Steven Weinberg
Steven Weinberg
PhD Student at Rutgers University

Haftarah Beschalach: Drink Ancient Milk

What is the color of milk? White, you might think. But actually, milk comes in four different colors. The four colors are light blue, navy blue, green, and red. Light blue was skim milk, navy blue was one-percent, green was two-percent, and red was whole milk. These, at least, were the colors of the milk labels on the supermarket I went to as a child. Honestly, maybe I am not perfectly remembering my childhood milk cartons, but this color-coding system will regardless be forever etched into my memory.

At our house, we always had either skim milk—light blue—or one-percent—dark blue. Never the green two-percent and truly never the red whole milk. Actually, for many years, I didn’t even know there was such a thing as whole milk. One day, I asked my mom what one-percent or two-percent actually meant, as in, one-percent of what? She told me: well, there is actually another milk called whole milk. It’s like the original “milk”—it’s very rich. If you want, I’ll buy it for you sometime, she offered. I didn’t really care that much, as I figured that there was a good reason that this whole milk never once appeared in our refrigerator through my entire childhood and adolescence. So, I didn’t take her up on her offer.

A short time later, I found myself with her at the supermarket. I kept my eye out for this whole milk. She was right. There it was, sitting in the giant supermarket refrigerator alongside the other milks. I can only describe my reaction to it with one word: fear. And the bright red color of its cap and label only reinforced and confirmed my jitters. Red was the color of warning, of danger, of unhealth. Code red. Blood red. Who would drink this milk? I asked myself. I pictured it being drunk by the dregs of society; in my mind’s eye I saw the handicapped, the obese, the junkies chugging jugs of whole milk with their ominous red labels.

It wasn’t always this way. Milk has been drunk by humans for thousands of years. And back then, milk was known by only one color—white. The only milk in town was whole milk; in fact, because it was the only milk in existence, it wasn’t even called whole milk—it was simply called “milk.” Just milk. What changed? As I discussed in life tip #4 on olive oil, the twentieth-century, particularly the late twentieth-century, has seen the introduction of an array of new foods which the world has never witnessed before. Skim milk is one of these. It seems to have been introduced during the war as a way of better supporting soldiers fighting overseas. Everyone agreed it tasted terrible but people sucked it up anyway. By the 1980s, skim milk had been a common purchase at American supermarkets, but it still hadn’t overtaken whole milk. But that would slowly change. In 1980, the USDA cautiously advised substituting skim milk to whole milk if and only if you preferred the taste of skim milk and you desired to reduce your intake of fat. By 1985, however, the USDA emphatically recommended skim milk instead of whole milk. In 1988, low-fat milk sales exceeded whole milk sales for the first time. To this day, public schools are required to serve only non-fat and low-fat milk to students. This requirement was mandated by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 heralded by the otherwise responsible Michelle Obama.

How did this happen? As I see it, there are three reasons, one political, two philosophical. Politically, this may have happened because of the lobbying of the sugar industry. In the 1960s, the sugar industry influenced the American government to promote sugar and, in turn, demote fat. Quite simply, the sugar industry paid off scientists in the 1960s to, according to the New York Times, “play down the link between sugar and heart disease and promote saturated fat as the culprit instead.” This power play by the sugar industry sidelined high-fat products in favor of high-sugar foods. People were duped into believing that they could eat as much carbs and sugar as they wanted as long as the food was “fat-free” or “low-fat.” Today, it is more widely known that it is largely sugar which is the culprit for obesity and heart disease and not saturated fat. Still, the fat myth continues on due to this 1960s bribery. Milk, it goes without saying, went not unscathed by this anti-fat, pro-carb campaign. Whole milk, indeed, contains saturated fat—five grams per serving. The sugar industry’s lobbying effort required that skim milk become the new normal as it had almost no saturated fat content. Ideologically, whole milk could not be abided in this new anti-fat, pro-carb world. In short, the encroaching anti-fat campaign of the sixties, achieving hegemonic proportions by the eighties, successfully demonized whole milk, if only incidentally. This is why, unfortunately, we never had whole milk in my childhood refrigerator. We, like millions of other Americans, were deceived by our sugar-backed government.

