Saturday, April 14, 2012

Torahbytes: What Controls Your Tastes? (Shemini)

But anything in the seas or the rivers that does not have fins and scales, of the swarming creatures in the waters and of the living creatures that are in the waters, is detestable to you. You shall regard them as detestable; you shall not eat any of their flesh, and you shall detest their carcasses. Everything in the waters that does not have fins and scales is detestable to you. (Vayikra / Leviticus 11:10-12; ESV)

One of the things that differentiate people is our tastes. What you like may be very different from what I like. I believed that everybody liked ice cream until I finally met someone who didn't. In my own family we have a range of preferences for certain kinds of pickles. This is something I really don't get, because I know that the particular kind of pickle that I grew up with and love is objectively superior to any other kind. Yet my own children, my very own flesh and blood, somehow prefer inferior ones.

I am kidding of course. Well, sort of. Emotionally, I think there is something not quite right about anyone who doesn't share my pickle pallet. Objectively, however, I have to admit that people develop their own personal sense of taste and I shouldn't place a value on pickle preference. In fact, you may be one of those people who don't like pickles at all. But I am OK with that. We can still be friends.

Closely related to our different pickle tastes is a strong sense of preference whereby we view some things as good and acceptable and others as bad and deplorable. I can still remember when I was about five years old, my aunt reacting very negatively as I was about to touch the contents of an ash tray. What she said and how she said it impacted me to the extent that from that moment on I thought of the remnants of cigarette smoking in very negative terms.

It seems to me that our preferences are not cold objective decisions we make, but rather the result of various influences and experiences. For example, we know how difficult it can be for some (if not most) people to eat foods of cultures different from our own. The very thought of what other cultures consider "food" is enough to bring on feelings of great repulsion. But for those cultures, these foods may be the very essence of "yummy".

In the case of my experience with my aunt, she was doing what every caring adult should do, which was teaching a young child that certain things should be considered repulsive even though at the time I was attracted to it.

God cares enough to do the same. Much of what he has revealed in the Scriptures attempts to affect our tastes and preferences. Just as I needed to have my positive feelings toward ash tray contents transformed into repulsion, so we have many other natural inclinations that God wants to transform in the same way.

This week's Torah portion includes a section on how the people of Israel under the Sinai Covenant were to relate to certain kinds of animals. That under the New Covenant, this may have changed is beside the point. What is the point is that God, like my aunt, seeks to impress upon us his sense of what is acceptable and what is deplorable.

People tend to define themselves according to their preferences, tastes, and desires. Our attraction to things can be so strong at times that we might believe we are incapable of resisting them. But our preferences are not to rule our lives. God should. We need to embrace his preferences, tastes, and desires, accepting that we may be misinformed. The older we are the more difficult it might be to accept that. It might seem impossible to change. But with God's help we can.

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