Parashat Shemini 5778: A Divine Health Plan?
In our Parashah we have for the first time the mitzvot of Kashrut, the commandments regarding to how, and what, does a Jew suppose to eat. The most frequent question about this is why, why should we keep Kashrut? What is the reason for these strange and seemingly arbitrary rules?
There are many explanations. Maybe the most common is that Kashrut has a health objective. Jews eat Kosher because it is healthy. There are those who want to justify not keeping Kashrut by saying that today we have fridges, health standards and Tupperware, hence all these Mitzvot are not relevant anymore. There are many, however, that claim that the benefits of Kashrut are valid still and think that eating Kosher is healthier, my mother being an example of this. She would always look into the tags of the kosher food and point out that has less fat, less cholesterol and so on. There are even people who think that Kashrut is a proof that the Torah is from Heaven, because only God could have known about the health benefits of eating kosher before scientific research. Anyway, if you think that this explanation is secular, new and modern, you will be surprised that already Maimonides and Sefer HaHinuch saw health as the one of the main reason for Kashrut.
This approach understands Kashrut as a Divine Medical Program in order to ensure the health of the Jews. It was the organic food of the time. Many of us, however, will have an issue with this explanation. If eating kosher is so healthy and good, then how can it be that God only commanded the Jews to eat in this way? Doesn’t He care for the health of other people?
Another common approach is that the objective of Kashrut is to separate between us and the non-Jews. We eat kosher maybe not because there is something about the kosher food itself, but the benefit is that we are not allowed to eat the food of other people. Historically, this is an approach that appeared in times of persecution and suffering of the Jews in the hands of the gentiles and it is part of a series of traditions, halakhot and legends with a negative view of the non-Jews, who were themselves hostile towards Israel. Anyway, even if we understand the spirit behind this view, thank God we live in a different time and we have a hard time justifying Kashrut only as a mean to separate us from the non-Jews.
I would try to see in the Kashrut a spiritual meaning and I don’t think this is an irrational idea. There are many religions that see eating habits as spiritual tools. Our Parashah also points to this idea, as we read:
“For I am Hashem your God; therefore, consecrate yourselves and be holy, for I am holy; and do not defile yourselves with any kind of swarming creature that moves along the ground. For I am Hashem, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. Therefore you are to be holy, because I am holy”.
Eating kosher enables us to bring holiness into our daily life, into the most basic act we do as living beings: eating. In every meal we declare our will to live our lives according to the moral standards of Judaism: like Tzedakah, concern for the weak, respect for life, everything acquires a more concrete dimension when we turn our tables into a holy place where we eat as Jews.
In our Parashah we are told as well about the inauguration of the altar. After all the hard work it says in the Torah: “And Moshe said: this is the thing that Hashem commanded, do it and the glory of Hashem will appear to you”. That’s a very problematic promise, we know that you can’t see God, how can Moshe promise something like that! Rashi explained the verse: “To establish His presence in the labour of your hands, therefore these sacrifices will be your duty”. Meaning, that the Revelation of God happens in our acts, not in front of our eyes. The presence of God is not data that can be analyzed, but something that we can only feel through our feelings and our actions. God enters the World when we live our lives in harmony with His Presence, when we sanctify the Creation with good deeds, when we sanctify ourselves through the commandments.
To see God is not a physical action, these sources remind us that Hashem is the base for our existence, that there are values and responsibilities as a result of our relationship with the Divine. We meet God through our existence, in our lives. This is the huge contribution of Kashrut for us, it gives us a constant framework to connect with the holy, gives us the possibility of experience each food that we put in our mouths as something with value and another opportunity to experience God. We can choose not to come to Shul, it is harder to choose not to eat. May we find in Kashrut this basic and intimate contact with the Divine, with holiness, bringing God to our tables always.