Parashat Shemini ends with the refrain of the Book of Leviticus: "You shall be holy, for I [God] am holy." We are given two ways to reach this holiness: sacrifice and kashrut. The portion opens with specific instructions for what and how to sacrifice to God, and ends with specific instructions for which animals are considered clean to eat.
Both require an extreme attention to detail, noting characteristics of specific animals and techniques. There is danger in disobeying these instructions. In between the sections on sacrifice and kashrut, we are told the tragic story of Aaron's two sons who die because they offer a "strange fire" — one God had not instructed.
Today, we no longer offer animal sacrifices to God, but many Jews do still follow the laws of kashrut. This is partly because we carry out the instructions for kashrut in our own homes; we don't need the Temple to keep kosher, as we did to make the sacrifices.
Kashrut is a personal and communal process that requires that each person take responsibility for his or her own actions. It also continues to be a way that Jews seek holiness; by eating food according to God's instructions, we not only set ourselves apart from others but also become more aware of the food we eat, and how the animals we eat for meat are treated and killed.
This enhanced awareness of our food and how it affects the world beyond us is leading some Jews to create deeper understandings of what kashrut can mean. With the idea of Eco-Kashrut, Jews began to think about the environmental impact of their food choices. The concept of kashrut expanded to mean eating kosher meat, and choosing organic fruits and vegetables; separating meat and dairy; and eating, for example, on reusable plates.
Now an even wider understanding of kashrut is being developed with the formation of Magen Tzedek, a special hechsher, or seal of approval, which insures that the food receiving it was produced in the most ethical way possible. The website (www.magentzedek.org) explains: "Commission's seal of approval, the Magen Tzedek, will help assure consumers that kosher food products were produced in keeping with the highest possible Jewish ethical values and ideals for social justice in the area of labor concerns, animal welfare, environmental impact, consumer issues and corporate integrity."
These days, food choices run the gamut; as such, we can bring many levels of awareness to how we eat. From local to organic to fair trade to vegan and gluten-free, many people seek to make themselves and the world a better place through these choices.
Kashrut may be one of the first models for this. Choosing our food carefully does often seem like a sacrifice.We may choose to buy a more expensive product because it is organic or fair trade. We may choose to cook dinner rather than eat a frozen meal because we know it will be healthier for our families.
Shemini reminds us that we sacrifice and keep kosher in order to be holy, in order to be more like God. In the case of these new understandings of kashrut, the holiness comes from paying attention to what we are eating in order to be more compassionate to other humans, animals and the earth. In this way, we are following God's instructions for kashrut, and we are following God's footsteps for kindness, compassion and justice.
Rabbi Danielle Stillman is a Reconstructionist rabbi and the Hillel adviser at Ursinus College. E-mail her at: [email protected]