Food and Faith

A four-week window of Jewish holy days is approaching. I understand why we will spend more time in synagogue than usual. However, we will also spend more time at the dining room table. This isn’t a concession to human frailty; it is recognition of human greatness.

Ever since the start of our lives as babes suckling at our mothers’ breasts, eating provides us with not one, but two benefits. They are (i) physical nourishment and sustenance, and (ii) spiritual and emotional sustenance. The link between eating and emotion is well studied. Many of us have ‘comfort foods.’ Gloom and uncertainty are often banished by a meal that fills our heart as well as our stomach.

Have you ever wondered why so many young people nowadays suffer from eating disorders that were virtually unknown a generation or two ago? Surely the answer is the spiritual desert in which so many young people live. Eating disorders are more often treated by a psychologist than by a nutritionist because there is a powerful spiritual component to eating. In other words, food and faith go together.

Here is the first occurrence in Scripture of God issuing a commandment to man:

And the Lord God commanded the Adam saying, “Of every tree of the garden eat you must eat.”
(Genesis 2:16)

Many English translations get it wrong by translating, “…of every tree of the garden you shall surely eat”

The original Hebrew does not say “surely”. Instead it repeats the commandment to eat. Here is what the Hebrew looks like:

Reading from right to left, you will see five words. [From all] [the trees] [of the garden] [eat!] [you must eat].

You can see that the fourth and fifth words look very similar, distinguished only by the one letter prefix ‘you must’.

Ancient Jewish wisdom explains that God’s first explicit directive repeats the verb ‘to eat’ to tell us to perform two separate and distinct acts with every mouthful. We are to eat for both physical and spiritual reasons. That way we extract the full benefit from every morsel of food.

Our Creator surely knew that in the future scientists could find ways to fulfill our bodies’ needs through tablets or infusions, bypassing the fruits, vegetables and grains He provided for us. No! Machines need fuel. Humans need more than that; they must eat!

How weird is it that we absorb nutrition through the same facial orifice from which our voices emerge? Dedicated functionality seems to be God’s design. After all, we don’t smell and hear through our ears. Mouths are different.

Speech is a uniquely human function while eating is not. Sharing the same orifice reminds us to take care to eat in a uniquely human way-one that provides spiritual as well as physical nourishment. In this vein, we prefer not to eat alone and to show gratitude to God for our food by blessings before and after eating, as we’ve written on in previous Thought Tools. Festival days are the perfect opportunity to create one cohesive totality in our lives. Yes, we pray a little more. We also eat a little more, sharing that experience with God’s other children.

Some of us face the danger of thinking ourselves to be sophisticated animals, forgetting that we have been touched by God. Others of us face the danger of thinking of ourselves as angels-spiritual beings at war with our physical selves. The dining room table reveals the truth, providing a place where our true selves can shine.

We place emphasis during this month on starting our year off in the way we wish it to continue. We can’t realistically reach straight for the stars, but we can commit to reaching for growth - maybe that way we will reach the stars!

Credit: Rabbi Daniel Lapin.
23 Sep 2014.
28th Elul 5774.

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Why do scientists keep trying to prove that male and female brains are different?

As new research finds that men’s brains may be just as well suited to parenthood as women’s, Neil Lyndon says he’s tired of the feminist agenda behind ‘brain sex’ studies

Well, let’s all troop to the bottom of our stairs. A scientific study has shown that men’s brains work in exactly the same way as women’s when they are looking after babies on their own. What next? Might somebody come up with the revolutionary finding that fathers can be just as good as mothers at being parents?

The study - at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel - has found that “the neural underpinnings of the so-called maternal instinct aren’t unique to women, or activated solely by hormones, but can be developed by anyone who chooses to be a parent. […] The experience of hands-on parenting, with no female mother anywhere in the picture, can configure a [male] caregiver’s brain in the same way that pregnancy and childbirth do.”

This marks a unique moment in the long and dodgy history of brain sex – that voodoo study of the human brain to find inbuilt differences between men and women. Not only is it the first such work to suggest that women’s brains might not be uniquely fitted-out by nature to care for infants, it’s also extremely unusual in finding that men and women are equally human.

All previous efforts in this field have tended towards the conclusion that the brains of women are dominated by their left-side which endows them with every desirable, civilised trait (sensitive; intuitive; empathetic; emotionally literate and so on) while cloddish men with their simian, right-sided brains turn out – surprise, surprise - to be barely sub-human but may occasionally be good with footballs, artillery and navigation.