Yet, there are two philosophical reasons as well. How did skim milk overtake whole milk after thousands of years of whole milk’s unchallenged dominance and unquestioned superiority? I think it comes from the attitude, which we may call arrogant, that we moderns know better than the ancients. The newness of skim milk should have made us question it and doubt it; yet, the opposite occurred. We assumed that because it was new and backed up by “new science,” it had to be more credible. This attitude, I think, continually gets us into trouble. Arguably, the entire overarching theme of The Schrift is that we need to unlearn our assumption that we are wiser than the ancients.

In many ways, our age is remarkably similar to that of the late-nineteenth century. Both ages were grappling with technological change at lightning speed. For us, it is the internet and the smartphone and cheap flights. For them, it was the telephone and the factory and the automobile. Another similarity is that both of these ages were overconfident as to where they stood on the trajectory of human progress. We, and they, believed that past wisdom could be left behind, that we knew better than what had come before.

Much of Nietzsche’s philosophy, largely written in the 1880s, was devoted to attacking this presumption. Nietzsche has in mind, here, the new country of Germany, founded in 1871, which took every chance it could to latch on to modern ideas to propel itself to its own place under the European sun. Germany, self-conscious of its precarious roots, ashamed of its lack of historical identity, turned to the promises of the modern world as a way of giving itself legitimacy and power. Germany thus embraced, following Bismarck’s Revolution in 1871, modern ideas of nationalism, of industrialization, and of science—think, for example, of how many great physicists came out of Germany in this period—Planck, Heisenberg, Schroeder, Einstein, Geiger.

In order to demonstrate the naïveté of faith in modernity, Nietzsche contrasts Germany with two ancient cultures—Russia and the Jews. Nietzsche notes how Russia and the Jews, because of their self-confidence and stability, do not let themselves be so easily seduced by modern ideas. Nietzsche writes in Beyond Good and Evil: “[The Germans oppress the Jews because the Germans are a race] that is still weak and uncertain, so that it could be easily erased, easily dissolved away by a stronger race. But the Jews are without any doubt the strongest, most tenacious, and purest race now living in Europe. They understand how to prevail even under the worst conditions (better even than under favourable conditions), as a result of certain virtues which today people might like to stamp as vices—thanks, above all, to a resolute faith which has no need to feel shame when confronted by ‘modern ideas.’ They always change, if they change, only in the way the Russian empire carries out its conquests—as an empire that has time and was not born yesterday—that is, according to the basic principle ‘as slowly as possible!’”

Like the denizens of this new Germany, we were seduced by the modernity of skim milk. We eagerly accepted the hasty recommendations of the USDA in 1985 to drink skim milk instead of whole milk even while our ancestors dating back millennia were simultaneously turning over in their graves at such an abhorrent thought.

The second philosophical reason why we embraced skim milk can also be explained through Nietzsche’s assistance. Even though we live in a post-Christian era, the values of Christianity have not dissipated—quite the contrary. Nietzsche argues that Christian values stem from the agendas of the founders of Christianity. These people were largely the downtrodden, the poor, the hungry—they were, in Nietzsche’s words, the “slaves” of the Roman Empire who needed to kiss the feet of the Roman patricians—the masters. In short, their lives sucked. But rather than just admitting that it sucked to be a slave, they twisted their reality into something positive. They equated suffering in this world as evidence that they would be rewarded in the next world—in heaven. This idea can be conveniently encapsulated in the well-known phrase from the Gospel of Matthew: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to get into heaven.” In Christian morality, richness, pleasure, power, abundance became evil and poverty, anguish, and desolation became good. This was how, according to Nietzsche, Roman slaves could find solace in their pitiful existences.

