the heavenly gates.

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