The earliest outcrop of this execrescence on the body scientific was a 1953 book called The Natural Superiority of Women by Ashley Montagu which asserted that the “superiority of woman is a biological fact”. That outpouring of snake oil has been succeeded over the last half-century by a torrent of works flowing in the same direction, such as the 1989 Brainsex by Anne Moir and David Jessel which claimed that boys’ and girls’ brains are doused with different hormones in the womb and, therefore, come into the world “with their minds made up”. Naturally, the girls’ minds are sweetly scented by the hormone equivalents of sugar and spice and all things nice; while the boys have been splashing in a gutter full of snails and puppy-dog tails and…you know the rest.

The overall objective of this hokum has been to provide what passes for scientific proof that all men are the same (bastards!) who only manage to keep control of the superior sex by brute force and the conscienceless exploitation of their advantages.


One of the biggest holes in that Havarti of crumbly cheese which constitutes the feminist-led storyline of our time has been – over recent decades – the growing number of men who are looking after children on their own. Of the two million single parent households in the UK, 300,000 now contain a man alone caring for his children. There are 2.6m such men in the USA, where male single-parent households have become a leading demographic trend.

Unlike their female counterparts, these guys are given scant attention, no hand-wringing from earnest politicians and no reverential honour on Woman’s Hour; but there appears no reason to think that the emaciated children of such households live in squalor, regularly bunk off school to rob blind pensioners and go on to eat their own offspring. So far as it is possible to tell, the men who are in that situation seem to care for their children just as well, just as effectively and just as lovingly as single mothers.

Why wouldn’t they? It may be a merciless, non-stop grind; it may be full of lonely nights racked with anxiety and stress; it may make finding a new girlfriend slightly awkward but looking after children is, essentially, such a straightforward business that even a simian klutz with only an intuitive feel for gunnery can probably get away with it. Caring for a teenager, for instance, largely entails being a systematically organised servant who spends a large part of every weekend looking the other way.

I know whereof I speak. When he was 15, my son ran away from the alcoholic mother to whom the courts, in their majestic wisdom, had awarded his custody after she abducted him to Scotland. And I then had to move to Scotland to make him a home and see him through his school years until he went to university.

So far as brain sex is concerned, then, I’m with the specialist who was on BBC R4’s Today programme some years ago and was asked about a new twist on the old left-brain/right-brain jive. She dismissed it with a groan of barely concealed contempt, saying “What might be different between men and women’s brains is far less significant than the immense preponderance that they have in common.”

If only that could be the guiding motto of our age. If only it could be inscribed above the porticoes of Bar-Ilan University and read aloud as a statement of principle before every edition of Woman’s Hour.
(Except, of course, that it would logically lead to the conclusion that fathers ought, also, to be treated equally in law.

And that, of course, would be far too much to ask).

Credit: By Neil Lyndon. 10 Jun 2014.

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The metrosexual is dead. Long live the ‘spornosexual’

20 years ago, Mark Simpson coined the term ‘metrosexual’. But now a new, more extreme, sex- and body-obsessed version has emerged.

In a development which will probably have him running to the mirror yet again to search anxiously for lines, this year the metrosexual leaves his teens and turns 20.

How quickly your children grow up. Although it seems only yesterday, I first wrote about him in 1994 after attending an exhibition organised by GQ magazine called “It’s a Man’s World”. I’d seen the future of masculinity and it was moisturised.

Metrosexual man, the single young man with a high disposable income, living or working in the city (because that’s where all the best shops are) is perhaps the most promising consumer market of the decade.

Two decades of increasingly out and proud – and highly lucrative – male vanity later, and the metrosexual remains the apple of consumerism’s rapacious eye. In a recent report, HSBC drooled all over his “Yummy”-ness, pointing out how mainstream metrosexuality has become.

This was of course old news to anyone with eyes to see the extremely image-conscious and product-consuming men around them – or in bed with them. Or the way that the glistening pecs and abs of men’s health and fitness magazines have been outselling the “lads’ mags” for several years.

Or indeed anyone who saw the news last year that men in the UK now spend more on shoes than women.

From the perspective of today’s fragranced, buffed, ripped, groomed, selfie-adoring world, it’s hard to believe that the metrosexual had to struggle to be heard in the early 1990s. Most people were in “New-Lad” denial back then about what was happening to men and why they were taking so long in the bathroom.

Just as male homosexuality was still stigmatised and partly criminalised back then, the male desire to be desired – the self-regarding heart of metrosexuality – was scorned by many. Narcissism was seen as being essentially feminine, or Wildean – and look what happened to him. The trials of Oscar Wilde, the last dandy, at the end of the 19th Century helped stamp a Victorian morality over much of the 20th century. Male vanity was at best womanish – at worst, perverted.

