Parshat Shemini, Leviticus 9:1–11:47
As a child, I didn’t think much about what I ate. I wasn’t concerned with the cost or nutritional value. I certainly never thought about the quality of the kashrut or about the ethical dimensions that were involved in bringing the food to my table. It wasn’t that I disregarded those concerns per se, I was just oblivious about them. When I began adhering to the Jewish traditions around food consumption, I experienced an awakening. Never before in my life had I applied so much self-restraint. When I was younger, I never paused to consider what I was eating; now I think about each bite as an opportunity to fulfill a moral imperative.
Yet, the contemporary reality of kashrut poses pronounced difficulty for me. I view the commitment to the timeless ritual of holy kosher laws as central to Jewish survival and continuity. Yet, my kosher diet did not reflect any particular ethical pursuit per se and was merely connected to my commitment to the Torah. My deeper awakening of kosher consciousness only emerged after I realized that the mechanisms of kashrut were touchstones for a much deeper value system. Indeed, I began to realize that the opportunities for food consciousness were vast. I began to appreciate the deeper temporal dimensions of kashrut (as a vision): its overall effects on human health, worker treatment, animal welfare, care for the environment and the scourge of poverty. Corresponding to the ethical call of kashrut, a personal spirituality of consumption began to stir within my soul. Consequently, I wondered why this spiritual element seemed absent from the broader communal consciousness. For instance, why, as demand for kosher meat grew, did kosher slaughter follow the trend of the non-kosher meat industry toward mass industrial production methods, with animals often penned in for extended periods of time in the harshest conditions? How could a community as demanding and painstakingly particular about the traditions of kashrut allow for such treatment of animals, deemed so inhumane in secular culture?
Something deeply troubling, spiritually unsettling took hold in the Jewish community. Could a different voice — steeped in the love of Torah and mitzvot, reverent toward the sages and sensitive to the pace of change — call for a kosher consciousness to emerge? Or better yet, to revive?
In the depths of Jewish tradition, there is one refrain that echoes through each and every story, each and every law: to do what is yashar v’tov, what is right and good; to uphold the banner of justice and treat all our fellow human beings with dignity and respect. For millennia, the purpose of living a Jewish life has been to uplift the soul to perform its heavenly duties here on earth and bring about positive change to a world occupied with conflict, exploitation and woe. This need to exercise the everyday potential of the soul expands to all facets of life, yet nowhere is this more immediate than in the food industry. In the Torah, there is a serious emphasis on what products are consumable and which are forbidden.
Nachmanides (Ramban) wrote that a person can be naval birshut ha’Torah (a disgusting person with the permission of the Torah). It is not enough, he argued, to follow the letter of the law. If we wish to be moral and holy, we must go further. His specific example, in fact, is one who keeps kosher but is morally oblivious and gluttonous with kosher meat. Kashrut is indeed about far more than some technical ritual preparation laws. Rabbi Soloveitchik has been credited with the expounding on the thought that halakhah is a “floor not a ceiling.” We fulfill the basic ritual requirements, but that is only the beginning of considering the moral and spiritual dimensions involved with each religious act. Reading Parshat Shemini this week, let us be inspired by the timeless kashrut traditions that have helped to keep the Jewish people alive and also reflect on the ethical dimensions of food consumption that help enable us to thrive morally. JN
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the president and dean of Valley Beit Midrash and the author of 13 books on Jewish ethics.