“[Abraham] then brought some curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared, and set these before them. While they ate, he stood near them under a tree.”
– Genesis 18:8
Consider the miracle and mystery of cheese. You take milk. You combine it with the sloughed-off lining of the stomach of a calf called rennet. Store it away and in a few days or weeks and voila! We got cheese!
Neolithic tribes worshiped cheese. Since then, cheese has been intimately entwined with civilization. But for Jews, cheese poses a special problem. The Torah forbids Jews to cook the meat of the kid with the milk of the mother, possibly because of its intrinsic cruelty. In the mystical tradition, milk represents mother’s nurturing and it comes from sheep and cows and goats, animals we domesticate and nurture. Meat requires spilling blood. It is predatory and reminds us of our bestial natures. Milk, then, needs to be protected from meat. They should never touch, and when they have to interact, Jews erect barriers in time and space to separate them. Over the centuries, this has evolved into an elaborate system of kosher rules separating all meat foods from anything that has touched milk. So while serving our body’s need for sustenance by eating milk and meat, kosher laws remind us of the sources of our food. We discipline our cognizance and actions in eating them at separate times off of separate dishes and cooking them in separate pots. Kosher eating is mindful eating.
With all this invested in the barrier between the two realms, then how is it possible that cheese, made with lining from a cow’s stomach, somehow gets an exemption? The sages of the Talmud give us what seems like a technical reason, but as Aeschylus said, “Wrong should not get by on a technicality.” If we look closely though, we’ll see that the technicality anticipates discoveries only recently made by science. The details of their apparent foreknowledge suggests that the Torah is a channel for knowing things that are only slowly revealed over the millenia by science. To put it more simply, though as a rational modern I resist this conclusion, it seems science is catching up to wisdom revealed thousands of years ago to the Jews. To see that this is more than just a coincidence and the Talmud’s technicalities reveal a true understanding of the science of cheese, we’ll have to dip into we’ve learned more recently about the science behind the magic of cheese.
Gateway between life and death: the quantum biology of yeast and enzymes
Even before the Jews, the ancients worshiped cheese for more than its exquisite taste and texture. Milk seems to come alive in its transformation, as Paul S. Kindstedt shows in in his epic treatment, Cheese and Culture (2012). Modern chemistry explains the source of that transformation. Milk turns into cheese because rennet contains a key enzyme that breaks down one of the proteins in milk and curdles it, making it edible in another, richer form. Although the ancients recognized this magic, and chemistry defined the essential process, it is only now in the 21st century through the new science of quantum biology that we are beginning to understand the way enzymes actually do work to be the gateway between the living and the non-living that Neolithic people marvelled at.
In high school chemistry, you probably used yeast as an example of enzymatic activity (enzyme is just Greek for the things that are “in yeast”). Yeast is made up of single-celled living creatures. When we let these creatures feed on their favorite food – sugar or anything that contains sugar or carbohydrates – they carry in them the enzymes that digest it into sugar’s components: alcohol, carbon dioxide, energy, and some residue molecules that add flavors. Neolithic observers could see bubbling, rising fermentation (chemists call it catalysis) that introduced life into inert matter.
Enzymes are present in all living things, in every living cell on Earth and in every process that sustains life: digestion, neural action, making new cells and repairing old ones (growth and healing), reproduction, respiration and so on. Enzymes are not organisms, but no organism or living process can survive without them. In short, because they sit astride the border between animate and inanimate, they’re a good battleground for the eternal philosophical war between materialists and vitalists.
Materialists (or mechanists) believe the universe and everything in it, including humans and human consciousness, is a vast machine. The cosmos is made up only of physical things and the physical processes or forces between them. Most of science is a form of fundamentalism. It believes that ultimately everything can be explained by rational descriptions of matter and the forces acting on matter.
Arrayed against them are those who argue that there is a meta-physical force in the universe that animates all life, a force that cannot be reduced to mechanical explanations. Religious fundamentalists argue that the metaphysical force is God.
