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The Boundary at the Table: Forbidden Foods and Us

  • The Boundary at the Table: Forbidden Foods and Us

    Sh'mini, Leviticus 9:1-11:47
D'var Torah By: 

Just now, American society is reexamining the way it eats. Michael Pollan, in his best-selling book In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manefesto, advises distinguishing between food and some of the poor imitations for food that we currently ingest (New York: Penguin Group, 2008). He suggests that we not eat too much and that we eat mostly plants. That's easier said than done. Barbara Kingsolver, in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, advocates eating only what is local to reduce our carbon imprint on this overburdened earth, to circumscribe the boundaries of our appetites and become locavores (Barbara Kingsolver, Steven L. Hopp, and Camille Kingsolver [New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2008]). It appears that boundaryless eating is not respectful either of our bodies or of animals or of the earth or its products. Parashat Sh'mini, in Leviticus 11:1-23, lays out dietary laws for the people of Israel. We are counseled to restrict ourselves, to practice, one might say, a kind of purity law about diet. Somewhere in eternity, Levitical priests are smiling. "What a novel idea!" they whisper to one another.

The need for boundaries is universal. Every society has basic categories of what is considered edible and what is considered inedible, who are kin and who are not, who is and who is not a permissible sexual partner. These categories form fundamental social boundaries. In her groundbreaking study Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, anthropologist Mary Douglas argues that both bodies and societies feel the need for boundaries (New York: Routledge Classics, 2002). We are careful about what goes in and comes out andwhere these transferrals occur: mouths, vaginas, anuses, customs and immigration offices at airports, seaports, and a country's borders.

Ancient Israel felt these needs acutely. We occupied a small piece of real estate that was strategically located between the great empire to the south of us, Egypt, and the changing empires to the north of us, Mesopotamia, Assyria, Babylonia, and Persia. In addition, we had the only good road between them, what the Romans called the Via Maris, the Sea Road. With armies constantly tramping back and forth, bringing their goods, their gods, and their cultures with them, it is no wonder that we had some major anxieties about boundaries!

Those anxieties were only exacerbated when we became exile communities without physical borders. How were we to avoid being swamped by the majority culture? How were we to maintain our own integrity as a specific community called Israel? Most important of all, how were we to live as a holy community, in the kind of purity our God asked of us? The answer, in part, is in boundaries that we set for individual bodies and the communal body. Leviticus gives us rules for bodily purity, diet, and appropriate sexual partners along with boundaries for making justice in our community, rules for how we pay workers, how we treat the disabled, the poor, and the stranger. Justice, too, embodies holiness and purity.

Leviticus asks us to practice justice, especially in our acts of eating. In our dietary code, Mary Douglas observes, the body of the worshiper is made analogous to the sanctuary, which is also analogous to the holy mountain Sinai: all three are places where God is encountered (Leviticus as Literature [London: Oxford University Press, 1999], p. 134). Anything that will render the altar impure will render the body of the worshiper impure. Hence, all fruits and vegetables, seeds and grains, are pure. But the only land animals Leviticus permits as food are the flock and herd animals Israelites had. For secular use, there are also the dairy foods the flocks and herds produce, even though these are not offered as sacrifices. The animals themselves are eaten only at the sanctuary, after being offered to God. Meat then, is a special food for special occasions, and when you take an animal's life, you sprinkle its blood on the altar of the Source of life and eat reverently what is permissible to you.

Ecological arguments such as Pollan's and Kingsolver's support setting boundaries of some sort in place, but a special Jewish argument needs to be made for the boundaries of kashrut, even for the wider post-Levitical boundaries of Rabbinic dietary laws. Why should Reform Jews consider keeping them? First, we should consider the dietary laws because they remind us that eating can be a holy act. A little later in Leviticus we will be told, "You shall be holy, for I, the Eternal your God, am holy" (Leviticus 19:2). And Nachmanides explains, "Restrict yourselves [P'rushim y'hiu ]. Sanctify yourself with what is permitted to you" (Ramban on Leviticus 19:2 ad loc.). We should be sparing and use what is permitted us in a holy way. What way is that? It is eating mindfully and reverently. It is appreciating our fruits and vegetables and grains, and buying those whose growing has not polluted the earth with toxic pesticides, which also harmed the people who cultivated them.

