Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Inherent Depravity of Peanuts: An Inquiry Into Blind Faith

     As someone who firmly believes that life's too short to adhere to convention, the notion of conformity, especially for the sake of religion, has always been a bit problematic for me. It's not that I'm particularly difficult or unusually strong-willed, it's just that I can't envision a worse existence than that of selling myself out to an ideology--following someone else's rules--instead of going with my own flow. Being who I already am means everything to me. Content to fly insubordinately beneath the radar of societal norms, I live life on my own terms, not anyone else's. Although I consider myself open-minded and quite tolerant toward other viewpoints I don't necessarily understand, every now and then the lack of common sense which accompanies rigid traditionalism leaves me dumbfounded, nearly at a loss for words. Perhaps I'm in need of enlightenment, but why would anyone want to trade dogma for free thought? That's a way of life I just can't get my head around.
     Yesterday, my son, Nick, came home from work, looking troubled. He said, "I found out I messed something up at work two weeks ago." For the last 10 months, he's worked at a natural foods store, a job he was very excited about taking mainly because of his interests in Ayurveda and alternative healing. The store is located in a diverse neighborhood with a large orthodox Jewish contingent. Although the store itself is not strictly kosher, it receives lots of business from the local Jewish population, and part of Nick's job is stocking and organizing kosher foods. Here's where I have to plead ignorance. When I think of kosher foods, I think of items like meat, fish, dairy, and eggs, and I totally "get" the whole concept of kosher and Halal laws pertaining to the ritual slaughter of animals. But, who would ever have thought that something as benign as a peanut could cause such a stir? I mean, what exactly is the point of kosher peanut butter?
     Well, apparently freshly ground peanut butter made from kosher peanuts is a big seller at the store, so there are separate machines for holy and unholy peanuts. A couple of weeks back, Nick was charged with refilling the machines. By some accident, he unintentionally and unknowingly placed "tainted" peanuts in the kosher machine, an honest mistake that his boss discovered yesterday. I sat in disbelief as Nick told me that because of his human error, the store had lost all its kosher peanut butter sales. "We either have to get a new machine or take the old one apart and boil all its components." I'm sorry, but this is nothing short of ridiculous! First of all, every peanut in that store is organic, and as Nick puts it, "They've already been blessed by Nature." Secondly, if there is a God, does he really care about whether peanut butter is kosher? It seems he might have more pressing issues on his agenda. People have been buying and eating that unorthodox peanut butter for the last two weeks, yet there have been no reports of anyone in the community being struck down by the hand of God for inadvertently disobeying Halakhic law. Gimme a break! We're not dealing with allergies, GMOs, or a salmonella epidemic here; it's simply a matter of a few unconsecrated peanuts. Why not just run a few batches of kosher peanuts through the machine with a rabbi standing by to bless it? Wouldn't that be more common sensical? Frankly, I fail to see how the inner workings of this peanut butter machine could have been so drastically altered by a gallon of unanointed legumes as to render it unacceptable for future use. I have no doubt that God would also approve of my plan for absolving this defenseless machine of its iniquity.
     It's all a matter is perspective, really. My work as an anesthesiologist involves life and death on a daily basis, and this tempers my philosophy about people who take themselves, their jobs, and their religion too seriously. Piloting an aircraft is one thing, whereas working in a grocery store is quite another. Theoretically, one could argue that stocking groceries carries the potential risk of selling expired or contaminated food, directly threatening public health, and in this case, carelessness can certainly be deadly. Nick's dilemma is less clear cut; he's unwittingly and unfairly assumed responsibility for the spiritual health of an entire community. What should have been a blip on the radar might turn into a big hairy deal. I'm willing to bet that the people making a mountain out of this molehill are also the biggest hypocrites in the bunch, the "holier than thou" whose sense of moral superiority and self-righteousness is thinly disguised beneath a veil of piety and service.
     Does a depraved peanut taste any different or provide less nutritional value than one that's been sanctified? Can someone please explain convincingly how fresh organic peanut butter can be deemed unfit for consumption by some, while it's fine for everyone else, or why a machine that was perfectly good two weeks ago is now unclean and unusable? In other words, if consecrated peanut butter is really that different, why didn't anyone immediately suspect that's not what they were eating? Like Nick said, those peanuts were already blessed by Nature; isn't that enough? I find it difficult to appreciate how anyone's spiritual health was even remotely compromised in this situation.
     Is the abandonment of reasoning, judgment, and intuition an inherent aspect of developing faith? Is faith itself necessarily blind, devoid of wisdom and practicality, intolerant of inquiry or human error? More importantly, why don't we have more faith in ourselves? Herein lies the quandary: if God exists, and God made everything and everyone, and God is everything and everyone, then isn't everyone and everything also God? And, what's the purpose of a God who's external to ourselves? When someone figures that out, please let me know. I'll be in Aisle 9 along with the other infidels and miscreants, shamelessly sampling the subversive peanut butter, la dolce vita style. 


  1. Even though I'm a devout atheist, I still call myself and think of myself as Jewish. It's a cultural thing, not a religious thing. I don't keep kosher at all and when I was a kid our family didn't pay much attention to that. (We wouldn't have pork products at home, but we had no problem eating ham sandwiches or bacon at a restaurant. Don't ask. Like I said, we were more cultural Jews than religious Jews and the culture kept my mother from allowing pork products in our house. She got over that in her later years.)

