Shemini: We Are What We Eat
I once heard an eager student ask Rabbi Ronnie Serr how he should go about becoming more observant. Ronnie looked at him and gave him the perfect answer: “very slowly”. It’s all too easy to get so passionate about something that we ultimately burn ourselves out rather than make real changes in behavior. By taking small and simple steps we make those steps into habits, and accomplish real and deep changes that stick with us over the course of time.
I’m often asked what someone should do when they want to explore their Judaism more deeply. Yes, there are books I’ll recommend (if they like to read) or movies to watch; but the first two actions I suggest are simple: light Sabbath candles; and slowly start to keep kosher.
Lighting candles is an easy entry point into observing and experiencing the Sabbath. A simple process that only takes a few minutes, most Jews recognize that it is a foundation stone of Jewish practice. As Ahad Ha’Am famously said, “More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews”. The simple act of lighting candles creates a weekly pattern of bringing a consciousness of God into our lives, and often gets extended into a more full Shabbat observance.
To begin to start keeping kosher is a much more difficult concept for many people. After all, in the 21st century these “archaic” laws are no longer needed for health or cleanliness; so why should they be observed? But as we learn in this week’s Torah portion of Shemini (Lev. 9:1-11:47), our choices of food are extremely important on multiple levels.
Much of the beginning of this week’s text revolves around offerings to God. But there is then a transition into a very detailed account of what types of animals are fit to be eaten (the word “kasher” means “fit”), and which are not. Animals that have both a cloven hoof and chew their cud are allowed, and if they do not have both those qualities they are not considered suitable. Fish must have both fins and scales or they are not allowed, and a detailed listing of allowed and forbidden birds is also included.
But why are some animals suitable for consumption and others are not? It can’t be because of cleanliness since a raccoon is one of the most fastidious animals in the world, but is not kosher. A chicken on the other hand is a dirty animal that is kosher. So what’s really going on here?
Like many of God’s commandments, we need to explore more in order to understand the deeper reasons for this distinction between animals for food.
Most indigenous and spiritual ttaditions believe that what we eat directly affects our energy both physically and spiritually. Dieticians are fond of saying “You are what you eat” (originally attributed to German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach in 1863). But thousands of years earlier, in this week’s portion of Shemini, we find the most ancient written food laws based on this concept.
Animals can be broken into three basic categories in terms of their own eating habits: predators, scavengers, and grazers. If we analyze the animals that are forbidden in the Torah, they are all either predators or scavengers. The ones that are allowed are the grazers. The eating prohibitions are an ethical behavior system that is designed to make us more conscious of God’s influence in every moment. They are designed to take the mundane act of eating and transform it into a spiritual practice.
God’s commandment here is not about health or cleanliness, but about ethics. If Feuerbach is correct that we are what we eat, these guidelines encourage a specific form of behavior and reject others. Judaism teaches that we are not to be predators in life, taking what we want from others. Neither are we to be scavengers, picking at the rotten leftovers in life that others have discarded. We are not like the hyenas or jackals that will even fight each other for a rotting carcass. Rather we are to be like the grazing animals that work together to accept what God provides for us and take care of each other. The practice of this commandment is an ethical understanding and behavior system based on our food consumption. And the observance of this practice around food makes subtle and powerful changes in all aspects of our lives.
I grew up going out with my older brother z”l for crab cakes on many Sunday afternoons. Constraining our dining based on laws that are thousands of years old made no sense to me, especially given that the health standards of the 20th century were so much better than when the Torah was written. But when I learned this deeper understanding of how these laws could affect my consciousness, I decided to take a year off and only eat kosher animals. I wasn’t going to concern myself with the slaughtering or koshering process, but I chose to take a year off from eating any forbidden animals and I would evaluate after a year if it made a difference in my life.
It did make a difference. A large one.
Because I was more conscious about not being a predator or scavenger in my food, I found that I had become kinder with more people. My level of empathy for others increased, and I was more aware of my own actions and attitudes at a deeper level. I also became more aware of the practices of others that I had easily accepted before, but now realized were unacceptable in my own life. By changing my diet slightly for just a year, my life had changed dramatically for the better. From there I chose to eat only animals that had been koshered…slaughtered in a more humane way. (There is a midrash that eventually we will all be vegetarians, and these laws around kosher animals are to keep us in balance until we all reach that point.) I then stopped having milk and meat together. Again, this is a practice of distinguishing between two things: the holiness of life and the holiness of death, as milk is the symbol of new life and meat a symbol of something having died. Eventually, becoming fully kosher was just a natural progression in my own spiritual development as a Jew, and led me to choose to study other Jewish laws and practices at a deeper level.
This is why I recommend so highly that every Jew starts slowly to explore the deeper meanings of these dietary practices. Make a commitment for a year or for 3 months, or at least from now until Shavuot (this year on May 18) and choose to consciously follow these dietary restrictions. Just don’t eat any of the forbidden animals. If you already avoid those forbidden animals, then take the time and don’t have milk and meat in the same meal. Then take an honest evaluation of your life and see if you feel more connected to Judaism, to God, to yourself, and if your life has changed for the better.
If it isn’t better; if you aren’t aware of a positive spiritual difference in your life, you can always go back to eating those scavengers and predators and all that happened is that you ate differently for a while. But if you notice even the slightest positive difference, then maybe it’s worth keeping to these dietary laws found in this week’s Torah portion.
There is really nothing to lose by keeping a little more kosher, and I can personally vouch that there is everything to gain.
May we all find a deeper awareness of life in every moment, and transcend the most basic activities like eating into holy moments of Divine inspiration.
Rabbi Michael Barclay April 9, 2021 27th of Nisan, 5781 Day 12 of Counting of the Omer