Once upon a time in a parallel universe that has yet to emerge, just one year from now, I had-or perhaps I should say, I will have-the most interesting experience: my heart stood still. I prefer not to think of it as a "heart attack" as if my heart itself had suddenly turned against my body with the intent to kill. I will prefer to consider it, in this parallel track of my existence, as a moment of pause providing for my life a greater measure of intent.
My father had his first heart attack at the age of fifty-three. I am fifty-two now, on this path of my life, and instead of simply waiting for my heart to wait for me, along with the life-changing challenges that by-pass surgery would represent, I carry within me a tiny metal stent smoothing the flow of life giving blood to and from the heart that beats steadily within me.
I got the same speech they give everyone after heart surgery, telling me it was time to make some changes in my life: eat better, exercise more, stop smoking, stop drinking, take more time for the calm of meditation and prayer. The difference for me, and I suppose the irony as well, is that I have already done most of those things and I have been doing them for most of my life. I don't drink, I don't smoke-aspirin and antacids were my only drugs. I actually use all the exercise equipment I buy from those TV infomercials. I haven't eaten meat for more than a decade. And as for meditation and prayer, well let's just say, I do that considerably more often than most.
My heart surgeon paused at this point from his usual litany of life-changing lessons and then he laughed. "If you were going to have heart surgery at fifty, you could have been having a lot more fun!" What I learned from this experience and the contemplation of the patterns of my life that would follow, was that when you strip away the supposed benefits of the lifestyle choices we all make, you find that there lies at the core of what we do, an expression of who we are. I choose a healthy lifestyle, despite the fact that my physical health may never be guaranteed by this choice.
This week's Torah portion, Sh'mini, introduces the biblical dietary laws that form the basis of the practice of kashrut. (Leviticus 11:1-47). I follow these laws, so I am often asked, "what do you get out of keeping kosher?" My usual reply is, "that depends on what you put into it." There is more here than a clever response that cleverly avoids truly answering the question. What we see in the dietary laws of Parashat Sh'mini depends entirely upon the way we have been trained to see.
The Torah provides no explanation for the incredibly detailed and complicated arrangement of clean and unclean animals that are presented here in the text. Honest as this response may be, it leaves open the broader question of the logical basis for the practice of these laws in biblical times or for today.
In the absence of any logical explanation for the many determinations of clean and unclean animals on land, in the sea, and among the birds that fly through the skies, many classic commentators have felt the need to offer their own justifications for these laws.
Maimonides maintains that food forbidden by the Law is somehow unhealthy. "There is nothing among the forbidden kinds of food whose harmful character is doubted" (Guide to the Perplexed, 3:48). And since Maimonides was a physician, one can understand why he saw in this carefully crafted dietary code a concern for health and safety.
One can just as easily respond, however, that any dietary code that allows for salt and shmaltz("chicken fat") cannot have been constructed by an all-knowing God for our physical health and well being. Scorpions, snakes, and various insects large enough to have a bend in their knee, are all considered "clean" by the standard of Leviticus. Whatever the intention of the text, it cannot be seriously considered as a blueprint for a healthy diet, even by the standards of the time.
Medieval rabbis of the ghetto and the shtetl saw within these complex rules of diet and ritual a purposeful desire to separate the Jewish people from the non-Jewish world that surrounded them (see Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Vayikra, [Jerusalem: WZO, 1980], pp. 83-4). Given the forcible separation and the persecution of their age, one can see why they saw this in Leviticus as well.
Leviticus would simply answer the question with a question. What fits and what is unfit? The category of animals identified here as fit for the Children of Israel to eat corresponds directly to the category of animals that are fit to be offered as sacrifices on the altar in the Tabernacle of Israel's God. In other words, your body is a temple. What you put into it is a reflection of the holiness you hope to achieve.
Here is the lesson of this week's Torah portion; holiness is the commitment to reach for a higher standard in life, not for real or perceived gains, but for the opportunity for holiness and nothing more.
"For I the Eternal am the One who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your God: you shall be holy, for I am holy" (Leviticus 11:45).
How we might interpret these words for our own age may differ, but the value of the principle remains the same, "You are what you eat." So let me ask you-yes, you who are reading these words: "Who are you?" And having asked that somewhat existential question, let me ask you an even more personal question: "What should a person like you choose to eat?"
Rabbi Joe Rooks Rapport is co-senior rabbi with his wife Rabbi Gaylia R. Rooks at The Temple, Congregation Adath Israel Brith Sholom, in Louisville, Kentucky. He received his Ph.D. from Washington University in 1988 and has taught Bible and Jewish Thought for two decades at Bellarmine University.
The first time I flew on El Al, I was surprised about the option to order a kosher meal. "Aren't all meals on El Al kosher?" I asked my sister. "Yes," she answered. "But there's kosher, and then there's super-kosher."
I remember another time when a Jewish friend in college was upset during Passover that his shrimp was fried in a bread batter. (The shellfish was OK, but bread on Passover was unthinkable!)
Let's face it. Jews often have a unique approach to food. Whether it's the age-old dilemma of not being able to sit down to one meal without discussing the logistics of the next one or arguing over charoset recipes, food is what has grounded our identity for thousands of years.
I did not grow up keeping kosher. I'm from Boston, after all, and the bountiful seafood and pork products of New England nourished much of my childhood. But as a third-year rabbinic student at Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Cincinnati, I studied the laws of conversion. The M'chilta describes a convert whose heart was not in it as a person with "swine between his teeth." On one particular morning, I had enjoyed an Egg McMuffin at McDonald's. As I ascended the steps of HUC-JIR, I could feel a bit of the bacon in my teeth. I realized the irony, and made a decision that day to stop eating pork and shellfish.
Why? Because I wanted to make sure that every time I ate, I would be making a conscious decision. I don't find holiness in the abstention. Rather, I find holiness in the connection with Jews backward in time, forward in time, and across the globe!
Rabbi Zachary R. Shapiro is the rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, California, and author of the children's book, We're All in the Same Boat (New York: Putnam, 2009).
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