The end of the 20th century, the abolition of the last laws discriminating against male homosexuality, and arrival of the preening dominance of celebrity culture with its Darwinian struggle to be noticed in a visual, “branded” world finally blew away the remnants of Victorianism.

To illustrate this, I only have to say two words: David Beckham, the working-class England footballer who became more globally famous for his attention-seeking haircuts, unabashed prettiness and rampant desire to be desired than for his footballing skills. Once the sari-wearing midfielder was outed in 2002 (by me again, sorry) as the ultimate metrosexual, everyone suddenly “got it”. All that Nineties denial turned into incessant Noughties chatter about metrosexuals and “male grooming”. But still people failed to understand what was really going on with men.

In fact, the momentous nature of the masculine revolution that metrosexuality represents has been largely obscured by much of the superficial coverage it got. Metrosexuality is, in a paradox that Wilde would have relished, not skin deep. It’s not about facials and manbags, guyliner and flip flops. It’s not about men becoming “girly” or “gay”. It’s about men becoming everything. To themselves. Just as women have been encouraged to do for some time.

This uptake by men of products, practises and pleasures previously ring-fenced for women and gay men is so normal now – even if we still need to be reassured with the word “man” or “guy” emblazoned on the packaging, like a phallic pacifier – that it’s taken for granted by young men today who really have become everything. So much so that it can be too much for the older generation of metrosexuals.

With their painstakingly pumped and chiselled bodies, muscle-enhancing tattoos, piercings, adorable beards and plunging necklines it’s eye-catchingly clear that second-generation metrosexuality is less about clothes than it was for the first. Eagerly self-objectifying, second generation metrosexuality is totally tarty. Their own bodies (more than clobber and product) have become the ultimate accessories, fashioning them at the gym into a hot commodity – one that they share and compare in an online marketplace.

This new wave puts the “sexual” into metrosexuality. In fact, a new term is needed to describe them, these pumped-up offspring of those Ronaldo and Beckham lunch-box ads, where sport got into bed with porn while Mr Armani took pictures.

Let’s call them “spornosexuals”.

But unlike Beckham’s metrosexual ads of old, in which his attributes were possibly artificially enhanced, today’s spornosexuals have photoshopped themselves in real life. Think Towie’s Dan Osborne in a pair of glittery Speedos (and then have a lie down).

Glossy magazines cultivated early metrosexuality. Celebrity culture then sent it into orbit. But for today’s generation, social media, selfies and porn are the major vectors of the male desire to be desired. They want to be wanted for their bodies, not their wardrobe. And certainly not their minds.

I suspect Wilde might have approved.

Credit: Mark Simpson. 10 Jun 2014.

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Sailor’s Life for Me

You don’t need the power of command in order to be a leader. You don’t have to be able to fire, fine or imprison people in order to lead them. It is possible to influence others by evoking admiration.

Let’s survey the first chapter of the book of Jonah, focusing on the interaction between Jonah and the sailors who take him Tarshish in his attempt to evade God and His directives.

At first, the crew is merely “them”.

…[Jonah] went down to Jaffa; and he found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid the fare for it, and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish…
(Jonah 1:3)

Even on today’s large cruise-liners, people tend to socialize. In Jonah’s day, ships were much smaller, carrying mostly cargo. Not surprisingly, experiencing a terrifying storm, Jonah and the crew became acquainted. In Jonah’s eyes, they were no longer a faceless “them.” They were sailors, idolatrous but nonetheless, professional mariners.

Then the sailors were afraid, and cried each one to his own god…
(Jonah 1:5)

At this point, Jonah surprisingly goes below deck for a nap.

The captain awakens him, asking him to pray as well.

Now the sailors evolve still further, becoming men. The Hebrew word chosen for ‘man’ here is ISH. ISH suggests more than a male human, rather a man possessing nobility of spirit.

And each man said to his colleague, come let’s throw lots in order to discover on whose account is this evil coming upon us…
(Jonah 1:7)

God responded to the sailors and the lots reveal Jonah to be the cause of the unnatural storm.

And they said to him, inasmuch as you are the cause of this evil, please tell us what is your profession and from where do you come, what is your land and from what people do you come?
(Jonah 1:8)

By their brilliant question, these sailors show themselves to be quite different from what one imagines sailors to be. After all, since time immemorial, sailors separated from family, society, and the institutions of civilization, tend to be rough, rowdy, and unrestrained.

However, these men realize that how one contributes to the world through work reveals a great deal about a person. So does examining those with whom he associates. They attempt to make sense of Jonah through their questions.

Jonah responds by essentially explaining that the only relevant thing they need to know is that this unnatural storm is due to his relationship with God.

