Thursday, 08 Apr 2010

Written by LBC Principal, Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein

Back in 1972, when I was in my last year of the rabbinical programme at Hebrew Union College in New York, I was asked if I could substitute for a Long Island rabbi who had taken ill. It was a Shabbat morning service with a Bar Mitzvah. The boy, I was told, was fully prepared, and he would read from the Torah. I just needed to lead the worship service and speak to the boy about the meaning of the occasion.

The parashah was Shemini, and the boy read accurately and fluently part of Leviticus chapter 11, the most important source for the dietary laws concerning which animals are permissible to eat and which are not. It then came time for him to read the translation. In the large English Bible on the lectern, I found Leviticus 11 and opened to that page; I was startled when the boy pushed that passage aside and opened to another page where a book mark had been placed. To my amazement, he began reading, “You are standing this day, all of you, before the Lord your God”, from parashat Nitzavim in Deuteronomy 29. No one in the congregation had Chumashim in those days, and I have no way of knowing how many people other than myself realized that the English was totally different from the Hebrew he had read. Apparently, it was all right for him to read about the dietary laws in Hebrew, but for the English a more uplifting passage was required.

Indeed the dietary laws have played a problematic role in the early history of American Judaism. In 1883, celebrating the first ordination of American-trained rabbis by the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, a lavish multi-course dinner was served to the assembled dignitaries featuring a variety of shellfish dishes (though no pork products). This led to a walk-out by some of the guests; the infamous “Trefa Banquet” was a strong impetus for the establishment of America’s Conservative Judaism Movement.1  

It is not only for American Reform Judaism that Leviticus 11 raised some serious challenges. As Nehama Leibowitz has shown, this chapter has been a puzzlement for Jewish thinkers through the ages.2  Jews who never would have considered the possibility of eating one of the animals listed as tamei (unclean, or impure) nevertheless wrestled with the substance of the chapter. Twenty different birds and eight swarming earth animals are named as prohibited, without any reason given, and no one is absolutely certain about the precise meaning of some of the species named (tinshemet in v. 18 is translated “horned owl” in the older JPS translation and “white owl” in the newer one; Hertz comments: “or swan”). Why are animals that have a cleft hoof and chew the cud permitted, but not those that have only one of the features, or neither? Why fish with fins and scales, but not water creatures lacking these attributes? Why winged swarming creatures that have joints in their legs all right—locusts, crickets and grasshoppers—but not other winged swarming creatures?

And this does not even address the other aspects of the dietary laws not found in this chapter: the proper method for ritual slaughtering, the separation of milk and meat.

Perhaps the most familiar explanation for these laws is the hygienic claim: the animals prohibited represent some kind of danger to human health. There is no hint of such an explanation in the Bible or in the rabbinic literature. We find it in a comment by Rashi’s grandson Samuel ben Meir (Rashbam) of northern France, and—at greater length—in The Guide for the Perplexed by his younger contemporary from Muslim Egypt, Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides). For Maimonides, the characteristics of cleft hoof and cud, or fins and scales, had no connection with the reason for prohibition, they were simply a way of identifying those animals that were healthy to eat. This approach is consistent with Maimonides’ assumption that all the commandments given by God were for the benefit of those who observed them.

Others repudiated the idea that the prohibitions in our chapter served as a kind of medical handbook protecting us from foods that would cause disease. After all, there were many poisonous herbs not explicitly prohibited by the Torah. Rather, they argued that forbidden animals exhibited characteristics that were undesirable: pigs that wallow in filth, birds that prey on other animals; distancing ourselves from such sources of food was a way to protect not our physical but our spiritual health. (Similar explanations of the dietary laws had been given by Christian commentators; the difference is that the Christians maintained that the prohibitions were to be observed only in their spiritual and not in their literal sense, where the Jewish commentators insisted that the literal sense remains binding.)

At the other end of the spectrum of Jewish explanations is one that asserts that there is no benefit at all in eating certain animals and refraining from others. These commandments, like many others in the Torah, have no rational or pragmatic justification. Their purpose is as a test of obedience to the divine will, which is totally beyond human comprehension. For this purpose, the more baffling a commandment is, the better it serves its purpose. Indeed, all of the categories could have been reversed—permissible to eat pig but not beef or lamb, permissible to eat shell fish but not fish with fins and scales—and the same purpose would have been achieved. It is all a means to inculcate the qualities of discipline and obedience.  
Finally there is a suggestion that the dietary laws were given in order to safeguard the distinctions between Jews and the other nations. This indeed seems closest to the explanation actually given in the Torah some chapters later: “I the Lord am your God who has set you apart from other peoples. So you shall set apart the clean beast from the unclean, the unclean bird from the clean” (Lev. 20:24–25). If you cannot eat the food in your neighbour’s home, you will be less likely to mingle and assimilate in the general society. As Shylock says in The Merchant of Venice (I,3), “I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk with you . . . , but I will not eat with you, drink with you, nor pray with you”.  Here too, the prohibitions could have been the opposite of what they were, so long as they are different from the foodways of the majority and discourage excessive socialization.

Where does this leave us as Progressive Jews? I would suggest three underlying principles as reflecting my personal outlook.

First, there is a spectrum of acceptable levels of observance in this realm. We reject the belief that every detail of the dietary laws as articulated in the classical codes is a divine commandment. We reject the “all or nothing” idea, once expressed to me by a young Lubavitcher: that eating chicken that has not been ritually slaughtered is no different from eating pork, or that it is hypocritical to keep a kosher home but to eat on “non-kosher dishes” in a restaurant or in the home of a friend. For the Orthodox, the tiniest infringement of the strictest requirements is considered to be a sin; for us, whatever limits we freely choose to accept upon ourselves are a positive expression of reverence for tradition and solidarity with other Jews. We are also open to considering new categories of kashrut: “fair trade” applied to the working conditions in places of kosher slaughtering and meat processing; “green” applied to the environmental impact of various foods.   

As for the Institutional and communal setting for dietary restrictions: we are far removed from the mind-set that could have chosen to include shell fish in a festive meal sponsored by an institution of American Reform Judaism for leaders of the entire Jewish community. When participating in cross-communal events such as Limmud, we assume that traditional kashrut will be observed even if we do not personally require it. Our synagogues and our movement institutions should be sensitive to the practices and sensibilities of our more traditionalist members, though not necessarily bound by strictest requirements of Jews across the entire spectrum.

Finally, on a personal psychological level: A certain discipline is acquired through the process of looking over a menu, seeing items that appear to be appealing, tasty, attractive—perhaps shrimp scampi, perhaps veal parmagiana—and passing over such items because such renunciation is an integral part of one’s Jewish identity. Those who are capable of such a self-imposed discipline will not automatically act on every impulse or temptation; they are more like to set limits on the self-indulgent and often harmful pleasures in which many others will thoughtlessly partake. This is not to make self-denial and renunciation an ultimate value. It is to suggest that the discipline of setting limits is connected with the aspiration expressed near the end of our chapter: ve-hitkadishtem vi-heyeetem kedoshim, “You shall sanctify yourselves and be holy” (Lev. 11: 44).    
Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein
9 April 2010

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.