Sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy; neither shall you defile yourselves with any manner of swarming thing that moves upon the earth. (Leviticus 11:44-5)
This week’s Torah portion, Shemini, is devoted in large part to the laws of kashrut. The eleventh chapter of Leviticus is, essentially, a long list of permitted and forbidden foods. For mammals and sea creatures, the criteria are clear: we can eat only animals with cloven hoofs that chew their cud, and fish that possess both fins and scales. Reptiles and amphibians are prohibited, as are all insects except locusts. Birds are handled on an individual basis, without any specific criteria, though birds of prey are generally prohibited. Chicken is in; hawks, eagles, and owls are out.
Interestingly, the Torah gives no rationale for any of this. But long after the fact, countless sages and scholars have offered explanations for our tradition’s dietary laws. These conjectures include health/hygiene, spiritual discipline, the preservation of Jewish identity, and a reminder that all of life is holy and eating the flesh of any once-living creature is a form of moral compromise.
I find varying degrees of merit in all of these conjectures but for me, the most compelling reason to keep kosher to some degree or another is that it can be a powerful practice of mindfulness. When we pay full attention to what we eat—including where it came from and how it was produced—we transform a universal animalistic necessity into a sacred act.
Mindful eating practices include traditional kosher laws, ethical considerations around the treatment of animals and human food service workers, and production and consumption choices that minimize our carbon footprint and counter catastrophic climate change. By eating with intention and awareness—as Torah urges us to do—we increase the holiness in our lives and help to heal our broken world.
In the end, of course, we all make our own choices, and we should be careful not to be harshly judgmental of others. It is essential to recognize that on our collective Jewish journey, one’s chosen path is often not the same as one’s neighbors’. But the choices that we make should be informed and well-considered. As Rabbi Kushner concludes; “I don’t know if God cares about what I eat, but I know that I feel closer to God when I care about what I eat.”
The Hebrew term from mindfulness—muda’ut—is a contemporary word based upon the ancient biblical term for knowing—la-da’at. To know something truly and deeply is to play close attention over a significant period of time. To gulf down a hamburger from a fast food restaurant is the antithesis of such knowing; mindfulness in eating asks us to consider the sources of our food and to savor its flavor.
Mussar Practice for this Week
Pay real attention to what you eat. Add a level of kosher and/or ethical awareness to your normal food consumption. Offer a blessing or acknowledgment before or after eating.
Slow down and savor every bite.