Revelations on Revelation
The Torah may have been given on Har (Mount) Sinai, but one Jewish college student got his own private’ revelation together with the worst grade of his academic career.
A guest of ours, a fairly recent baal teshuva, told of how his constitutional law professor had asked the class to write an essay arguing either for or against tax exemptions for organized religions. This fellow, not at all observant at the time, began the assignment in a dutiful, straightforward way, but then found himself taking an unexpected detour. He felt compelled to explore—first in his mind, and then within his essay—the very concept of organized religion itself.
It had struck him as ludicrous, for if, as he’d been taught all his life, there was no knowable ultimate truth, then the term ‘religion’ could only honestly be applied to that which a given person relates to from the deepest part of his own inner world and values. It seemed to him something personalized, exquisitely private, with as many perspectives as there were individuals. Therefore, the term ‘organized religion’ seemed an oxymoron. Why in the world, he asked himself, would anyone choose to ‘group up’ and relinquish that rarefied part of himself to an arbitrary kit of beliefs and practices that some other individual or individuals had once ‘organized’ from their own private inner feelings? It seemed like ‘spirituality for dummies’—yet millions of people had fallen for it (presumably even before tax breaks were an incentive).
It was like going to an expressive wire-sculpture class, being given a table chock full of interesting materials and tools to work with—and then each member of the class voluntarily agreeing to jettison his or her creativity and deciding to build the same identical sculpture in the same specified way. His essay concluded that if you wanted to grant a religious tax exemption, it would have to be a universal tax exemption to each individual whose personal ‘religion’ was uniquely his own.
Well, his philosophical musings didn’t rank very high with his brass-tacks constitutional law professor, to say the least, but they had opened a door in his mind that left a clanging question which was only answered years later when having stumbled, together with his backpack, into Aish Ha-Torah, he was eventually convinced (he’s still not quite sure how), and intuitionally came to believe, in the truth and historical accuracy of the event known as Matan Torah, the collective revelation of the Torah by G-d to the Jewish people.
Suddenly organized religion made perfect sense—or at least organized Torah Judaism. Its millions of adherents weren’t copping out by choosing to believe and practice in a codified, organized way, but rather had simply plugged into the parameters of the same higher, revealed objective truth. This truth—this higher dimension—had its own specific rules and parameters, and to successfully travel it, an accurate map had be followed.
It had never been a wire-sculpture class after all, but an electronics class, and they weren’t there to sculpt, but to learn how to build radios, each of which had to be wired in the correct, specific way in order to work. Of course, there was room for creativity; one could choose to house the radio in brushed aluminum or in wood, bigger knobs or smaller knobs, etc.—but the basic structure—the way the circuit board is ‘organized’—must be in place. His life-changing conclusion was that not only was revelation, or ‘ma’amad Har Sinai’, the basis of our religion, but without it, the very concept of religion itself made no sense.
On Sinai, three general classes of mitzvos were given; ‘chukim’—laws without a revealed, humanly graspable rationale (interestingly enough, in Israel today, all of their codified laws are commonly referred to as ‘chukim’…), ‘mishpatim’—‘ethical’ laws with a logically understood basis, and ‘aydos’—laws serving to commemorate great spiritual truths and events. Chukim, while not logically graspable in this world, are not, chas v’Shalom, mere arbitrary commands, but have great meaning and specific effects in the higher spiritual worlds. This meaning is simply not accessible to us due to our lack of metaphysical knowledge.
When it comes to Torah, it’s perfectly in order when appropriate, to declare something a supra-rational ‘chok (singular of chukim)’, but not when it comes to cooking. Some people tend to imbue cooking with a pseudo-mystical quality, treating recipe directions as if they were ‘chukim’ that must be unquestionably followed because ‘the recipe says so.’ But this is simply due to an unawareness of the general principles of cooking, both as applied to ingredients and processes. Once these are learned, one will not only understand why every recipe tells you to do what it does, but will know when you don’t have to listen.
