This weeks Torah parsha, Shemini, begins on the eighth day of the ceremony to ordain the priests and consecrate the Tabernacle. Moses instructed Aaron to assemble several types of animals and a meal offering as sacrifices (called korbanot in Hebrew) to God, saying: “Today the Lord will appear to you." (Leviticus 9:1–4.). At one point, Moses becomes angry at Aaron and his sons for failing to eat the sin offering at the proscribed time and place. The parsha concludes with a listing of which animals are considered clean and therefore permissible to eat, and which are considered unclean and therefore forbidden to eat. In both stories, the themes of holiness and eating are closely associated. Clearly, the Torah is teaching us that what we eat or refrain from eating has the power to make us holy or un-holy. “so as to make a distinction between the holy and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean” (Lev 10:10).
Indeed, our food choices can have a profound effect on the world. I recently read a quote from Israel and the Seventy Dimensions of the World, by Nechama Nadborny, that affected me profoundly. She relates that a Rabbi Glazerson once “dramatically spoke these words that struck an inner chord within me. He said: “A Jew eating non-kosher food anywhere in the world can cause a famine in India.” In other words, our performance of the Divine commandments transforms reality beyond our limited perceptions of cause and effect. . . This is a Jewish equivalent to the butterfly effect, in which the notion that a butterfly stirring the air today in Peking can transform storm systems next month in New York.” As this recent New York Times article on quinoa illustrates, our food choices have repercussions far beyond what we ordinarily consider. To return to the main idea of Shemini, we must eat only holy food and eat it in a holy manner if we are to be holy. For how can we be holy if we do not eat food that is whole-some? It is taught that when Jews sit at a table to eat, the table is a substitute for the Tabernacle, and the food is a substitute for the sacrificial offering. If the food we eat is to be considered as holy as the offerings that were brought to the Tabernacle, we must therefore ask some difficult questions about the holiness of the food that we eat.
It is a depressing fact to consider the reality that most of the food that Americans eat does not live up to this ideal of ‘holy’ food. The vast majority of the foods we generally consider kosher, and labeled as such, are in fact riddled with ethical and health dilemmas. We must look beyond the OU certification and ask challenging questions such as “Has this food been genetically modified?” “Has it been sprayed with herbicides or pesticides that cause health concerns for myself or the environment?” “Has it been irradiated?” “Does it contain harmful ingredients?” “Have the farm & factory workers who handled this food been fairly compensated for their labor?” “Has this animal been raised humanely?” “How will ingesting this food make me feel?” and "Will this food give me strength, fortitude & balance, or will it make me feel sick or otherwise unhealthy?"
Too often, we are too lazy to ask even any of these types of uncomfortable questions. Perhaps we are afraid of the answers we might have to face should we look them squarely in the eye. Perhaps we feel we have no alternatives, that ‘everything is bad for you,’ so why bother trying. Perhaps we have been intentionally kept in the dark about such matters by a system that says “Just Eat It and Don’t Ask Any Questions.” Indeed, our current food system does not require labeling of genetically modified organisms, does not require disclosure on what chemicals have been used to grow or treat the food we eat, does not mandate that animals be raised humanely or workers treated fairly. In fact, our current food system does not just allow unhealthy and unholy food consumption, but actually promotes it through such practices as fluoridation of public water supplies, agricultural subsidies for corn and soy production, and deregulation of genetically engineered plants that will contaminate the seed supply. Such is the sad state of our food system today that we can basically assume one or another of the questions in the above paragraph can be answered in the affirmative, absent labeling to the contrary (GMO-Free, Organic, Grass-Fed, Fair-Trade, etc.)
“Shut Up and Eat It” might be the predominant modus operandi of modern food culture, but Jews are bound to a higher standard. We must always remember that to be holy means to eat food that is holy in every sense of the word. It is taught that there are hidden righteous people who through their rectification of eating alone sustain the world. It is written in the Talmud (Berachot 17b) that G-d once said, “Because of Hanina My son, the whole world is given sustenance.” Rabbi Hanina lived, breathed, and ate on the level of awareness that every moment and every detail in this world affects the higher worlds. This weeks Torah parsha, Shemini, challenges us to live up to this ideal. By making food choices that are truly holy, we have the power to bring ourselves and the whole world closer to redemption.