Cantor Tamara Wolfson – 18 April 2019
You Are What You Eat
If you are what you eat, then who really are you?
If I am what I eat, then I am my Mom’s chicken soup: truly the best in the world. I am my Dad’s New Year’s Day omelette with freshly cut chives from his garden. I am my sister’s pecan pie on Thanksgiving, my grandma’s chocolate and toffee covered matzah during Pesach, and my papa’s favourite black and white cookies.
Aside from being a rather stereotypical New York Jew with a sweet tooth, though, there’s another secret ingredient in the recipe of my identity: kashrut.
I don’t remember when exactly it happened, but at some point during my early adolescent years my mother dialled 1-888-GO-KOSHER. (Yes, that is a real phone number!) To this day, I have a vivid memory of a crew of men immersing the contents of our kitchen in a vat of boiling water and mumbling blessings. I’m not sure I fully understood the implications of kashrut at the time. I was miffed by the idea of juggling two separate sets of dishes and cutlery, or two sets of kitchen sponges and dishwasher grates. And while I mourned the loss of cheeseburgers and chicken parm, I hadn’t taken any time to really learn about the “why” behind it all.
The “why” of kashrut is particularly relevant during the Pesach season. Our Torah text contains a long list of rules that are the foundation of kashrut, including all the various types of poultry, meat and fish that are off limits to kashrut-observant Jews. In later generations, these laws were expanded to include boundaries around food preparation, methods of slaughter, separation of meat and dairy, and the laws of kashrut for Pesach. In response to this parasha, our ancient Biblical commentators ask a plethora of clarifying questions: what exactly does the text mean by cloven hoofs? Chewing cud? Fins and scales? Chametz? As with all Jewish law, the Sages sought to question and understand exactly how to observe correctly, and we know that those conversations were often boisterous and filled with conflicting opinions.
Progressive Judaism has a unique voice in this halachic debate, and our engagement with Jewish law is certainly different from our Biblical ancestors. The concept of “informed choice” enables us to ask questions and think critically about the halachah that we personally find meaningful. It allows us to shift and grow in our observances and understandings of them, and to evolve in our Judaism as often as we like. We are the arbiters of the constant conversations between tradition and innovation. And the conversation continues even up to this minute.
I grew up at one of the flagship Masorti shuls in the US, and our Senior Rabbi served on the Committee of Jewish Law and Standards which sets halachic policy for Conservative Rabbis and for the movement. I will never forget the moment in December 2015 when the CJLS voted to approve a teshuvah — a new interpretation of Jewish law — permitting Ashkenazi Jews to eat kitniyot — legumes, rice, and corn — on Pesach. Suddenly, my family’s Pesach observance took on a whole new flavour (sushi for Pesach was a life-changer!) In my lifetime, there have been multiple instances like this: moments where Jewish law has changed shape before my eyes, enabling me to engage with my tradition in new and challenging ways.
We Progressive Jews reshape our Jewish understanding all the time, often in ways we may not be aware of. For example: every Saturday morning for as long as I can remember, my Dad would get to shul hours before the rest of the family for his 8am Torah study class. On the way home from shul, his brain buzzing with ideas and commentary and questions, my Dad would share with me what he had learned and we would continue the conversations, sometimes into the evening. Those Shabbat conversations are just one illustration of the role we play in the chain of Rabbinic tradition: that actually, it’s not just for clergy or scholars to work through how to make Judaism meaningful. It’s for all of us. During this reflective time of Pesach, a season in which we see ourselves standing on the shores of the sea once again, we can take this opportunity to dive into difficult text instead of running away from it: to seek to understand it, even if we disagree with it.
I’ll conclude by sharing some teachings on kashrut from an HUC professor of mine, Dr. Dalia Marx, who suggests ten guidelines to examine what she calls the “essential” kashrut of food:
- Social justice: “Share your bread with the hungry” (Isaiah 58:7)
Nature’s preservation: You shall not destroy (according to Deuteronomy 20:19)
Fair treatment of animals: “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk” (Exodus 23:19, 34:26; Deuteronomy 14:21)
Fair employment: “You shall not defraud your fellow . . . . The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning” (Leviticus 19:13)
Health: “For your own sake, therefore, be most careful” (Deuteronomy 4:15)
Gratitude: “Let all that breathes praise the Lord, Hallelujah” (Psalm 150:6)
Family: “How good and how pleasant it is that brothers dwell together” (Psalm 133:1)
Community: “And all the people went their way to eat and drink and send portions and make great merriment” (Nehemiah 8:12)
Enjoyment and pleasure: “honey and milk are under your tongue” (Song of Songs 4:11)
Moderation: “If you find honey, eat only what you need, lest surfeiting yourself, you throw it up” (Proverbs 25:16)
These guidelines are one of many examples of how we can incorporate the principles of kashrut into our lives in varied, meaningful ways — not just on Pesach, but every day.
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