Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah – Sh’mini
Let’s call this “Shmini part 2.” Last week, I chose to write on a piece of this portion, even though the text for Passover Shabbat was about a five verse excerpt back in Exodus. I knew that I had too many thoughts on this portion to handle in one piece, so I took a little “Rabbinic Liberty” with the cycle. That said…
From the time of my childhood, I learned that the laws of kosher were health-oriented. I can’t count the number of times I heard that pork spoiled in the sun, and so, it was not safe to eat. I always wondered about this, because beef, lamb, and goat do, too. You can cure all the animals to keep them from spoiling, as well. I rejected the whole thing as nonsense.
As I began to study, I read in Exodus that Torah alludes to the idea that we don’t do certain things to remind ourselves that we are not Pagan. The inference is that pagan people eat pork. No, Torah does not overtly make this point, nor does it define what a pagan is. I also learned that the Torah never speaks about dietary health issues. Neither has most commentators – not physical health, anyway.
Many of our most respected sages focus on matters of discipline and symbolism. For some, the argument against “prohibited” foods is as simple as, “I choose not to because I control what goes inside.” For others, the habits of the unpermitted foods or appearance of these foods make them untenable.
For bottom feeders in the sea, the idea is that they don’t get much oxygen and little sun. We need both. Animals and birds of prey are vicious with appetites in tune with anything alive or dead; we should not be. Unique to the pig, though, is the reality that it looks kosher, but isn’t. Kosher animals have to have a split hoof and chew their cud. The pig is the only animal that has a split hoof that does not chew its cud. The sages teach us that the pig symbolizes the people who seem okay on the surface but who are not. They befriend others for ulterior nefarious motives. The loudest voices I hear in this debate admonish us to be mindful of the behaviors we want to exhibit in our behaviors. Today, we know that the pig is one of the cleanest animals on the farm. Symbolism often holds more significant sway than reality.
Ultimately, my take away, as with all of Torah, is that the texts involving “kosher” are allegorical conversation starters. I am not saying the ritual is not a religious staple for many. But even those who observe a “strictly kosher” diet stay in conflict with others who observe strictly on some issues of food and preparation. For me, as a student of history, I know that pogroms against Jews always included some forced act of defilement. Often it was the forced eating of pork, the desecration of sanctuaries, and the adulteration of family. I won’t eat pork; even in the face of antisemitism (or maybe especially because of it) I am proud of my heritage and choose to publicly and privately make this statement. My son won’t mix milk and meat because he finds it challenging to recognize that milk gives life; it should not take it, as well.
Each of us has a different reason to observe what we observe. There is no one answer, but tradition can’t allow us simply to ignore the concept that, at least in symbolic ways, we are what or how we eat and how we behave. So I retreat to a phrase I often use in this conversation. Actually, Jesus said it best, synthesizing the many prophetic voices who made similar claims, “God cares more of what comes out of your mouth than what goes in it. As an observant Jew, Jesus wouldn’t eat pork. For him, as for our entire tradition – it is more important to use the food you eat to sustain one’s good work and not one’s selfishness. The mitzvah of kosher invokes a necessary debate for everyone – far more critical than what you eat, be mindful of the why you eat it and what you do with it. Shabbat Shalom.