Torah from around the world #111
Parashat Shmini (Leviticus 9:1 - 11:47)
by Rabbi Stephen Berkowitz, Mouvement Juif Libéral de France, Paris
The midpoint of the Torah, in terms of the number of its words, may be found in this week's paracha: Shemini. This word-center is located between דָּרֹשׁ- דָּרַשׁ (darosh -darash) [Leviticus 10: 16 , "Then Moses inquired דָּרֹשׁ- דָּרַש about the goat of the sin offering…"]
דָּרַשׁ is a versatile verb possessing various meanings: to demand, to inquire, to expound, to search, to study.
Let us therefore inquire : What is to be learned from the fact that the Torah's center falls in the very same text that presents the first version of the biblical dietary laws? Certainly one answer is that kashrut is indeed a central ritual of our tradition. In addition, just as we search to expound upon the Torah texts that we study in order to uncover new interpretations and meanings, so it is upon us to search and uncover new interpretations and meanings that concern the ritual laws of eating.
Parashat Shemini invites to consider how our diet influences the relationship we establish with the world, how our way of obtaining food affects the environment. Parashat Shemini also demonstrates that the aspects of the dietary laws like Shabbat, Yom Tov, or a mezuza are signs that point us to essential Jewish spiritual messages for example those that pertain to the development of the human personality.
For those of us who have not adopted a vegetarian or vegan life style, the laws of kashrut as they apply to land animals (they must have fully clef hoofs and chew their cud) teach us to be as gentile and inoffensive as the herbivores that we are permitted to eat. Conversely, the prohibition of eating flesh of carnivores or birds of prey remind us how we should avoid belligerence and violence in our relationships with others.
And what may we learn from the precepts concerning permitted aquatic creatures? Kosher fish must possess scales and fins. According to rabbi Sebastien Allali, in his innovative study of kashrut, Leçons de diet-éthique (Editions Lichma, 2009), fins and scales are symbols of opposing attitudes found in the same individual. "Scales" represent a desire to protect and to preserve one's own identity while "fins" represent the idea of movement and interaction with others. Rabbi Allali continues:
"According to George Herbert Mead (1863-1931) there coexists a 'conformist me' and a 'creative I' . Our tendency is to favor the first over the second. The notion of 'scales' represent an invitation to shape our own personality independently of others. On the other hand, we must not forget the existence of the 'fins' which teach us that we have the obligation to reach out to others (p.66)" We must therefore find the right balance between the particular needs of the individual and one's obligation to participate in universalist endeavors that will be beneficial to others.
Dvar aher: the kashrut laws presented this week will be revisited in Deuteronomy but with a slightly different presentation. We re-discover in Deuteronomy 14:21 the well-known injunction: "You shall not boil a calf in its mother's milk" which was already mentioned twice in the book of Exodus (Exodus 23: 19, Exodus 34: 26) . This particular dietary law, according to Rabbi Allali, may serve as a symbolic teaching concerning the importance of individuality and the need to separate from one's parents. One should not mix or confuse the needs of the parents (mother's milk) with those of the children (the calf).
In the biblical era, our ancestors associated non-permitted species with the idea of ritual impurity. For a people destined to become a holy nation it was therefore deemed vital to avoid contact with such forbidden foods. Today, for the majority of Jews outside the world of Orthodoxy purity/impurity are religious categories that no longer speak to us.
We must therefore approach the dietary laws in another manner.
In a world where there are more than 850 million undernourished people, with an environment under siege, the dietary laws can present another message: "Li kol ha'aretz - the world belongs to Me", says the One God. Humans must accept with humility and responsibility that they are not the masters of this world. If dietary laws place limits on which animals I may and may not eat then I must learn to place limits on my desire to slaughter and to consume every animal that walks upon the earth.
Since the appearance of these biblical laws, generations of sages and commentators have offered various interpretations of the meaning and the application of these precepts.
For a number of Progressive Jews , the observance of kashrut constitutes a rediscovery of an ancient tradition. But the successful transmission of this tradition to the next generation will ultimately depend on our ability to generate new interpretations and meanings.