Interestingly, the very analytical skills one develops in Torah learning can be applied as a tool to analyze a recipe—or anything else for that matter. In studying the Gemara, one finds that one of the most common and basic objectives within its discussions is to discern the essential factor, or factors, which produce the legal ruling in a case being considered. This is valuable not only to better understand the case at hand, but to be able to extrapolate and apply relevant principles to correctly rule on other, ostensibly unrelated cases.
Let me illustrate with a mundane (obviously not Torah) example. Suppose we’re told of the ‘case’ of a six-foot tall, forty-two year old, barefooted man, wearing a green suit, who was not allowed into a restaurant. We are told many factors: the person’s gender, age, height, choice of haberdashery and footwear. But likely only one of these factors was the essential one why the ‘ruling’ was that he was not allowed into the restaurant—because he was barefoot.
So too, most recipes use given ingredients largely for the sake of one or two factors that they possess. Once we discern those factors, we know when we must stick to a listed ingredient, and when (and how) to substitute. For instance, margarine has become the latest kitchen ‘pariah’ (I wonder if, and when it will be redeemed, as have other erstwhile criminals such as eggs, coffee, and chocolate—not to mention the once margarine-jilted butter? I suppose it’s not likely, as all the latter are G-d’s natural gifts to us, while margarine is an ‘I can do it better’ human concoction.) Let’s say a cookbook calls for it in a recipe and, while the recipe looks good, we just don’t want to use the ‘marge’. Do we turn the page?
Not so fast.
Let’s instead analyze its properties, or factors. Margarine is a bland-tasting, pareve, fat/shortening, that solidifies at room temperature. Now if the recipe calls on us to use it to fry onions, then it’s safe to assume the essential factor here is its oiliness. Therefore we can safely substitute any other edible, mild-tasting oil, (or even butter, assuming no meat will be involved). However, if its being used in a base for, say chocolate or rum balls, then the fact that it stays solid at room temperature is an essential factor, as it binds the other ingredients and holds them together in a ball (oil will just leave you rum-crumbs), so you have to find something that replicates that effect (butter, pure coconut oil, maybe a thick nut butter, if you’d find the taste agreeable with the chocolate, etc.)
Once we stop looking at recipes as if they’re ‘from Sinai’ and instead start to analyze them with a ‘gemara kop’, we’ll be in for quite a cooking ‘revelation’.
Shavuos is a day when milchigs grab the limelight. Being sensitive to dairy foods (despite loving the taste), I generally only indulge on Shavuos or Chanukah. So I’ll leave the dairy recipes to the experts and instead offer you a ‘cheese topping’ that is not only totally pareve and incredibly simple to make, but mimics the real thing so well that once some students I was cooking for came racing up from the dining room the first time I served it (atop ‘pareve pizza’), to ‘remind’ me that everyone was still fleishig from lunch.
EASY ‘CHEESY’ TOPPING
(This faux cheese topping pours on as a liquid, but solidifies when baked. Great for any dish where a cheese effect is desired but must remain pareve for health or kashrus reasons.)
Equal measure of mayonnaise and raw eggs, say, a cup of each. (The creamy base that hardens when baked.)
1 tsp. lemon juice (to give it a cheesy tang).
1 tsp. potato starch (for a cheesy chew).
Pinch of salt.
1 tsp. pareve ‘chicken’ soup powder (adds richness and color).
1 tsp. oregano (Optional. Gives it an appealing ‘speckled’ effect—nice with tomato-based dishes).
Directions: combine all ingredients and whisk or blend to an even, smooth consistency. (I told you it was EASY.)
To use: Spoon or pour in a thin, even layer (or get creative and try shredded-looking swirls) over any baked dish during (approx.) the last ten minutes of cooking. (Too early, and it will turn a dark brown but still taste good.) Bake until topping solidifies, slightly bubbles from within, and just begins to brown in spots. Remove dish, let stand for at least ten minutes (to set) and enjoy!