Categories
Sermons

I’m a Fundamentalist: Kashrut / Mindful Consumption – Shemini 5781

Having just completed Pesaḥ a little more than a week ago, I am still grateful for the dietary freedom that has suddenly re-appeared on my plate.

There is a funny thing about Pesaḥ – just about everybody takes the idea of kashrut over Pesah a wee bit more seriously.

My family actually became kosher (that is, everyday kosher, not just K-for-P) when I was around 11 or 12, mostly at my urging. While my parents both grew up in kosher homes, they had more or less abandoned the practice. But Pesaḥ was always 100% kosher – we went all out. One year, before that time, I was visiting my cousins in Hartford during Pesaḥ, and one afternoon my older cousin Stephen and I walked to a nearby mall. We were hungry, so we went into a non-kosher restaurant to have lunch, at a kind of low-end steakhouse. I was a bit hesitant, thinking that this did not seem quite right during Pesaḥ, but I trusted my cousin. So we ordered steaks, which came with a slice of toast. Stephen rationalized, “OK, so since it’s Passover, we just won’t eat the toast.”

Now my cousin’s family was less kosher by traditional standards than my own. But when my aunt Brenda, Stephen’s mother, heard that we had eaten at a non-kosher restaurant, during Pesaḥ, she absolutely hit the roof. My cousin was caught completely by surprise. I just felt guilty and embarrassed.

Regardless of the outcome, this story is a reminder of the fact that we, the Jews, have a fairly strong historical attachment to dietary guidelines, and that even amongst those of us who do not hew to the letter of the law regarding kashrut, there are still limits to how we eat. Even when my family did not explicitly keep kosher, for example, there was still a strong inclination to avoid pork, and I’m sure that there are many members of Beth Shalom who are in the same boat. 

Data from the Federation of Jewish Pittsburgh’s community study a few years back suggested (not directly – you have to attempt to extract the estimate yourself) that about one-third of self-identified “Conservative” Jews keep some form of kashrut inside and outside the home, and although I would suppose that the figure is somewhat higher for Beth Shalom members, it is difficult to parse out what the respondents meant by kashrut.

Nonetheless, I thought that today would be a good day to return to my very-occasional series on the Fundamentals of Judaism. In certain ways, I am a fundamentalist, and this is the sixth installment in an occasional series on the fundamentals of Jewish life. The others are:

Parashat Shemini, from which we read this morning, includes one of the two passages in the Torah dedicated to things we are permitted to eat and things we are not. Sometimes there are discernible patterns: land animals that are ruminants and that have a split hoof, fins and scales, and so forth, and sometimes there are not, as with birds (while no distinct features are described, the only implicit rule is that they are not birds of prey, which is a behavioral distinction, more so than a physical one). 

But let’s face it: restricting ourselves to particular foods is difficult, and that’s even before all of the complicated layers added in rabbinic law: the rigorous separation of meat and dairy implements, the rules surrounding kosher slaughter (which of course are not found in the Torah), procurement of “hekhshered” products, and so forth. 

And all the more so today, in which boundary-crossing of all sorts has become the norm: we do not like being fenced-in by boundaries that seem arbitrary. On the contrary, in our 24/7 world, in which conventions of the past are being tossed out, seemingly at blisteringly fast rates, traditional dietary restrictions, at least those that are religion-based seem at best somewhat quaint, and at worst downright annoying.

My life has no limits in so many areas. Why should I be limited in what I eat, particularly by guidelines from an ancient book?

This, of course, raises the larger question of why we would want limits on our behavior at all. Judaism is fond of limits: things you should do on Shabbat vs. things that you should not. There are codes of behavior with respect to daily prayer, how we speak, how we interact with others in a business context, how we educate our children, how we grieve, and so forth.

As Americans, we chafe at the idea of being limited in any way. “Don’t tell me how to behave, ” we say. “This is a free country, ” is our persistent refrain.

And yet, we know that there are some problems that come with the principle of “everything is available to me at all times.” Life has to have guard rails. 

All parents and teachers know that setting limits is healthy for the development of children:  it makes them feel safe, builds patience and problem solving skills, resourcefulness, responsibility and self-discipline. If we are the children of God, then all the more so for us as humans. The Sages warn us not to presume to understand God and the reasons for the laws, but I am certain that this is one of the fundamental principles behind kashrut: to set boundaries within Creation.

Even beyond the idea of boundaries, a related challenge that we face is too much choice. Too many options. I have given in the past the relatively innocuous example of the toothpaste aisle, in which there are seemingly endless varieties of toothpaste. Too much choice sometimes makes life more difficult. 

But germane to today’s discussion, we know that too much dietary choice in particular is dangerous: the CDC website, for example, says the following: “Adults who eat a healthy diet live longer and have a lower risk of obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers.” And we all know that many of us are not eating a healthy diet; certainly the range of unhealthy foods easily available for our immediate consumption is contributing to these maladies. To make matters worse, attempts to help limit our consumption of these foods through legislation, like mandating smaller portion sizes, usually fail when political forces intervene. We like having lots of opportunities to make bad choices.

