Living in Israel after college, I found myself staying in a kosher home. I threw myself into this uniquely Jewish practice, hoping that the discipline of keeping kosher would feed my commitment to other mitzvot, such as protecting the poor and welcoming the stranger. To my chagrin, I noticed the opposite happening: I became so engrossed in the minutia of kashrut (the laws/practice of keeping kosher) that I gave little attention to the ethical imperatives at the heart of Judaism. But surely kashrut should be a spiritual discipline, as I’d initially believed. Where was the heart I searched for?
Parashat Sh’mini begins to answer this question. In Sh’mini, following their ordination, the priests begin to serve God for the first time through the sacrificial system. Then Sh’mini presents a list of permitted and forbidden animals, one of the places where we learn which animals are kosher. Clearly, the laws of kashrut and the sacrificial system were connected. Rabbi Jacob Milgrom argues that the sacrificial worship was a way of focusing and sacralizing human being’s taste for animal flesh. Or as Rabbi Zoe Klein puts it, “God, apologetically, is invited to the table.”
Deuteronomy has an answer I find yet more compelling. In laws concerning the slaughter of an animal when someone is distant from the Temple, it instructs, “But make sure that you do not partake of the blood; for the blood is the life ... you must pour it out on the ground like water … for you will be doing what is right in the sight of the Eternal” (Deuteronomy 12:23-25). In pouring the blood upon the ground, the ancient Israelite had to take a moment to acknowledge the life he was taking in order to sustain his family. What might he have felt in that moment? Gratitude to God? To the animal? Humility? This act is an acknowledgement that animal life is valuable and worthy of being treated with dignity, even at the moment of its slaughter. For we are all part of God’s creation.
The Torah and our tradition challenge us to seek a food practice in tune with the world, treating animals with dignity and showing gratitude to God.
Rabbi Miriam Philips is the director of family learning at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, CA.