(This is obviously an over-simplification of the debate that is at least as old as Classical Greece and has many names and versions; if you want to check out a sophisticated summary, see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry, “Reductionism in Biology“)
Quantum weirdness invades our world
Although yeast is a living thing, enzymes seem to be purely chemical machines. In the debate between materialists and vitalists, enzymes have been one of the best proofs of the materialist view of life. They seem to explain how life is introduced into inert matter without resorting to magical explanations. But how exactly they brought stuff to life was still a mystery until quantum biology gave us a way to explain its action. What would be a further victory for scientific materialism, however, comes with a price: quantum physics is weird, so weird that since it was conceived out of early 20th century physics, it persistently invited metaphysical speculations. In the 1970s, it got so challenging that the editor of the prestigious Physics Today was forced to impose a ban on all metaphysical and philosophical discussions of quantum mechanics.
Five weird things about quantum mechanics
There’s no way to explain quantum processes without over-simplifying it or resorting to analogies that may not do justice to its actual, full-on weirdness. But here are a few of the facts that you will need to know as we continue to delve the mysteries of cheese:
- Sub-atomic entities behave like both waves of energy and particles at the same time.
- You can’t know the precise location and momentum of a sub-atomic entity because it doesn’t have one until you look at it. Then it seems to settle. (Called “the Uncertainty Principle”)
- A single sub-atomic particle can be in two places at once. But if you affect one, its other self will react, even if they are separated by millions of miles. (Called “Superposition”)
- They can pass through otherwise impassible-seeming barriers and travel faster than the speed of light, and both backwards and forwards in time. (Called “Quantum Tunneling”)
- When it is observed or measured, it “collapses” from its various possible quantum states into one state. It stops behaving “quantumishly” and starts behaving classically. (Called “Measurement”)
Quantum biology of cheese
If you can stomach it (sorry), here’s the technical explanation:
Calves require a special enzyme to break down otherwise indigestible milk contained in its fourth stomach. Adult cows don’t need it. Take ordinary milk from a cow. Scrape rennet from the calves’ stomach and out it in the mother’s milk. Let it sit for awhile, and the milk curdles into cheese.
The indigestible part of the milk is protein. The rennin has a protease, chymosin, helps the calf break down the milk by taking a positively charged sub-atomic particle, a proton, and shifting it between seven different hydrogen bonds to break them. So far so good. This is all safe, mechanical chemistry. (If you’re really interested, see Dexter B. Northrop, “Follow the Protons: A Low-Barrier Hydrogen Bond Unifies the Mechanisms of the Aspartic Proteases,” Acc. Chem. Res., 2001, 34 (10), pp 790–797.)
The problem for classical biology is that the speed at which protons work here cannot be explained by classical chemistry. Classical calculations are slower by a couple of orders of magnitude. Researchers focusing on the problem discovered that to achieve its wizardry, chymosin deploys quantum tunneling, number three on our list of weird quantum effects above. Using its superpower of quantum tunneling, it makes protons disappear from one place and reappear instantly on the other side. It performs this magic trick on millions of molecules in the milk, speeding the process thousands, if not millions, of times faster than classical mechanics can explain.
But this introduces another huge problem for classical biology: In order for the transport of the proton to really occur, it can’t remain a cloud of probability, it has to be collapsed into reality by being observed or measured (the “Measurement Problem,” #5 above). Quantum Uncertainty – the proton can be here or there and this or that and therefore nowhere at all, really – Stop fooling around! – has to become classically real: I see you now. The range of possible states the particle can occupy collapses into one.
Until now, biologists, scientists, and other materialists have been content to leave the weirdness of the quantum world among physicists because they thought they were immune to it. They assumed there was an unbreachable barrier between the sub-atomic world of quantum weirdness and the macroscopic world of biology, which conveniently remained obedient to the mechanics of physics and chemistry. They believed subatomic monkey business thankfully already disappeared when it poked its head up into an organism, because the sheer size and complexity of the organism automatically “measured” (observed) it, though no one specified how. They now seem to be really wrong. The argument no longer holds water because enzymes drag quantum action and weirdness into the scene. It’s awkward, because enzymes just don’t act on cheese, they are ubiquitous in every process of every cell in every organism. They seem to be implicated in the essence of life itself.
Enzymes have made and unmade every living cell that lives or has ever lived. Enzymes are as close as anything to the vital factors of life. …. [T]he discovery that enzymes work by promoting the dematerialization of particles from one point in space and their instantaneous materialization in another provides us with a novel insight into the mystery of life.
