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Monday, April 12, 2010

VERY belated post for Parshat Shemini

Dear friends-
I must apologize for this post being so late. I could give you all the reasons, but I don't want to bore you. So I hope you still find this post meaningful. And it will always be here when Shemini roles around next year!
Shavua Tov (a good week),

This week’s Torah portion is Shemini (Vayikra/Leviticus 9:1 - 11:47). Most of the final chapter of the parashah contains the rules concerning which
animals are fit for consumption by the Israelites and which are not. This
list is still the basis for the laws of kashrut (keeping kosher) to this

For centuries, various rabbis and commentators have attempted to explain the
reasoning behind these laws, as well as the other laws of kashrut. Some
have made the case that they were created for medical reasons. Others say
that they were created in order to keep the Jewish people separate as a community.
Still others believe that these laws are beyond human understanding and we
simply must obey them because “God said so.”

Another interesting interpretation is provided by the Hassidic rebbe Levi
Yitzhak of Berditchev. He wrote a complicated interpretation connecting various verses in Torah and the Prophets with the introduction to the laws found in this week's parashah. This verse begins with the words, “God spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying to them …” According to Levi Yitzhak, “saying to them” refers to the fact that in the future “God is destined to speak with [all] the Jews, [and so] it is not fitting that the mouth which will speak with God should now eat forbidden foods.”

This interpretation raises an age-old question that has been addressed by people as disparate as Jesus, Maimonides and Mordecai M. Kaplan (the founder of Reconstructionism). Simply put: “is it more important what goes into your mouth or what comes out of your mouth?” Yet, this question in and of itself overly simplifies a complex issue. It is not merely a question of whether the words that come out of our mouth are more important than the food that enters the body through it. For both arevimportant, if not essential, to leaving a spiritual and meaningful life.

I don’t think I need to explain to anyone why we need to be careful with our speech. We all know too well that words can wound as well as heal. Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words can truly hurt us! We must do our best to praise God and God’s creation through all that we say and do. At all times we must try to speak words of caring, compassion and mercy rather than suspicion, hatred and criticism. We must be mindful of what is about to come out of our mouth before it leaves us so we can stop damaging speech whenever possible. Of course, none of us is perfect, but the more mindful we are of each thought that arises the more likely we are to stop our negative thoughts from being transformed into negative speech.

However, it is not as easy to make a case for what goes into our mouth if one is committed to not simply relating this to issues of physical health and well being. For if cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, weight, etc. were not issues why
should we care what we put into our bodies?

The answer Levi Yitzhak provides is that we should care because these same mouths will some day speak with God. Yet, we all have the potential to hear the voice of God and speak to God at any given moment. Therefore, the time of which Levi Yitzhak spoke is upon us now and so we must consider his rationale for kashrut at this moment as well.

In considering his commentary, I must say that it rings true for me. The idea that we should keep our mouths “clean” and “holy” because we will be using them to speak with God is a powerful one. However, it is an idea that I also believe is limited. For it is not only what goes into our mouth that determines our fitness to speak with God, but what comes out of it and what we allow to enter our souls through
our ears. We must be conscious and mindful of how we use or abuse our entire body if we are to prepare ourselves for a conversation with God.

When I am on a silent meditation retreat, I have the opportunity to be mindful of each move I make, each sensation that I feel, each sound that I hear and each morsel of food that I place in my mouth. I can do this because there is total silence. The only noise that prevents me from being mindful is the noise in my mind and the noise that is produced by my ego and its various desires and the tricks it likes to play on me.

In every day life, this is not so simple, since we also have more external distractions. Some of these distractions, such as listening to our children, partners and other loved ones, are what makes life meaningful. Others, and you can name your own, are what prevent life from being meaningful or prevent us from hearing the voice of God within.

Eating is simply one activity in which we participate each day, and yet it is an essential activity. The concept of saying a berakhah/blessing before eating helps to remind us that the food we eat is a gift from God. A berakhah also reminds us that the food is entering the body of a human being created in the image of God and, according to Levi Yitzhak, who has the potential to hear and speak to God. Eating food that is harmful to the body or rushing through meals so that we don’t even taste what we are eating in some way profanes the holiness of our bodies and our souls. In truth, it has the same effect as speaking or paying attention to harmful words.

In viewing speech through this lens, it seems clear that eating in a mindful way can help us to connect with our innate holiness just as much as taking care with our speech, our listening, and our physical actions. In this way, I agree wholeheartedly with Levi Yitzhak.

However, I don’t disagree with him when it comes to the implicit assumption that obeying the laws of kashrut is the only way of eating in a holy and mindful way. Nor do I believe that the list of permitted animals found in this week's reading is the only or the most accurate list of what constitutes “forbidden food” that might separate us from holiness.

For some, the traditional laws serve this purpose. For others, vegetarianism becomes their form of mindful, holy eating. Others commit themselves to eating only organic food and/or free range food as their form of holy eating. For others it is making sure that the dishes, utensils and packaging are as friendly to the environment as possible. Any and all of these can be forms of holy eating.

Therefore, I agree with the concept expressed in the Torah and in the commentary, but I do not accept its limitations. For we have no idea why specific animals were chosen to be considered as “improper” or “forbidden.” There are various theories, medical, anthropological and spiritual, that have been suggested. Still, in the end, we do not know if any of them are correct. The only thing we know is that this list is the same list that our ancestors possessed, and so it connects us to them. For many who observe traditional dietary restrictions, that is sufficient. For others it is not.

In the end, what matters most to me is that we each find our own path to creating a
mindful way of living that acknowledges and addresses the holiness of our bodies. This must included addressing what we put in , what comes out and what we do with our bodies. This would include our sexual ethics as well, which I don't have time to address here. This is a way for us to create a meaningful kashrut that is rooted in the values of our tradition and yet expresses our own contemporary values and beliefs as well. If we try our best to be mindful of this each moment and live our lives accordingly, then we will hopefully be prepared to hear God’s voice and to speak to God in every moment of our lives.

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