Goodbye, Twinkies

So, the makers of Twinkies are going into bankruptcy. See here, among many articles that will give you the full scoop:

I will ignore the serious economic side of the story (it’s entering its third[!] bankruptcy to quash a strike) for the moment and will speak personally. Twinkies were one of the great forbidden foods of my youth. Keeping kosher, I could only look longingly at those goodies which were not under rabbinical supervision. No hechsher, no eating. Twinkies, which had such a high profile in popular culture, seemed to represent the acme of treif temptation. They and Oreos were what I yearned to eat.

Eventually, of course, I did eat them. When I lived in New York, I had access to numerous American products which had hechshers unavailable on the Canadian version. Finally, I tasted a Twinkie! Result: feh.

Now, I claim no great virtue in my dietary choices; those of you who know me personally know that this is an obvious concession. (My downfall is salty and savory stuff, though; sweets are not what get me.) But I learned a couple of things from the Twinkie fiasco. The obvious lesson was that nothing is what it’s cracked up to be. No big news there.

The second one is more interesting, I think; having a hechsher is no guarantee of nutritive or gustatory value. In fact, kosher polysorbate-60 is no better for you than the treif stuff is. And that, it seemed to me, represented a deeper lesson. Technical compliance with kashrut rules doesn’t necessarily make food better. Enlarging the idea, technical compliance with mitzvot doesn’t necessarily make people better.

This is one of those difficult questions that keep cropping up. If one of the purposes of the mitzvot is to give us an optimal set of instructions for life, why do we keep running into technically observant Jews who are not great people? The voyages of many a ba’al teshuva and plenty of frum-from-birthniks have foundered against the rocks of the imperfection of the Jewish people taken individually.

It is easy to point to the thematic mitzvot — e.g., “Love your fellow as yourself” or “Be holy” (Leviticus/VaYiqra, Ch. 19) — and say that our imperfect co-religionists are missing the point of those. But I doubt that many people set out to be villains or even flawed; I suspect that they all think they are doing their best to comply with even those great mitzvot, despite the difficulties. After all, it’s much easier to watch out for technical rules about how to separate meat and milk than it is to “be holy.” Where do you even begin with that?!

I have no solution for this. The theory, according to some, is that the self-discipline and focus required for the technical mitzvot develop our character to combat the larger temptations in life. I hope that this is so. But empirical observation still seems to be throwing brickbats at it!

Imperfectly yours,

“I know of no mistake that I could not have made myself.” — Goethe


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