If you've ever looked directly at the light emanating from a prism, you know that it is nearly blinding. In order to make sense of this band of colors, we interpret, and our perception of the world depends on our perspective. Jewish education has often acknowledged that we see the world through a prism.
The Reform Movement's Schuster Curriculum was named "To See the World through Jewish Eyes" by Rabbi Howard Bogot, a former director of the Department of Education. Rabbi Bogot once took his young daughter to the local deli. Holding her in his arms as they waited for their order, he gave her a big kiss on the cheek. Noticing this, the deli man's face lit up with a smile. "I see you brought your mezuzah with you," he remarked. Clearly the deli man was seeing the world through Jewish eyes.
Now let's look at Sh'mini through the eyes of the deli man. This parashah is much more than a kosher countdown, focusing on the distinguishing characteristics of foods (actually animals) that are off-limits to us. Reading it, we encounter a concern about hoofs and cud chewing (Leviticus 11:1-8) and fins and scales (Leviticus 11:9-10), as well as a description of the myriad of fauna that inhabit our world: the camel, daman, hare, and swine; the gecko, land crocodile, lizard, sand lizard, and chameleon; the eagle, vulture, kite, falcon, raven, ostrich, nighthawk, owl, sea gull, pelican, stork, heron, hoopoe, and bat. Insects such as the locust, cricket, and grasshopper are also mentioned.
We can approach reading this text in several ways.
One is to read it as though we were visiting a zoo. I would probably check out my favorites first. Then I may want to seek out the rare or the unusual. When was the last time you saw a hoopoe or a daman? (What are they anyway?) Reading this text provides us with a means to exercise our curiosity.
A second approach is to regard this text as a way to learn about biology and theology. By adding to our scientific knowledge of the world, we increasingly appreciate the beauty and variety of God's creation.
A third approach is to view this text simplistically or even as an exercise in categorizing, that is, as nothing more than a list of the items that will never appear on a kosher menu. While reviewing the details (cud chewing, split hoofs or lacking true hoofs, walking on all fours), we note the criterion that really matters, namely, Is it edible or out-of-bounds?
Still another approach is to regard this text as a paradigm. We ponder: How can a Jew read the words and see more than what meets the eye? How can we get beyond the listing and the categorizing and the describing to see that distinctions are what matter? How can we look beyond the mundane details and see that this is part of something larger? How can we teach others to see the world through Jewish eyes?
Achieving this last perspective is a goal of CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, an organization that is devoted to Jewish pluralism. One of CLAL's aspirations is to help us shift our focus--to move us from seeing our roles in the world not as basic/primal mundane activities but as avenues to holiness. Rabbi Irving Yitz Greenberg, CLAL's founder, describes this process as "holy secularity." CLAL promotes the following objectives:
- To move from eating as a simple biological necessity to a way of recognizing God's involvement in our lives by the reciting of blessings.
- To look beyond the kosher and not kosher classifying of animals and view this list as a reminder of our responsibilities as stewards of the world.
- To view recycling as more than the sorting of paper, metal, and plastic and as an opportunity to preserve creation.
- To regard our professions as opportunities to bring holiness and godliness into the world. A teacher does not merely teach subjects: A teacher teaches students. The ways of the classroom should be the ways of the world, the path of life (derech eretz).
Life is full of stunning opportunities. When we turn our prism toward holiness, we can find it everywhere—even at the zoo.
Rabbi David Fine is the Director of Consulting & Transition Management, Strengthening Congregations at the URJ.