Posted on March 20, 2014 by Lisa Motenko
You are what you eat. For Jews, this adage rings especially true because we follow strict dietary laws that strengthen our relationship with G-d, as well as distinguish us from other nations. Growing up I was allowed to eat whatever I wanted – except for pig. Like many assimilated American Jews, my family did not keep kosher, but we somehow still had an aversion to the most well-known of forbidden foods. To this day I can’t look at pork products without feeling nauseous. But I always wondered: why does G-d care what we eat?
My answer comes at the end of this week’s Torah portion, Shemini. In this parasha, after G-d’s presence fills the Tabernacle, G-d delivers a long list of permitted and forbidden animals for eating. There is no explanation given of why these particular animals – we only learn that G-d is holy and therefore we will be holy by abiding by these food rules. Here are some of the highlights of said list: We can eat animals with split hooves if and only if they chew their cud; we can eat fish with fins and scales; we can even eat four-legged flying creeping things that leap on the earth. The line-up of what we can’t eat is long, and includes interesting creatures such as: camels, eagles, owls, rats, lizards, hares, pigs, and tortoises.
Food mitzvoth like these fall into the category of ‘chukim,’ which means they have no clear rationale. One could argue that these seemingly arbitrary laws prove that kashrut is not an ethical ruling, but rather a ritual ruling. I believe otherwise – kashrut laws teach us self- restraint, which is the foundation of ethical human conduct. The fact that these animal categories don’t make sense is dafka why we have to exercise our will; if it were obvious from a health or environmental perspective that we shouldn’t eat shrimp, for example, then it wouldn’t be difficult to resist.
Kashrut laws given to us later in the Torah build upon this foundation and become more obviously ethical in nature. For example, we are prohibited from boiling a kid in its mother’s (life sustaining) milk, which would be a perverse death for the animal. We also are commanded to drain the animal of its blood, as to not consume the life force of another being. Living in a society with easy access to food, these laws force us to reflect upon how we respect other living beings.
I challenge us to take kashrut a step further. What if in addition to restraining from eating certain animals and respecting them at their time of death, we integrated other ethical considerations. I’m referring to things like paying just wages to workers, considering the life of the animal before slaughter, or spraying produce with chemicals that contaminate the soil. Enter eco-kashrut, a movement started in the 70’s by Reb Zalman Schacter-Shalomi, which illuminates the original intention of kashrut – to uphold holiness. Eco-kashrut suggests that we only consume products that meet both dietary halacha and Jewish ethical codes. When we begin to treat other humans, animals, and the earth as holy – we too will become the holy people G-d intended us to be. Shabbat Shalom.