Today's culture of 'meat awareness' could take a page from this week's portion, which deals extensively with which sacrifices the priests were allowed to eat.
Shemini delineates the laws of kashrut that pertain to which animals we can and cannot eat. While Deuteronomy 14 lays out similar prohibitions, it also mentions the prohibition of cooking a kid in its mother’s milk. Leviticus 11, in our portion, makes no mention of dairy. It is all about meat.
The portion begins by describing the sacrifices that Aaron and his sons, the first priests, are to offer, overwhelmingly focused on animals. It goes on to give the rules for when and where the priests and their families may eat of the sacrifices they have offered. Rules and boundaries were intrinsic to the Jewish people’s early interactions with meat.
We live in a time when limits on eating animals have again been proposed. There are health concerns related to eating some kinds of meat, there are environmental concerns to grazing too much cattle, and ethical concerns about the practices of factory farming and killing other living beings to fulfill our own desires. Some people choose not to eat meat or animal products; some seek out meat from smaller farms whose origins and treatment they can more easily understand.
Kashrut offers us yet another path for engaging with meat. While it does not address any of the above issues directly, it does command us to stop and think before we eat meat. We must know which meat is permitted and which is prohibited — what is clean and what is unclean. Furthermore, we can only eat meat that has been killed in the proscribed way, with a clean cut through the trachea. Eating or even touching a carcass that has been killed in other ways, or which died of natural causes, renders the person who had contact with it impure.
The Jewish writer Jonathan Safran Foer, in his book Eating Animals, describes his understanding of kashrut: “If humans absolutely must eat animals, we should do so humanely, with respect for the other creatures in the world and with humility. Don’t subject the animals you eat to unnecessary suffering, either in their lives or in their slaughter. It’s a way of thinking that made me proud to be Jewish as a child, and that continues to make me proud.” He then goes on to cite how the scandal of inhumane treatment of animals at the kosher slaughterhouse Agriprocessors shocked the Jewish world.
Today, as in the biblical world of Shemini, we are being urged to be more conscious of how we go about eating animals, and which ones we eat. Some of us will continue to follow the laws of kashrut as a guide for this process, some of us will add the criteria of pastured, grass-fed, organic, free range or family-farmed to our choice of meat. There are purveyors like kosher meat provider Grow and Behold who can offer all of this to us.
Some of us will choose not to eat meat, or to limit our consumption of it to Shabbat. Some of us may not change our eating habits at all. It is not easy. But I offer it here, on the Shabbat of Parashat Shemini, to remind us that the process of how we interact with our food — especially our food that was once alive in an animal sense — is an ongoing, living process.
We live the ancient text, thanks to the continual Jewish practice of kashrut. Our task now is to understand and enact it in a way that speaks to the animal issues of today.
Rabbi Danielle Stillman is a Reconstructionist rabbi and the Hillel adviser at Ursinus College. Email her at: [email protected].edu.