April 19, 2001
Jews, Food and Holiness
Parashat Sh'mini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47)
I suppose it would be nearly impossible to go through an entire week of Passover for Reconstructionist and Reform Jews, not to mention eight days for the rest of you, without the profound experience in practically every pore of your body that Jewish identity is inextricably bound up with food.
As a rabbi, naturally I have heard all the jokes about Jews and food and the negative characterization of minimalist Jewish identity referred to as "gastronomic Judaism." But this past week of Passover, coupled with this week's Torah portion, has reminded me that when it comes to Jews and food, it's really no laughing matter.
When Antiochus, the Syrian-Greek antagonist of the Chanukah story, wanted to dramatize his disdain for Judaism and Jewish civilization and his insistence on the rejection of Jewish law
and custom, he did so by bringing swine into the Holy of Holies in Jerusalem.
Sixteen hundred years later, when the grand inquisitors of the Spanish Inquisition wanted to test the Christian loyalty of their recent converts from Judaism (after which they often would kill them anyway), the very first test of authentic Jewish rejection would be to watch them eat swine. Four hundred years after that, when the Nazis would recreate the horrors of the Inquisition with a thousand times the evil, they would force-feed pork to rabbis for sport before cutting off their beards and then shooting them.
Yes, food and Jews have gone together at least for the past 3,000 years, ever since this week's Torah portion detailed the do's and don'ts of biblical dietary laws and laid down for all time the famous restrictions on what Jews can and can't eat if they want to be true to the biblical mitzvot.
Earlier this week, I was sitting with a girl who will soon celebrate her bat mitzvah. As we spoke about this week's portion, she told me that her family isn't kosher, and she hasn't grown up keeping Jewish dietary laws. And then she told me in the most matter-of-fact way possible, as if it were so obvious and self-evident that it was almost not worth mentioning, "Of course we don't eat bread during Passover, and our form of kosher is not to eat food that we know came from places were workers are oppressed."
Judaism and food -- a contemporary reinvention of food as a vehicle for holiness in everyday life. What is now called "eco-kosher" represents what Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan would have called "transvaluing," the powerful notion in this week's portion that the food we eat provides a daily opportunity to experience the holiness inherent in our relationship with sustenance.
Just as every time we bless food before we eat, it transforms the very act of eating into a moment of encountering the sacred, each time we make conscious choices of what we eat based on Jewish values, we elevate food and the act of eating to the level of holiness.
Many of my friends have chosen to become vegetarians as an organic form of keeping kosher. Others stop eating meat as a way of giving kavod (respect) to the earth itself. Others do so because they recognize that if we took 25 percent of the grain used to feed animals intended for slaughter and redirect it to people, we would be able to feed the entire world with ease.
Any of these choices can be made as a way to reflect the sacredness with which the Torah bids us approach food and sustenance in this week's portion. Some of us will choose to follow the laws of kashrut as they are written in the Torah. Others follow the later rabbinic interpretations of the biblical laws. Still others see ourselves as partners in the evolution of Jewish civilization and make dietary choices designed to sanctify our lives and the spiritual consciousness with which we eat every day.