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.
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.