The aphorism “you are what you eat” first appeared in French and then in German in the 1800s, and was then brought into English in the 1920s by nutritionist Victor Lindlahr, the inventor of the “catabolic diet.” Hippie foodies later adopted the phrase in the 1960s.
But the original place where we find the idea that people and food are intimately connected is in this week’s parashah, Shemini.
The Torah lays out the framework for the original “you are what you eat” manifesto, known to Jews as kashrut. However, kashrut is a real mystery in many ways because it is part of chukim, laws given without any rational reasoning as to why we should follow them.
Throughout our history, from the famous debates of Maimonides and Nachmanides to modern times, commentators, rabbis, scholars and many others have sought to find reasons — medical, spiritual, biological or otherwise — to ascribe meaning to why these limitations were given. We continue to come back to the same answer: Keeping kosher is one of the mitzvot of our tradition that defies logical reason. But this doesn’t mean that there is not great meaning and value in making the choice to eat certain foods and not eat others.
I like to call it spiritual discipline, which is how I describe all mitzvot, especially in an age when the majority of Jews don’t feel commanded by God in this regard, yet are searching for meaning in our wonderful ritual traditions. And, actually, the argument that “God wants us to act in this way” was already rejected by none other than the ancient authors of the classical midrash: “The mitzvot were given to Israel in order to refine people. For what does the Holy One care whether a person kills an animal by the throat or the nape of the neck? Hence the purpose of the mitzvot is to refine people” (Genesis Rabbah 44:1; Leviticus Rabbah 13:3).
Kashrut is important because of the connection between eating and our souls. Not because eel is evil, but because limiting what we eat, for a holy purpose, for the sake of connecting to the mysterious aspects of life, for the sake of connecting to our ancestors, for the sake of connecting to other Jews, are all valuable contributions to the “refinement of our soul.”
My own personal kashrut has changed over the past 19 years. I used to be incredibly strict, eating only in kosher restaurants, eating only foods with OU hekshers. As my own understanding of mitzvot and Jewish practice began to shift, my kashrut has become more of a personal choice. I don’t expect everyone to agree with this, for sure, but I eat vegetarian dishes or fish in any restaurant, in anyone’s home, worrying less about what the food was cooked next to and more about what ends up in my body. I make the conscious choice to not eat the foods prohibited by the Torah, to not mix milk and meat (I don’t eat meat, so that makes it easy) and to keep a spiritual discipline around eating. I believe that this approach is very doable, and I would urge those not keeping any sort of kashrut to try it, connecting to the ancient wisdom of our Torah and our people. Limiting what we eat, especially in today’s world of gluttony, can bring much spiritual depth and reward. In fact, Maimonides does say “that the purpose of kashrut ... is to put an end to the lusts and licentiousness manifested in seeking what is most pleasurable and to taking the desire for food and drink as an end” (“Guide for the Perplexed III,” 35).
Lastly, I want to say a word about the emerging Jewish food movement, led by my good friend Nigel Savage at Hazon. To be sure, the ethical practices of humane treatment of animals has gotten lost in modern, billion-dollar agribusiness, which includes some of the major kosher farms. There are those who are questioning whether free-range, organic meat is not more kosher than the industrial-style kosher meat. These are good questions. There are those pushing us to look at the treatment of the workers who grow our food and how that affects its kashrut. This is good. Jewish groups are part of the movement to eat locally grown foods, and many synagogues participate in community-supported agriculture, which is great.
Kashrut is much more than a heksher or a mashgiach, and it is precisely the midrash’s call to “refine our souls” that should be inspiring us to look deeper at this ancient practice. If you are just beginning, start by limiting some of your choices as a spiritual discipline and grow from there. For the Torah was the first to coin the slogan, “You are what you eat.”
Shabbat Shalom and happy kosher eating!
Joshua Levine Grater is senior rabbi at Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center (pjtc.net), a Conservative congregation in Pasadena.