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Parshat Shemini: What’s Wrong With Pigs, Anyway?

03/27/2019 08:50:07 PM


The last third of Parshat Shemini is an extensive list of animals the Israelites are either permitted or forbidden to eat.  Specific animals are named, as well as physical characteristics that can help identify which animals to eat. NO REASON IS GIVEN!   Many people through the centuries, including all of the rabbinic Torah commentators, have speculated about the reasons for these restrictions.  It is popular to view the kosher laws as health-based – but there are many flaws in that logic.

All animals can carry disease or be unhealthy to eat, depending on the circumstances.  Pigs are no more inherently dirty or unhealthy than chickens. For example, we are all now very aware of the dangers of salmonella from poultry that is not handled correctly.  Fish with fins and scales are not any healthier to eat than crustaceans or bivalves. All fresh, uncontaminated seafood is healthy for the human body.

Think about it from a sociological perspective.  Does it make sense that God would give the healthy food to the Jews and the unhealthy food to the Gentiles?  I find that being a convert to Judaism clarifies this issue. When I thought about my mother eating shrimp or bacon, it was inconceivable to me that God loved her any less than me, just because I was Jewish.  Therefore it was impossible for her food to be less pure or healthy than mine.

I read through the parsha again carefully and noticed something.  Every time God describes what can or can’t be eaten, He is careful to say “to you”.  This is pure “for you”. This is an abomination “for you”. These foods are only “pure” or “impure” FOR THE JEWS.  This code of holy eating is a purposefully arbitrary discipline for the spiritual benefit of the Jews, and only the Jews.  One can then infer that the Gentiles are given their own path to holiness. In some cases, that includes a code of holy eating, in others not.  

Why purposefully arbitrary?  For the same reason – spiritual discipline.  There is no particular merit in avoiding eating things that are unsafe or not proper food for human beings!  It only requires a spiritual intention when the food is otherwise perfectly edible and tasty. That takes discipline!  

I think we miss the true purpose of kashrut when we concern ourselves with whether we can eat this animal or that animal.  The purpose of Kashrut is holiness. At the end of the parsha God says twice “you shall be holy, for I am holy”. We are to do our best to imitate God in our lives.  Holiness is taking an everyday necessity of human life, eating, and elevating it to an exercise in mindfulness. Since we have to think about whether the food is kosher or not, we must think about where our food comes from.  A piece of meat is not just a lump of food – it came from a living animal. We are to remain aware, those of us who eat meat, that something gave its life so that we could live. The system of Kashrut lends itself seamlessly to an application to many modern food concerns.  Today’s food conversations are about healthy growing practices and sustainable agriculture – both plant and animal. We discuss world hunger and how we can divert some of our food production to feed the hungry. We are urged to think about the carbon footprint of our food – where did it come from?  Did it have to be transported across an ocean or from 20 miles away? Factory farming of all kinds – including in the kosher food industry – leads to inhumane treatment of animals and exploitation of workers. Just because meat with a kosher hechsher was slaughtered according to Jewish law does not mean it is truly kosher if those ethical concerns were violated. Vegetarianism or veganism, a special kind of vegetarianism, is touted as the most virtuous way to eat.  However, the sustainable grazing of grassfed meat animals actually restores the land. The earth would not be healthier if meat-eating stopped altogether. Eating less meat, meat that is healthy for us, is good for the planet. All of these concerns can be framed in a Jewish way, using the principles of our ancient practice of holy eating.

Even if you don’t keep kosher in any way, you can be part of this heritage by being mindful of where your food came from, being grateful for it (whether you say a blessing out loud or not!), contributing to solving the problem of world hunger and supporting the ethical and sustainable production of food.  This too, is holy.


Sat, July 4 2020 12 Tammuz 5780