Kashrut and Mindfulness

Sermon Notes 06/04/13 - Shemini 5773

The second half of this week’s parashah (VaYikra 11) is devoted to the laws of permitted and forbidden birds, mammals, fish and insects.

Today it is easier to observe kashrut than at any previous time.  That’s not to minimise the challenges for those travelling, at work meetings etc., but the range of products available, the advent of easy-heat kosher meals and the growing societal tolerance to ‘odd’ eating habits mean that a fully-kosher diet is more manageable than ever before.

Yet kashrut is also subject to more stringencies than most other areas of halachah and is sometimes the subject of political turf-wars between supervising authorities.  That’s not to say that I don’t support healthy competition: some duplication is a small price to pay for competitiveness; yet it is noticeable that stringencies are less popular in the areas of business ethics or gossip than in kashrut.

In a world where it’s easy to eat kosher, are we able to return to the core values that kashrut observance was intended to promote?  Actually, the Torah is not specific about the purpose of these laws, leading some mediaevalists to assume that they were health-related.  Many thinkers, however, speak of holiness as their goal, as indicated by the verses at the end of VaYikra 11:

For I am the Lord your God; you shall make yourselves holy and be holy, because I am holy.  Do not pollute your souls with any creeping thing that crawls upon the ground.  For I am the Lord your God who brought you up from the Land of Egypt to be God for you; so you shall be holy because I am holy...  To distinguish between the pure and the impure and between the animal that may be eaten and the animal that may not be eaten. (VaYikra 11: 44-45, 47)

Elsewhere, Rashi remarks that since it’s simple to differentiate between a pig and a cow, a more subtle distinction is intended.  On our verses, Rashi, citing the Talmud, notes that the reference to the Exodus is intended to convey the importance of these laws – should the Israelites be able to sanctify themselves through them, God considers that it was worth bringing the Israelites out of Egypt.  What is the self-sanctification demanded by these verses?

I suggest that the Torah expects us to recognise that eating – fuelling our bodies – can be a base, animalistic and purely sensory experience, or it can be an opportunity to develop profound sensitivity to our food, its sources, what it means to eat and to those who may not be as fortunate as we.  Do we think before we eat?  Do we think about the intricate chain of processes that have made diverse foodstuffs available to us?  If we are eating meat or fish, do we consider the fact that our food was once alive, moving, feeling, breathing?  Do we recognise the privileged existences we have in comparison with the lives of so many who are less fortunate than we?  In short, does eating enable us to become more sensitive, more in tune with our world and its complexities, or less so; do we become more or less human when we eat?  Do we live to eat or eat to live?

I support this contention from a curious gemara that seems to read one of our verses out of context:

‘You shall make yourselves holy’ – this refers to pre-prandial hand-washing;

‘And you shall be holy’ – this refers to post-prandial hand-washing. (TB Berachot 53b)

Washing one’s hands before a meal is a ritual intended to foster reflection and mindfulness.  Before we begin a meal, the Torah requires us to consider the import of what we are about to do – this is ritualised by the rabbis as hand washing.  Similarly, the less-familiar ‘mayim acharonim’ – rinsing the hands at the end of a meal – encourages us to contemplate the significance of what we have just done.  These rules ensure that we are able to transform the act of eating into a meaningful and sensitising experience.

Mindfulness and reflection are an essential component all meaningful religious life.  The kashrut laws, when observed in their sprit as well as their letter, lie at the heart of Jewish spiritual strivings, surely ample justification for the Exodus:

For I am the Lord your God who brought you up from the Land of Egypt to be God for you; so you shall be holy because I am holy...