THE HUNGRY SOUL BY
LEON R. KASS, M.D.
Eileen F. Young
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.
“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
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
[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.