A Matter of Taste


A long time ago, I met a Greek priest. He was not the kind of priest we hear about too often in the news. He didn’t condemn “sinners” only to go out and secretly sin himself. He welcomed everyone into his church. One day, I had the opportunity to speak with him alone, and here’s what he told me about religious people versus good people:

“A religious person will follow the letter of religious law, not the spirit. So, for example, if it’s fasting time, the religious person will fast strictly no matter where he is. If he’s welcomed into the home of someone not of the same religion or mindset, and is served a meal, he will pick through it, saying, ‘I can’t eat this,’ I can’t eat that.’ He says this to his host with pridefulness. He wants his host to know what a good, religious man he is. It never once occurs to him the expense and time his host has gone to in order to make this meal for him. He condemns this gift as not being good enough. And that, my daughter, is the real sin. Love of God is not about whether you fast according to every rule, it’s about how you treat others, for all others are also God’s children.”

I had witnessed this priest sit down at a stranger’s table during the highest of Holy Days, a week when he fasted meticulously, only to be presented with a dish that was off limits that week. He would eat it graciously, and say thank you to his host.

I’ve met other priests, other religious people who hold up their hand and say, “No. That’s not allowed.” The difference between the two, and the reactions of their host is remarkable. One says, “Thank you for being my hostess today,” the other says, “You’re not good enough for me.”

I bring this up because on Thursday, many of us will be hosting a meal, or attending a meal that someone has carefully prepared. Here’s how to spread love on that day:

If you’re hosting, make sure everyone who attends has something he or she can eat. It only takes a few phone calls or text messages to ask if someone doesn’t eat meat, is lactose intolerant, or whatever. It’s not hard to accommodate that, especially when so much is being prepared. Prepare one more thing that your gassy guest or your vegetarian guest can enjoy. Cook not to show off what a great cook you are, cook so that your guests can sit and eat without anxiety.

If you’re a guest, and you know that the host won’t or can’t prepare a dish you can eat, tell the host you’ll be bringing it. The kindest, yet firmest way to do that is to say, “I have some dietary restrictions. They’re extensive, and I don’t want to put you through extra trouble, so I’ll be bringing a dish.” If they insist that you eat what you can’t, I hope you’ll consider not attending this meal where your concerns mean nothing to the host. Go where you’re wanted, or stay home and watch the parade. Or come to our house. We’ll cook something for you, or let you bring your own.

Politics has no place at a holiday table, unless you’re absolutely sure everyone attending agrees with your point of view. If you’re at our house, I can guarantee there’ll be someone sitting there who doesn’t see things your way. That’s the beauty of having a wide variety of friends and family–they shake us up, help us think, and teach us a thing or two. Once I discover we don’t agree, I’d never insult them by arguing with them while they’re trying to eat. I’ve made the mistake in the past of assuming I know what someone thinks, and I’ve learned that a dinner table is not a podium or a lecture hall. It’s a place to break bread, to sit with people we may not see more than twice a year, to meet new people, if we’re lucky.

I don’t pray out loud. My communications with the Divine are my private communications. This is how I prefer it. If I’m at your house, please go ahead and pray. I’ll sit quietly while you do. But don’t insist that I pray ‘with you,’ because I will feel violated, as though your personal preferences supersede mine. It’s not ‘loving’ to force someone to pray with you, it’s arrogant. Same goes if you’re eating at someone else’s house. Unless you’re asked to lead a prayer, don’t ask your hosts’ guests to say one out loud. It’s presumptuous to say, “Let’s all pray,” if the host doesn’t do it. These are not your guests, and you don’t know if you’re sitting down to a meal with a Jew, a Muslim, a Catholic, or an atheist. And if you don’t notice or care that you’ve made others sitting with you uncomfortable, as the Greek priest would say, you’re being ‘religious,’ but you’re not being good.

Of seven billion people, give or take on the planet, there are only a small percentage who are truly evil. That is a fact. Most people want to be kind and compassionate. Most people carry a burden you will never see. That burden may have shaped them in ways that have affected their personalities and points of view. Try to remember that when you disagree with someone. Try to remember when you sit down at that dinner table that whoever is sitting next to you might actually be suffering in some way. They might be sad or scared but not show it. Whether you’re a host at this meal or a guest, don’t focus on yourself and how you come across–focus on making the people around you feel good. Let them, not you, shine.

Think of your words as spoonfuls of food that the person you’re speaking to must swallow. Does the food taste delicious, or is it too sour? Do you want the person to feel satisfied with what you’re feeding them, or bloated and queasy? Is this meal only about you and your feelings, or is it about everyone who is sitting there with you? Think about those who are eating at soup kitchens, or in refugee camps, or are starving in the middle of a terrible war. Be thankful to be warm and well-fed, and help others around that table be thankful too.

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