Is it Time to Consider Separating the Dishes?

Sh'mini, Leviticus 9:1-11:47

D'Var Torah By: Joel E. Soffin

Focal Point

  • And Adonai spoke to Moses and to 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. (Leviticus 11:1-3)
  • These you may eat of all that live in water: anything in water, whether in the seas or in the streams, that has fins and scales—these you may eat. (Leviticus 11:9)
  • For I Adonai am He who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your God: You shall be holy, for I am holy. (Leviticus 11:45)

D'var Torah

Judaism is filled with separations. When God created the world, vayavdel: "And God separated the light from the darkness" (Genesis 1:4), and "God made the expanse, and it separated the water that was below the expanse from the water that was above the expanse" (Genesis 1:7). At the end of Shabbat, we observe Havdalah and mark the separation of Shabbat from the workdays, of the sacred from the profane. Kashrut is another such separation. Some things are fit for a Jew to eat, and others are not so fit. Some actions are kosher, and others are not kosher.

The 1885 Pittsburgh Platform [of the Reform Movement] stated that "all such Mosaic and rabbinic laws as regulate diet, priestly purity, and dress originated in ages and under the influence of ideas altogether foreign to our present mental and spiritual state." And so, perhaps, we should ask ourselves as we study this portion: What is our present mental and spiritual state?

The term "our mental state" may refer to our intellectual reasoning, to our rational evaluation of such mitzvot. The act of keeping kosher no longer seems to be an effective way to preserve our health, although each new outbreak of trichinosis causes some to say "I told you so." And keeping kosher may not be the most meaningful way of learning self-control and restraint, or even of sparing animals unnecessary pain during the slaughtering process.

True, there are some ethical values to be found here. For example, why is the chasidah, "the kind one," the stork, called by such a name? Rashi (Talmud, Chulin 63a) teaches us that it is because the stork shows kindness to others of its species by sharing food with them. But if its behavior is so commendable, why isn't it kosher? The Rizhner Rebbe responded, because it directs its kindness exclusively toward its fellow storks and will not help strangers (cited in Tanach, edited by Nosson Scherman, Brooklyn: ArtScroll, Mesorah Publications, 1998, p. 268).

And why is neither the vulture nor the hawk kosher? It is lest we become like what we eat—predators that prey on one another, scavengers, and worse. But is this enough to justify troubling ourselves with the minutiae of kashrut?

Maybe the solution is to follow people like Arthur Waskow, who challenge us to live eco-kosher lives not only in the way we eat but also in everything we do. He asks the following eco-kashrut questions of Jews living in the modern world:

  • Is it eco-kosher to eat vegetables and fruit that have been grown by drenching the soil with insecticides?
  • Is it eco-kosher to use electricity generated by nuclear power plants that create waste products that will remain poisonous for fifty thousand years?
  • Is it eco-kosher to use one hundred percent unrecycled office paper and newsprint in our homes, our synagogues, and our community newspapers? (Arthur Waskow, "And the Earth Is Filled with the Breath of Life," ARIL, CrossCurrents 2000)

Others stretch the laws of kashrut to include a prohibition against eating the fruit of exploited labor, causing some congregations, including my own, to declare for a time that grapes picked by non-United Farm Workers laborers were not kosher. Then there are the calves (veal) and chickens that are raised in abusive ways. Surely, they, too, should be added to the list of forbidden foods.

These creative interpretations of the meaning of kashrut may sound very appealing to us. After all, we feel morally confirmed when we take a stand for a cause greater than ourselves or when we demonstrate some small degree of self-control and show concern about what we are eating.

How else can we explain our fascination with free-range chickens, organic produce, and the latest nightshade vegetable of the month? How else do we explain our commitment, fleeting though it may be, to the diet fad of the moment as we happily accept our dietary laws from the likes of Pritikin or Atkins? And how else do we explain our compulsion to study the ingredients listed in the fine print on the packages of food we are considering for purchase, lest they have any undesirable chemical additives in them? To the Rabbis of old, these present-day dietary rules might seem much more restrictive and contrived than those of the Torah and the Talmud.

And that takes us back to our present spiritual state. Are we missing something spiritual that can be found not only in eco-kashrut or other modern interpretations but also in some of the traditional laws of kashrut?

The Torah suggests to us what the spiritual element of kashrut may be and why it includes teachings about kashrut. The reason is to add a measure of holiness to our lives, to transform an activity that we often perform mindlessly into one of thoughtfulness and awareness. Yes, such eating patterns, too, can become routine, but that takes years of practice.

In the meantime, ask yourself: Is it time to consider separating the dishes?

By the Way

  • In attempting to evolve a personal position on kashrut, the Reform Jew should understand that there are several options, e.g., abstention from pork products and/or shellfish or perhaps adding to this abstention the separation of milk and meat; these practices might be observed in the home and not when eating out, or they might be observed all the time. (Simeon J. Maslin, Gates of Mitzvah, New York: CCAR, p.132)
  • Halal is a comprehensive Islamic term encompassing not only the matters of food and drink but all other matters of daily life.… Halal is a unique Islamic concept and eating dhabiha (Islamically slaughtered) meat is a distinguishing part of a Muslim's identity. (M. M. Hussaini, Islamic Dietary Concepts and Practices)
  • "As an Israeli and as a Jew, I asked NASA if it would be possible to supply kosher food for my menu in space," (Colonel Ilan) Ramon said. "I was surprised and overwhelmed by the effort NASA put into trying to accommodate my request." (Jim Banke, "Mission Columbia: Meet Israel's First Astronaut, Ilan Ramon,"

Your Guide

  1. How did you and your family decide which dietary laws you would follow and observe? Was there ever a time when you felt the need to reconsider your choices?

  2. In the recent debates about the 1999 Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism, references to kashrut were deleted. Do you think that they have any place in Reform Judaism?

  3. The Reform position presented here offers a wide variety of choices. How important do you think it is to be consistent in your eating habits?

  4. How does halal compare to kashrut? Do you admire Muslims who express their identity through the practice of halal? Do you admire Colonel Ramon for the request he made of NASA?

  5. In some communities where there are no halalbutchers, many Muslims buy kosher meat. Can you imagine a time when we might see halal/kosher meat? Do you think that this might be a way to draw our two communities closer?

Rabbi Joel E. Soffin is Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Shalom, Succasunna, NJ, and the founder of Jewish Helping Hands.

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