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Dear Friends,

Passover has just ended. After a week when many of us severely alter and restrict our diets we can go back to eating as we normally do. Of course it should come as no surprise that this week’s Torah portion goes into great detail about foods that we, as part of the Jewish community, shouldn’t eat.

Yes, after continuing to delineate the various sacrifices offered in the tabernacle and then telling us about God striking down Aaron’s sons Nadav and Abihu for bringing “strange fire” into the Tabernacle, the Torah goes into great detail on the initial laws of kashrut.

It begins by stating,

Adonai spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying to them: Speak to the Israelite people thus: These are the creatures that you may eat from among all the land animals: any animal that has true hoofs, with clefts through the hoofs, and that chews the cud—such you may eat.
The following, however, of those that either chew the cud or have true hoofs, you shall not eat: the camel—although it chews the cud, it has no true hoofs: it is impure for you;
the daman—although it chews the cud, it has no true hoofs: it is impure for you;
the hare—although it chews the cud, it has no true hoofs: it is impure for you;
and the swine—although it has true hoofs, with the hoofs cleft through, it does not chew the cud: it is impure for you.

A bit later it states that there are twenty two different species of “swarming insects” that are permitted. Among these kosher bugs are, “locusts of every variety; all varieties of bald locust; crickets of every variety; and all varieties of grasshopper.” YUM!!!

Over the years countless explanations for the laws of kashrut have been put forward. Growing up, I was taught it had to do with food safety. It doesn’t. Others taught that it had to do with “promoting” those animals that were better suited for the land and terrain of Israel. Others have taught it was a way to separate our ancestors from their neighbors. And still others suggest we should not question God’s will and simply follow the rules set forward in Torah.

I did not grow up in a kosher home. When it was a special occasion shrimp scampi was often on the menu and, on rare occasions, the delightful smell of bacon permeated every corner of our house. Our home was largely kashered for Passover, but for the other 51 weeks of the year our Jewish identities had minimal impact on our diet.

During my rabbinic school studies, I kept strictly kosher. A few years after ordination I started to find it less meaningful and I eventually stopped. In 2014 I traveled to Israel with a group of Reform, Conservative and Orthodox rabbis. Out of respect for the more ritually observant in the group, the trip was strictly kosher. During that week, every meal began with a moment of reflection about what we were about to eat and we were reminded of our connection to the larger Jewish community. I found it meaningful enough that, on the plane home, I resolved to no longer eat shellfish or pork. Then, a few years ago, for ethical and environmental reasons I decided not to eat red meat.

These are choices I make for myself and myself alone. (Raina still loves her burgers. And while I can appreciate that, I will never comprehend how she can order them medium-rare.) I do not believe my dietary decisions make me a better or worse Jew than anyone else. Moreover, my personal theology does not lead me to believe in a God who cares if I have a bacon cheeseburger or not. But I have found that these decisions have changed my relationship to food in a positive and meaningful way. Each time I sit down to eat, or am about to order food, now I slow down. And, for me, this added level of mindfulness elevates my eating beyond mere sustenance. Now, instead of simply thinking about what I want to eat at any given moment, my food choices connect me to my Jewish identity and my values.

Small changes can take the mundane actions we participate in multiple times a day and transform them into opportunities to be more aware of our history, our surroundings and our place in—and responsibilities to—the world around us. Whether we wake up and take a moment to express gratitude for the new day (there’s a blessing for that), end each week by giving to tzedakah (one of my favorite Shabbat rituals) or pause to say a blessing before we eat (it doesn’t even have to be Motzi), such moments of mindfulness, while seemingly small, can have a surprising impact on how we perceive the world. And perhaps that was the ultimate goal of the ancient laws of kashrut as well.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Daniel Cohen

(Beginning this week I’ll use this space to often share articles I found interesting and thought worth sharing with all of you.)

Recommended Reading:

Opinion: These are our values
Avi Mayer, the new Editor-in-Chief of The Jerusalem Post, shared his first Op-Ed in his new position. It is a powerful statement, but not just about the paper.

The Three Biggest Misconceptions About Israel’s Upheaval
In this article in The Atlantic Yair Rosenberg dives into what he believes are three important misconceptions about the ongoing demonstrations in Israel.

Reform Movement Leaders Denounce Ruling in Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine et al. v. U.S. Food and Drug Administration et al.”
The Union for Reform Judaism and Women of Reform Judaism have spoken out on the most recent attack on reproductive rights. They noted that, “Jewish thought is clear when it comes to providing necessary medical care. The medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides proclaimed that providing medical care is a fundamental religious duty. Inspired by our Jewish tradition, we are committed to ensuring that people have access to the full spectrum of abortion care options, and that everyone can make decisions about their own reproductive health and futures, including choosing the method of abortion that works best for them.”