A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

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Dietary laws are another way to bring holiness to everyday life

For the last two years in which I was enrolled in rabbinical school, I served a small congregation every month located in the heart of Cajun Country: Lafayette, La. 

Rabbi Josef Davidson serves Congregation B’nai Amoona and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the weekly d’var Torah for the Jewish Light.

Located as it was near the Gulf of Mexico, the residents of Lafayette ate a lot of crayfish, mainly as an étouffée or at crayfish boils. I was familiar with crayfish, which we called crawdads and could find in the lake in City Park in Denver. Fishermen there used them as bait to catch fish. We even caught one and kept it in a large pan filled with lake water. It managed to live quite awhile until the first winter freeze, but that’s another story!

So, whenever I was in Lafayette, invariably someone would declare to me, “Rabbi! You don’t know what you are missing by not eating crayfish! It’s so good!” 

Of course, I could agree that I didn’t know what I was missing, but that fact was not going to persuade me to try these obviously forbidden water creatures. I would reply that there were plenty of kosher fish that were served fresh from the Gulf, so I would not go hungry. And all of them could be prepared blackened, my new favorite preparation, covered with lots of red pepper and other spices.

As we learn in this week’s Torah portion, Shemini, water animals are required to have fins and scales to be considered kosher, or fit for consumption. The rich variety of fish that have fins and scales is enormous, offering more choices than one can possibly consume, so I did not miss seafood that was not kosher, crayfish amongthem. Our Torah portion goes on to describe the characteristics of four-footed animals and of birds that render them kosher.

At first blush, Jewish dietary laws seem highly irrational. Why these animals and not those? Why these birds and not those? Why these fresh water and sea creatures and not those? What is the lesson?

There is a saying: “You are what you eat.” Animals that are kosher are peaceful, vegetarian ruminants. Kosher winged creatures are not birds of prey. Fish with fins and scales are a bit more heterogenous. But what they share in common is that their flesh can be dried and otherwise preserved and that their preparation does not involve cooking them alive. Animals and birds are to slaughtered humanely and as painlessly as possible. If we are what we eat, then ideally we, too, are peaceful and nonviolent.

Mindfulness has become a trait to be valued as a means of learning to be in the moment and enhance our experiences, spiritual and physical. Kashrut, Jewish dietary laws, is a means by which we become mindful of what it is that we put into our bodies. Instead of merely satisfying appetites, we have the opportunity to elevate consumption to a higher level of holiness. By exercising control over what we consume, we develop a physical and spiritual discipline that stands us in good stead for the many more serious decisions that we make over the course of our lives than, “What’s for dinner?”

The dietary laws are one of the means by which we actualize the statement that the Jewish people is an Am Kadosh, a holy people. This is not the kind of “holier than thou” holiness that some might associate with the term holy. 

Am Kadosh also refers to the notion that we are a people set apart from others, as noted by the prophet Bilaam when he blessed the Israelites instead of cursing them. There is nothing inherently wrong about the diets of those who do not observe Kashrut. 

In fact, the rabbis admonish us to refrain from saying that we do not consume pork because it is vile. They advise us to say that it is the sweetest of meats. Rather, we refrain from enjoying the sweetest of meats voluntarily, mindfully, as part of a spiritual and physical discipline.

The dietary laws that are found in this week’s Torah portion are one of the means by which we elevate our lives to a higher plane of mindfulness and of holiness. In every aspect of life, Judaism is a way of life that makes the mundane holy and infuses life with meaning and purpose at all times.

Shabbat Shalom!

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