We are what we eat! A soundbite – please excuse the pun – but very true.

During the last few decades, obesity has become a growing problem in the more prosperous nations across the world – not least, here in Britain. For quite a long time, the over-consumption of fatty foods was seen as the main problem. More recently, with comparative studies showing that those who live around the Mediterranean, whose diet includes high levels of olive oil, are much healthier than people here in Britain, the government has taken steps to legislate for a reduction in levels of sugar in manufactured foods and drinks. While it has become clear that consuming the right types of fat is very good for us, eating too much sugar is most definitely very bad.

At the same time that levels of obesity have been steadily increasing, in particular, among the poorer sections of the population, a preoccupation with healthy eating has become more evident amongst those with more disposable income. So, quite apart from the increasing identification of food allergies, in particular, concerning wheat and gluten, and aside from those who spend their lives perpetually dieting, more and more people are adopting new so-called ‘healthy eating’ programmes.

And then there is ethical eating. Levels of vegetarianism – Including amongst children – have increased enormously in recent years as people have become more concerned about animal welfare. And even amongst those who are not completely vegetarian, meat is forming a less predominant part of many people’s diets. Further, for those who can afford it, increasing numbers of those who continue to eat meat, as well as those who continue to consume fish, will only eat animal products that are organic and free-range. Of course, in addition to our concerns about other creatures, there are Fairtrade considerations that focus on supporting poorer countries that are dependent on a single crop, like bananas, coffee and chocolate. At the same time, and somewhat in conflict with this particular ethical commitment, there is also increasing concern to buy local and seasonal in order to avoid contributing to the problem of too much air-traffic criss-crossing the globe.

There was a time, when keeping kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws, set one apart from everyone else. Nowadays, when invited to a meal at someone’s house, one is bound to be asked about dietary requirements on the assumption that everyone is following one form of dietary regime or another.

Nevertheless, kashrut – from the root, Kaf Shin Reish to be ‘fit’ – remains a very distinctive dietary system. This is because the rationale for it is completely different from the rationale for any other form of diet. In the last section of this week’s Torah portion, Sh’mini, in Leviticus chapter 11, we read about living creatures that may and may not be eaten. They fall into categories: animals that, both, chew the cud and have a cloven hoof may be eaten, but those which have neither of these characteristics, or, only one of them, may not. And so, while the camel chews the cud, it does not have a cloven hoof, so is prohibited. Equally, the pig which has a cloven hoof but does not chew the cud is forbidden. Concerning those creatures that live in the waters, only those that have fins and scales may be eaten; not those that crawl on the seabed. All wild birds are prohibited. All creatures that go around on four paws are also proscribed. All creatures that swarm and crawl on the ground may not be eaten. Creatures that swarm and go around in all fours, but have jointed legs, enabling them to leap may be eaten – which makes locusts and crickets kosher.

In order to understand the regulations concerning which creatures may and may not be eaten we have to look at them in the context of the Book of Leviticus as a whole. From the outset, this third book of the Torah is preoccupied with the sacred. The Hebrew root, Kuf Dalet Shin, from which we derive words such as the noun, kodesh, ‘holiness’, the adjective, kadosh, ‘sacred’ or ‘holy’, and the post-biblical noun, kiddush, the sanctification ritual involving the fruit of the vine, means that which is set apart. And so, in Leviticus, the tribe of Levi is set apart from the other Israelite tribes to perform the service of the sanctuary, and amongst the Levites, the family of Aaron and his sons is set apart for their role as priests. Most importantly, the people Israel is set apart from the other peoples to serve the Eternal One. As we read in the Torah portion, Acharei Mot, at the beginning of Leviticus 18 (:1-5):

And the Eternal spoke to Moses, saying: / Speak to the Israelites, and say to them: / I am the Eternal your God. / The ways of the land of Egypt, where you dwelt, you shall not practice; nor the ways of the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you; neither shall you walk in their statutes. /My laws you shall practice, and My statutes you shall keep, to walk in them: I am the Eternal your God. / You shall therefore keep my statutes and my laws, which when the human being – ha-adam – does them, he shall live by them: I am the Eternal

According to the Torah, the Eternal One who is the Creator of the world and all its creatures, including ha-adam, the human being, has entered into a covenant with a particular people amongst humanity, a covenant based on the premise that this people will serve God – rather than serve other gods and follow the ways of other peoples.

So, what has all this got to do with food? Clearly, as we read in parashat Sh’mini, certain creatures that share characteristics in common are set apart for consumption. By following the dietary rules, Jewish people are set apart from others. This is particularly evident in the post-biblical development of the laws of kashrut, where, in addition to the foods themselves, the utensils and dishes they are served in are also set apart. In the first law code in the Torah, Mishpatim, at Exodus 23 (:18), we find the prohibition against boiling a kid in its mother’s milk, which is later repeated in the second version of the dietary laws set out in parashat R’eih, in Deuteronomy 14 (:13). Reflecting, perhaps, an ethical concern for the bond between mother and offspring, this rule was later interpreted as a proscription against eating meat products together with milk products, entailing the use of separate dishes for milk and meat. Curiously, fish with fins and scales that produce eggs and do not suckle their young may be eaten with milk products, but chickens that also produce eggs and do not suckle their young are treated as meat – and as with meat, the blood, which, according to the Torah, may not be eaten, [1] is drained away by the method of sh’chitah, ritual slaughter.[2]

