With Passover slipping behind me, I am prompted to ask a question.
Question: do all religions have food-denial rituals? Let’s speculate Yes and speculate why.
Religions endeavor to define and enforce their own brands of a moral code. Perhaps a common element shared by religions is the idea that pursuing pleasure for its own sake—not in the service of a deity or a higher principle—is “evil”. Pleasure-seeking is selfish at best, and hedonistic or depraved at worst. And the lure of pleasure is something to be feared and guarded against.
To prevent pleasure from exerting undue influence in our lives, it must be carefully meted out.
The most frequently accessed pleasure is food. In a rich society one finds oneself constantly tempted by an endless variety of gustatory creations. Consequently, the religious being has a natural anxiety associated with food. If I have everything I desire, will I be forced into seeking ever more flamboyant “fixes”? Will pleasure start to lose meaning? Isn’t gratifying every food desire deleterious to my health? Shouldn’t I feel guilty about enjoying myself so much? Won’t food cost me my youthful figure (not to mention my actual youth)? And, above all, does food have ultimate control, pulling me in many directions as some sort of puppet?
The answer to these dilemmas is to demonstrate our mastery over food. This is a natural response, with or without religion. However, religion has capitalized on this response and has incorporated it into its moral code. Wherever you find a religious restriction on food, there you will also find devoted followers. Religious practice—in general, and for food in particular—reassures us that we are doing the right thing. Food traditions allow us to believe that we are not mindless grazers, but are spiritually driven, self-determined human beings.
This is serious business! You may not laugh! (Right, Rabbi?)