by Rabbi David J. Cooper
Are we what we eat? Sometimes when I say the Motzi, I remind myself that it isn’t only the bread that is drawn from the soil, but we, ourselves, are earth-drawn through the bread and through everything we consume.
I have had a love/hate relationship with Jewish laws and interpretations about what we should and should not eat, the system called kashrut. Maybe I don’t have so much of a love/hate relationship as much as one of fond and dislike. The dislike has to do with some of the things the Torah and the rabbis prohibited in light of present day realities. For example, from an ecological perspective, pork uses less resources per pound than beef, and shrimp and squid are less threatened than wild salmon or carp. But I also have a fondness for kashrut as well and I will get to that in a moment
The Torah is silent about the reasons for instituting kashrut. So I suppose it is only to be expected that over the centuries we ascribe our own projected reasons for it. When I grew up, people in my circle tried to rationalize kashrut, proposing that it arose from a concern about health, e.g. that the prohibition of pork was because of trichinosis. Some saw anthropological reasons behind it. Where the Torah forbids boiling a calf in its mother’s milk, many saw the furtherance of compassion as its basis. Maimonides saw the same prohibition as a steering us away from pagan practices.
But as an old Marshall McLuhan fan, I follow a “medium is the message” approach. Thus, if one is confronted by a series of foods which are allowed or prohibited by God or by tradition, then each mouthful I take is the outcome of a conscious choice, regardless of what the tradition specifically allows or prohibits. So what makes me fond of the idea of kashrut is that it asks me to be mindful of what I consume. The spirituality of mindfulness, I believe, is within the core of Jewish spirituality and worship. Mindfulness of others is intrinsic to the demand of the prophets that our actions must be directed to compassion and justice. And thus, as I interpret it, the establishment of an ideal that each mouthful needs to be the result of conscious choice trains us in all the ways of being mindful: to be grateful for what we have, to appreciate how what we consume is produced, to be aware of how it affects our health and the health of the planet, to be concerned about the effect of that mouthful on justice and injustice, to be mindful of the awesomeness of existence.
At Kehilla, we expect that each individual will determine how and if she or he will observe kashrut, whether it be according to its more traditional rules or in a more eco-kashrut or fair-trade format.
Whatever we do at home, or on the road, as a congregation we do need to set some parameters about what we do collectively within our synagogue building.
Just after we moved into our own building on Grand Avenue, we had a series of open meetings and discussions about what we wanted as a community in regard to food as it was to be cooked and consumed within our building. We felt we needed to be respectful of the fact that there were two church communities who had been using the space before we arrived. Within two years both of those congregations moved on.
We came to formulate a vegetarian/dairy/fish ground rule, with an exception for the Kehilla community Passover seder where chicken would be allowed. We were fairly lax about applying this rule to outside organizations who used our building for events that were not Kehilla events.
Recently, the clergy team revisited the rules we formulated back then. We made a few small modifications, Some were relaxed; some we tightened. For example, in 2008, we prohibited peanuts and peanut oil because of allergic reactions. That rule, not well-known, was frequently violated without bad consequences. So we dropped it. On the other hand, we decided to maintain and enforce our vegetarian/dairy/fish standard. We felt it was the best way to insure that our potluck and kiddush offerings would not violate the traditional prohibition on the mixture of meat and dairy, and it would provide vegetarians and carnivores ample fare, and on top of all of this, it would decrease our carbon footprint. We decided that we would eliminate our Passover exception.
In this era of human civilization, where profitability has largely come to determine what foods are produced and how they are grown, farmed, processed, and their workforce remunerated, it becomes a holy responsibility, a mitzvah, for conscious communities and mindful individuals to consider what it is we put into our mouths.