Jewish World Review Nov. 30, 2004 / 17 Kislev 5765
Jay D. Homnick
Men are from Earth
Umm, delicious. It's Thanksgiving and here I am enjoying a delightful postprandial nosh, microwaves jittering from molecule to molecule to warm it, when my mind drifts to yesterday's news, which was all about food. After a lady sold a grilled-cheese sandwich that looked like the Virgin Mary on eBay for twenty-eight thousand dollars, a man put up for auction a fish stick that resembles Jesus. I hope that the buyer displays it properly but, then again, it's not my place to give a sermon on the mounting.
My fellow scriveners are riven over interpretation of this phenomenon. Some skeptics are obsessed with analyzing the optical illusion, saying that the person has some spots in their vision and it is causing them to have a - you should excuse the expression - macular conception. Others are railing against the profligate expenditures of a decadent society. Still others laud the earnest, if quirky, expression of piety.
What I find most interesting is the fact that people were willing to find divinity in a man-made thing. In the past all the faux Madonnas were objects from nature such as tomatoes or squash. But a grilled-cheese sandwich or a fish stick, molded and fashioned by human hands, never struck people as a venue for soteriology. Perhaps modern theology has matured a tad, and with it modern thanksgiving.
Think about this and let me know if you disagree. People who think of themselves as inspired poetically or religiously usually want to discourse about sunsets and mountain brooks and the way their beloved's forelock falls over her eye. When you get done parsing their prose or poetry, you wipe a tear from your eye and relish your encounter with a spiritualist.
However, when a guy wants to gush about the marvels of his new transmission, the genius of his new Palm Pilot or the power of his new lawn tractor, you take another swig from your beer and mark him for a materialist. And if he actually used the cadence of poetry to celebrate the tailoring on his new suit, you would be certain that he was engaging in a bit of gentle spoofing.
As a youngster, I used to enjoy hearing a certain famous Rabbi and author present an elaborate paean to the watermelon, explaining why the outside was green, the rind was white, the flesh was red and the pits were slippery. As an adult, when I lived in Israel in the 1980s, I was privileged to hear a great Talmud scholar who used to wax lyrical about the wonders of the human eye.
But I have never yet had the privilege and the pleasure of hearing a single religious figure carry on about the wonders of technology. (In fact, there is a great story about two scholars in Israel in the 1950s. One said to the other: "The telephone is an amazing miracle, that people can be heard on the other end of the world." His counterpart was brilliant, if a killjoy: "No, the qualitative miracle is that one person can hear another at all. Extending the range is just quantitative.")
How could this be? This puzzled me no end. Finally, it dawned on me that they have unwittingly bought the Darwinist model. The atheists framed the debate by having Nature just be there and making Man the only creator. The religionists are staying trapped in this construct, and their rejoinder is to say that G-d made Nature and only that is true creation. Because they see this as an arm wrestle between G-d and Man for prime mover status, they are demeaning the work of mankind.
Classical Jewish thinking rejects this approach. The Midrash records a conversation between Turnus Rufus, the Roman Governor of Judea, and Rabbi Akiva, the standard-bearer of Jewish scholarship. Turnus Rufus asked: "Whose work is greater, G-d or Man?" Rabbi Akiva answered: "Man. Because G-d only makes wheat but Man makes bread. G-d makes wool but Man makes clothes."
This world outlook sees G-d and Man as partners in the work of Creation, with Man being accorded the noble task of completing the process. There is no conflict in this model, only synthesis and harmony. And it invites the loaf of bread and the suit of clothes into the world of poetry and art.
We need to take this further and learn to be grateful for the automobile and the washing machine and the air conditioner and the computer. Every one of these items represents the genius of man harnessing the energies that were implanted by the Creator into the stuff of our planet. The miracle of the Internet was not facilitated by moon rocks. All the forces and components were in place while Man slowly expanded his mind sufficiently to harness them.
In the spirit of Thanksgiving, let us praise not only the turkey but the electric oven, not only the cold beer but the refrigerator. (You can always do a painting of the grilled-cheese sandwich next to a cold beer and call it Madonna With Chilled.) Methinks that George Washington understood all this when he wrote in the original Thanksgiving proclamation in 1789: "To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue and the increase of science".
Thanks for listening. And now, if you don't mind, I'll go back to eating my knish which looks like Moses.
JWR contributor Jay D. Homnick is the author of many books and essays on Jewish political and religious affairs. Comment by clicking here.
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© 2003, Jay D. Homnick