Charles Lamb and the Difficulties of Praising God in an Age of Plenty

Sept. 30 2022

In his 1823 essay, “Grace before Meat,” the writer and poet Charles Lamb reflected on the awkwardness with which his fellow Englishmen utter benedictions before meals. Can the well-to-do, he wondered, really offer such prayers properly when they live without fear of going hungry? Ephraim Fruchter appreciates Lamb’s point, yet argues that the question yields different results when applied to the Jewish blessings said before and after eating, and the attitudes that underpin them:

For one thing, blessings over food are not merely proclamations of thanks; they also serve as the redemption of heavenly property (Talmud, Tracate B’rakhot 35a). Regardless of the intensity of one’s personal gratitude in any particular moment, there remains a requirement to receive permission prior to partaking.

Jewish tradition, moreover, has a ready answer to the following challenge, which Lamb poses at the beginning of his essay:

It is not otherwise easy to be understood, why the blessing of food—the act of eating—should have had a particular expression of thanksgiving annexed to it, distinct from that implied and silent gratitude with which we are expected to enter upon the enjoyment of the many other various gifts and good things of existence. I own that I am disposed to say grace upon twenty other occasions in the course of the day besides my dinner. I want a form for setting out upon a pleasant walk, for a moonlight ramble, for a friendly meeting, or a solved problem. Why have we none for books, these spiritual repasts—a grace before Milton—a grace before Shakespeare—a devotional exercise proper to be said before reading the Fairy Queen?

By contrast, Fruchter points out, the Talmud indeed mandates blessings for all sorts of other experiences, from enjoying fragrant smells to seeing a rainbow. And although there is no blessing for the reading of Milton, there is one to be said before Torah study. “Finally,” Fruchter notes, Lamb’s preference for “occasional heroic piety runs counter to the Jewish approach,” which instead values above all the more modest “daily effort of those who care, which preserves the continued presence of God.”

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More about: Food, Judaism, Prayer

Will Tensions Rise between the U.S. and Israel?

Unlike his past many predecessors, President Joe Biden does not have a plan for solving the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Moreover, his administration has indicated its skepticism about renewing the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. John Bolton nevertheless believes that there could be a collision between the new Benjamin Netanyahu-led Israeli government and the Biden White House:

In possibly his last term, Netanyahu’s top national-security priority will be ending, not simply managing, Iran’s threat. This is infinitely distant from Biden’s Iran policy, which venerates Barrack Obama’s inaugural address: “we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

Tehran’s fist is today otherwise occupied, pummeling its own people. Still, it will continue menacing Israel and America unless and until the internal resistance finds ways to fracture the senior levels of Iran’s regular military and the Revolutionary Guards. Netanyahu undoubtedly sees Iran’s growing domestic turmoil as an opportunity for regime change, which Israel and others can facilitate. Simultaneously, Jerusalem can be preparing its military and intelligence services to attack Tehran’s nuclear program, something the White House simply refuses to contemplate seriously. Biden’s obsession with reviving the disastrous 2015 nuclear deal utterly blinds the White House to the potential for a more significant victory.

To make matters worse, Biden has just created a Washington-based position at the State Department, a “special representative for Palestinian affairs,” that has already drawn criticism in Israel both for the new position itself and for the person named to fill it. Advocated as one more step toward “upgrading” U.S. relations with the Palestinian Authority, the new position looks nearly certain to become the locus not of advancing American interests regarding the failed Authority, but of advancing the Authority’s interests within the Biden administration.

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More about: Benjamin Netanyahu, Iran, Joe Biden, U.S.-Israel relationship