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Eileen F. Young

hungry soulBooks about eating; yes, the field is full. But unlike the bumper crop of material on weight loss, cancer prevention, and cholesterol lowering, eating is not the problem, not the solution, but a vital clue to the sacredness of life. Kass’ book offers up courses about what it is to be human. Those offered range from the necessity of food and its digestion to the evolution of the family meal and dietary laws. There are generous servings of philosophy, physiology and Biblical commentary.

      What distinguishes the humans from other animals? One distinction lies in the manner of taking in nourishment. The animal simply feeds as it goes. Humans are said to eat. The food is prepared and shared. Certain rituals are followed. Humans are deemed civilized by particular humanizing customs. The author delves into these matters and shares details that make our common experience of mealtime something we can no longer take for granted.

     “To live is to metabolize... one is if and only because one eats.” (p. 20). The evolution of species depends on the making of appropriate nourishment choices, not eating potential mates, and not being eaten in the pursuit of food. The food maintains, enhances, and adds layers of fat but hardly transforms. The eater does not become the eaten. Creatures are more than mere flesh and bones, more than chemistry. Form remains immutable. A zebra ingested by the lion form becomes lion form. This is the mystery of metabolism. Tremendous changes occur to every molecule. The phenomena of life cannot be explained by chemistry. “The living animal has unity and self-identity that in fact outlasts its ever-shifting material.” (p.41) This manner of creature preservation is a marvel, but what of the mammal who is said to have a soul?

     “Our bodies demonstrate. . .that we are more than just a complex version of our animal ancestors ... . We are rational (that is, minding and thinking) animals down to and up from the very tips of our toes” (pp.75-76). Along with the blessings of humanity come the ethical responsibilities. Beginning with Adam and Eve this human animal was given the knowledge of good and evil, requiring conscious living. The curse was not just the labor levied on woman and man but also the necessity to continuously make value judgments, to choose between Good and Evil. As consumers humans are omnivores, capable of ingesting not only the harvest in the field but each other.

     The third chapter “Host and Cannibal” is written with apologies for the indelicate nature of the topic, but is a lively revelation of cultural etiquette. Does one feed or eat one’s guests? Beggars may be gods in disguise. Only if treated well will they reveal their powers, bestow their gifts. When is cannibalism acceptable? An unthinkable query? There are societies that eat their own members. Falling ill is very treacherous when the ill are customarily slain to “. . .prevent the disease from spoiling the meat.” (p. 116) However, the taboo against cannibalism is nearly universal. To be omnivores and civilized is to recognize a difference in value between human flesh and animal flesh.

     The shift to meat ordained communal dining patterns. For pickers of fruit and nuts dinner was whenever the food was in hand only the “need to prepare and apportion the produce of the hunt became the basis of the family meal” (p. 119). Mealtime being established, rituals of table setting and table manners grew. What is it to be at table? I am afraid in this age of TV, computers, and cellular phones dining is not as refined as it once was. According to the text “To be at table means that one has removed oneself from business and motion and made a commitment to spend some time over one’s meal” (p. 134). The art of dining includes how one interacts with the others at table. There are rules about fitting conversation. It should not be too philosophical; that sort of talk is best saved for intimate friendships. The lighter the conversation the easier the meal digests.

     Finally in chapter six, “Sanctified Eating, a Memorial of Creation,” we are brought to “awe, fear, wonder, and gratitude to try to understand [our] place and meaning in the larger whole” (p.196). Dr. Kass renders a sequential account of dietary practices and laws from Genesis to Leviticus that enlightens the reader to a way of eating that defines a people set aside by God. The period of the Garden is seen as prehuman in which fruit was the only food. This destroyed neither the present nor future generations of plants, yet the eating was instinctive with no higher consciousness. The period before the Law, that is the generations from Cain to Noah, sees humans as eaters of bread with a tendency toward meat. With the Covenant, the generations from Noah on became a political people and eaters of meat but strictly abstained from blood. Further changes in diet occurred with the population diversification that followed Babel. Finally, the dietary regulations presented in Leviticus 11 are explained as a celebration of purity and sanctity. To follow them is to make a conscious choice to be a separate people. As God separated the Hebrew race from the masses so, too.. do the followers of the Law separate the clean from the unclean flesh.

     This book is an invitation to the meal as a humanizing experience. “Recovering the deeper meaning of eating could help cure our spiritual anorexia. From it we can learn the essential unity of body and soul, and we can learn the true relations to the formed world that the hungering soul makes possible.” (p.231)

[The Hungry Soul, by Leon R. Kass, M.D. New York, NY: The Free Press, 248 pp. ]

Eileen F. Young, M.A., M.Ed., an elementary school teacher, has published a mathematics instruction text for teachers and parents, and has also published articles on religious education for mentally handicapped adults. Her spiritual formation includes a Master of Religious Education at Emmanuel College in Boston and studies at Resources in Spiritual Formation, Danvers, Massachusetts. Eileen and her husband Roy (a retired teacher) live in Salem, Massachusetts.

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Last updated: 11/24/10.