Shabbat Emor: Why Bother?

“You shall not cause My holy Name to be hollowed out and meaningless.”  (Lev.22.32) This mitzvah from the parashat hashavua may seem obscure, especially when it is translated in the traditional way: “profaned.” But it’s actually a very relevant concept. A Jew causes the Name to be “profaned,” i.e. meaningless, when that Jew who is known to self identify as a Jew – calls oneself a Jew, explains one’s actions as Jewish – acts in a way clearly contrary to Jewish teaching. This is really no different from any other kind of hypocrisy, except that in this case it reflects upon that which one professes to respect, and clearly does not.
Profanation of the Name, then, is religious hypocrisy. It is to act in such a way that one brings contempt not only upon oneself but upon that which one professes to believe in. It turns respect into derision, and, worse, reflects upon everyone else involved. Worst of all, it leads to disillusionment and cynicism.
For many who still want to believe in the holiness of the mitzvot, the Jewish people and its path, and its G*d, there’s a sense that one must withdraw in order to guard that sense, that this life-path is special and meaningful despite those who hollow its meaning out by their chosen actions.
Similarly, for those of us who want to continue to believe in democracy, in the social contract, and in basic human decency, some days, and some people, are harder than others.
This week in Portland we have seen another tragic death at the hands of police. Terrell Johnson was killed while fleeing police after an encounter at a MAX station. For those who have worked so hard in so many ways to raise awareness, protest police shootings, and get things to change around here, this is terribly discouraging news.
Jews, as a minority in so many places, have long known that the events of the day, piled up far enough, can destroy your certainty that there is something worth fighting for. Why bother, after all? Why care, why try to change the world for the better? why not just go shopping? In short, why not join those who have decided that it’s all hollow, and there’s nothing that is holy?
We can ask the question more broadly: what if there is no holiness, what if there is no G*d? Our ancestors knew this question as well:
“You are my witnesses, says G*d” … Rabbi Shimon bar Yokhai said, If you are My witnesses, then I am G*d. But if you are not My witnesses, I am not, as it were, G*d. (Pesikta deRav Kahana)
There may be no G*d that we can fully comprehend on a bad day; indeed, for all intents and purposes there may be no G*d at all, and no meaning, and no purpose. But if that is so, we still need to construct meaning for our lives by which to grow and act coherently. Even as every living being depends upon certainties of context and structure in order to exist at all, we need order and coherence by which to think and act.
On a day when all you are working for seems to be worthless, you begin to understand faith. Faith is not that we will be rescued from ourselves, not to Jews: faith is knowing in your heart that there is something worth getting out of bed for. On that day when you aren’t sure you can generate that certainty by yourself, give thanks that you belong to a community, an ancient community that asserts meaning far beyond any individual’s ability to carry such a load. It is full of suggestions for you, of support and ideas and relevance, as long as you engage with it not in cynical despair but with respect and hope – that is, in holiness.
On erev Shabbat we are bidden to give tzedakah in honor of Shabbat. In our day, at this time, I invite you to demonstrate your certainty that there is still something holy in your life, in our Portland community, and in our nation by doing #JewishResistance tzedakah, and giving a few minutes of your time to an act that will honor Shabbat in the same way as tzedakah, by giving of your heart and mind as you do your resources. Thus you will fulfill the most important mitzvah of the Shema: with all your heart, with all your mind, with all you have” (Deut. 6.5)

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.