By: Raphael W. Asher, Rabbi Emeritus,

Congregation Bnai Tikvah

, Walnut Creek, California, USA

Pretty nearly full disclosure: My critical take on some of the excesses of the kashrut establishment come from family lore involving my two grandfathers (z”l). One was the Landesrabbiner in Hesse, Germany in the pre-war years. When some Kosher ingredients became scarce in the Hitler period, according to some my grandfather as ‘

mashgiach

’ was too lenient in upholding

kashrut

certification and granting restaurants the “Eagle” as the visible stamp of approval outside their doors. There were those in the Jewish community that would shout “Down with the Eagle” in shrill tones.

My maternal grandfather was a ‘

shochet

’ in Sydney, Australia, and when the war and its aftermath brought a stricter wave of rabbinic supervision among the refugees, my grandfather’s abattoirs were discredited, and he was shunned out of business. For all the ways in which kashrut has prompted a pursuit of holiness, it has also permitted a certain distemper.

Theories abound about the origins and essence of the dietary laws first delineated in Shemini. I highly recommend two synthetic essays. Robert Alter’s “A New Theory of

Kashrut

” (Commentary, August 1979) explicates these theories in three basic categories: the pragmatic, the therapeutic, and the symbolic. Symbolic interpretations are best modeled by British anthropologist Mary Douglas in her essay, “The Forbidden Animals in Leviticus” (Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, vol. 59, 1993). Both Alter and Douglas illuminate verses in our Torah portion, and their insights can mitigate some of the intemperate tendencies of the

kashrut

establishment.

At the conclusion of Shemini, two verses hint at the symbolic and therapeutic dimensions of the dietary code that may serve to allay what I see as the pragmatic obsessiveness that, in some circles, has swollen current custom:

“You shall not make yourselves unclean through any

swarming thing that moves upon the earth. I am the

Eternal who brought you up out of the Land of

Egypt to be your God.” (Lev. 11:44-45)

The reference to the swarming things, the sages infer, is a veiled warning that we Israelites should be more discriminating in our consumption than the ‘

shratzim

’ that cover and maul the landscape. Mary Douglas convincingly argues that Leviticus here instructs that neither prey nor predator should we be. Prof. Alter explains, “Out of a shapeless swarm of slaves, who pointedly yearn nostalgically for the fleshpots of Egypt, God gave Israel the coherence and the identity of a covenanted people. “

A 21st century consciousness is reshaping the values of

kashrut

, not to undercut the biblical and rabbinic dimensions, but to align these values with deep-seated concerns. “Eco-kashrut” highlights the environment as another worthy focal point of our dietary habits. “

Hechsher/Magen Tzedek

” (ethical supervision) gives expression to Jewish concerns for labor practices and animal indignities that have been overlooked in the industry. The Agriprocessor disgrace shed a glaring light on the occasional disconnect between orthodox standards and the sanctity of the

mitzvot.

And at a time of rampant eating disorders, obsessions, and judgmentalism on the eating habits of others, it would also be good to incorporate a ‘supervision’ that doesn’t exacerbate individual and social anxieties.

Certainly, swarms of concerns can be unwieldy, and fresh

Talmudic

reasoning will be very helpful going forward in containing, refining, or even redefining our

kashrut

parameters. However, when the elevation of the strict obscures the coherence of whatever self-image we have of our sanctity through our consumption, then strictures must make room for the sacred. Predatory jurisdiction over abattoirs and eagles must not subvert our striving to be holy.

Recent Issues

Swarming Things