Friday, July 18, 2008

Of Meaning, Pleasure, Liver, Ice Cream, Fasting and Kugel

The other day I caught a line from Pearl Jam’s “Wishlist” – “I wish I was a sacrifice but somehow still lived on.” That, combined with some things I was already contemplating, led me down the following path of Meaning, Pleasure and Food:

Meaning and Pleasure:
Meaning is nutritious, it’s good for us, it places demands on us and promises that meeting those demands will improve us or our situation.
Pleasure makes us happy.

The two goals battle each other, undermine each other, in religion, in business, in relationships, everywhere. We want to be a sacrifice… but we also want to live on and enjoy this world.

Human beings have evolved several ways to deal with this conflict:

1) Do the Meaning things now, and your reward will be Pleasure
aka The “Eat your Liver” approach
Of course, today liver is considered unhealthy in many ways, but I was forced to eat it as a child. I can still remember how it tasted, and it gives me the chills. But I had to eat it, in order to be healthy and have a good physical life.
This approach says that Meaning leads to Pleasure. Meaning – religion, good business practices, working on a relationship – will lead to me getting the bonus pleasure in the end.
It’s an Olam HaBa method: Work hard here, and you’ll get your reward later.

2) Mix Meaning and Pleasure to satisfy both needs.
aka The “Medicine in the Ice Cream” approach
You know, when the kids won’t take their medicine and you mix it into the food they really want and tell them they have eat both together.
Under this approach, we can have it all, Pleasure and Meaning. We just need to balance them.
This is a Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) approach, in which we pursue both goals, eating and drinking but also making sure that our deeds are good and we live in awe of Gd.

3) Meaning is everything. Pleasure is nothing.
aka The Cold Turkey Diet approach
Fast, fast, fast. Stay away from the foods you enjoy. You’ll appreciate the results; this will make you a better person.
This approach undermines pleasure altogether, arguing that Meaning trumps Pleasure – that, in fact, Meaning is the best Pleasure. Pure Pleasure is overrated.
It’s a Yom Kippur philosophy; I eschew the physical, instead enjoying the spiritual through my abstinence.

4) Pleasure provides Meaning
aka The Kugel approach
Per this paper by Prof. Allan Nadler, Reb Shmelke of Selish would immerse himself in the mikvah before eating his Shabbos kugel. The Chassidim of the late 19th and early 20th century, in general, honored their kugel as both Pleasure and Meaning, teaching that one drew close to Gd by eating this Shabbos delicacy.
This approach says that Meaning equals Pleasure and Pleasure Equals Meaning, that the same activity can go both ways.

Which is best? Who knows? But I’m definitely drawn to the ones that taste best…

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  1. I'm mostly a #2. The kugel article is a great read, BTW.

  2. Thanks, Neil. I think I should have held this post for editing; it's missing something. (Whipped cream?)

  3. It seems that when those rare moments occur that my wife actually reads a post of mine, there's always a fhew mizzpellingz that she notices.