– Johnjoe McFadden, Jim Al-Khalili, Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology (Broadway Books, Jul 26, 2016), p. 97
This is an eloquent tribute to enzymes, but the last question still hangs there unanswered: who or what has performed the measurement? Who’s looking in on the enzyme’s protein magic to create the reality of the cheese?
…and what does that have to do with cheese being kosher?
This blog made some big claims in the beginning about how knowledge in the Old Testament anticipates all this science. Here’s a proposition: the answer to the question still hanging is in the Torah’s acceptance of cheese as kosher: God is observing the proteins, and the Torah somehow knows it.
In the centuries after the Jews are dispersed by the Romans in the first century CE after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the sages of the Talmud explain the formulation that makes cheese OK dairy. The Talmud puts rennet into a special category called pirsha or “refuse.” Another example of pirsha is dung (not that you’d want to eat it, of course). The root of the Hebrew word is “separate from.” It is used to designate a category of organic matter, stuff from living beings, that intrinsically changes its nature. It undergoes a categorical transformation into another kind of thing entirely.
A modern expert on the science of kosher, Rabbi Meir Gershon Rabi, explains it this way, relying on a chain of authority before him:
When a food becomes disassociated from its origins, it is Nishtaneh (fundamentally changed); and if it has both chemical changes to its structure and also a change in its taste it is no longer associated with its original identity. Thus, the many foods produced by fermentation in which the final product is changed in both taste and form from the feedstock, would qualify as Nishtaneh and be permissible even if they originated from non-Kosher foods.
Waste or dung or refuse shed from an animal is one kind of pirsha. But it also describes an egg once it is laid by a hen. It begins its life as part of the hen, but attains its own status once dropped in the nest. Another pirsha is honey: You can’t eat a bee if you want to keep kosher, but honey is part of the Jewish New Year table. And as Rabbi Rabi explains further, all sorts of cosmetics and medicines are kosher because they are made using pirsha from non-kosher sources.
Finally, there is the strange case of that most mysterious of transformations: the ritual of the Red Heifer. The Torah describes how the impurity of death is finally erased: the Red Heifer is al pirsha yisrof, “on its own entrails burnt.” As Rabbi Baruch Binyamin Hakohen Melman suggests in his essay “Exploring the Zero Sum,” the two words pirsha and yisrof come from inversions of the same root letters – PRSh – SRF [P and F are the same in Hebrew; Sh and S, are too]. The inversion, he says, is meant to remind us of the paradox of life that makes the Red Heifer magic so impenetrable: purity and impurity are bound together, flip sides of the same coin, always equaling out in the spiritual calculus of the world.
As a cow was the source of sin and the cutting off of Israel from its life source in the incident of the Golden Calf, so too a cow is now shown as the vehicle for the restoration of that life-affirming connection.
- R. Melman, “Exploring the Zero Sum”
Pirsha and Transcendence
Throughout Jewish ritual, we have an analogy to this process. Wine, produced by fermentation, intrinsically – and spiritually – attains a different, elevated status from mere grape juice. That fermentation, produced by yeast, also introduces quantum processes. Bread, too, is a product of yeast and its quantum fermentation process. Yeast is what makes bread out of matzah. Every year, Jews celebrate the redemption out of death-like slavery by eating matzah to remind them what they were like without the magic life-giving properties of bread that has risen. And urine was used to make the mystical incense, the ketores that was used to transform the air of the Temple at the end of the sacrifice ceremony. The ketores produced a transformative scent. It influenced all who smelt it and bound them together. Rabbi Yitzchok Feldman says it symbolizes chesed: like acts of kindness, it emanates and spreads throughout the congregation and out into the world in unforeseen ways that bind humanity together and elevate us. The exotic technical formula for making it is still recited at the end of the most important part of the Sabbath service in many congregations. Its essential ingredient is an enzyme in urine. Urine is pirsha yet becomes the essence of the spiritual experience. The Catholic Church still uses it in its traditional ceremony.
Wine, bread, cheese, incense. In all these cases, a process involving an enzyme transforms the inert and even degraded into something alive and holy. Along with this transformation comes quantum processes. And with the quantum comes the implication of a Divine consciousness that turns its attention to everything in the cosmos simultaneously, collapsing the improbable welter of possibilities into our reality and creating life.