Put more starkly, too much choice is killing us. When confronted with many options, people often do not choose the healthier one, particularly when it is up against foods specifically designed to turn on our pleasure centers: fatty, salty, sweet edibles that our bodies feel like they just cannot get enough of.

And that brings me back to kashrut. You may have been told, as I was growing up, that “kosher food is healthier,” because of diseases like trichinosis, which can be contracted from under-cooked pork. Ramban, who lived in Spain in the 13th century, believed that the flesh of non-kosher fish was toxic. 

But let’s face it: that is a disingenuous argument. Kosher food can be just as unhealthy as non-kosher food. 

The more persuasive argument, in my mind, is that kashrut, particularly in combination with the range of berakhot / blessings surrounding food consumption, heightens our awareness, and simply being aware of what we eat is 90% of the battle. Kashrut is mindfulness of consumption.

When I know that I am limited in what I am permitted to consume, it makes me pay attention: I look for the hekhsher at the grocery store; maybe I check the ingredients as well. I think about my meals in advance: is this a dairy meal? A meat meal? Have I prepared a salad, which is pareve, and can go either way, and then I’ll have some left over that I can use at the next meal? 

I am aware that some things are available to me and some are not. I do not necessarily know why God said this and not that, that and not this, but I do know that this awareness helps me understand that I am interconnected within the greater ecosystem, that I have been shaped by these boundaries to consider the consequences of the choices that I make. I am therefore aware that what I eat shapes our food production system, our economy, our world.

I am aware that the Talmud teaches us that eating food without saying a berakhah is like theft of God’s Creation, that my food is not simply at my disposal to take or to leave, and that even the most mundane human task of eating can be elevated to a holy moment, and that this holiness keeps me grounded firmly in Creation. It reminds me of my obligation to protect and defend what God has given us from unbounded despoliation.

Awareness. Awareness of what and how we eat leads to a greater awareness of ourselves, our world, and the necessity of taking responsibility for what God has given us. 

Kashrut is a fundamental statement of who we are as a people. It helps us to stay connected to each other and to our identity as Jews. But beyond that, it is also an opportunity on a daily basis to reaffirm the holiness in our lives and our world.

As a fundamentalist, 

  • I observe kashrut because it reminds me multiple times each day of the Jewish value of gratitude for what we have
  • I practice holy eating to nourish the spark of the Divine within me by being mindful of what I put into my body
  • I practice kashrut to remind me to respect Creation by considering the resources I consume
  • I observe kashrut to acknowledge my connection to my people

And so should you. If you need any help in stepping up your kashrut game, please give me a call and we’ll talk.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 4/10/2021.)

Categories
Sermons

Shall There Be No Needy? – Re’eh 5779

These are good times in which to be living if you are a vegetarian. You may know that I have been a “Jewish vegetarian” since 1988 – that is, I eat anything that does not qualify as “meat” for kashrut purposes. So while many traditional vegetarians do not eat fish, I do. Kosher fish, of course.)

These are good times because of the explosion of interest in plant-based foods, and the growing availability of meat-like products, like the Impossible Burger and the Beyond Burger. And I heard earlier this week that KFC just began test-marketing a plant-based chicken-like product in one of its restaurants in Atlanta. Apparently, it tastes like chicken.

I must say that the Torah was extraordinarily prescient in its time for setting limits on food. The laws that appear in Parashat Re’eh (pp. 1072-74 in the Etz Hayim humash) draw fairly clear lines: for land animals, only ruminants (which are, by definition, all herbivores) with a split hoof. For sea creatures, only those with fins and scales. No birds of prey. (Yes, I know there are a few critters that fall into grey areas, but such are the glorious complexities of God’s Creation.) 

And there are good reasons for us to limit our consumption. It is a reminder that not all things are nor should they be available to humans to eat or otherwise cultivate. Although God has given us the power and the know-how to manipulate our environment for our benefit, that should not be a boundless endeavor. There are just some things we should keep our hands off of.

But there is another way of reading Parashat Re’eh that I had not previously put together. Just after Deuteronomy chapter 14, in which those lines of consumption are drawn, in the following chapter we encounter what may be one of the most striking statements in the Torah (Deut. 15:4, 1077):

אֶפֶס, כִּי לֹא יִהְיֶה-בְּךָ אֶבְיוֹן:  כִּי-בָרֵךְ יְבָרֶכְךָ, ה’, בָּאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן-לְךָ נַחֲלָה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ.

There shall be no needy among you – since the Lord your God will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion…

And here is the striking part (15:7-8):

כִּי-יִהְיֶה בְךָ אֶבְיוֹן … 

If, however, there is a needy person among you…

Now, hold on there a minute. Did the text not just say that there will be no needy among you? How can that be? 

