A few years ago I overheard an amusing conversation at a social event. It went more or less like this:
A: “Eat the salad, it's not fattening, it's only lettuce.”
B: “Yes, but it is from [here a politically controversial area was mentioned].”
C. “Right, this lettuce is ideologically wrong.”
A: “Why? I always try to buy lettuce from [the controversial area].”
D: “Oh, forget politics. The important thing is that no bugs are ever found in this lettuce.”
B: “I prefer the bugs to all the chemicals used to kill them.”
C: “Not only that, it’s also much more expensive.”
This casual conversation is informative. It teaches that considerations about what and how we should eat are complex and sometimes contradictory, and that ideological, economical, aesthetic, health-related, and many other issues have to be taken into account. We Jews call this kashrut.
In Parashat Sh’mini, Chapter 11, we find the first full formulation of the laws of kashrut. First the laws regarding “land animals” are specified, then laws governing “all that are in the waters.” Regarding poultry, the Torah then provides a list of non-kosher birds and prohibits the consumption of “every swarming thing.” These laws of kashrut have remained more or less the same today, though they have expanded greatly through the ages.
In the State of Israel in recent years, we are witnessing an ever-growing stringency in the application of the laws of kashrut regarding its ritualistic, technical aspects. But it seems in many circles, there is less and less interest in the profound sense of kashrut. Many friends and relatives can no longer dine together, not because of questions about kashrut but because questions regarding hechsherim (kashrut certificates).
Many seem to have forgotten that the original meaning of the term kasher is “apt” or “appropriate.” If we look around us, we must conclude that many of those engaged with matters of kashrut seem to have forgotten what kashrut means at its core. Still more and more Jews are pondering how we should treat our food and what our eating habits should be. We wonder:
- What does it mean to eat kosher?
- Can fast food that’s saturated with cholesterol be kosher?
- Is food that’s manufactured by children in Third World countries kosher?
- Is the flesh of animals raised in unimaginably bad conditions and cruelly slaughtered considered to be kosher?
- Are TV dinners that are heated and served without care to children who stare impassively at screens kosher?
- Can food eaten with anger and shame to compensate for all that is missing in life be kosher?
Our parashah provides us with the reason for the commandment to keep kosher: "For I the Eternal am your God; you shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy" (Leviticus 11:44). The demand to observe the way we take care of our aliveness should help us to sanctify ourselves. And the reason that we have to sanctify our lives is to strive to be like God, to have Godliness in our lives: "sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy."
The demand to lead a life of holiness exceeds the demand to keep the normal halachic rules of kashrut: it is an aspiration to the sublime and to relate to the Eternal.
Without underestimating the need for “a”—but perhaps not “the”—halachic set of rules, and in addition to them, I propose a potential set of ten criteria by which to examine the essential kashrut of food.
Suggested Guidelines of Essential Kashrut
- Social justice: “Share your bread with the hungry” (Isaiah 58:7)
- Nature’s preservation: You shall not destroy (according to Deuteronomy 20:19)
- Fair treatment of animals: “You shall not boil a kid in its mother's milk” (Exodus 23:19, 34:26; Deuteronomy 14:21)
- Fair employment: “You shall not defraud your fellow . . . . The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning” (Leviticus 19:13)
- Health: “For your own sake, therefore, be most careful” (Deuteronomy 4:15)
- Gratitude: “Let all that breathes praise the Lord, Hallelujah” (Psalm 150:6)
- Family: “How good and how pleasant it is that brothers dwell together” (Psalm 133:1)
- Community: “And all the people went their way to eat and drink and send portions and make great merriment” (Nehemiah 8:12)
- Enjoyment and pleasure: "honey and milk are under your tongue" (Song of Songs 4:11)
- Moderation: “If you find honey, eat only what you need, lest surfeiting yourself, you throw it up” (Proverbs 25:16)
Some of these criteria are self-evident, others may be less obvious. One may even argue that they have nothing to do with kashrut. But in a world where everyone “just grabs something,” we should stress the importance of dining together, not only to fill our stomachs but also to uphold a family and communal value. In a society where so many people suffer from eating disorders, we should stress the need to actually enjoy eating and to eat in moderation. And so on.
Some of these criteria are complementary, but some stand in tension and even contradiction. For example:
- “Fair trade” food may be very expensive and therefore difficult for some to obtain
- Some organic food companies keep their workers in state of modern slavery, so the healthy product stands in tension with the ideological dimension
- Eating together daily as a family may limit the variety and refinement of the food served
- Dining in a place that hires people with mental disabilities may mean waiting longer for service
- Using disposable dishes makes it easier to keep halachic kashrut, but it is bad for the environment
Our Torah is a Torah of life, and therefore is as multifaceted and complex as life itself. We should strive to have the food that nourishes our bodies be consistent with this Torah of life and life of Torah.
Indeed, there are no easy solutions regarding the essential kashrut of our food. But the distinction between right and wrong, between what is kosher and what is not stands at the core of Jewish thought. We need to remind ourselves that conscious eating is essential. What we put in our bodies becomes part of us: we should remember that it should elevate our holiness. And even if there are no definite answers (and are there any?), we cannot see ourselves as free from dealing with them.
Rabbi Dalia Marx is an associate professor for liturgy and Midrash at the Jerusalem campus of HUC-JIR. Her new book is Tractates Tamid, Middot and Qinnim: A Feminist Commentary, published by Mohr Siebeck.
Whenever I eat at a buffet or at a public gathering, I never eat the beans that are served. That is because here in Alabama, there is a good chance that the beans have been seasoned with pork. I don't do this because I think I might contract trichinosis. I do this because I am a Jew, and we are forbidden to eat pork, as we read in this week's Torah portion. Rabbi Marx further comments on the laws of kashrut as follows, "The demand to lead a life of holiness exceeds the demand to keep the normal halachic rules of kashrut; it is an aspiration to the sublime and to relate to the Eternal."
My avoidance of the possibly pork-laden beans reminds me that I am a Jew and further reminds me that I am commanded to be holy because God is holy. For us Jews, being holy is an amalgamation of ideas and actions. Doing the mitzvot actually brings God to our world, and at the same time brings us to God.
When we perform a mitzvah, we become more aware of God. As Rabbi Alexander Schindler (z"l) wrote, "The faith-deed relationship is not fixed in one direction. Often, so teaches Judaism, the deed is father to the thought; in going out to meet the commandment, we find the One who commands."1
Our observance of the mitzvot not only helps to make us and our world a better place, but is also a potent reminder of our relationship with God. When we do a mitzvah, we remind ourselves that we are in a covenant with God and have an obligation to help to repair our broken world, to take care of ourselves and others, and to be ever mindful of the miracle that is our very existence.
- Rabbi Alexander Schindler, from an address at the dedication of the Sherman Education Center and the Sally and Abe Vidgoff Pre-school of Congregation Beth Israel, Portland, Oregon; April 24, 1994
Rabbi Lynne Goldsmith serves as the rabbi of Temple Emanu-el in Dothan, Alabama.
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