Drash on Parashat Shemini
Rabbi David Kunin
Temple Beth Israel
St Kilda, Victoria
Kashrut – As Opportunity to Stop and Find Meaning
Observance of the Kashrut laws, one of the foci of Parshat Shemini, has long been a marker that separates Progressive Jews from their more traditional brethren. These food taboos have been seen as difficult, driving people away from Judaism, and as divisive, preventing or impeding interaction with our non-Jewish neighbours. Taken together the kashrut laws are seen as a relic of our ancient past. Yet, to my mind these impediments, while important, miss out on deep spiritual and ethical lessons, which are both learned and emphasized by observing the food miztvot.
Eating is one of the many actions, which we share with all other members of the Animal Kingdom. Yet we as homo sapiens, the thinking apes, alone among our animal cousins, have the power not only to draw sustenance from our food, but also ethical and spiritual meaning. Animals (and many humans) rush in to our food, but the kashrut mitzvot (and other food disciples such as vegetarianism) demand that we stop a monument and consider what we are eating. As we pause, we actually have a double opportunity. First we can consider if the food meets the ritual standards that we have set for ourselves. Secondly we can ask ourselves what spiritual and ethical meaning can we derive from observing these standards. It is this second opportunity that is for me an essence of kashrut observance.
Lets consider, for just a moment, two, to my mind related, kashrut mitzvot: separating milk and meat and abstaining from eating blood. At first glance these seem very different. Yet, as we consider them we can understand that both focus on the importance of life. Milk is the life giving nourishment of all young mammals. It is the first thing tasted very soon after birth. It provides all the nutrients necessary for mammals to grow and thrive. It is indeed the food of life. Blood too serves a similar purpose. It flows through the arteries and veins of every animal bringing oxygen from our lungs to all our organs. Without blood we would quickly die. It is no coincidence that our Torah (Leviticus 17:14) teaches that the life of every creature is its blood, a sentiment famously echoed by Renfield in Dracula.
Milk and blood are both liquids of life, and yet are very different in nature and in law. Milk, each of us has consumed from birth, given to us by our mothers. We needed to drink it to survive. Therefore, while both milk and meat are permitted for consumption, they may not be eaten together. This teaches that we should not consume meat together with the substance that gives it (and us) life. Blood, on the other hand is always forbidden for consumption. Yet, such an abstention also teaches us a respect for life. Even as we sit eating, blood courses through our veins enabling life. Abstention from the blood is a reminder that a life has been taken for our benefit, and though we may consume it, we still respect and remember that it once lived.
As can be seen a number of messages can be derived from two simple seeming mitzvot. First and explicitly we learn the importance of respect for life, whether human or animal. Though we are permitted to eat meat, we are asked to take cognizance and responsibility for our actions – permission is given but it is constrained with reminders of the essence of life shared by us with the rest of the animal kingdom. Secondly, and implicitly, we are reminded of the unity of creation. Though we are humans, and often see ourselves as better, and uniquely different yet there is more that connects us with animals than perhaps divides us. Thirdly, this realization can lead us to understand that just as the Divine is found within us, so too, it is found in all creation, hopefully leading to a greater sense of appreciation, connection and awe. “God was in this place, and I knew it not.”
There are many other lessons that each of us can derive through kashrut observance, and other mitzvot in our tradition. The challenge is for us to stop and both think and thank (with our appropriate blessings). Ben Bag Bag taught in Perke Avot, “turn it, turn it, everything is in it.” That is what I hope that all of us do as well – as we learn and observe lets turn it again and again finding meaning for our world and beyond.