Setting an Ethical Table

R'eih, Deuteronomy 11:26–16:17

D'Var Torah By: Cantor Evan Kent

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses is again speaking to the people and shares with them the rules and ordinances that should be obeyed if they are to be blessed. Among the laws presented is a large section devoted to what you may or may not eat. In the first chapter of Parasha R'eih we read:

When the Eternal enlarges your territory, as promised, and you say, “I shall eat some meat,” for you have the urge to eat meat, you may eat meat whenever you wish. If the place where the Eternal has chosen to establish the Divine name is too far from you, you may slaughter any of the cattle or sheep that the Eternal gives you, as I have instructed you; and you may eat to your heart’s content in your settlements (Deuteronomy 12: 20-21).

According to Biblical commentator Nehama Leibowitz, this eating of meat based on the sheer enjoyment of eating meat is a new concept. Previously, the eating of meat was part of the sacrificial ritual with Aaron and the priestly class also joining in the eating of this burnt offering. But Moses’ proclamation to eat meat is provided reluctantly and with stipulations. The meat must be slaughtered as specified by the Eternal, and the blood must not be ingested because “the blood is life, and you must not consume the life with the flesh” (Deut 12: 23).  Essentially, this is the precursor to the rules governing kosher slaughter and eating.

Most assuredly, what we eat and the decisions we make about food take up a lot of time in our daily lives, from breakfast and lunch options to the endless question: “What should we have for dinner?”

These decisions extend beyond mealtime and often define who we are -- what I call our “dietary identity.” Like other aspects of how we define ourselves, dietary identity often changes over time. For 20 years I was a vegetarian, but a few years ago I reverted to eating poultry and fish. My husband is a devoted carnivore, so for the sake of “shalom bayit” (peace within the house) and my weariness of cooking double meals, I gave up my own commitment to vegetarianism. But, we decided, if we were going to eat meat, our house should be kosher.

We purchased new dishes, pots and pans, cutlery, knives, and utensils. At about the same time, my friend, teacher, and mentor Rabbi Richard Levy (of blessed memory), published an essay regarding “ethical kashrut.” Rabbi Levy asserted that it was not enough to have animals slaughtered according to the traditional rules of kashrut, but we also needed to take into consideration moral concepts like the care of the animals and fair treatment and compensation of workers in meat processing plants. Rabbi Levy taught that the purchase, preparation, and eating of food are sacred acts imbued with ethical considerations that extend beyond the eating of meat; they also include decisions about which fruits and vegetables we eat. If we truly embrace the commandment, “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9), our food purchases should take into account the treatment of agricultural workers, many of them migrant workers who are truly strangers in our land. Ultimately, decisions regarding where to shop, what to buy, and how to serve our food become more complex than the rules of kashrut as presented in the Torah and later rabbinic teachings.

An ethical kashrut is also a very deep and profound way for Reform Jews to express their Jewish values and our continual emphasis on tikuun olam (the repair of the world). As Rabbi Levy states:

In the unique context of our own time, kashrut can be a “natural” for Reform Jews. It nurtures our yearning to deepen our spiritual lives; it responds to our classic imperatives for social justice; it brings us into closer contact with our godly role as guardians of Creation; it opens new opportunities to mingle with today's diverse population of Jews and non-Jews; it offers a variety of disciplines that can keep us from sliding into the maw of North American materialism.  (Richard Levy, in The Sacred Table, CCAR Press, p. 75, Mary Zamore, ed.)

These choices and decisions are not made overnight.  Like much of the religious observance in our lives, observance of kashrut, and especially ethical kashrut, is a continuum and a process.  Rabbi Levy’s approach to diet captures the true spirit of Reform Judaism.