Tag Archives: Malcolm Gladwell

Torah as Food

If you’ve ever walked down the condiment aisle of a grocery store, you’ve probably been overwhelmed by the ever-expanding number of varieties of mustard or salad dressing. But for some reason, ketchup has stayed essentially the same since it was created. How come?

According to Malcolm Gladwell, what makes ketchup so amazing is that it hits all five of the basic tastes at once — we get sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami (that proteiny, full-bodied taste in chicken soup and soy sauce). There really aren’t many other foods that hit all five. So the reason ketchup has stayed the same is that it encompasses all five of our major taste-senses.

And in fact, that’s the reason kids like ketchup so much. When they’re faced with a new and potentially scary food, they can use the fact that ketchup gives us everything we need in order to make this new food palatable.

So the “essence” of ketchup seems to be two-fold. First, it encompasses all the major taste-senses. And second, its universality allows it to be an outstanding complement to a whole range of foods, providing stability and comfort when we are faced with a new taste.

How is Torah Like Food?

The rabbis often made comparisons between Torah and food. It’s not hard to see the connection — in the Rabbis’ mindset, both Torah and food provide sustenance, both are seen as gifts from God, and both help give us strength.

But it’s not just the idea of “food in general” the Rabbis focused on. They often looked at very specific foods (and usually ones that everyone ate, and knew some facts about), and asked, “How is Torah like this particular food?”

For example, when children start to learn Hebrew, the teacher is supposed to put a dab of honey on each letter. Why? Because “Torah is as sweet as honey.” Notice that the focus is on the main aspect of honey –when we’re comparing Torah to honey, it doesn’t really matter that honey is made by bees, or that it takes a long time to make, or there’s always a little extra drip that you have to find a way to get off the spoon. No, the Rabbis want children to focus on the sweetness of honey, and hope that Torah feels just as sweet in their mouths.

Torah as a Fig-Tree

Let’s look at another example — this time using a food we don’t know as much about. Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba compares Torah to a fig tree and asks, “How is Torah like it?”

“Why are the words of Torah like a fig tree? As a fig tree yields its fruit whenever it is shaken, so does Torah always give us new teachings whenever it is repeated.” (Eruvin 54a)

What is the “essence” of a fig tree that allows it to be compared to Torah? Because the more you shake a fig tree, the more figs come down. So just like a fig tree, the more we grapple with Torah (“shake it,” if you will), the more insights will come out of it. In fact, we can find something specific about almost any food — its  “essence” — and we can try to ask, “How is Torah like it?”

So even though this may border on the heretical, let’s ask: how is Torah like ketchup?

How is Torah like Ketchup?

We certainly know a lot more about ketchup than we do about fig trees, and as we’ve seen, the Rabbis had no problem comparing Torah to a wide range of foodstuffs. And the eternal and universal nature of ketchup certainly has echoes of what Torah could be. So how is Torah like ketchup?

My own suggestion is this: ketchup does not stand on its own — it is always used in conjunction with another food. And no one has succeeded in changing ketchup because it gives us everything we need taste-wise. We need its stability in order for us to branch out and explore a wider variety of foods.

Similarly, Torah does not stand on its own. It is to be used in conjunction with what is happening in our own lives. And the eternal nature of Torah (we’ve been studying it for 3000 years!) can help us evaluate the new information that comes out every day.

So how is Torah like ketchup? Because just as ketchup encompasses all we need, but needs to be used as a companion to another food in order to be fully utilized, so too does Torah encompass all we know, but needs be used as companion to our life experiences in order to be brought into this world.

Posted on March 22, 2012

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Who Owns Our Words?

For artists and writers, their creativity is their livelihood. The ideas that sprout from their heads are what put bread on the table and rent checks and mortgage payments in the mail. But even more crucially, artists and writers bring themselves into their creation, so when someone is plagiarized, it’s not just stealing money – it’s almost like stealing a very part of who they are.

And yet once someone’s words are now out in the world, how much do those words become public domain for anyone to use? In a world where we are not only consumers, but producers, where does borrowing end and plagiarism begin?

That’s a question that Malcolm Gladwell raises in an essay called “Something Borrowed.” The 2004 Broadway play “Frozen” is, in large part, about a psychiatrist who studies serial killers. And nearly 675 words were taken almost directly from a 1997 New Yorker article entitled “Damaged” that Gladwell himself had written. And he asks – is plagiarism the same thing as stealing?

