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Keeping Kosher - Leviticus and the Current Debate

  • Keeping Kosher - Leviticus and the Current Debate

    Sh'mini, Leviticus 9:1-11:47
D'var Torah By: 

A recent article in The New York Times [circa 1999] reported a possible revival of the Catskills, which was until a few decades ago a fabled vacation paradise for countless American Jews. The Borscht Belt vacation fell out of favor for many reasons, including the fact that Jewish families became more cholesterol-conscious and less desirous of three bloating kosher banquets every day.

That article inspired in me some interesting thoughts about our Torah portion for this week. Sh'mini, chapter 11 of Leviticus, deals with dietary laws and outlines which living creatures are kosher for human consumption. Four-legged animals that have cloven (split) hoofs and chew their cud may be eaten. Creatures residing in the water must have fins and scales, which, of course, excludes shellfish. This biblical legislation was expanded upon by the rabbis to include ritual slaughter, kashering meat, and the separation of milk and meat.

It would seem that these traditional Jewish dietary laws have little relevance to Reform Jews today since the classical statement of Reform Jewish principles, the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, affirmed: "We hold that all such Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet...originated in ages and under the influence of ideas entirely foreign to our present mental and spiritual state."

Yet there was much discussion about this theme in the Ten Principles (November 1998, Reform Judaism) originally proposed by the president of the CCAR, Rabbi Richard Levy. He had hoped that the CCAR, meeting in Pittsburgh this May, would consider a new platform to guide Reform Judaism into the twenty-first century. In recent months a distinguished panel of rabbis and lay leaders has been working on the original document, which is now a much shorter statement.

It is significant that Rabbi Levy raised the issue of dietary laws in his original proposal: "As part of Reform Judaism's classic belief in ongoing revelation, we know that what may seem outdated in one age may be redemptive in another....Some of us may observe practices of kashrut, to extend the sense of kedushah [holiness] into the acts surrounding foods and into a concern for the way food is raised and brought to our tables."

Clearly Rabbi Levy was implying that some, I emphasize some and not all, Reform Jews might wish to refrain from eating the foods that are cited as forbidden in our Torah portion. He also seemed to suggest that some Reform Jews might wish to express their social consciousness by not eating veal that comes from calves that were raised in a cruel manner or crops that are cultivated and harvested with the use of pesticides, which are dangerous to farm workers. Rabbi Levy was seeking to explore a range of possibilities for Reform observance, some hearkening back to ancient tradition and some quite modern in spirit.

It is unfortunate that some of those who read the article in Reform Judaism regarded these ideas about kashrut and other aspects of the Ten Principles as a "return to Orthodoxy." I believe that Rabbi Levy's intention was not at all a blind return to tradition but rather an affirmation of the critical Reform principle of "informed choice." It is my hope that Reform Jews will take the opportunity to study the history of Jewish ceremonies and practices and only then choose to reject some and to affirm others that they find inspiring and meaningful. Some Reform Jews will find no religious relevance in the dietary prohibitions outlined in our Torah portion. Other Reform Jews may find that such observances link them to thousands of Jews throughout the world and help them to be more conscious of their Jewishness even while they are engaged in the simple everyday activity of eating.

The key element here is that from a Reform Jewish perspective, neither group of Reform Jews—those who choose to observe kashrut and those who choose not to do so—should be considered any more or less pious because they have made the choice they did. In my thinking, that is the essence of Reform Judaism.

Rabbi Martin Weiner is the Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco, CA.

Holiness as the Art of Making Distinctions
Davar Acher By: 
Joel Oseran

The reader who carefully follows this week's Torah portion, Sh'mini, from beginning to end may quite reasonably come to the conclusion that this portion can be better understood if it is regarded as two seemingly unrelated sections: section one (Leviticus 9 and 10), which describes the process whereby the priests (Aaron and his sons) are consecrated and become purified to do God's holy work, and section two (Leviticus 11), which consists of a rather detailed accounting of those animals that we are permitted to eat and those that we are forbidden to eat (the laws of kashrut).

Since each section can certainly stand on its own, the natural question is, Is there some connecting link between these two sections of Parashat Sh'mini that indicates an integral relationship? Or are these merely two unrelated accounts that focus on two unrelated themes (the purification of the priests and the laws of kashrut)?

I suggest that we do indeed have a thematic link between sections one and two, a link that ultimately helps to explain the underlying meaning of one of Judaism's most profound values—the value of holiness (kedushah).

In discussing the intricate process by which the priests become consecrated, purified, and ultimately fit to administer God's will, section one includes a clear statement requiring that Aaron and his sons learn to "make a distinction between the holy and the unholy and between the unclean and the clean." (Leviticus 10:10) In other words, the priests must be able to distinguish between a holy (valid) and an unholy (invalid) sacrifice. (Refer to the episode of Nadav and Avihu and the "strange fire" they brought.)

In Hebrew the word for "to make a distinction" is lehavdil, which has the same root as the more familiar wordHavdalah, the ceremony we observe on Saturday evening that ushers out the Sabbath. When recitingHavdalah, we make a distinction between the Sabbath and the six days of creation, between light and darkness, between Israel and the other nations, and ultimately between that which is holy and that which is unholy.

The textual link between sections one and two of Sh'mini comes in the very last line of the portion, Leviticus 11:47, when, after the enumeration of all the animals that are fit and unfit for human consumption, the key word lehavdil is used once again. We are commanded to make a distinction "between the unclean and the clean, between the animals that may be eaten and the animals that may not be eaten."

Thus once again we are commanded to make a distinction, to distinguish between opposing properties—first between pure and impure sacrifices and then between clean and unclean animals.

And so we have reached the heart of the matter. Our essential duty in life, the test of our humanity, if you will, is to distinguish between categories and properties in life: lehavdil, to make a distinction between right and wrong, good and evil, clean and unclean, pure and impure—between the holy and the unholy.

The extent to which we learn to make distinctions between opposing properties is the extent to which we truly realize our godlike potential. For you see, we are commanded to be holy—to choose the holy because God is holy and we must strive to imitate God: "You shall be holy for I, God, am holy." (Leviticus 11:45) This is the profound charge found in this week's portion, Sh'mini.

So it all does come together in the end. In each and every generation, we Jews have been challenged with the command to "be holy." Aaron and his sons understood that challenge in their own way; the rabbis built the entire system of kashrut based on the understanding of what "holy" meant to them; and we, the Jews of the soon to be twenty-first century, continue to try and understand what "being holy" means in our time. We are fortunate that we need not start our search at square one because we have a noble tradition from which we can learn and that we can strive to emulate.

Rabbi Joel Oseran is Vice President of International Development for the World Union for Progressive Judaism.

4/10/1999
Reference Materials: 

Sh’mini, Leviticus 9:1-11:47 
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 798-823; Revised Edition, pp. 705-727; 
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 615-636