And he said to them, I am a Hebrew and I fear the Lord, God of heaven…
(Jonah 1:9)

They ask Jonah what they can do in order to restore calm to the wild seas.

"Throw me overboard" he calmly assures them.

These men truly reveal greatness by rejecting this answer. Verse 13 describes their mighty, but futile, struggle to bring the ship safely into harbor. Eventually, they accept Jonah’s words and obey him, throwing him overboard.

Through their interaction, Jonah comes to recognize the Godly spirit in these men. He relates to them not as faceless, unimportant individuals-them—but as sensitive and morally aware men. In turn, they recognize his holiness and pray to Jonah’s God, rather than to their gods. After the storm abates, validating their actions, these sailors become God-fearing men, bringing sacrifices to the Lord and vowing to lead upright lives.

The sailors’ behavior led Jonah to grow in the way he related to people; his understanding of God and willingness to sacrifice himself for the ship and her crew similarly made its mark on the men.

Jonah was merely a passenger with no power. The sailors were not society’s elite. Yet each exerted enormous influence by evoking admiration. Jonah learned how to better relate to people; the sailors learned how to better relate to God. This is something each of us can do at home and in our marriages and family. By having deep faith and moral clarity and behaving towards others with consideration and respect, we can all practice this principle of leadership.

Credit: Rabbi Daniel Lapin.

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Why I’m glad I have the gay gene

As yet another controversial study suggests homosexuality is genetic, Theo Merz explains why he finds the idea of a gay gene comforting - and why research like this is important.

Research carried out earlier this year supports the idea that being gay is at least partly down to our genes. The study of gay brothers is one of dozens of papers published in the last 20 years that suggest homosexuality has biological origins, with a variant on the X chromosome predisposing men to homosexuality.

As with the 1993 study which first gave us headlines talking of a ‘gay gene’, reactions to this new research have been mixed. The activist Peter Tatchell didn’t much like what he saw as a pleading tone in the idea that “gays can’t help being gay”. Others have argued that the focus on genetics is reductive, ignoring the possibilities of bisexuality and people’s preferences changing over time – though to be fair to the researchers, nobody is suggesting there’s some kind of gay/straight genetic switch; environment and upbringing do play a role even in this biological theory.

Haters, as is their wont, continue to hate, saying that if homosexuality is genetic, it’s nothing more than a birth defect. They add that if a gene can be isolated, removing it becomes easier. At the other end of the spectrum, among my London-based, 20-something gay and straight friends, the reaction is largely: who cares? Why this obsession with cracking a possibly non-existent gay code? As the actress Cynthia Nixon, who is married to a woman, commented on an earlier study, “It doesn’t matter if we flew here or we swam here, it matters that we are here”.

But while, as they’d say on the BBC, other gay opinions are available, I find the idea of a biological basis for my homosexuality extremely comforting. For me, the fact that we were born this way remains a convenient truth to fall back on in moments of self-doubt.

Because despite living in a comparatively good place to be homosexual in terms of history and geography, us gays still have more than our fair share of self-doubt at best, and self-loathing at worst. Whether gayness is natural or not, statistically we’re abnormal. When you’ve grown up in a world of mums and dads, princes and princesses, and farmers who want wives, the realisation that you’re a farmer who wants a same-sex partner will inevitably lead to a bit of soul-searching. (On the subject of farmers who want wives, I always find it so odd when gay people are accused of “shoving their sexuality down our throats”, as if we weren’t force-fed a diet of heterosexuality on a daily basis).

I’ve been fortunate enough to have gay teachers, gay colleagues, gay university classmates and even gay relatives. I know it’s not an aberration; I know enough gay men and women who lead happy, fulfilled lives in various ways. And yet, like so many others, I’ve found it impossible not to internalise in some way the homophobia that still exists in wider society. It’s easy enough to dismiss someone on TV or in the street who says that God hates fags. But in the darker moments – after a break-up, or closing time at Heaven – it’s difficult to keep the thought from crossing your mind, however fleetingly, that the bigots might be right: that the romantic love I feel and express is somehow lesser than its heterosexual equivalent.

Like my straight friends, I don’t spend a great deal of time sitting around wondering why I fancy who I do. Rightly or wrongly, though, the question is raised more often for me than it is for them. When it does come up, I find the idea that it has a genetic basis unproblematic, and reassuring when reassurance is needed. Interest in Lady Gaga’s Born This Way fades after 1,349 times (approx) of hearing it on the radio, but studies suggesting we really are born this way hold continuing appeal.

Credit: Theo Merz. 11 Jun 2014.

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