This week's Torah reading, Shemini, is one of several places in the Torah where we are given the laws of kashrut — the guidelines that tell us what may and may not be eaten. Although the laws of kashrut are complex, the way they are given in the Torah is fairly plain. This animal may be eaten, and this may not; this bird is unclean, and this clean; this class of sea creatures may be consumed, and this may not.
What is less clear is the big question of why? Why this set of guidelines and not another? Why these rules and not others? Why even have rules about eating at all?
Over the centuries, many commentators have attempted to answer the big why question about kashrut. Some have focused on the specific animals permitted and prohibited, hoping to learn moral lessons from the prohibition on birds of prey, for instance. Others have focused on the health aspects of the laws, arguing that they reflect ancient understandings of health that have, in some cases, been validated by modern science, such as the prohibition on pork to prevent trichinosis.
While such commentaries are interesting, when I approach the big why question I tend to focus on the one explanation given for kashrut in the Torah: We are to follow these laws to "be holy," just as God is holy.
What does it mean to "be holy?" The English word "holy" derives from the root that means "whole, healthy." By contrast, the root of the Hebrew word for "holy," kadosh, means "separate, set aside for a sacred purpose." The institution of laws regarding the food we eat, the very foundation of our lives, is intended to set us apart.
In this way, the laws of kashrut go to the heart of the Jewish view of the human being. The Torah acknowledges that we have much in common with animals, from the time we are created on the same day as the land animals to the many times when we see our ancestors give in to their baser instincts rather than following a higher path. The core instinct of all animals is to survive, and food has that resonance for us as well — we need it to survive, and our instinct drives us to eat whatever is at hand until that urge is satisfied.
The laws of kashrut ask us to take a step back from that instinct, to separate ourselves from other animals by doing something that no other animal does: deliberately not eating a food source that could provide our bodies with sustenance. We turn away from these foods not because they are bad, but because not eating them shows that we can raise our sights above the mere struggle to exist, that we have a higher purpose and meaning to our lives than simple survival.
In the same way, as we continue on through the book of Leviticus, we will learn more and more ways that we can rise above our base instincts to turn our lives into something separate and holy, whether by refusing to cheat someone when it is in our power to do so or by holding on to our moral standards even when no one else is looking.
Each time we succeed in turning toward the path of Torah, we separate a little more from our instinct-driven selves and bind ourselves to a path of holiness.
The laws of kashrut demand that we confront this choice each time we put food in our mouths. May we have the strength to "be holy" with every bite we take.
Rabbi Adam Zeff is the religious leader of Germantown Jewish Centre in Philadelphia. Email him at: [email protected]