Shabbat Shemini: What’s Kosher and What’s Treyf

This week in parashat Shemini the Torah sets out the law of kashrut, the ancient Israelite guide to good eating. At first glance, you may assume that you will be given a list of what’s kosher and what’s treyf. What’s fascinating is that in all of chapter 11 of the book of Leviticus the word kasher, “fit”, does not occur.  Here’s a glance at a few interesting and misunderstood words that do.
1. “Kosher,” (in Hebrew it’s pronounced kah-SHEYR) is a word we use as a general term for what Jews eat – but the actual description of what we eat and why is expressed in different terms altogether.
  אַל-תְּשַׁקְּצוּ, אֶת-נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם, בְּכָל-הַשֶּׁרֶץ, הַשֹּׁרֵץ; וְלֹא תִטַּמְּאוּ בָּהֶם, וְנִטְמֵתֶם בָּם. Do not not make yourselves sheketz [“detestable”] with any swarming thing that swarms. Do not make yourselves tamey with them, for they will make you tamey.
 כִּי אֲנִי י-ה, אֱלֹה-כֶם, וְהִתְקַדִּשְׁתֶּם וִהְיִיתֶם קְדֹשִׁים, כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אָנִי; וְלֹא תְטַמְּאוּ אֶת-נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם, בְּכָל-הַשֶּׁרֶץ הָרֹמֵשׂ עַל-הָאָרֶץ. For I am HaShem your G*d; make yourselves kadosh [“holy”], and be kadosh, for I am kadosh. Do not make yourselves tamey with any of the swarming things that move upon the earth.
We are to eat certain things and avoid certain other things as part of what it means to be kadosh, itself a word often misunderstood. It is translated as “holy,”, but is better understood as “set apart for a specific purpose.” In this way we might understand the eating discipline of kashrut to be similar to the eating regimen of a vegetarian, a locavore, or even a weightlifter: each focusing on that which is eaten in a very precise way for a clear purpose which is holy to that person.
2. We are to avoid that which is sheketz, “detestable,” to us, in order to be unique as HaShem is unique. It’s an identity statement, not too different from wearing one’s team colors on game day. One interesting theory comes from the insights of cultural anthropologist Mary Douglas, who points out that the swarming creatures are not seen as “detestable” to themselves, or to G*d their Creator, or to the rest of the world – only to the Jews.
What is it with these swarming things, and why are we to avoid them? Notice the other place where we have seen this word recently in the Torah, in Exodus 1.7:
וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, פָּרוּ וַיִּשְׁרְצוּ וַיִּרְבּוּ וַיַּעַצְמוּ–בִּמְאֹד מְאֹד; וַתִּמָּלֵא הָאָרֶץ, אֹתָם. The people of Israel were fruitful, and swarmed abundantly and multiplied greatly; and the land was filled with them.
Mary Douglas posits that there is some kind of historical linkage for us, perhaps a retention in our cultural memory of a time when we were called “swarming” using this very same word. From this insight we might further wonder if this is, on some level, an expression of empathy. We ourselves were once called swarming things, and, therefore, forever after our religious tradition holds that those creatures which swarm upon the earth have our protection.
The Jewish food laws are about so much more than food.
3. What’s treyf, then? It literally means “torn [by a beast or bird of prey]”, which is to say, the ancient version of roadkill. But the term has come to signify anything that isn’t Jewishly good or right or true. And that fits the way we use the word kosher as well.
For halakhah as it has evolved in Jewish tradition, what’s kosher, “fit” to eat, has been understood as that which is healthy and, in the case of living creatures, was killed in a way judged to be as painless as possible. (There are Jews who argue that vegetarianism is the holiest way to eat, basing themselves on the Noah story. After the Flood, Noah’s family was given permission to eat meat under certain conditions.) Left Coast kashrut has added to this understanding with what is called Eco-Kashrut, extending the provisions already explicit in halakha to cover areas unheard of in earlier times: the destructive practices of large-scale raising and killing of animals, the transgression of child (and other) labor laws, and the fraud perpetrated by some who are untrustworthy kashrut inspectors.
So for example, those of us who follow what we consider the higher standard of Eco-Kashrut refrain from eating veal even though it is considered kosher by halakhic standards, and some have held that organic, anti-biotic free, and free range chickens who are demonstratively cared for in a humane way are more kosher than chicken or their eggs that are marked kosher but not kept in such conditions. And so it literally becomes a question of what is holy to us.
But we can go further, as the Prophets do, to the highest level of kashrut, which is this: no matter how carefully one eats, if you do not fulfill the mitzvot of caring about others, yourself, and the world, you’re not kosher. Hypocrisy makes everything it touches treyf.
Here’s wishing you food choices that are fit, empathetic, thoughtful, and true, and expressive of your unique sense of what matters most in this world.
Hazak v’nithazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other.

