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Re'eh: thoughts on kashrut

Roebuck, wild goat, ibex, antelope, camel, hare, raven, ostrich, stork, hoopoe, bat, orangutans and breakfast cereals: all of these (okay, almost all) are in this week's Torah portion, which I'll be reading on Saturday. I'm finding that these unfamiliar nouns make the Torah prep slow going. This would all be easier to learn if I were better at Hebrew zoology.

These verses of parashat Re'eh focus on which animals are permitted, and which forbidden, according to the Jewish dietary laws (kashrut). Brillat-Savarin wasn't talking about kashrut when he said, "Tell me what you eat, and I'll tell you what you are," but his quip works surprisingly well to explain the system's underlying principle. Since forbidden animals are considered tam'ei (ritually impure), the system of kashrut is a way of keeping ourselves pure as befits a community which is consecrated unto God. We are what we eat, so we'd better eat things which are clean.

Someday I'm going to write a long essay on kashrut: how it evolved, different understandings of its reasonings (or whether there's even supposed to be a reasoning behind it), arguments for why one might choose to abide by it and arguments for why one might not. But to do it right, I'll need mad Talmud skillz, so it's going to be a while. Meanwhile, I still need to lead a Torah study session about it on Shabbat morning, so I dug up some contemporary commentary on the dietary laws that I hope will get conversation going.

The first thing on our discussion handout comes from this eco-kashrut website:

Kosher laws teach that eating is a sanctified act, subject to restrictions in order to maintain spiritual holiness. This principle can be used to guide all of our consumption to accord with social and environmental values. The practice of Eco Kashrut helps sanctify consumption, so we can elevate the physical world by acknowledging the holiness of our relationship to God's world.

The mitzvah of shmirat haguf (safeguard the body) encourages healthy eating and an awareness of the food we eat. This includes seeking food that was grown organically, without pesticides, and avoiding food additives, preservatives, coloring agents and artificial flavors. It also includes learning about what foods are healthiest, and choosing a plant-based diet of foods that are fresh, organic, and nutritious...

The passage goes on to talk about the mitzvah of bal tachshit ("do not waste") and about the commandment not to cause suffering to other beings. (Read the whole thing here.) Our food, these folks are saying, is not kosher unless it is farmed sustainably and humanely, in an atmosphere of respect for the labor which brings it forth. (The folks at the Shalom Center have some writings on this, including this piece on kashrut and justice.)

I'm curious to see what people think of eco-kashrut: does it resonate? Is it a reasonable extension of traditional kashrut, or is it something else entirely? If a guy strove to eat only foods which are grown and harvested in consonance with biodynamic standards, but made the occasional organic cheeseburger a part of his diet, could he call his diet "eco-kosher"? What does it imply about our relationship with halakhah, Jewish Law or the Jewish way-of-walking, if we accept this kind of revisioning?

The next part of the handout moves into a different part of the kashrut conversation. It consists of a long-ish excerpt from Marvin Harris' book Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches. Harris argues that the real reason pork isn't kosher (or halal) is that pig farming threatened the integrity of the Middle Eastern ecosystem.

Pastoral nomadism, he points out, happens in places which are too dry for agriculture and can't be irrigated easily. Ruminants are well-adapted to this kind of land (and the climate that goes along with it) because they can happily subsist on leaves and grass. Cows and goats eat stuff humans can't digest, and turn it into stuff that humans can. Pigs, in contrast, eat nuts, fruits, tubers, and grains: the same things we do. They compete with humans for scarce natural resources. (Plus, pigs don't give milk and can't easily be herded).

What's more, pigs are "thermodynamically ill-adapted to the climate of the Negev, the Jordan Valley, and the other lands of the Bible and the Koran." Pigs don't self-cool, so in hot places they need to wallow in order to stay healthy. But where water is scarce, using it to cool one's pigs is wasteful to the point of risking human harm. To close out his argument, Harris writes:

The greater the temptation, the greater the need for divine interdiction. This relationship is generally accepted as suitable for explaining why the gods are always so interested in combating sexual temptations such as incest and adultery...The Middle East is the wrong place to raise pigs, but pork remains a succulent treat. People always find it difficult to resist such temptations on their own. Hence Jahweh was heard to say that swine were unclean, not only as food, but to the touch as well. Allah was heard to repeat the same message for the same reason: it was ecologically maladaptive to raise pigs.

It's an interesting piece of reasoning, and it's an argument I hadn't heard before. (Hat tip to Atanu Dey, who recommended the book when we met back in February.) Of course, many Jews would argue that looking for a logical basis for the dietary laws misses the point entirely. We aren't supposed to understand; we're supposed to transform our lives by the act of obedience regardless. As it is written in Judaism 101:

The short answer to why Jews observe these laws is: because the Torah says so. The Torah does not specify any reason for these laws, and for a Torah-observant, traditional Jew, there is no need for any other reason. Some have suggested that the laws of kashrut fall into the category of chukim, laws for which there is no reason. We show our obedience to God by following these laws even though we do not know the reason.

In To Be a Jew, Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin suggests that the dietary laws are designed as a call to holiness. The ability to distinguish between right and wrong, good and evil, pure and defiled, the sacred and the profane, is very important in Judaism. Imposing rules on what you can and cannot eat ingrains that kind of self control, requiring us to learn to control even our most basic, primal instincts.

According to this interpretation, the value of kashrut lies in submitting oneself to it even though it may not make sense. There's a paradoxical freedom to be found in submission, the theory goes, (does this look familiar to my Muslim readers?) and the Jewish community has always defined itself as that community which is bound by the mitzvot. Then again, some would argue that mitzvot like kashrut, which set Jews apart from others, take on a problematic cast in a world where separatism leads to divisiveness and hence to suffering. These aren't easy viewpoints to reconcile.

After reading the eco-kashrut manifesto, the Harris quote, and the Judaism 101 quote, I'll be intrigued to see whether people in the congregation are more comfortable with kashrut if there's a reason for the laws, or if there isn't. (Feel free to chime in on that point, obviously. Or any other, for that matter.) We probably won't have time to touch on the question of sanctifying food through brachot (blessings) -- that's a whole 'nother conversation...

Most of the verses we'll be discussing have to do with commandments concerning which animals to eschew and which to, um, chew. (Sorry. Couldn't resist.) Only one tiny verse, the last five words I'll be reading aloud, relate to the question of mixing milk and meat: lo-t'vashel g'dei bachelev imo, "You shall not boil a kid in its mothers' milk." From this half-line (plus two other brief kid/milk mentions in Torah) come hundreds of customs relating to the separation of milkhik from fleishik! Maybe I'll close the discussion with this old kashrut joke...

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