More Post-Pesach Discipline: Sh’mini

I led our Renewal Service on Shabbat morning and was really struck with the way that the Torah portion fed into (pun intended) an awareness of discipline that now seems to me to permeate the week after Pesach.

It’s the portion of the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. These young men have just finished being dedicated as priests, along with their brothers El’azar and Itamar and Papa Aaron (the High Priest). They make some kind of radical mistake and introduce uncommanded “strange fire” into the sacred precincts, offering incense that is also possibly uncommanded, and they’re burnt to a crisp. This, after sacred fire had come forth and consumed the inaugural offerings in the Mishkan (Port-a-Temple) just a paragraph prior. (See Lev. ch. 9 and 10)

The rabbis and commentators of our tradition have long struggled to understand just what these two young men did that called down such heavenly wrath. There are a variety of answers: drunkenness (see Lev. 10:8, the very next paragraph after their deaths — why, the rabbis reasoned, is the warning not to officiate drunk placed here, unless as counterpoint to the story of Nadav and Avihu?), overzealousness, arrogance, ambition, religious zeal. The triple appearance of fire — sacred fire, strange and uncalled-for fire, consuming fire — suggests that passion might be part of the story.

It seems that Nadav and Avihu decided to make up new ritual. They might have been motivated by a passionate love for God; they might have been motivated by passion for power or glory; they might have been motivated by the idiocy that can come with being drunk. But whatever the reason, they rejected the discipline of following the rules. And whatever their motivation — pure or sullied — it just didn’t work. Certainly not at that moment, when the whole ritual component of Judaism (or more correctly, Israelite religion) had just been set up for the first time, and there was no “tradition” as such at all!

This tends to trouble us as Americans, whose bias is always toward the new and the innovative. The story clearly says that “new” is NOT always better, nor even appropriate nor safe. Now, you don’t have to like that, but it’s still true: Sometimes following the rules really is best. (Spoken by the parent of a 4 and a 6 year old!)

The rest of the Torah portion is about what you can and cannot eat. Kashrut is such a troublesome thing to people who were not raised with it. So many reasons have been given for its existence that it’s clear that there’s no one answer.

The answer that was current when I was growing up — health reasons — is Maimonides’s answer, and was rejected by subsequent generations of rabbis for exactly the reason that came true in the 2oth century: if it’s just there to safeguard our health, than as soon as we know other ways to accomplish that, kashrut becomes moot. (That was a general problem that came from many of Rambam’s explanations; he rationalized the system of mitzvot so thoroughly that subsequent generations could, if they chose, rationalize the whole thing away, and some did.)

But I don’t think that kashrut is moot. Not if it makes us think.

To begin with, it embodies the belief that there are and should be limits and controls on what we eat/consume. We are not permitted to be rapacious in our dealings with the Earth; I think that’s one of kashrut‘s basic teachings.

And practically speaking, each of us does have limits on what we will eat, whether we identify those limits with kashruteco-kashrut, health, or just “ick.” (How many of you will eat worms or rats? Maggots or ants? It’s all protein. You’ll say those things are obviously not “food,” but somewhere in the world, they are considered fit for humans.) So kashrut is a traditional Jewish set of limits, no different on one level from our unexamined cultural taboos. But the limits set forth in kashrut can be further analyzed for their embedded wisdom and teaching.

One rabbinic commentator (I wish I could tell you who, but it’s in the chumash I was reading on Shabbat, not in front of me; probably Chasidic) suggests that paying attention to what we put IN our mouths helps us to pay attention to what comes OUT of our mouths. Others claim that not eating certain foods and eating others nourishes our spiritual health, though most don’t go on to explain why. Philo of Alexandria suggests that there are hidden meanings in each category of permitted animals: For instance, split hooves teach us to distinguish carefully between categories, and the requirement of chewing cud is a reminder to us to carefully “chew over” our studies.

Rabbi Larry Hoffman taught us that the key to understanding kashrut is to understand the Jewish (and anthropological) notion of categories. Each category proclaims a value. By limiting land mammals to those which have cloven hooves and chew cud, we eat only vegetarians. Ditto with the birds: as the Jewish Catalog puts it, “Hawks – no, Doves – yes.” By requiring that water creatures have fins and scales, we avoid the scavengers. Ditto land and air: No scavengers, no garbage-eaters, no hunters. Eating an animal symbolically brings its essence into ourselves; kashrut teaches that we are not supposed to be ingesting the values of eating trash, picking carrion, or rending others limb from limb.

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner (and others) points out that things which fit comfortably into their categories are ok; things which seem to transgress boundaries are not. So if it’s a water animal, it has to have fins and scales, not creep around underwater or give live birth. If it flies, it shouldn’t have fur and squeak. Platypuses (platypi?) are definitely not kosher.

(You can argue that shrimp are as at home in the ocean as tuna, but clearly, from a kashrut point of view, shellfish are not “normal” fish. Just take it as a given, ok?)

Rabbi Kushner asks, essentially, “Does my food have a home?” He elaborates: “Does eating this take me home?”

I love this interpretation, which I read for the first time this past Shabbat. I’m thinking more and more anyway about locally-grown food, about food additives with unpronounceable names and unknown genesis (did you know that dextrose and polysorbate aren’t kosher for Pesach?), about corn syrup and hydrogenated fat. It has to do with being on the farm, with producing our own eggs, with getting ready to milk our own goats, and with raising children. So I ask:

Does this food have a “home” nearby? Do I know who grew it/made it? Are they real people, or a conglomerate’s brand that’s marketed to look homespun and authentic?

Does this food have a “home” among commonly recognized edibles? Do I know what it’s made from? Does it even exist in nature? Do I have any clue what it does in my body over time? Does anyone?

Does this food have a home in my community? Does it help bring people together? See Bill McKibbin’s new book, “Deep Economy.” Apparently farmer’s markets are the fastest growing segment of the “food economy,” and it’s not just about buying local or organic; it’s about people connecting with people, making community.  (He writes about it here too.)

Food discipline, yes — but joyous discipline. Which seems to be what the week after Pesach is for. Not discipline without struggle — you should have heard the challenging discussion we had on Shabbat morning about Nadav and Avihu — but discipline undertaken for really positive reasons. I could use a little more of that in my life, always.