Religious leaders have long known that if you want to attract worshipers and increase your membership rolls, food can be a valuable tool. Christian services are often followed by coffee hours, and for Jews, Sabbath worship -- on Friday night or Saturday morning -- is generally followed by a Kiddush. For some in the Jewish world, the Kiddush has become an elaborate feast at which sumptuous food and fine wines and liquors are offered to those, both members and guests, who come to pray.
This new phenomenon, healthy in some ways and deeply unsettling in others, was described in a front-page article in the weekend edition (Feb. 9-10) of the Wall Street Journal. It told the story of some synagogues in New York and Florida that take pride in their gourmet dishes and ever-changing bars.
The positive side, of course, is that for Jews, meals have always been far more than a hedonistic pleasure. It is not an accident that after being circumcised at age 99, Abraham's first act as a Jew was to invite wayfarers to a meal, offering the finest foods and presiding himself as they were served (Genesis 18). And ever since this first Jewish meal, Jews have believed that eating matters. They have recognized the physicality of the act, but have worked hard to transcend and transform it. While animals eat instinctively, Jews eat thoughtfully. While animals greedily devour their food, the Talmud teaches us to linger over our meals (Berachot 55a).
And this above all: Understanding that every morsel of food comes directly from God, when they eat, Jews invite God in. They recite blessings before eating and after eating. And they consume their food mindfully, conscious of the need to hallow their eating and see it as a gateway to holiness.
For these reasons, Jews know that meals are profoundly important in creating and sustaining a strong Jewish home and a purposeful Jewish community. Eating alone, which turns us inward, is discouraged. Festive home meals on Shabbat and Passover are of special importance. And a Kiddush at the synagogue -- another form of a Jewish communal meal -- is a blessing for the same reason; it is an opportunity to draw God in to our sacred community and to open our hearts to the concerns of others.
If in the process, the synagogue appeals to the indifferent and the uninvolved and encourages membership, so much the better.
Why then was the article unsettling? Because it described a culture of excess and ostentation, of "epicurean fare" and "pricey libations." It talked of "martini bars" and "herring bars" with 12 different kinds of herring. It talked of top-quality whiskey and $500 bottles of scotch. And it mentioned astronomical sums being spent every week to provide food and drink, usually donated by individual sponsors.
As Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb noted, such excess is not at all in keeping with Jewish standards of modesty. Furthermore, it undermines the reason why we have these communal celebrations in the first place -- which is not only to bring us together in joy but also to multiply holiness in our midst.
But it is important to point out that the cases mentioned in the article are very much the exception rather than the rule. To be sure, Jews love to eat, and virtually everywhere, stale sponge cake and bad coffee at the Shabbat Kiddush have given way to food that is tastier, more appealing, and often healthier as well. But for the overwhelming majority of our synagogues, there is a certain balance at play -- the "middle course" mentioned by Maimonides (Mishneh Torah, De'ot, 1:4). In this view, we eat in community not only for the pleasure and camaraderie, but also to give gratitude to God and honor to our values and heritage.
For congregations that understand this -- and most do -- simple fare is sufficient. At these synagogues, those present feel the glow of Torah, and "herring bars" are neither needed nor wanted.