Saturday, January 28, 2023

The Slow Movement is gaining momentum (!)

It was sparked in 1986 by Carlo Petrini, the Slow Food gourmet, by his protest against the opening of a McDonald’s—the quintessential “fast food” restaurant—in the famous Piazza di Spagna in Rome. It advocates a cultural shift toward slowing down life’s pace. Cittaslow International advocates for “slow cities.” In 1999, Geir Berthelsen, an expert in change management, founded The World Institute of Slowness. It claims that “slowness is the forgotten dimension to time. Unlike chronological time, it is non-linear, time here and now, time that works for you, extraordinary time.” So why be fast when you can be slow, they ask? Slowness, its website proclaims “is also about balance, so if you must hurry, then hurry slowly. “Festina Lente!” (“Make haste slowly.”)

Slowness members now exceed 100,000, in 50 countries, and is rapidly growing.

These folks are not Luddites, persons opposed to increased industrialization or new technology, named for the bands of English workers who destroyed machinery, especially in cotton and woolen mills, that they believed was threatening their jobs (1811–16). Really.

Carl Honoré really put slowness on the world map with his book, “In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed,” and his related TED Talk. The nuclear idea, which we can’t disagree with, is that we get more pleasure and more health from our food when we cultivate, cook and consume it at a reasonable pace. The Slow Cities movement, which has started in Italy but has spread, developed from it. It encourages people to slow down and smell the roses and connect with one another.

Honoré describes the two different approaches (fast and slow) like this:

“Fast is busy, controlling, aggressive, hurried, analytical, stressed, superficial, impatient, active, quantity-over-quality.”

“Slow is the opposite: calm, careful, receptive, still, intuitive, unhurried, patient, reflective, quality-over-quantity.”

“Fast thinking is rational, analytical, linear, logical… Slow thinking is intuitive, woolly and creative.”

Are these ideas Jewish?

To some extent, they are.

Sarah Yehudit Schneider, a contemporary teacher of Torah in Jerusalem, writes that “humanity’s first sin was not Adam and Eve’s eating of forbidden fruit, but rather the way they ate it. The Tree of Knowledge…was not a tree or a food or a thing at all. Rather it was a way of eating. Whenever a person grabs self-conscious pleasure from the world, he falls, at that moment, from God consciousness… Whenever we eat without proper kavana (intention) we repeat this original sin. The primary fixing of human civilization is to learn to eat in holiness.”

Slowness, indeed, espouses important ideas, mostly Jewish. But they aren’t new ideas at all.

Not just because Kohelet (1:9) teaches that there is nothing new under the sun. Not just because The Yerushalmi (Pe’ah, 16d) teaches us that any new teaching (“chidush”) propounded by a scholar was already taught to Moshe at Mount Sinai.

Slowness is in our sources. In Berachot (Chapter 5, Mishna 1) the Mishna approvingly relates that the “chasidim harishonim” (the original pious ones) would wait a [full] hour prior to saying their prayers, “lechavain et libam laMakom” (to align their hearts with the Almighty).

Even “speed-dressing” is frowned on, so you should not put on two articles of clothing at one time because it makes you forget things (kosheh l’shikcha).

The opposite, hurrying, in our sources, may also presage a sense of foreboding, as when Jonathan sends David a coded warning by ordering his youthful aide (na’ar) to hurry (I Sam 20:38). When Achashverosh tells Haman maher—“Quick—take the royal vestments and royal horse” to Mordechai (Esther 6:10), it was the beginning of Haman’s end.

Slow cooking, the genesis of the slowness movement, is us too. We all embrace slow-cooked food for Shabbat—out of necessity. Since we can’t cook on Shabbat, but food at least half-cooked prior to Shabbat (known in halachic terms as ma’achal Ben Derusoi) is permitted, the age-old solution is to prepare—before Shabbat—a stew, slow-cooked on a low flame, that is at least one-half (some say one-third) cooked before Shabbat and leave it overnight on a hot plate or other approved heating method, e.g., a blech or metal sheet over a stovetop burner. What emerges is cholent (also called shalet or chamin), the quintessentially Jewish slow, overnight-cooked stew for Shabbat or its variations in various Jewish diaspora. Cholent, also known as shalet, safina or skhina, osh savo, tabbet and pacha, has been eaten on Shabbat since earliest times. The oldest reference we have to cholent itself is by Rabbi Yitzhak ben Moshe of Vienna (~1200 - ~1270), the 13th-century author of Or Zarua who mentions it (II:8) in relation to the Jews of France, but it is discussed in general terms much earlier.

Eating cholent on Shabbat is universally approved. Rabbi Zerachiah haLevi of Gerona, in his 12th-century commentary to Rabbi Yitzhak Alfasi’s Sefer haHalachot, declares emphatically that all those who abstain (for mistaken “halachic” reasons) from eating cholent on Shabbat, as Rabbi Eliyahu Shapira (1660-1712) points out, should check their lineage, lest they turn out to be descended from sectarians (e.g., Karaites) who did not allow any fire on Shabbat, including one started prior to Shabbat, which rabbinic law permits.

