My parsha is the third portion in the book of Leviticus, which deals heavily with the laws of sacrifices, agriculture and holidays. My portion, Shemini, talks about why the Israelites sacrificed and specifically how they made offerings. There is also the cautionary tale of Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s sons who were consumed by fire after not offering an appropriate sacrifice. Shemini also talks about some ethical rules to follow and the dietary laws of the Israelites, which are called kashrut – which you might know as keeping kosher. And if you know me you wouldn’t be surprised to learn that I chose to chant the section that talks about food.
As I read my parsha, the first thing that came to mind was why? Why did God command Aaron and Moses to tell us the kashrut laws? Why are they so important to our religion? And why do people keep kosher at all? I mean, who can resist a good cheeseburger. Actually, I don’t like cheese on my burgers, but I do like oysters, and those aren’t really kosher either.
The 12th century physician and philosopher Maimonides believed that “ food that is forbidden by the laws of Torah is unfit for human consumption.” This doesn’t seem plausible because there is no medical or dietary justification for why we can’t eat things like shrimp, crab, scallops, or pork. There are a lot of different opinions on why there are the laws of kashrut. Some, like the 15th century commentator Abarbanel, say that “the foods forbidden by the Torah are to protect our spiritual health, and those who consume these foods will bring spiritual disaster upon them and drive out the pure and holy spirit.” There are also a lot of people who believe that observing kashrut is a constant reminder of our unique values, traditions, and obligations as a Jew. In other words, these dietary laws regulate what we can and can not eat – and therefore where we eat and with who – as a way of preserving our Jewish identity and loyalty to God. So, it’s really up to you on how you find holiness through food.
I don’t keep kosher. I can’t stand the idea of not being able to eat things like scallops and shrimp or a milkshake with my burger. Whether you’re like me and don’t keep kosher or if you do, I invite you to think about this. How can we find holiness in food, and how do these choices impact ourselves and those around us?
Specifically for those who don’t keep kosher, how can we feel more connected to God or to our Jewish identity through food? For me, I find holiness, in eating Jewish foods like Matzah Ball Soup or Shakshuka. These foods to me represent a connection between my love for food and Judaism like turkey and Thanksgiving.
I find holiness in eating when I’m at camp surrounded by my friends on Shabbat. Or, who knows? You could find holiness in eating meat that was well cared for and killed humanely or by eating vegetarian or vegan. Maybe the next trendy diet could be the stop-climate-change-diet. God should add some rules to the kosher laws so we don’t all die from cow farts in 30 years.
Besides the point, it could maybe be eating in places that you find holy, where you find you are more connected to God, or your Jewish identity. It could also mean eating with friends or family that are Jewish.
At my sleep-away camp, Camp Newman, we pray before and after we eat every meal. These prayers thank God and the people who helped bring our food to the table. To be honest I have very rarely taken a moment to be thankful for the food in front of me outside of camp and I think many of you might relate to that. When was the last time you paused before a meal to be grateful for the food in front of you? One way Judaism encourages us to sanctify food is through gratitude, and so I invite you today after the service to pause before eating your burger – with or without cheese – and take a moment to appreciate knowing where your next meal is coming from.
Another meaningful way that I practice Judaism with my family is volunteering to address food insecurity in our community. As a Jew and someone who is privileged to come back from school everyday to a homemade dinner, I have an obligation to give to those who aren’t as fortunate. I find that this kind of tzedakah also brings me holiness through food, in ways that aren’t just through eating.
Michelin Star Chef Jose Andres founded the World Central Kitchen, a non-profit devoted to providing meals in the wake of natural disasters all over the world. In December he went to Kentucky with his team and delivered meals in places that were hard hit by the devastating tornadoes. He also delivered meals in Spain after a volcanic eruption, in Haiti following an earthquake, and in Louisiana after hurricane Ida. This month he traveled to the Polish border along Ukraine, to deliver meals for refugees fleeing the war. Even though I can not travel the world to give meals to those in need I can do my part to help here in LA. I have worked in food banks to organize food boxes, done Meals on Wheels to deliver meals to those who can’t leave their homes, and prepared and delivered homemade meals to the homeless. Here at Beth Shir Shalom, we’ve hosted Feeding Families this year which delivers healthy food boxes to families in our community who are food insecure.
As I become a Bar Mitzvah, it’s important to me to practice my Judaism through food: Whether it’s helping those in need, eating Jewish foods, or sharing meals with friends & family, food plays an important role in how I connect to my Jewish Identity. I encourage you to think about how food plays a role in your life, and how we can find holiness through it.