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Published on January 29th, 2011 | by Natan Margalit

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High Fructose Corn Syrup, Swimming Pools, and Judaism

A few years ago I had a little brush with a food industry giant. I had written a positive review of Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma for Tikkun magazine, in which I agreed with his critique of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Soon I got a large package in the mail from a corn industry trade organization (I’ve lost the package so I don’t have their name off-hand). I was tickled that my little article had aroused the giant to acknowledge my existence, and respond to the looming threat to their business when masses of consumers read my piece. In the package were reams of scientific papers showing that I was in serious error. In fact, they claimed, there is nothing wrong with high fructose corn syrup.

What I found interesting about their arguments was the fact that I could probably agree with them — but that even if they were 100% correct, they were beside the point. Even if high fructose corn syrup as a substance is completely safe and does not cause any particular health problem, as they claim, the problem isn’t in the substance, but in the relationships within which it exists. Specifically, I’d argue, and I think Michael Pollan would agree, the main problem with high fructose corn syrup is that it is so cheap. The economic, social and agricultural web of relationships that Pollan chronicles so well involve using a lot of oil to produce cheap corn, process it and come out with a substance that tastes sweet like sugar, but is much cheaper. The clear correlation between the rise in obesity and the mass production of high fructose corn syrup has nothing to do with the chemical substance in HFCS being bad, but everything to do with the economics which makes it attractive to put more and more of it in everything from sodas (which have grown to “super size me” proportions since HFCS became available) to teas to bread.

The well-credentialed scientists who produced these studies of HFCS are not dumb, but they and the food industry are working in the paradigm that looks for answers with a microscope. It says: if I can look closely and carefully enough at the thing itself, I can get all the answers I need about its qualities. This is the paradigm of reductionism and it is still quite dominant in our society. Michael Pollan goes after reductionism directly in his next book, In Defense of Food. There he shows how all the recent concentration on nutrition, that is, looking not at the food in context but at the vitamins it contains, spearheaded by — guess who — the food industry, has not made us any healthier, but arguably has done the opposite.

What does this have to do with Judaism and Torah? Let me start with an old joke. There were these two yeshiva bochers, boys who spend their days studying the Talmud in a traditional house of study. They were on a short vacation and were looking for something to do. A swim in the local pool would be the perfect thing. But when they got to the pool they saw a sign on the fence that read:

Pool Closed
No Swimming

The boys promptly scaled the fence and were having a wonderful time swimming when a city official came by and yelled, “What are you two doing in the pool? Can’t you read?”

The boys got out and one of them answered the official, “Of course we can read. The sign says,

Pool Closed?
No! Swimming!

so we went swimming!”

Now, this could be seen simply as a joke about the hair-splitting, obtuse logic that has spawned the vaguely negative adjective “talmudic.” But I think there is something important to learn about the Talmud and talmudic thinking here. The fact is that in the original neither the Talmud nor the Hebrew Bible are punctuated. The process of reading them is always a very participatory effort in which the reader supplies a good deal of the information. In other words, as linguists and literary theorists have been saying for a century, words (like industrial food products) don’t mean anything in and of themselves, but only in some context. And that context can shift.

Supplying or choosing the context has always been a part of how Jewish texts have been read. And, I’d argue that is what makes Jewish learning fun and keeps it alive.

One of my favorite examples of how the ancient rabbis played with context comes from the earliest compilation of Jewish Law, the Mishnah. Composed around 200 CE by Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, the Mishnah is the backbone of the Talmud. In the tractate Pesachim which deals with the laws of Passover we find the tenth chapter starts like this:

  1. On the eve of Passover, when it is close to the time of the minchah afternoon offering, no one should eat until it gets dark. And even the poorest person in the people of Israel should not eat without reclining. And they should not provide him with less than the four cups of wine, even if it means using money from community funds.
  2. They poured him the first cup. The House of Shamai says bless first over the holiday and afterword over the wine. The House of Hillel says, bless the wine, and afterword on the holiday.

The question that I ask people when I teach this text is: Who is the “him” referred to in the beginning of mishnah 2? It’s kind of a trick question because the answer is “it depends.” If you read the second mishnah by itself you probably would say that the “him” refers to the head of the household, the leader of the Seder. But we could also read the second mishnah as a continuation of the first mishnah in which case the “him” would be the same as the “him” of the first mishnah: the poorest of the poor.