The Slow Movement has a Slow Food Manifesto. It’s a declaration of intentions of its proponents. To my mind, it goes overboard, and not all its ideas are ours. For example, “we propose the vaccine of an adequate portion of sensual gourmandize pleasures, to be taken with slow and prolonged enjoyment” does not make it to the top of the list of Jewish values. They seek to “defend ourselves against the universal madness of ‘the fast life’ with tranquil material pleasure.” The snail is “purposely chosen as its patron and symbol; it is an idea and a way of life that needs much sure but steady support.”

In contrast, Mishlei teaches us (6:6), “Go to the ant, you lazy one! See her ways and be wise.”

Of course, we embrace Shabbat as our slow day, a day of rest, prayer, family, learning, introspection and contemplation. It is our gift from Hashem.

“The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moshe, ‘I have a good gift stored in my treasury; its name is Shabbat. I desire to give it to Israel. Go and inform them’” (Talmud Beitza 16a).

But speed can be important too. “The alacritous (zerizim, the quick, ready and willing) fulfill mitzvot as early as possible” is a general principle (see RH 32b for one example).

We don’t advocate slacking off at work. Commenting on Ex. 20:9-10, the Avot de Rabbi Natan, a commentary on Pirkei Avot (compiled 7-900 CE) and usually found in the back of Seder Nezikin as one of the “Minor Tractates,” notes: “Just as Israel is commanded to keep the Sabbath, Israel is commanded to work, based on Job 5:7, ‘Man was born to work.’”

The general credo of the Slowness Movement is “for the defense of and the right to pleasure.” That too is a Jewish idea. But like most things Jewish, pleasure is permitted, encouraged and channeled, but within the constraints of Jewish law. So, to cite one example, and without belaboring the obvious, intimate relations are permitted between married couples during times when the female partner is permitted to her husband (not nidah), and not otherwise.

Appreciating natural beauty is another example of a Jewish value advocated by the Slowness Movement.

American country singer, guitarist and songwriter Jerry Reed (1937-2008) wrote the lyrics to “Smell the Flowers,” advising:

“Smell the flowers while the roses bloom

Take the time, my friend, and sing a happy tune.

Oh, how precious every mile, so take a minute, learn to smile

My friend, let’s stop a while and smell the flowers

Smell the flowers.”

We Jews do appreciate natural beauty, including flowers. It is a well-established custom to decorate our homes and shuls on Shavuot with flowers. The Maharil, Rabbi Yaakov ben Moshe Levi Moelin (~1365–1427), discusses it (Minhagei Maharil, ed. Spitzer, p. 160) as does the Rema, Rabbi Moshe Isserles (1520–1572) and Rabbi Joseph Yuspa Hahn Nordlingen relates to it in his classic work “Yosef Ometz” (Frankfurt am Main, 1928, p. 187, paragraph 851).

Moreover, we are mandated to recite a bracha (Shulchan Aruch 216:1) over flowers. This applies both to harvested flowers and plants and to those still connected to the ground (the Chofetz Chaim, Rabbi Yisrael Meir HaCohen Kagan (1839-1933), in Biyur Halacha 216:1) explains: By making a bracha on these flowers, we utilize their fragrance to praise Hashem for the beautiful flowers He has provided.

In fact, the Gemara sternly warns that one who benefits from this world without making a bracha has stolen from Hashem and from the Jewish people (Berachot 35b). This applies to fragrances just as it applies to foods.

But consider this: In Avot (3:7), Rabbi Shimon (or Rabbi Yaakov [ben Korsha]) teaches, “One who walks along a road and studies, and interrupts his studying to say, ‘How beautiful is this tree!’ ‘How beautiful is this ploughed field!’—the Torah considers it as if he had forfeited his life.”

What was it that aroused such wrath? Was anyone opposed to appreciating the beauty of nature? Surely not. The error of such a person, Rav Tzvi Yehuda HaCohen Kook (1891–1982), long-time head of Jerusalem’s Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva, founded by his father Rav Avraham Yitzchak haCohen Kook (1865-1935), explained, is not that he voiced his aesthetic appreciation for graceful trees and scenic vistas. That is perfectly legitimate. Indeed, the Sages formulated a special bracha to express our wonder and marvel at nature’s springtime reawakening in Nisan, with its effusion of colorful flowers and trees in bloom, recited in Nisan, just once a year. “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, Who has made nothing lacking in His world, and created in it goodly creatures and goodly trees to give mankind pleasure.” (If you have not had the opportunity to recite the bracha, now, before Pesach, is a good time.)

Rather, the error Rabbi Shimon rails about is in regarding this wonder as an acceptable interruption from Torah study. He mistakenly compartmentalizes life, isolating his inward-directed spiritual life of prayer and Torah from the outside world’s beauty and grandeur. By doing so, “he forfeits his soul”—he abandons his soul’s sense of beauty and its harmony with the natural universe.

Judaism is not about spered or slowness. It is all about balance, harmony and boundaries, all of which, incidentally, are important to mental health. The National Alliance on Mental Illness tells its members that establishing and maintaining values and boundaries will improve the sense of security, stability, predictability and order.

Hag kasher v’sameach.

By David E. Y. Sarna

 David E. Y. Sarna is a writer and retired entrepreneur. He has eight published books, including “Evernote For Dummies,” hundreds of articles and has nearly completed his first novel about the Jewish treasures in the Vatican’s secret archive. He is hard at work on a book about the Internet of Things, and also on a book on the Talmud for general readers. He and his wife, Dr. Rachel Sarna, are long-time Teaneck residents.


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