We have reached the midpoint of our journey through the Torah, and are reading regulations for sanctifying behavior, dress, food and gathering places. The regulations articulated in Emor — the focus on what the priests, and the people — may and may not eat, encourage us to consider conversations about suitable food that appear throughout the Torah.
What and how we eat has always defined Jews. Too often, we have forgotten that our legacy regarding food begins with the Torah, and the enumeration of how and what to eat.
God's first blessing to the newly created humans includes explicit directions: "I have given you all the seed-bearing plants on the face of the earth … these are yours to eat … ." After the flood, the Holy One tells Noah: "any small animal that is alive shall be food for you, like green grasses …" with a clear proviso: "but flesh whose lifeblood is [still] in it you may not eat."
As we make our way through the Torah, further distinctions about what is permitted and what is forbidden are presented, including, "You shall not boil a young goat in its mother's milk."
Emor begins with delineating the status of individuals eligible to eat the sacred offerings, and continues to enumerate the conditions that render an offering acceptable. The description ends by reminding the people that God, the deliverer from Egypt, is the source of sanctification: "I, the Holy One, sanctify you." These words echo the words that open the previous portion, "You shall be Holy because I am Holy."
How do we contemporary Jews understand food and eating as part of living a sanctified life? The Sacred Table: Creating a Jewish Food Ethic explores this essential question. In 50 short essays, contributors offer comprehensive and provocative consideration of Jewish foodways, practices and ethical concerns.
Editor Mary Zamore is guided by the same questions that beckon the reader of parshah Emor: What is holy? How does food create and define individuals, and the collections of individuals we call community? What should be brought to the table and blessed and shared? What are our responsibilities to those who grow and process and prepare our food? What are our responsibilities to animals? What are our responsibilities to those who do not have enough to eat? And what about our own health and well-being?
Zamore follows in the path of rabbinic sages who knew that stories are powerful teaching tools. Each of the 10 sections of her book concludes with a brief piece titled "Real Life/Real Food."
One of my favorite pieces is Rabbi Zoe Klein's love letter "To my vegetarian husband." She writes, "We are both rabbis. We've studied the same texts. We've turned the same verses over and over, examining them like gems under a magnifying glass, full of refractions of color and light." But the rabbis Klein come to different conclusions about how to sanctify the daily act of eating, and the writer signs her letter, "from his guilt-ridden wife who keeps falling off the vegetable cart."
The rabbis of the Talmud taught that after the temple was destroyed, each person's table stands in place of the sacrificial altar. Every day, we make choices about how and when and what to eat.
The portion reminds us that each of these choices presents an opportunity for holiness, by preparing food with intention, serving it with love, and eating it with blessing.
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Ph.D., serves as rabbi and worship specialist for the Union for Reform Judaism. Email her at: email@example.com