The ritual sacrifice chronicled in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra could turn many of us (so removed from the meat that magically appears on our tables) into vegetarians, especially if we were to construct in our minds a big-screen, motion picture (a la Charleton Heston, perhaps?) of the animal sacrifices described in vivid detail. For many, the entire book of Leviticus is so difficult to digest (pun intended) that my seminary offers a class entitled Learning to Love Leviticus, taught by the extremely talented Rabbi Dr. Laura Duhan Kaplan. And yes, I did learn to; and yes, I still struggle with a great deal of this text. How wonderfully synchronous that when I was asked to guest lecture for a course entitled “Religion and Environmental Values in America,” the requested topic was Food and Faith and the week of the lecture just happened to be Parshat Shemini! “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous,” is one of my favorite quotes attributed to Albert Einstein.
In enumerating the mitzvot that create the basis for the laws of kashrut (Jewish dietary laws), one can get a bit lost in the animal sacrifice. However, Rabbi Arthur Waskow explains it this way:
How did biblical Jews get in touch with God? By eating and choosing what to eat. Not by murmuring prayer; when Hannah did that (I Samuel 1:13), the priest thought she was drunk. Why by eating? Because in the deepest origins of Jewish life, the most sacred relationship was the relationship with the earth. For shepherds, farmers, orchard-keepers, food was the nexus between adamah, the earth, and its closest relative, adam, the human. So ancient Jews got in touch with God by bringing food to the Temple. With our bodies we affirmed, “This food comes from a Unity of which we also are a part: from earth, rain, sun, seed, and our own work. It came from the Unity of Life; so we give back some of it to that great Unity.”
In addition to establishing our relationship with the Earth, Genesis notes repeatedly that we are created b’tzelem Elohim/in God’s image. Even one who rejects biblical accounts of creation in favor of scientific evidence of our evolution appreciates the miraculous and complex nature of the human body. Whether we focus on maintaining health and wellbeing from a purely practical perspective, as a physical fitness enthusiast, or as one who believes the body is a sacred vessel housing our spiritual essence, caring for our bodies is a responsibility to be taken seriously. Thus, making careful selections about how we fuel our bodies is a principle we can all swallow, whether or not we observe kashrut.
Regardless of our relationship with Jewish dietary laws, we feel our best, physically, when we are making healthy choices about what we select to fuel our bodies, including how and where our food was grown and how it came to our tables. We further consider whether our water comes from a plastic bottle or a recyclable one, and how a restaurant treats the people who work there or who harvest the tomatoes on its hamburgers. In many ways, the laws of kashrut are about delineating among food sources – making careful selections about what food we place into our bodies. In some ways, it could be likened to selecting organic, locally grown, carefully prepared foods rather than highly-processed fast food.
The eco-kashrut movement birthed and fostered by Reb Zalman, z”l, and sustained by other prominent Jewish leaders and grassroots activists, is addressing modern environmental, social, and ethical issues around food growth, sourcing, and consumption as well as sustainability. This level of care and attention to our food, its preparation and consumption has always been a guiding principle of the Little Minyan Kehilla. Whether in the way we approach a potluck or oneg Shabbat or in celebrating the work of our members and like-minded organizations*, our kehilla vibrantly lives our Jewish values through our commitment to the Earth’s health and sustainability.
The biblical commandments at the root of kashrut were designed to remind the People that all life is sacred and to help the People feel close to the Divine. In limiting consumption of mammals to three species – cattle, sheep, and goats – perhaps these laws were conceived to reduce the amount of meat we eat and encourage a healthier diet that included more fruits and vegetables – a diet that our modern doctors encourage. Although prayer replaced animal sacrifice, we still can choose to use our food and consumption practices in a ritual manner. Every meal, even a snack, has the potential to be a sacred ritual, appreciating the Source of bounty, acknowledging those involved (in planting, raising, harvesting, slaughtering, packaging, transporting and preparing our food), and requesting continued blessing for wellness.*
*this is a shout-out to so many of our members whose work and ways of living place environmental consciousness and sustainable eating practices at the fore. Special kavod/honor to Little Minyanites Jodi Kushins for her energy and efforts (overthefenceurbanfarm.com), and Michelle Moskowitz-Brown (localmatters.org)
* A beautiful setting of praise and appreciation by Rabbi Hanna Tiferet Siegel can be found here along with other selections for blessing offered by Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center and Hazon.