Given that eating is an activity we do more frequently than anything else, the impact of the observance of the laws of kashrut on our relationships with other people and other peoples is profound. Of course, as long as the majority of Jews were forced to live in segregated areas – ghettos – the fact that we followed distinct dietary regulations did not have repercussions for our relationship with others. During the course of the 19th century, in the process of emancipation, as Jews were liberated from a segregated existence, they were presented with a new challenge: how to live as Jews in the world alongside others. Some Jewish communities chose to continue to live apart, and still largely do so to this day. Some, influenced by the ‘Jewish Enlightenment’ movement, the haskalah, which arose in Germany in the 18th century, made the decision to lives as Jews ‘at home’ and citizens of the countries where they resided ‘in the street’.[3] The rise of Progressive Judaism in the early 1800s in Germany was another response to changing social and political circumstances.[4] Valuing the newly-found autonomy of the individual, the principal distinctive marker of the post-feudal world, Progressive Judaism – which encompasses particular ‘Reform’ and ‘Liberal’ manifestations – has refrained from dictating what Jews should and should not do in their own homes and in their own personal lives. It follows from this that the kashrut policy of progressive synagogues, like BHPS, is confined to our own premises. In this regard, it’s worth noting that this shul avoids the milk-meat issue completely by having a kitchen in which only permitted fish and vegetarian foods are prepared. But just as important, we invite people to bring these foods into the synagogue, and are not concerned with the utensils with which they are prepared at home, or whether or not the home concerned keeps the dietary laws. A progressive approach to kashrut, which encompasses contemporary ethical eating considerations, involves balancing the importance of expressing our unique identity as the Jewish people through our approach to food, with the value of connecting with others, and so, it also includes being able to eat in the homes of those who are not Jewish, and going out for a meal in a restaurant of any description. Fortunately, nowadays, as I mentioned earlier, anyone inviting someone to their home for a meal routinely asks them what they do and don’t eat, and many restaurants now serve a variety of dishes, encompassing vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options.

I’ve mentioned the impact of the emancipation of the Jews of Europe in the 19th century. But of course, in the midst of the 20th century, the rise of Nazism suckered by centuries of anti-Jewish hatred in Christian Europe had an impact on Jewish existence of an entirely different kind. Tomorrow evening, Jewish communities across the world will gather to observe Yom Ha-Sho’ah, the day set aside by resolution of the K’nesset, the Israeli parliament, on 12 April 1951, for the commemoration of the extermination of six million Jews and the annihilation of tens of thousands of Jewish communities across Europe.[5] We continue to live in the shadow of the Sho’ah. The harrowing and devastating events of those twelve long-short years of Nazi rule frame our existence as Jews today. For some Jews, retreat from being Jewish, and a rejection of being ‘different’ seems the only safe and sane option. Sadly, such a response may be seen to give Hitler a ‘posthumous victory’[6]; there is no need for anyone to attempt to wipe us out, if we are prepared to disappear of our own accord. At the other end of the spectrum, there are those Jews, who choose to live exclusively within the Jewish world, limiting their circle of compassion and concern to the Jewish people. Among the myriad responses in between these two extremes, Progressive Judaism invites us to claim and express our Jewishness with pride, while connecting to others and celebrating our shared humanity. One of the ways we can do this is through a progressive Jewish approach to kashrut. May we be proud of our difference, our unique identity, so that we continue to live as Jews and also eager to engage with others, and participate fully as Jews in the life of the world. And let us say: Amen.

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah

Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue

Shabbat Sh’mini

22nd April 2017 / 26th Nisan 5777

  1. Because the ‘being’ – nefesh – of the animal is identified with the blood. See: Genesis 9:4 – also: Leviticus 7:26-27 and Lev. 17: 10-14. The fat – chelev – that surrounds the liver and vital organs also may not be eaten: Lev. 7:23-25.
  2. Sh’chitah – from the Hebrew root: Shin Chet Tet to ‘slaughter – is the Jewish method of ritual slaughter, involving the slitting of the animal’s throat with a sharp knife. Any animal that dies of itself and is n’veilah – a ‘carcass’ – and, consequently, ‘torn’ – t’reifah – may not be eaten. See: Lev. 7:24, 17:15, 22:8 and Exodus 22:12.
  3. In his article, ‘Haskalah. Be a Jew at home and a man in the street’, Rabbi Louis Jacobs mentions the mid-19th century Russian maskil, that is ‘enlightenment’ thinker, Judah Leib Gordon, who proclaimed ‘the Haskalah ideal: “Be a Jew at homeand a man outside it.”’ http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/haskalah/ See also: http://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/7318-haskalah
  4. The most comprehensive account of the development of Progressive Judaism may be found in Response to Modernity. A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism by Michael A. Meyer (Oxford University Press, 1988).
  5. The Hebrew date of Yom Ha-Sho’ah is 27 Nisan. For more information, see: https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/yom-ha-shoah-holocaust-memorial-day
  6. The Jewish philosophe Emil L. Fackenheim, articulated an additional commandment post-Sho’ah: ‘the authentic Jew of today is forbidden to hand Hitler yet another posthumous victory.’ See: The Jewish Return Into History. Reflections in the Age of Auschwitz and a New Jerusalem (Schocken Books, New York, p. 22).