Torah Reading for Week of April 4-10, 2021
By Rabbi Corinne Copnick, ’15
The views expressed in this drash are those of the author. We welcome Torah insights and teachings from all viewpoints, and encourage dialogue to strengthen the diversity of our academy.
As a Torah portion, Shemini covers a lot of ground, and what it has to say about the food we consume affects Jewish people to this day. In other words, Shemini explains what we have come to call “Kashrut,” “The Kosher Laws,”– an outline of our dietary do’s and don’ts for everyday living, which Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jews all interpret differently. A whole range of what we can and cannot eat at Passover is included in these laws too.
Despite the fact that her husband was a Labor Socialist with a dim view of God, my maternal grandmother always kept a strictly kosher home. But she refused to eat at my mother’s home. Why? Because my mother, who thoroughly enjoyed being an “acculturated” school teacher, did not keep a kosher home — even though she had been taught to do so by my grandmother. However, my grandmother would eat regularly at my home because I had not been taught to keep kosher. Also, she said, God would understand that it was important to be with her grandchild – her ainikel –and young family on Friday night. My grandmother’s God was very accommodating, stronger on rachamim than din. Of course, I kept special glass plates for my grandma and served her fruit salad, which was all she would eat, apart from the delicious cakes I bought from a kosher bakery with a heksher stamp.
Much later in my life, I was glad to learn that Los Angeles Torah educator (and political pundit), Dennis Prager, had simplified most of the kosher requirements expressed in Shemini into two simple rules: 1) Don’t eat animals that eat other animals, and 2) Don’t eat animals that are scavengers. Most important of all, of course, is the requirement to treat animals humanely, to slaughter them with the least pain possible, and the caution that, if we do eat meat, not to consume the blood of the animal. The ancient Israelites believed that the life of the animal – the DNA so to speak — was in the blood.
The rules concerning separation of milk and meat relate to a different text in the Bible – the prohibition about taking the chicks or potential chicks of the mother bird out of the nest while the mother bird is present. The idea is to avoid causing distress to the mother as much as possible. But there is a deeper concern. Milk represents life; it is considered life-affirming, whereas when we eat meat, it is dead. Dead meat. And so, according to Jewish reasoning, life and death should always be kept separate. Thus no milk and meat together. Some of my rabbinic colleagues have become vegetarian, in fact, so that they don’t have to think about whether or not they are keeping kosher appropriately when their congregants peek at their plates.
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For centuries, the laws pertaining to Kashrut were clear, but according to Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, Kashrut has become both complex and controversial in modern times:
“A number of factors [have] contributed to the debate over kosher food during the last two centuries. Among those factors are massive acculturation, changes in food production including the industrialization of the making of foods, ‘new’ foods from tofu to genetically modified products, changing views of hygiene, the application of scientific method to kosher food inspection, mass marketing, the health food movement, new understandings of Jewish spirituality, and the recent growth of Orthodox Judaism to mention a few” (“You Are What You Eat: The New World of Kosher Food”).
Added to this is the fact that the kosher food business is BIG business in over 100 countries and, according to Forbes, accounting to food sales of over $12 billion under rabbinic supervision.
Until recent years, the Reform movement considered that kashrut was no longer binding on modern Jews, but it has come a long way since a non-kosher meal known as “the treifah banquet” was served in 1883 at Hebrew Union College. Jewish soldiers, by the way, were first granted an exemption from keeping kosher during World War I. Since 1979 and more especially since the second Pittsburgh Platform in 1999, the Reform movement has defined its policies with a new openness to traditional practices. Then, “in 2011, the Central Conference of American Rabbis published The Sacred Table…which presented “the possibilities of an ethical, health-based, spiritual approach to culinary culture in the Progressive Jewish Community today.”
Also, many Progressive Jews have become involved in observing “Eco-Kosher,” which Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi and Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s Jewish Renewal movement defined as “good practice in everyday life that draws on the deep well-springs of Jewish wisdom…. The fusion of the ancient with the post-modern.” Eco-kosher stresses respect for animals and concern for their distress, it is about not ruining the earth, not eating foods with carcinogens, not overusing tobacco and alcohol, avoiding anorexia, etc.; it stresses tzedakah, the sharing of food with the poor, and praising God for the earth’s bounty before and after a meal. There is a lot of emphasis on praying for rain, which, living in California, I particularly appreciate. Other links with the earth are clothing, energy, breathing (in regard to air pollution) and socially responsible work conditions. And of course, shmita, giving the earth a rest. All of these concerns may be summed up by the ethical principle of Tikkun Olam – Healing the World.