When we think about it, this little palimpsest or overlapping of meaning actually hints at the central point of the holiday: we are all both heads of the household and the poorest of the poor. If you are the head of a household, you should remember that you could have been a slave, you easily could be the poorest of the poor, and if you are the poor person you should know that you are free, as free as the richest head of the finest household. There is no one meaning that exists in the word “him” but it shifts depending on the context.

And we can play with the context to find or create more meaning in the words. The rabbis left us a model of thinking that was comfortable with this idea that meaning comes in a fluid play of contexts and doesn’t reside in isolated objects. Perhaps this also has something to do with the Jewish predilection for community. A classic ethnography of the shtetl, Jewish village life in Eastern Europe, is appropriately titled Life is With People. We find woven though Jewish texts and Jewish life that idea that you cannot simply break things down into smallest components, not texts and not people. You can play with the patterns that connect, but as the great anthropologist/biologist/psychologist Gregory Bateson said, “Break the pattern which connects the items of learning and you necessarily destroy all quality.”

We are fast approaching a time when the ingrained ways of thinking by isolating and reducing will not work. As in the case of high fructose corn syrup, the danger lies not in the object but rather in the economic and social context which makes such a (superficially) cheap source of sweetness available. But an alternative way of thinking exists. Pattern, or systems thinking is not only a better fit with the way the world of nature and society actually work, but it is also fun, creative and enlivening. Using this way of thinking helps us to open up and understand Jewish texts and life, and these texts and life patterns may just offer a rich source of wisdom, desperately needed in our world.

(c) 2010, Rabbi Natan Margalit

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3 Responses to High Fructose Corn Syrup, Swimming Pools, and Judaism

  1. nmargalit says:

    Actually, according to an article in the NYT this past Wednesday, April 13, there really is a problem with fructose itself. Its a scary and fascinating article. That doesn’t, however, invalidate my point. Scientists can debate whether there is anything intrinsically dangerous about fructose, or HFCS, but the context is still the major factor in determining whether it harms us or not.

  2. Miriam says:

    I think “him” refers to anyone who enters, householder or poor person. They both represent God, as the divine soul is the same in both. We welcome Elijah who represents the divine soul, so we also welcome visitors and even ourselves. I think the point of the Mishnah is that a) it doesn’t matter which you bless first, the holiday or the wine — the point is that you “offer”.
    do please correct the grammatical/usage typo in the second mishnah as “afterword” is not the same as “afterwards.”
    Interesting blog. Good luck with it. Miriam

  3. Leslie Belay says:

    Wow! What a thought provoking way to start my morning ritual of reading email posts!

    I sort of deliberately know little to nothing about the scientific virtues or evils of high fructose corn syrup. I do know that it is cheap, sweet, and that Whole Foods Market won’t carry products made with it. Assuming that your original post is correct, that there is nothing intrisically dangerous with the chemically manufactured sweetener, I might still agree that there is an economic cost associated with the product due to high reliance on fossil fuels to grow the corn using chemical based fertilizer. If you want to campaign against over-reliance on fossil fuels and chemical based fertilizer I’m with you – especially since we have a cheap and effective and non-damaging alternative — namely organic compost.

    But to campaign against the use of HFCS because it is cheap and sweet and people like the taste and overconsume and get fat is also to miss the point. I’m all for excluding sugary sodas and snacks in schools. You can even get my support for limiting advertising geared towards children, because they are young and immpressionable and are captive audiences to boot.

    But adults in this country are guaranteed a choice. If I go to the market, I can buy sweetened organge juice, natural orange juice, and, low-sugar organge juice. Believe me, I prefer the choice! I think you can see where I am going with this argument. Context is important, and learning to “read the fine print” is one of the skills that is learned when studying Talmud. The solution suggested by Jewish approaches to learning is not to limit interpretations or remove individual choice, but rather to educate all people to be able to discern between what is right and wrong, healthy and not, and to make choices between seemingly indivisible options.

    HFCS is not the problem. Fossil fuel based agriculture is. False and misleading advertising is. Social norms that promote excess in all things are a problem. An education system that promotes test taking over systems thinking is.

    But then we find that messing with the system we have created inadvertently creates other problems. Let’s just use the example of switching from gasoline to bio-fuel. A few years ago this was a popular solution to over-reliance on fossil fuels. Today, it is criticized for taking land out of production for food crops in favor of the new cash crop (such as corn for bio-fuel instead of tortillas.) It gets us back to your original argument — that context is everything!

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