Parashat Shemini

Hazzan Marcia Lane

I’m a ‘mostly vegetarian.’ I started years ago because of stories on NPR about feed lots. Cattle raised in feed lots stay in one place, standing in their own excrement. They are fed corn – which is not what cattle normally eat. I mean, think about it. How could a cow shuck an ear of corn? Corn is really food for people and crows. Feed lot cattle are raised in such terrible conditions that they develop multiple health problems, for which they are given antibiotics and growth hormones. So I gave up beef. That was not really a problem, because I had chicken, and I loved chicken. So versatile! Less expensive! And much easier to eat without a fork and knife.

Then I heard about the conditions under which chickens are raised. The thought of stuffing hundreds and hundreds of birds into a small space and cutting off their beaks so they can’t damage each other or rip out their feathers was horrifying to me. No problem, because I could give up chicken! After all, fish was so much healthier for you. Quick and easy to cook, and best of all it’s parve.

A couple of weeks ago I heard this story. Yes, on NPR. About how men from several Asian countries – prominently Myanmar (which used to be called Burma) – were either kidnapped or tricked into being slaves to fish. They live in a cage – the men, not the fish – and they spend years and years raising or catching fish to sell to the United States. Yes! Tilapia! I thought that was the good fish. The fish that wasn’t being over-fished.  And this slave labor is also used to obtain vast quantities of ordinary, nondescript ‘whitefish’ that we eat in prepared foods, much of which is completely kosher, or seafood that gets included in animal food. As well as many kinds of seafood that I wouldn’t eat, like shrimp. And the story included a suggestion that if we really wanted to be environmentally friendly, and avoid the problem of slave labor, we would encourage the local farming and eating of what are called “filter-feeders.” Like mussels. Great for the environment. Not, of course, kosher.

In the same week NPR played an exposé on factory farming. So I guess you have figured out by now that I am almost completely without a thing to eat. Thanks a bunch, NPR.

In this week’s parashah we encounter a complex structure around what is considered fit to eat, kasher le’ekhol, and what is not. That structure is predicated on several premises. We may eat those mammals which chew the cud and have a split hoof. That category encompasses land animals which are vegetarian in their own feeding practices. We eat sea-based animals which have fins and scales, thereby eliminating those useful filter-feeders as well as any sea creature that might be a bottom-feeder, feasting on whatever organic material they might find there. (I leave that one to your imaginations.) We are forbidden to eat those bird species that eat carrion, or that catch and kill prey, leaving us with the ‘vegetarian’ birds like chickens and quail and pigeons (the bottom-feeders of the avian world, but that’s a subject for another time).

I am one of the millions of Jews who kept kosher thoughtlessly as a child, then didn’t for many years, then did. When I was not maintaining a kosher diet I ate many things that have since come to have – at least for me – an ‘Ick Factor.’ Shrimp? Oh, ick. Cheeseburgers? Ick! Bacon cheeseburgers? Double-ick! I don’t know why I could eat them once and now I couldn’t even imagine eating them. They just became, for me, sheketz, an abomination.

In Masekhet Yoma, there is a commentary on a verse from our parashah. In speaking about eating ‘swarming creatures,’ the Torah verse says:

You shall not make yourselves detestable (t’shak’tzu) with all the things that are sheketz and don’t become defiled/unclean by them, that you become unclean (v’nit-mei-tem). Lev. 11:43

The Talmud adds this piece of interpretation – a twist based on the fact that one word can be pronounced differently.

The school of R. Ishmael taught: Sin dulls the heart of man, as it is said: Neither shall ye make yourselves unclean with them, that ye should be defiled thereby. Read not v’nit-mei-tem [that you should be defiled], but u-ne-ta-mo-tem [that you should become dullhearted]. Yoma 39:a

The Hofetz Hayim expands on this, giving the example of a merchant who goes from selling perfume to being a tanner. When he was a perfumer, he became so accustomed to the smell of perfume that he didn’t notice it. Likewise, when he became a tanner, after a little while he became insensitive to the smell of the tanning skins. He became ‘dull’ to the Ick Factor. But when it comes to kashrut there’s nothing implicit in Torah that tells us why certain foods are supposed to be icky. I must tell you that all those things that we are commanded not to eat? They are not necessarily icky. They are just icky to us because we have decided to make it so. Torah and our sages give us lists of foods and food combinations that are not permitted, and if we accept this form of soul-refining practice, then these foods become sheketz – an abomination.

Now what’s interesting to me is that there is a form of animal protein that is permitted to us by the laws of kashrut, and about which NPR actually had a very positive piece not long ago; locusts. Bug protein is about to be big business in the food world. You can raise insects on a plant-based diet that is made up of stuff we don’t eat (think the husks of wheat, and that green stuff around the ears of corn), they are cheap to raise, they can be ground into a very high-quality protein meal that can be added to bread or cookies or even to candy to make a nutritious food.

Yes, there’s a very high ‘ick’ factor, at least for now. But I imagine we could overcome that in time. The fact is, our choices to eat or not to eat certain foods are matters of how we pursue that refinement of the soul that makes us sensitive to the world around us. For Jews, the laws of kashrut are part of our spiritual discipline, not because they make sense or because they are objectively good, but because we choose to employ them in the spiritual practice of our lives.


Cantor Marcia Lane is the Director of Education and Engagement at the United Jewish Federation of Greater Stamford, Darien, and New Canaan.