The Last Days of Pesakh 5777: The Plagues Today

Pesakh 5777 is drawing to a close, but the struggle for freedom continues, even as our struggle to stay mindful of the pain of others, caused sometimes by our own struggle, continues. “The pain of others diminishes our own joys,” and as long as anyone is suffering from the labor pains of the freedom for which we strive, our own cup of joy cannot be full.

This list of plagues is offered by Roy and Claire Kaufmann in their Le’Or Cannabis Passover Seder Haggadah (2017)

Ten Modern Plagues of the Drug War

  1. One, the criminalization of nature
  2. Two, the suppression of science and information
  3. Three, the prison-industrial complex
  4. Four, the radically undemocratic and unequal application of laws
  5. Five, the systemic violence against the poor
  6. Six, the denial of medicine to the sick and dying
  7. Seven, the destruction of families
  8. Eight, the isolation of stigma and shame
  9. Nine, the perversion and erosion of a faithful justice system
  10. Ten, the perpetuation of violence by those sworn to protect us.

The road ahead is long and we must hold hands and help each other get there. The road ahead is frightening, and we must remember not to turn our anguish against each other.  Either we believe in equality for all, or we do not really believe in equality for any.

Shabbat HaGadol: Being Commanded isn’t Enough, and Neither is Being Free

The days before and after Shabbat haGadol, “the Great Shabbat,” are meant to be a time of excitement and joy, of running around to find the best ingredients and the nicest symbolic foods for our Seder. It’s a time to clean house, to bring out the Pesakh plates and the “good” utensils in honor of the holy day, and of looking forward to being with people we love for the special evening. It’s also a time to review the Haggadah, to prepare to sell the hametz, and to remind ourselves – or enjoy learning for the first time – all the laws and customs and habits.

Shabbat haGadol is always the Shabbat just preceding the Seder. This year the parashat hashavua is Tzav, “command.” And it’s worth taking a moment to let that word remind us that for our ancestors, the preparations for and the observances of Pesakh were not something to decide upon but obligations to fulfill and commands to obey. We are on the other side of an abyss from that world, a would defined by the certainty that one’s life was plotted out with clear rules and duties. It may sound burdensome, but Jewish tradition insists that there is a freedom inherent within submission to the mitzvot. 

We live on the other side of that abyss, in a world of choices that we believe we make freely – until we consider the impact of the influences upon the choices we make: what our friends do, what we believe is expected of us, what our parents formed in us from an early age which we either strive to fulfill or are still in reaction against. Then there’s marketing, advertising, and all the other ways in which our society creates the conditions for psychological suggestion. In a world of so many influences, how are we supposed to know what the best choice might be? And what makes us think that we are really free to discern and make that choice?

The great Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz (brother of the great Torah teacher Nehama Leibowitz – what was that family’s Seder like?) taught that freedom is an illusion. “Cows grazing in a meadow are free,” he said, “they have no obligations at all. Neither are they capable of achieving anything at all. Do you want to be as free as a cow?”

We human beings have obligations, not least to those cows. But that realization is not enough, just as the sign posted in the gym where I exercise five days a week is not, in its urging me to “Live With Intention – Be Bold and Fearless – Make a Difference.” One following these promptings could just as easily apply them to intentionally using the nuclear option in the Senate to force a Supreme Court confirmation, boldly and fearlessly gutting the EPA, and making a difference in the Syrian conflict by bombing refugees.

It’s not enough to be free, and it’s not even enough to know you are commanded, if you do not have a sense of how, and and community to check yourself with. Mitzvot offer a valid and beautiful way to answer the question of “how”,  and the community, through which law is adumbrated and flexed, is the way that the Jewish people developed a meta-ethic of “love your neighbor as yourself” which is meant to communally overrule (by practicing, or, more to the point, not) some of our eternal Torah laws which are not so appropriate.

The sacred Jewish community isn’t perfect, and neither are its laws – both are holy inspiration, though, faithfully if imperfectly transmitted by human hearts and hands. It makes our review of the Pesakh laws comforting – we’re going to do once again something our people has done for millennia – and it guides our free choice, narrowing down the options to something more relevant, coherent, and, even, safe, in the face of all that chaos of what might otherwise seem an endless, meaningless flow of equally valid choices.  

May you find comfort in the mitzvot and the excitement of Pesakh, and be reassured that in the face of unimaginable tragedy wherever it exists in our world, these mitzvot have Eternal meaning. We may not always know what that meaning is – but we’ll only discover it by immersing ourselves in the doing. Consider it your thread of sanity and certainty in all this rain.

hazak v’nithazek, let us be strong and strengthen each other,