A lot of friends of mine, even those in seminary, say that when reading the Bible, they skip over the books of Numbers (because it’s about numbers…), Leviticus (because it’s got laws) and Deuteronomy (just more laws…). And during the time of Lent, we’re just supposed to focus on the Gospels, right? Because that’s about Jesus and his life, and the Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible) doesn’t have anything to do with Lent.
Well, sorry, kids, but I’m here to suggest you read Deuteronomy this week! And guess what else? I think it’s going to be interesting because we are reading about eating practices and food purity laws.
Here’s the thing: Deuteronomy is a really cool book because it helps us understand what the community of ancient Israel might have thought about itself. Deuteronomy was written during the 7th century BCE, right as Judea (another name for Israel) was recovering after a hundred years of Assyrian domination. After the Assyrians destroyed the temple in Jerusalem in 722 BCE, the Israelites were trying to figure out how they could live and honor their god YHWH in a world where their temple was destroyed. Therefore, when they were no longer able to worship their god YHWH in the temple like they had before, they turned to issues of behavior to distinguish themselves. Some of this behavior concerned what they ate, as recorded in Deuteronomy 14:3-21: they are prohibited from eating camels, hares, badgers, pigs, eagles, vultures, osprey, shellfish and many other animals.
Because so much of American culture is obsessed with diets and with “clean eating” and knowing what goes into our food, sometimes Lent is transformed into a catch-all get-healthy time where we cut out all the “bad foods” as a “spiritual practice” when really we are just getting sucked into mainstream diet culture. Well, that doesn’t really help us focus on God, does it?
I think the ancient Israelites were on to something by noticing that what and how we eat helps define who we are as a people (remember the food culture discussion from last week?). But they also recognized that there are ways to regulate what we eat that have to do with how we live in community and how we think about what is holy.
Here’s what my friend Jessica, a Conservative (read: conservative legal interpretation) Jew who keeps kosher (observes the dietary laws) has to say about kashrut (the dietary laws):
“I keep kosher because it makes me feel more connected to Jewish tradition, and it makes meals more special and meaningful. For example, because kosher meat is more expensive than non-kosher meat, it is more of a rare treat to eat something like brisket. Therefore, meat meals are reserved for holidays and other special days, like Shabbat… Many Jews ask themselves the same question—what is the point? Jews from the Reform movement (one of the most liberal) have completely abandoned kashrut for the most part, Reconstructionist Jews are the most progressive and choose for themselves based on the community, every Conservative congregation I’ve ever encountered insists everything be Kosher, and then you have Orthodox Jews who argue over whose hashgacha (kosher supervision agency) is most reliable! Something to keep in mind is that as a result, “kosher” means different things to different people…”
Jessica goes on to talk about the difficulties of there being different ways to observe kashrut in communities, involving people having to check the food coming into the synagogue and keep to strict rules about what food is acceptable and unacceptable. Two synaogues she participates in have “two-table” system, where one table basically practices one version of kosher and the other table practices the other kind. This works because, according to Jessica,
“…no one should be put into the trap of saying “I don’t keep kosher” because they eat vegetable products without the OU imprimatur or because they don’t believe that hot cooking utensils store and transmit taste. There are multiple approaches to kashrut, and all can coexist in the same community. And meanwhile, some people really really don’t keep kosher or claim to keep kosher (by any standard), and also participate fully in the same community.”
So, even though some of these dietary laws might seem outrageous to Christian families, they are not necessarily bars to participating in community or enjoying food. Jessica’s claim that they help her feel connected to her tradition is a beautiful way of expressing the need to be in religious community across time and space. Food is one way that we do this, and food laws can free us to enjoy the benefits of community without being so focused on what we are not allowed to do.
Some people care a lot about what goes into their bodies, and so are interested in the use of Genetically Modified Organisms in foods. Do some research and figure out your position on GMOs. Are they good for us? Are they bad for our health? Do companies have an obligation to label them in foods we buy at the supermarket?
Journal about a food experience that translated across time and space. What was it like? What do you remember when you think about/consume this food?
Resources from Jessica to understand kashrut: