This week's parashah / Torah portion continues the revelation at Sinai begun during last week's dramatic, shofar-blasts-smoke-and-thunder forging of the brit/covenant between God and Israel.
This week's chapters of Torah settle down to the task of laying out our responsibilities as we fulfill our commitment to maintain our covenant with God. The scope and diversity of the mitzvot / commandments delivered in our parashah, Mishpatim (which literally translates as "laws") is are tremendously comprehensive. As we look through laws that outline our relationships with other human beings, with God, with other elements of creation, like animals and plants, the realization dawns that our tradition is holistic . . . our thoughts, our actions, our aspirations can all be elevated and bring holiness to the world if we turn to the Torah and the covenant for guidance. "One who steals a man, and has sold him, or he was found in his hand, will be put to death." (Exodus/Sh'mot 21:16) "And if an ox will gore a man or a woman and they die, the ox shall be stoned, and its meat shall not be eaten--and the ox's owner is innocent. And if it was a goring ox from the day before yesterday, and it had been so testified to is owner, and he did not watch it, and it killed a man or a woman, the ox will be stoned, and its owner will be put to death as well." (21:28-29) "You shall not bring up a false report. Do not join your hand with a wicked person to be a malevolent witness." (23:1) "And you shall not oppress an alien--since you know the alien's soul, because you were aliens in the land of Egypt." (23:9) "And six years you shall sow your land and gather its produce; and the seventh: you shall let it lie fallow and leave it, and your people's indigent will eat it. You shall do this to your vineyard, to your olives." (23:10-11) "You shall not cook a kid in its mother's milk." (23:19)
Few of us in East Greenwich have fields to leave fallow (and anyway, that particular mitzvah is reserved for Jewish-owned fields in Israel) or have to worry about the behavior of our ox. But the values couched in those ancient middle-eastern realia find expression in our own practices, traditions and standards today.
This past Sunday morning, our third, fourth, and fifth graders, their parents and even a few grandparents gathered at the Frenchtown Road Stop and Shop for a "Mishpatim Moment." After having studied about kashrut in class with teacher Joie Magnone, our students and parents met at the supermarket to put theory into practice. Armed with a booklet showing a variety of kosher symbols and a shopping list of ten items to find that sported those symbols, our kosher shoppers took off: salad dressing, pasta, breakfast cereal, prune juice, crackers, canned peaches . . . we spread through the store collecting kosher non-perishibles.
Lesson #1 learned: It's actually pretty easy to eat kosher. Most of our favorite national brands are kosher!
After checking everyone's basket and purchasing our 10 items per family, we arrived at Lesson #2: We met Susan Adler, Director of the Jewish Seniors Agency, which runs the Chester Full Plate Kosher Food Pantry. Sue accepted our kosher offerings with enthusiasm and promised to stock the shelves of the pantry for the over 125 clients of the JSA who are food insecure . . . who do not always know where their next meal is coming from.
Our Mishpatim Moment: We learned a bit about what kosher food is and how to find it . . . and we got it into onto the tables of those in our community who need it most.
This week's parashah reviews the animals whose meat is "kosher", that is, "proper" for consumption by those who seek to maintain the brit/covenant with God. It's a list that is familiar to many: mammals must have a split hoof and chew their cud (cows, sheep, goats, deer, bison, buffalo . . .); water-bound creatures must have both fins and scales (salmon, tuna, yellowtail, cod, scrod, tilapia, sea bass, trout . . . ); and birds must not be birds of prey (turkey, chicken, geese, ducks . . . ).
Clearly, those who commit to following the guidelines of kosher eating have plenty to eat!
When it comes to mammals and birds, however, meeting the criteria described in our Torah reading this week is not sufficient: in other words, a Big Mac, even without the cheese, is not kosher even though the burger is beef (meaning meat cut from a mammal with a split hoof that chews its cud). There is a further step that is required: kosher slaughter / shechita.
Kosher slaughter is designed to render the animal unconscious before it has time experience pain or panic from an inability to breath. In one forceful, smooth, pass of the knife, the trachea, esophagus, carotid artery, jugular veins and vagus nerve are all severed. In order to be certified as a "shochet", a ritual kosher slaughterer, people go through rigorous training and supervision before they are allowed to work on their own.
As the shochet stands before the animal to be slaughtered, he (usually he) recites the following blessing:
“Blessed are You, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with God's commandments and has commanded us concerning ritual slaughter.”
The shochet's blessing, our extra effort to locate and purchase kosher meat, the blessing we recite before we eat that meat ("Baruch atah Adonay, eloheinu melech ha'olam, shehakol nihyeh bidvaro." Blessed are You, Adonay our God, for everything exists by God's word.), are all meant to keep us mindful of the fact that a life God created has been sacrificed for our nourishment and pleasure.
These days, we find our meat packaged in neat little plastic packages: it is so easy to lose the connection between the ground beef in the package and the animal from which it was cut. (Hence, the cuts of beef chart, above.)
These days, we are inundated by packaging, advertising, expert advice of all kinds, all funded by huge food-producing corporations. How easy to fall into the trap of believing that cookies come from Nabisco, chips come from Wise and fish sticks comes from Gorton's . . . . our tradition, our framework of kosher eating keeps fresh in our minds the truth that our nourishment comes from God. Conagra, Kraft, all those huge food-producing corporations would be out of business without the nourishing plants and animals God placed on this earth to sustain us.
So, no, there is nothing anachronistic about the laws and observance of kosher eating . . . I'd say we need them now more than ever!
This week's parashah/Torah portion establishes one of the cornerstones of Jewish tradition: there are two categories of animals, those that may be consumed and those that shall not be consumed by those who consider themselves to be part of the brit/covenant between God and Israel.
Not that long ago, "keeping kosher" was normative practice among Jews in the United States. Jews who today do not maintain kosher kitchens in their homes most probably recall the kosher homes of their parents or grandparents. Living in a state in which there are no kosher butchers (although Trader Joe's always carries fresh kosher meat and poultry!) and one kosher coffeeshop/bakery (Wildflour Bakery in Pawtucket, yum!), it is clear that a minority of Rhode Island Jews follow kosher guidelines when making decisions about food.
Last night I had occasion to write in an e-mail to a Torat Yisrael member that it is often the case in the Torah that a mitzvah / commandment is given and no reason is provided. Thus, Passover, according to the Torah, lasts seven days. and although we might come up with engaging and inspirational reasons for this number, the bottom line remains that Pesah lasts seven days for the simple reason that God said so.
Keeping kosher is largely about religious discipline. It is a statement: all the food God created is healthy, delicious, nourishing . . . but as an expression of the centrality of my Jewishness in my life, I am going to avoid eating pigs and lobsters and veal parmesan. Here is a place where we might very well expect "God said so" to be the only available reason in the Torah.
But Parashat Shemini not only provides criteria for kosher creatures (mammals with cloven hooves that chew their cuds, water creatures with both fins and scales) but we get a reason, too. Toward the end of the parasha we read:
(vayikra/leviticus 11:44-45) For I am the Lord your God, and you shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, because I am holy, and you shall not defile yourselves through any creeping creature that crawls on the ground. For i am the Lord Who brought you up from the Land of Egypt to be your God. Thus you shall be holy because I am holy.
Here we are given to understand that accepting the discipline of kashrut endows us with holiness. i find this to be an astounding and energizing concept: holiness is not exclusively a divine state, it is an attainable goal for human beings as well.