OK, so regardless, if there is a needy person among you: (1078)

לֹא תְאַמֵּץ אֶת-לְבָבְךָ, וְלֹא תִקְפֹּץ אֶת-יָדְךָ, מֵאָחִיךָ, הָאֶבְיוֹן.  ח כִּי-פָתֹחַ תִּפְתַּח אֶת-יָדְךָ, לוֹ; וְהַעֲבֵט, תַּעֲבִיטֶנּוּ, דֵּי מַחְסֹרוֹ, אֲשֶׁר יֶחְסַר לוֹ.

… do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs.

The logical conclusion that we can draw is that the world free of needy people will never exist. It is a blueprint for a world that could be, an ideal to which we should aspire.

And of course, that begs the question: how are we working to build that world?

There is a classic rabbinic textual-interpretation principle known as “semikhut parashiyyot,” literally, the juxtaposition of passages. The idea is that adjacent stories or concepts in the Torah are near each other for a reason; they must therefore comment on each other. 

One traditional example of this principle is that many items of the list of 39 avot melakhah / Shabbat prohibitions – things like hammering, weaving and building – are drawn from semikhut parashiyyot. In Parashat Vayaqhel, the Torah’s description of the building of the mishkan / tabernacle follows a restatement of the requirement to rest on the seventh day. The rabbis conclude that the activities related to creating the mishkan were therefore forbidden on Shabbat. 

So, using this principle of semikhut parashiyyot, we must ask,

”What do dietary restrictions have to do with the ongoing existence of poverty?”

And the answer emerges on two different levels. 

On an individual level, we might derive from this the fundamental requirement to be mindful of our food will ensure that we are also mindful of the nutritional needs of others. That is, drawing lines in what we eat should remind us of the imperative to make sure that all people around us have food, particularly those most likely to be food-insecure – i.e. evyonim – poor people. 

We should therefore take seriously the mitzvah of opening our hands to evyonim, as the Torah instructs, by supplying them with food. There are many means of doing so; one, the Squirrel Hill Food Pantry, is nearby and run by Jewish Family and Community Services. (As in past years, we will have donation bags available prior to the High Holidays.) 

But on a greater scale, I think we have to consider our manipulation of the natural world on a grand scale to provide food, and perhaps we might consider how our food choices affect our environment, which in turn will lead to greater numbers of food-insecure people around the world. Now, I don’t have time to address all the issues therein, but consider the following:

  1. Lots of people to feed (7.6 billion!), diminishing agricultural lands.
  2. Climate change is disrupting agriculture in various ways.

Vegetables.  We all need to be eating more vegetables. And the vegetables need to be of greater quality. And the only way we can really do that is to make sure that we are eating vegetables in the proper season. How many of us have traveled to foreign countries and discovered that the vegetables that they eat are tastier and cheaper? Our vegetables come from far away, and the entire system is geared toward longer shelf-life and year-round availability, not local and tasty.

We just love packaged, processed foods! But you know what? They are generally not good for you, nor good for the Earth. The more highly-processed foods are, the more energy they take to produce, and the more energy, the greater the contribution of greenhouse gases.

Waste. Americans throw away nearly 40% of the food we produce. That is staggering, considering all the energy we put into producing that food – $160 billion, and it is equivalent to putting 3.3 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere unnecessarily. Our Torah teaches us not to waste: the mitzvah of bal tashhit (Deut. 20:19-20) is understood by Maimonides to apply to wasting anything of value. 

Meat. Meat production, and in particular beef, is a major source of climate-change-causing gases, particularly methane. Also, water: it takes 106 gallons of water to produce one ounce of beef; soy requires only 22 gallons; chicken only 17 gallons. Greater water consumption also requires more energy to make that water useable, which brings us back to greenhouse gases.

If we all ate a few more locally-grown vegetables and just a little less meat, we would be well on our way to making our food consumption more sustainable. 

If we could, at the same time, figure out how to waste less – I know, it’s not so easy – that would certainly help.

I’m not trying to convert you to vegetarianism. For some, Shabbat is not Shabbat, or a simhah is not a simhah without meat.

But I am suggesting that you might want to consider eating less meat.  Be mindful.  Be deliberate in your food consumption as our tradition demands us to.  

Rabbi Jeremy and I were at the miqveh yesterday morning as we brought a candidate for conversion to complete her journey to becoming Jewish. Before immersing herself, she recited a kind of pledge that is found in the Rabbi’s Manual for Kabbalat Ol Mitzvot, which literally means, “taking upon oneself the yoke of mitzvot / commandments.” Among these statements of commitment to the holy opportunities of Jewish life, she pledged that one of the ways that she will be committed to Jewish life is:

“By incorporating kashrut into my life and by sharing my bread with others who are hungry.”

These two things clearly belong together, and not only because they are both found in Parashat Re’eh; they also belong together because our local awareness and our global conscience regarding not only the boundaries, but also the essential needs surrounding food should be intimately linked.

What cannot be forgotten in this picture is the essential requirement  (p. 1077) that will make it possible for there to be no needy among you – that we keep the Torah, the mitzvot that God has given us. If we do this by fulfilling not just the letter of the principles of kashrut, but also the global spirit therein, maybe, just maybe, we will achieve that theoretical world of no needy people.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 8/31/2019.)