Second, we should think about keeping kosher proactively, planning not just to take on the current practice, but to envision and create a better practice. It is possible to build humane, ethical, locally based, free-range kosher meat businesses. That few have done it yet does not mean that it cannot be done. Slaughtering free-range animals locally, humanely, on a small scale, and eating meat more sparingly will bring us closer to the ways of our ancestors, where all living things were revered as God's creations, not to be unmindfully consumed.

Third, we should consider keeping kosher because Jews still need boundaries to maintain our distinctness as a culture and religion, so that we can preserve continuity with the "Judaisms" of the past and pass on a Judaism with integrity to our inheritors. And finally, it is more possible to feel humility when we think of consuming as a God-given privilege with restrictions attached rather than an unlimited right. We did not create the world, and we do an uneven job of sustaining it. God's desire for otherness put us on this planet. According to kabbalistic literature, God contracted God's self, restricted God's self (tzimtzum), to create room for what is other than God to exist. What would it mean if we were able to do an act of tzimtzum when we sit down at the table?

Professor Rachel Adler is professor of Modern Jewish Thought and Judaism and Gender at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles. She was one of the first theologians to integrate feminist perspectives and concerns into the interpretation of Jewish texts and the renewal of Jewish law and ethics. She is the author of Engendering Judaism, which won the National Jewish Book Award for Jewish Thought, and many articles.

We Should All Keep Kosher
Davar Acher By: 
Harley Karz-Wagman

In Parashat Sh'mini, Moses teaches us which animals we should eat. Reform Jews should consider ethical kashrut, including setting our own standards for consumption and for avoiding foods and other products whose production harms our health and environment, oppresses labor, or enables mistreatment of animals.

We Jews love to eat, hardly a cultural distinction. Every Jewish holiday teaches, "They tried to kill us. We survived. Let's eat." "They," our enemies, may be those internal forces we call yetzer hara, our evil inclinations — our greed, pride, appetite, and lust. Kashrut helps us direct those forces toward beneficial goals — justice, peace, beauty, and love. The discipline of kashrut empowers us to control all excesses, the same benefit we gain by refraining from chametz on Passover.

As Dr. Adler comments, our Leviticus-based traditional rules often overlap with ethics. Kashrut teaches reverence for life. So, we avoid consuming predators and eating blood, the animal's life force. We show respect for God-established divisions of nature by eating only animals that fit their domain-land animals with cloven hooves who chew cud, and fish with fins and scales (see Rabbi Edward Greenstein, "Dietary Laws," in Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary, ed. David L. Lieber [Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2001], p. 1,460). Ethical kashrut often demands more than halachic rules. We recently witnessed how oppressed labor might produce "kosher" meat. A hechsheir does not guarantee healthiness; the Orthodox diet of my four grandparents, all from Eastern Europe, seemed designed by the lobby for cardiologists.

We are no longer our grandparents' Reform Movement. We now embrace the freedom to consider traditional practices, even if our motives may not feel traditional. We should consider ethical kashrut.
The winter 2004 edition of the CCAR Journal: The Reform Jewish Quarterly contains insight-filled articles by Rabbis Stanley Dreyfus, Rachel Mikva, Richard Levy, and others on how contemporary liberal Jews might apply kashrut. Learn more about the Reform perspective on kashrut policies. 

Rabbi Harley Karz-Wagman serves as rabbi at Temple of Israel and chair of the Holocaust Commemoration Committee in Wilmington, North Carolina.

4/18/2009
Reference Materials: 

Sh’mini, Leviticus 9:1-11:47 
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 798-823; Revised Edition, pp. 705-727; 
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 615-636