“May of purest Spirits be found / No ingrateful food”

October 28, 2008

In the wonderfully titled, “The Brisket King, or: The Perils of Dualism,” Andrew Gow channels briefly his inner Wendell Berry. (Well, only insofar as one of my professors channels his inner-Berry when he complains about Plato, but it makes for a good line.)  Maybe it would be better put as his inner anti-dualist.  It’s an interesting take on things, at the least: 

“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.

. . .

“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*.”

Compare this to what Wendell Berry, in “Health is Membership,” says below, and it gives a pretty good example of why I think that, while Berry’s religious and spiritual views are decidedly Christian (and, in a more particular sense, decidedly Protestant, though I reserve the right to be terribly wrong in this aside), there is also an important universality to them—and I don’t think that it’s at all unintentional

“I strongly doubt the advantage, and even the possibility, of separating these two terms [‘spiritual’ and ‘bodily’].

“What I’m arguing against here is not complexity or mystery but dualism . . . which impl[ies] that the Creation is divided into ‘levels’ that can readily be peeled apart and judged by human beings. . . .

“Our bodies are involved in the world. Their needs and desires and pleasures are physical. Our bodies hunger and thirst, yearn toward other bodies, grow tired and seek rest, rise up rested, eager to exert themselves. All these desires may be satisfied with honor to the body and its maker, but only if much else besides the individual body is brought into consideration. . . . We must consider the body’s manifold connections to other bodies and to the world.”

It is ignorance of this fact—that if we are spiritual beings we are spiritual beings living in a physical world and so holiness must incorporate the physical, not escape it—that leads to things like the scandals at the Rubashkin Agriprocessors plant in Iowa: a kosher slaughterhouse not following kashrus, violating child labor laws, using undocumented workers to avoid paying proper wages and providing decent working conditions, dumping unsafe pollutants, and then impersonating others while attempting a cover-up. It’s no wonder they—formerly the largest kosher slaughterhouse—just lost their kosher certification.

What happened is that the Rubashkin family forgot that keeping kosher isn’t about following the letter of the law; that Judaism is about more than that. Kosher foods are supposedly better than non-kosher foods because the food—from the raising of animals on—has been treated with the reverence it deserves. Even without their extra, non-kosher wounds, I’d say that their extra-legal activities mean everything Agriprocessors produces falls short.

As it stands now, neither Wendell Berry’s ham sandwich nor Moshe Rubashkin’s brisket are kosher, but if I had to give my opinion on which is closest, I’d go with Mr. Berry’s sandwich.

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