    All this is a long way of saying that while there is an awful lot I don't know about kosher laws (for example, I didn't know there were kosher and unkosher peanuts) I do know a few of the rules about keeping kosher. Trust me when I say that the tainted peanut butter machine is not the wackiest of the rules. Not even close.

  2. The problem, Kris, is that customs and rituals aren't supposed to make sense, they're supposed to be followed. "God has his reasons reason knows not of." To free spirts like you and me, this is all bilge and nonsense. But to the true believer, it's a matter of life and death.

  3. Helena, it's things like this that not only gets me mad, but also gives God a bad name. On one hand we say God is a forgiving God - especially when something was not done in malice or on purpose with prior knowledge, but when a mistake or accident is made, we come down on the person like a ton of bricks, or condemn them to death. God is most probably having a right laugh at all the endless man-made rituals that exist in his name.

    I can understand if someone had a nut allergy and they needed to deep clean the machine for safety, but it seems more likely they are using Nick to buy a much needed replacement gadget for themselves.

  4. It might not make sense but I can sort of understand where they are coming from. I mean, the people involved have been told their entire lives "Thou shall not eat the wrong sort of peanut or God will get miffed"
    Maybe it's like asking an American to take a bite out of a dog meat sandwich. There's not real reason not to, except your whole culture is telling you it's not cool.

  5. Ummmm.....................

    You have already made the point I would have made and did it so clearly I wont try to re do it. I work with people like that, mostly international people with different views on everything that is usually polar opposite to me. So, I actually, sadly, can say I understand. It pains me to say that customs usually over rule common sense, which is following how most religions also operate. Common sense often is the last concern, making sure my nuts are blessed are the last of my worldly worries.

    Great Post.

  6. There was this bloke who had much the same as you to say about 'false' religion, some 2000 years ago, particularly the business about crazy following of laws and missing the underlying principles of loving one's neighbour etc. Whether there is a God or not, we need to be careful to evaluate that possibility in the light of the raw revelations (if there are any) rather than the centuries of man-made crap that has been layered upon it. Don't chuck out the baby with the bath water.

    Rules are part of our universe, some physical, and some moral. Any parent understands that true freedom is obtained within the security of well-understood boundaries. True freedom is not a free-for-all-do-what-the-hell-i-like ... that's anarchy and chaos.

  7. Oh, for heaven's sake! I don't get it, either, though there is much in this world I don't understand. I also do things that I'm sure make people shake their heads. That's what we get living in a diverse world with so many different types of people, religions, etc. And though it's frustrating sometimes, it's also cool. Still, I'm with you. In my world, there are so many more important things to worry about. But it's not my world. It's theirs.

  8. Wow! I didn't realize that there was a difference in peanuts. When it comes down to it, they are probably the exact same. Except you can now charge more for "untainted" peanuts? Who is to say that these peanuts weren't "tainted" before they reached the store? I say that store manager needs to quit sweating the small stuff and move on.

  9. Nick made an honest mistake and I empathize. To err is human. Orthodox is the opposite of flexible, the rules are rigid. I like your idea about running batches of kosher peanuts through the machine with a rabbi’s blessing. Don’t know if that’d be acceptable to the orthodox community but I think it’s a good compromise. I can’t imagine that similar things haven’t happened before, maybe not in their community, but I’m sure it has happened.

    Although I was raised Catholic I have been to kosher meals and Seders. Being Kosher is spiritual and directly linked to the Torah. The process of food handling is all important. To you and me, all those organic peanuts were “blessed by Nature” anyway as Nick so nicely said, but the perspective is entirely different when food, religion and culture are tied together so closely. It may seem that no one’s "spiritual health was even remotely compromised" but to a deeply spiritual person inside an orthodox world, these things matter greatly.

    Frankly, I find it hard to understand the rigidity of any of the orthodox religions! But it is what it is. And to answer your question about faith: Yes, faith is blind. I saw that very clearly being raised Catholic. That is why I believe in God or a higher universal intelligence but I don’t belong to any established religion. Good luck to Nick! He had the misfortune of inadvertently walking right into the brick wall of orthodoxy.

  10. In some respects, religion is fascinating to me. It's so universal. Is it something intrinsic in people that creates a need for such constructs? Interesting questions you raise.

  11. This witty, ironic piece nearly made me spit out my first cup of pumpkin spice latte this morning of laughter. However, you pose a valid question that I too have often wondered, how is it not clear to followers of such strict sanctions that the perhaps some of the laws are not meant to provide a "stairway to heaven", but moreover a means to control from officials likely inside the ruling establishment. I do hope that these unholy nuts don't cause too much trouble for Nick, for it seems that he is one (probably of the few) who actually appreciate the value of the products sold not for monetary gain but the appreciation of the natural quality of their substances. Your work never ceases to amaze.

    1. Funny, Emily, last night Nick told us that his boss had spoken to the rabbi about the machine. The rabbi said all that needed to happen was for the machine to be cleaned out. No big whoop. Crazy, huh?

  12. You can't fix crazy, not even physicians! :)