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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.)

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Drawing Lines in the Data – Earth Day / Shemini 5777

Last Monday, the 7th day of Pesah, Beth Shalom member Chris Hall spoke during morning services about the relationship between science and religion, and one element that he presented is that they answer different questions. In my mind, there is no conflict between science and religion because while science might tell us how the world works, it does not attempt to answer, “Why?” That is for the theologians.

We might be tempted to dismiss the Torah’s story of Creation because it conflicts with the story that current scientific opinion tells us. But I think it is essential for us to consider what we learn from both. While astrophysicists have determined that the universe is about 14 billion years old, and that the after-effects of the Big Bang can still be measured to this day, we learn nothing from this about our responsibility for the world we have received. That we can learn from the book of Bereshit / Genesis. What is our relationship to the Earth, says Bereshit? Le’ovdah ulshomerah. “To till it and to tend it.” (Gen. 2:15)

Now granted, we haven’t read that parashah since October, so I am not going to dwell on it today. But something that does appear in Parashat Shemini is a list of things we are permitted to eat and not eat. And there is a lesson to be drawn from that as well.

But first, a little science.

Today, you may know, is not only Kylie’s bat mitzvah. It is also Earth Day, the annual, global awareness-raising event that brings people together around the world to remember the obligations of Genesis. To that end, I would just like to share a few items with you:

  1. 2016 was the hottest year on record, the third straight year in a row of record-setting temperatures since record-keeping began in the 1880s. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/18/science/earth-highest-temperature-record.html
  2. This past February, the average global temperature was 1.76 degrees Fahrenheit above the average for the 20th century. That may not sound like a lot, but in climatology terms, it’s huge. https://www.usatoday.com/story/weather/2017/03/17/globe-second-warmest-winter-on-record/99303812/
  3. The great plume of plastics that continues to grow in the Pacific Ocean is now flowing northward into the Arctic Ocean. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/19/climate/arctic-plastics-pollution.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=photo-spot-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news

I could cite numerous other such bits of data: how much oil we consume each day, how much food we throw away, how much carbon dioxide enters the atmosphere per hamburger eaten, and so forth. But what does it mean to us? How might we regard that information and take action? What might our Jewish tradition teach us about our responsibilities vis-a-vis Creation?

On this Earth Day, let us turn to kashrut, the principles of holy eating, for answers.

What does the word “kasher” (accent on the second syllable) mean? Fitting, appropriate. (“Kosher” is the Yiddish/Ashkenazi pronunciation.) The word does not appear in the Torah at all, but in rabbinic literature is used to denote anything that may be used for a holy purpose, not just food. What makes something kasher? That it is legally permissible under Jewish law to eat it or use it for ritual purposes.

In Parashat Shemini, we read a list of animals that are appropriate to eat. Some are identified by certain categories – the split-hoofed ruminants, like cows and deer and sheep – and some are named specifically, mostly the birds. The Torah does not tell us why these are allowed and not camels or shrimp or alligators. All we know, at least from the parashah, is that God does not want us to eat those other things, which are called “tamei” (impure) or “sheqetz(literally, an abomination; this is the Hebrew origin of the Yiddish slur sheygetz / shiktza, and why one should never use these terms).

It is curious that the Torah provides no rationale. Did the authors want us not to ask why? Was the answer known to the ancients, and so obvious that it did not need to be stated? Perhaps this “why” is left dangling for us to discover ledor vador, in each generation according to what is relevant in its time.

Or maybe it is that the only reasoning we might be able to glean from this passage is that, well, some things are in and some things are out. That when God gave Creation to us, to till and to tend, that there were simply some natural limits to our behavior. That not all things are available to us. That while we are permitted to take advantage of some things, others are off limits. That we must leave some parts of Creation untilled and untended.

Perhaps, as Midrash Tanhuma (Parashat Shemini, #7) suggests, the goal of kashrut is to teach us mindful consumption:

“The mitzvot [of kashrut] were given solely in order to train people. For what does it matter to the Qadosh Barukh Hu / God about the ‘purity’ or ‘impurity’ of the animals we eat?”

Perhaps we might learn from this that the drawing of boundaries in the natural world should lead to our ethical behavior in other spheres: in our relationships with others, in our relationships with ourselves, in our relationships with the animal realm. Perhaps the drawing of lines in what we consume as individuals will lead us to draw lines in how we as a society consume our resources, to determine where our limits are as we continue to advance as a civilization.

Where are our lines?

How will we know when we have crossed them? When the Arctic ice is gone? When the giant, swirling heap of plastic currently in the Pacific Ocean has filled the Chesapeake Bay? When the bumblebees are gone?

I recall a curious incident in a rabbinical school theology class. Most of my classmates were not science people; they had degrees in literature, or history, or Judaic studies. I know you may find this hard to believe, but I was somewhat unusual in that I had two degrees in chemical engineering. I do not recall the apropos, but the subject of science vs. God came up, and I said that our understanding of God changes, but science does not. Several of my classmates jumped on this, saying, “But science does change.”

Actually, no. As with God, our understanding of science changes. As we move forward, we learn more about the world that we have been given, and so we adjust our understanding, our theories and formulas, to reflect the data that we collect. But science and God do not change. Their nature and secrets are revealed to us as human civilization matures. Just as God continues to be revealed to us, so does science.

The principles of physics and chemistry and thermodynamics and math that govern how our world works are immutable. And they will neither teach us about faith nor answer the hard questions that we face every day.

But our tradition teaches us to act. And act we must. We must till, we must tend, and we must draw lines. We do not have free reign to use and abuse Creation.  With God-given power comes God-given responsibility.

My personal rabbi on the subject of our responsibility to Creation is the author Theodore Seuss Geisel, best known as Dr. Seuss. In what I consider to be his finest work, The Lorax, Dr. Seuss reminded us of our responsibility vis-a-vis the Earth. The Lorax, after failing to prevent the destruction of a piece of unspoiled land, a beautiful, holy gift of plants and animals and scenery, takes his leave from an altar labeled “Unless.”

unless

We can make personal, individual choices to reduce our own energy footprint. We can use LED light bulbs and compost our kitchen scraps and recycle our plastic and even buy electric cars. We can draw many personal lines in our own behavior.

But unless we as a society make some collective decisions for change on a grand scale, nothing will change. Unless we draw some lines, we will continue to monitor and watch and take data that give us no answers.

The time to act is now.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 4/22/17.)