By Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb
The basic rules of kashrut - which animals we eat, and which we avoid (meat-milk strictures came later) - are outlined this week in Parshat Shemini, Leviticus 11. While some say that keeping kosher is a chok, a dictum, with no clear rationale, others place it among the mishpatim, righteous rules given for real reasons - with ethics, public health, peoplehood, and spiritual development among the common explanations.
Intentionally or not, kashrut has over the millennia drawn clear boundaries between Jews and others. Since it's so much easier to prepare and enjoy food with folks who share your approach, Jews tend to hang out with one another. This has been good for our people, developing strong in-group solidarity, and with it the 'bonding' social capital we've needed. It's also been a challenge, limiting our 'bridging' potential and our relations with non-Jews, making us more insular.
These religious/halachic and social/anthropological questions loomed large in the recent Israeli elections. Demographics may favor the ultra-Orthodox parties, whose adherents see insularity as a requirement and an unalloyed good; they did well, as ever, at the ballot box. But the real headline was the 'secular backlash', from those who don't want to be told by others what's kosher, or when they can ride public transportation, or who can officiate at their wedding.
One of my Israeli heroes, Ruth Calderon, was among the record-setting 26 women and 47 first-time Knesset members sworn in last month. Calderon is a leader in the emerging movement that re-infuses Israel's secular Jewish majority with meaningful Jewish values and practices, always in a pluralistic and progressive way. This movement, led by groups such as BINA, Alma, and Elul (Calderon founded the latter two), places great emphasis on tikkun olam; it moves the public discourse back to 'values'; it has great potential for both the Jewish and the Israeli futures.
Calderon's opening speech on the Knesset floor made waves, partly because this 'secular' woman used her fifteen minutes to teach Talmud (it was a great shiur - lesson!) - and partly because she, while clearly caucusing with 'the left', made virtually no mention of such core moral questions as human rights, the peace process, or settlements. She spoke at length, instead, of this "Jewish renaissance movement" now engaging numerous Israelis "within frameworks that do not dictate to them the proper way to be a Jew, or the manner in which their Torah is to become a living Torah."
This focus reflects the populace. Israelis tend to be more concerned about the impact on food prices of keeping rabbinically kosher, than about whether the 46-year-old occupation is "kosher" (literally acceptable, fit, appropriate). We who want 'Peace Now,' may be saddened by this electoral reality. But I find hope in Calderon's "Jewish renaissance movement."
I find hope that as Israeli Jews return to their moral and textual roots, they'll become newly empathetic toward the nearly two million non-Jewish Israelis, and the millions more under occupation.
I find hope that pluralistic and progressive approaches to domestic policies must, inevitably, spill over into the intergroup and international arena, into the peace process.
I find hope that as emerging leaders like Calderon (Yesh Atid) - and social protest leaders Tamar Zandberg (Meretz) and Stav Shaffir (Labor) - find their place and make their mark, they will apply the full force of their considerable talents and energy toward the two-state solution.
I locate this hope in one revealing line from Calderon's speech, spoken to her ideological-opposite coalition-mate, the leader of the Jewish Home Party: "I agree with what you said earlier, MK Bennett. I learn that righteousness is not adherence to the Torah at the expense of sensitivity to human beings." Such sacred reframing of Torah's role - and such deft reminding us of Torah's upshot, and of the centrality of justice and peace in Judaism and in the Knesset - is hopeful indeed.
And finally, I see this hope in the Torah itself, in Shemini, in Leviticus 11:19 which lists a variety of unkosher birds, among them the stork - hasidah, 'loving-kind/righteous one', in Hebrew. Vegetarians get this; we should kill no animal for a meal, much less a hasidah. But the Kotzker Rebbe was troubled by this contradiction; if we're allowed to eat birds, shouldn't we imbibe 'hasidut' (righteousness and stork-ness)?
The Kotzker researched, and learned why the hasidah is so-called: if one stork sees another who is sick or injured, the stork will go out of its way to forage for food, and transfer that food from its own beak directly into the beak of the stork-in-need. We humans should be such hasidim, such righteous loving-kind ones, as the hasidah/stork!
So, asks the Kotzker, why is it treif -unfit? Because it saves it righteousness only for fellow storks. If the bird in need is a sparrow or swallow or spotted owl, the stork will fly right on by.
To be hasidim, to be righteous and loving, says the Kotzker rebbe, we must take care of our own. And to be kosher, to be acceptable and fit, we must take care of others.
Ruth Calderon and her hasidot have done much to bring Torah like this to the Israeli public. May their efforts, together with ours, make Israel ever more kosher, and ever more righteous - with regard to its own, and its neighbors, alike.
Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb serves Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, MD, and is active with Interfaith Power and Light and with the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life.