As he says:

“Words belong to the person who wrote them. There are few simpler ethical notions than this one…[and] plagiarism has gone from being bad literary manners to something much closer to a crime. When, two years ago, Doris Kearns Goodwin was found to have lifted passages from other historians, she was asked to resign from the board of the Pulitzer Prize Committee. And why not? If she had robbed a bank, she would have been fired the next day.” (Gladwell, What the Dog Saw, 225-226)

But that idea–that plagiarism is simply stealing–assumes that we own the words we speak. Yet once we have written something down, or created a piece of music, or painted a picture, it now becomes open for anyone to enjoy, to learn from, and to be inspired by. Ideas are not like physical objects–they naturally get expanded upon, interpreted, and used in other forms. So how much do we “own” the words we speak?

The Importance of Proper Attribution

If we do “own” the words we speak, then we need to make sure that the right people get the credit they deserve. And the Rabbis of the Talmud were close to obsessed with giving proper attribution to ideas and quotes. That’s why so many Jewish texts start by saying, “Rabbi So-and-So said in the name of Rabbi Such-and-Such…” But why are the Rabbis so concerned with giving proper attribution?

There are a few reasons. Pirkei Avot (6:6) tells us that “if you say something in the name of the person who originally said it, you are bringing redemption to the world.” The Mishnah and the Talmud were originally transmitted orally (that’s why it’s sometimes called the “Oral Torah”), and so there was no physical written record of who had said what. By ensuring a level of respect to those who came before, the Rabbis were also making sure that quotes, ideas and laws were handed down faithfully, and that some renegade Rabbi wasn’t making things up as he went along.

But I think there is another reasons, as well. The way God created the world was through speech – “‘Let there be light’, and there was light.” Our words are physical objects, because words create worlds. So if it was important not to steal people’s property, it was equally important not to steal their ideas, either.

Into the Public Domain

And yet the Rabbis also realized that there is a public domain, where our ideas might take on a life of their own. There is a classic story in the Talmud (Baba Metzia 59b), where the Rabbis were arguing over whether a certain type of oven was kosher.One of them, Rabbi Eliezer, tried to prove that he was right by having God perform miracles: “If I’m right, let this carob tree prove it!”, he said, and the carob tree uprooted its branches and moved. “If I’m right, let this river prove it!”, and the river started to flow backwards. But none of the other Rabbis were convinced by the miracles.Eventually, Rabbi Eliezer said, “If I’m right, let God Himself prove it!” At that moment, a heavenly voice cried out, “Why are you arguing with Rabbi Eliezer? He is always right!”

You would think this would have ended the matter. You would think that within the Rabbinic mindset, they would have said, “God gave the Torah, so God must know who has the right interpretation of it. And clearly, Rabbi Eliezer does. End of story.”

Instead, Rabbi Joshua stood up and said, “‘The Torah is not in heaven’ (Deuteronomy 30:12). We pay no attention to a divine voice.”

“We don’t listen to God any more, since the Torah is now ours,” Rabbi Joshua is saying. Notice that here the Rabbis weren’t arguing over whether Rabbi Eliezer was right or not. What they seem to be saying was that once God gave the Torah, it was now in the Rabbis’ hands to interpret it. Once the Torah was given to the people of Israel, it became theirs to own, and no longer simply God’s.

Who Owns Our Words?

So we face a tension about how ideas live in the world. On the one hand, people deserve credit if they come up with new thoughts. On the other hand, once the ideas are out there, no one truly “owns” them any more – anyone can access or use them.

As Gladwell reminds us, words do not “have a virgin birth and an eternal life” – there is a “chain of influence.” (243) So we have two-fold responsibility when it comes to attribution. First, as much as we can, we need to give credit where credit is due. Since there is nothing physical in the words we speak, it is that much more important to honor those who have created their works. On the other hand, we also have to remember that our own words quickly become public and owned by all.

The Rabbis are a perfect example of how to live out both sides of this obligation. Rabbi Joshua’s statement that “The Torah is not in heaven” implies that the greatest honor we can give the Torah is to help it become a living document. We build on what has come before, and we hope that others will build on afterwards.

So for our own ideas, we need first to remember that we build on the past. But if we think about our ideas as alive, then what greater honor can there be than having our words inspire someone else to expand on what we have created?

Posted on November 17, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy