Shemini: What "Keeping Kosher" Really Means.

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This week’s Torah portion, Shemini, the third in the book of Leviticus, contains many of the laws of kashrut – kosher eating.  

Many Jews think of kashrut only in terms of rules regarding foods that can’t be eaten, such as pork and shellfish; animal slaughtering procedures rendering meat kosher or not; and restrictions on combining permitted foods, such as meat and dairy.  And many Jews don’t bother to observe many – or any – of these rules.  Yet, the true meaning of “keeping kosher is far broader than the categories I’ve just mentioned – and it can bring ethical meaning even for those Jews who choose to disregard Halachah and Jewish tradition and to eat bacon and lobster.  “Kosher” is really about how we think and how we act

Like many mitzvot, there is no clear single biblical or rabbinic explanation for the kashrut restrictions.  But one interesting theory was put forward by the nineteenth-century German rabbi, Samson Raphael Hirsch.  (Horeb, vol. 2, chap. 68. Trans. from the original German by Dayan Grunfeld (London: Soncino Press, 1962), Hirsch’s theory is summarized in Rabbi Nachum Amsel’s book, The Jewish Encyclopedia of Moral and Ethical Issues, 75-76.  

Hirsch believed that, as the aphorism goes, “we are what we eat.”  He opined that all the kashrut laws train Jews to be less violent, and concluded that, therefore, observant Jews would be less violent than others. 

His reasoning went like this.  The least violent food is vegetables. Therefore, all produce from the ground is kosher.  Herbivores -- animals that eat vegetables but not other animals -- will be less violent animals; thus, a person who eats only these animals will, in turn, be less violent. 

Similarly, domesticated animals that cannot run far and quickly will be far less violent than wild animals. Therefore, only animals who both chew their cud (all are herbivorous) and have split hooves that prevent them from running away are kosher. These domestic animals are less violent and thus permitted to be eaten. 

The same principle applies to birds and fish.  If birds "seize their prey," they are not kosher (Mishnah, Chullin 59a).  The fins and scales of kosher fish give them the means to swim closer to the bottom of the ocean and eat from the ocean’s vegetation, rather than eat other fish. Thus, Hirsch argued, kosher fish are less violent than non-kosher fish, and eating them will make a person less violent.

Rabbi Amsel notes that whether Hirsch’s theory is valid, sociologists have shown that during most of history, although Jews have (unfortunately) been involved in many types of crime, they have exhibited conspicuously much less violent crime than other groups.  Eating food does have a moral quality for the Jew and keeping kosher properly will lead to holiness.  

Minimizing violent tendencies is but one example of the general proposition that the purpose of kashrut is to affect attitude and behavior.  The Torah sets forth veganism as the ideal – originally, humans were to eat only from seed bearing plants and fruit-bearing trees.  Meat eating was permitted only after the flood -- apparently as a concession to man’s propensity for killing – but even then only with rules for compassionate slaughter.   

The Torah also assigns to humankind the obligations to preserve life, treat others with respect, and to safeguard the environment.  Modernly, these themes have coalesced in the term “eco-kashrut.”  

In our time, our food choices and food industry production methods cause more than a billion people to go hungry or to be chronically malnourished.  They also waste vast amounts of food and clean water, promote epidemics of disease, pollute the earth, hasten destructive climate change, and cause widespread human and animal pain, all to satisfy our palates and generate profits.  

As a society and as individuals, we have allowed בתיאבון -- “Enjoy your meal” to turn our homes into בתי עוון -- “Houses of Sin.”  We have transformed food from sustenance to the means of abuse, cruelty, destruction and idolatry.  

What can we do?

1.     EAT LESS ANIMAL PRODUCTS – OR NONE (IN CASE YOU'RE WONDERING WHETHER I "PRACTICE WHAT I PREACH," I'VE EATEN ONLY PLANT-BASED FOOD SINCE 2016).  FACTORY MEAT PRODUCTION IS THE MOST RESOURCE-WASTING, POLLUTING, HEALTH-JEOPARDIZING, AND PAIN-CAUSING FORM OF FOOD PRODUCTION.  AS JUST ONE EXAMPLE, THE MAJORITY OF GRAINS GROWN IN THE US DOES NOT GO TO FEED PEOPLE DIRECTLY, BUT RATHER IS USED TO RAISE ANIMALS FOR SLAUGHTER.  WAS THIS NOT THE CASE, THERE WOULD ALSO BE FAR LESS POLLUTION. RABBI DAVID ROSEN, DIRECTOR OF THE AMERICAN JEWISH COMMITTEE’S INTERRELIGIOUS AFFAIRS, WROTE: “IT IS MY BELIEF THAT THIS [REFERRING TO VEGANISM] IS THE KASHRUT OF OUR TIME BECAUSE NOTHING ELSE IS KOSHER. ANIMAL PRODUCTS IN GLOBAL INDUSTRIALIZED FOOD PRODUCTION ARE ALL IN CONTRAVENTION OF JEWISH TEACHING. THERE ARE A FEW AREAS WHERE YOU HAVE FARMYARD CONDITIONS WHERE PEOPLE BEHAVE COMPASSIONATELY, BUT THE INDUSTRY AS A WHOLE, WHETHER IT’S THE MEAT, DAIRY OR EGG INDUSTRIES, ALL INVOLVE VIOLATIONS OF JEWISH ETHICS, IN REGARD TO TZA’AR BA’ALEI HAYIM [THE SUFFERING OF LIVING CREATURES.]1[ 

2.     EAT MORE ORGANIC AND LOCALLY-GROWN FOOD.  PATRONIZE LOCAL FARMERS’ MARKETS AND ROADSIDE FRUITS AND VEGETABLE STANDS.  BE WILLING TO PAY MORE FOR ORGANICALLY GROWN FOOD.  NOT ONLY DO THESE ACTIONS HELP THE LOCAL ECONOMY, THEY REDUCE PESTICIDE EXPOSURE FOR AGRICULTURAL EMPLOYEES, PROMOTE BIODIVERSITY AND PLANT DISEASE RESISTANCE, REDUCE WASTE FROM SPOILAGE, AND MINIMIZE ENERGY USE, CARBON EMISSIONS AND OTHER POLLUTION ASSOCIATED WITH TRANSPORTING PERISHABLE FOOD OVER LONG DISTANCES.  JUST THINK ABOUT THE RESOURCES NEEDED TO TRANSPORT BANANAS FROM CENTRAL AMERICA OR GRAPES FROM CHILE TO OUR TABLES, FOR EXAMPLE. 

3.     LEARN MORE ABOUT FOOD PRODUCTION METHODS, ESPECIALLY AGRIBUSINESS AND “FACTORY FARMING.” MAKE INFORMED AND VALUE-REFLECTING DECISIONS ABOUT WHERE AND HOW YOU SPEND YOUR FOOD DOLLAR.  

4.     STRIVE TO BE MORE CONSCIOUS ABOUT THE IMPACT OF YOUR FOOD CHOICES UPON YOUR HEALTH, THAT OF OTHERS ALL ALONG THE FOOD PRODUCTION CHAIN, ON THE ENVIRONMENT, AND ON ANIMALS.

The Talmud bids us to “Make yourself holy through that which is permitted to you.” (Yevamot 20a).  Eating is something we do many times every day; few other activities afford us such on-going opportunities to strive to be holy.  

Since “We are what we eat,” let us eat more wisely, more responsibly, and more compassionately.  That is the true meaning of “keeping kosher.” 

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He who guards his mouth preserves his life
Proverbs 13:3