In traditional parlance, a Jewish congregation is referred to as a kehillah k'doshah, as a holy congregation. I believe that our Torat Yisrael community, on the verge of leaving our 60 year old building in Cranston and preparing to settle in East Greenwich is very much a kehillah k'doshah, a holy community. We express this in innumerable ways: we support the hungry in our state through our partnership with the Edgewood Food Pantry in the Church of the Transfiguration on Broad Street and our support of the Chester Kosher Food Closet; we support the homeless in our state through our annual Kosher Christmas Dinner for the Rhode Island Family Shelter; we are committed to the perpetuation of the covenant between God and Israel through our outstanding Torat Tots, Yeladon and Cohen Religious School; we deepen the Jewish spiritual and intellectual journeys of our members through our services and Torah study. We declare our commitment to striving for that exalted k'dushah / holiness that God offers us through our adherence to the system of Kashrut.
The insights of this week's parashah are a gift: by the simple, accessible means of choosing eggplant parmesan over veal parmesan we can take a step towards human holiness: a gift of an eternally accessible opportunity to us as individuals and to us as a kehillah k'doshah, a holy congregation.
Parashat Re'eh Torah Reading: Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17
God said to Moshe: You shall not seethe a kid in its mother's milk.
Moshe said to God: Oh! Ok. So we're going to have separate pots for foods with milk and foods with meat.
God said to Moshe: You shall not seethe a kid in its mother's milk.
Moshe said to God: Oh! Ok. So after we eat meat, we're going to wait three hours before we eat anything dairy.
God said to Moshe: You shall not seethe a kid in its mother's milk.
Moshe said to God: Oh! Ok. So we're going to wash our meat and dairy pots, dishes and utensils with separate sponges.
God said to Moshe: Oh, go do what you want!!
One of the three times in the Torah that the verse "You shall not seethe a kid in its mother's milk," appears in the Torah is in this week's parashah. Re'eh also contains a list of the criteria for determining whether an animal (split hooves and chews its cud) or sea creature (fins and scales) is kosher (proper) for consumption.
Ah, kashrut . . . the Jewish dietary laws. There is no element of Jewish tradition that is more iconic, more misunderstood, more cherished, feared, resisted and embraced.
Airline staff have informed me that kosher food is food that has been blessed by a rabbi. If you sign up for J-Date, you will be asked two questions about your Jewish life: how frequently you attend synagogues and whether you observe kashrut or not. Members of the various congregations I've served have: told me that kosher food is healthier; have stood defensively between me and their shopping carts when we've bumped into each other in a supermarket aisle; have changed the menu of their simchah to vegetarian and fish after thinking about the disconnect of celebrating a bar or bat mitzvah with treife (not kosher) food; have invited me to kasher their kitchens; have made persuasive arguments about why the rules of kashrut should be relaxed in synagogue so that they can bring in their famous cake/soup/salad/cookies that they've made at home.
As the joke at the top of the page suggests, the laws of kashrut have multiplied exponentially beyond the few simple guidelines in the Torah. The rabbis of the late antique period who shaped the fundamental laws of kashrut were motivated by the desire to create a system of rules on which everyone would rely, to anticipate questions over which people in their markets and kitchens might puzzle, turning the food Jews eat into a common language.
Somehow, we are bumping up against kashrut a lot.
Why? Here is my list of reasons for cherishing, embracing and committing to kashrut:
1. Kashrut compels us to be mindful of what we put into our mouths. Rather than grabbing what is handy, we train ourselves to elevate our choices, to infuse what nourishes our bodies with a spiritual dimension.
2. Kashrut is our quiet rebellion. History and fate have placed us in a culture focussed on consumption, on instant gratification, on latest fads . . . kashrut is an eternal, consistent core criteria, it does not change with the seasons. Kashrut is like a mast that holds steady in constantly changing winds.
3. Kashrut: our not-so-secret handshake. It's just so Jewish. Kashrut is a way to express, and to enhance, our sense of belonging to the Jewish world. It's the way Jews eat. It's never having to be apologetic because you can't invite someone Jewish to your home. It's a way to express the Jewishness of your home and family that links you to Jews all over the world and Jews throughout history.
It's also fun, by the way. I like to cook, and I've become a more creative cook by adapting recipes to my kosher kitchen and finding things to eat in restaurants around the world.
So, if you'd like to know more, be in touch. I'm delighted to answer any questions about keeping kosher any time!
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.