Not coincidentally, these same words apply just as much to master-slave morality as they do to whole and skim milk respectively. The masters enjoyed a life of richness, abundance, pleasure, bounty—these were more or less the same words my mother used when she first attempted to describe whole milk to me. It’s very rich she once said. Then we have skim milk. Its very title gives away its character. It is skim, that is, it is paltry, meager, emaciated. It is, in a word, slave milk. Yet, our culture, still unconsciously Christian, perversely believed that richness is evil, even in milk it is evil. And that, moreover, if we suffer when we drink milk, all sorts of future benefits will accrue—better health, less heart disease, a slimmer frame. If you enjoy your food, you will be punished, but if you hate your food, you can expect future rewards.

The haftarah this week comes from the Book of Judges. In this reading, we get a fascinating story about a battle on Mount Tabor, a general named Barak, and a judge named Deborah. This haftarah throws us into the early days of Israel’s history, before there was even a king or a true government. Judges like Deborah ruled the land, and the main task of the new Hebrew nation was basically to drive out enemy tribes who threatened Israel’s security. Deborah orders Barak to go to battle with the Canaanites. They fight on Mount Tabor in the Lower Galilee at the eastern end of the Jezreel Valley. Barak’s army does well, but nevertheless, the Canaanite general Sisera gets away, rendering Barak’s victory rather inconsequential. However, a Bedouin woman named Yael is there to help him out.

Sisera is on the run and he spots a tent where he hopes to hide and receive shelter. It is Yael’s tent and she welcomes Sisera inside. Sisera asks for water, but instead Yael gives him milk and butter. Sisera soon falls into a deep sleep. Yael rubs her hands together and watches Sisera for a moment as he slumbers. She then takes in one hand a hammer and in the other a tent peg. She holds the tent peg up to Sisera’s ear. Sisera is in such a deep sleep that he does not stir. Yael lifts the hammer into the sky, brings it down hard on the tent peg, and hammers the peg deep into Sisera’s skull. Blood explodes from Sisera’s ear, the general swoons and is dead within seconds. For this action, Yael will be heralded and praised by Deborah in song, as without her deed, who knows if the Hebrews would have ever really prevailed over the Canaanites?

The Torah does not tell us what kind of milk Yael gave to Sisera. It just says “milk” or in Hebrew “chalav.” This is because, back then, there was only one kind of milk—whole milk—so there was no need to differentiate. Yael gives Sisera this milk, accompanied by butter, because she knows that this is a hearty, filling, satisfying milk. She knows that Sisera, already exhausted from battle and from flight, will feel relaxed, satiated, and yes, even a bit sleepy, from this luscious milk. And Yael predicts rightly. The depiction of Sisera’s slumber makes evident that this milk has done his body good, that he is enjoying a deep and much needed rest, that his body is at peace, that his mind is at ease. The Torah reads that “he was in a deep sleep and weary; and he died.” Indeed, Sisera’s sleep appears to have been so deep that he did not even awake as he was dying. Even Rashi notes that Yael gave Sisera milk because milk tends to bring about drowsiness and then slumber.

If you want to feel shaky, stressed, wired, unsatisfied, then sure, go ahead, drink skim milk. It will leave you so strung out that the slightest noise will awaken you from your sleep; it will render you restless and offer you an alternative to water but with more chemicals. However, if you want to feel nourished, contented, and happy, if you want to sleep as deeply and soundly as Sisera, then take my life tip and drink the milk with the red label.

About the Author
Steven Weinberg is a PhD student at Rutgers University in the German Department. His dissertation is on Franz Kafka and the Kabbalah. He grew up in Philadelphia, but moved to Israel in his late twenties, where he studied literature at Ben-Gurion University. Currently, Steven live in Berlin, but travels to Israel and America as often as he can. His blog is based off his podcast, The Schrift, a weekly lecture series on Torah, German literature, and meditation. The Schrift is available on Apple and Spotify platforms.
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