Author Archives: Rabbi Ruth H Sohn

About Rabbi Ruth H Sohn

Rabbi Ruth H. Sohn is the director of the Leona Aronoff Rabbinic Mentoring Program and Rabbi of the Beit Midrash at Hebrew Union College in LA. She also teaches adults in a variety of venues in Los Angeles.

The Purpose of Kashrut

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Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).

“You are what you eat’ the common expression goes. I sometimes think of this saying in relation to kashrut (that is, keeping kosher). What do the choices that we make about what we eat reveal about who we really are? Many Jews today view kashrut as an outdated vestige of ancient Israelite practice, expanded upon by rabbinic Judaism, bur no longer relevant to modern day life. However, the presentation of the prohibitions associated with kashrut in Parashat Re’eh challenges us to consider anew the purposes of kashrut.

The Torah: A Women's CommentaryDeuteronomy 14 tells us what animals, fish, and birds we can and cannot eat. It instructs us not to boil a kid (a young goat) in its mother’s milk, an injunction that became the basis for the rabbinic separation between milk and meat (14:21; see also Exodus 23:19 and 34:26). While many Jews today believe the biblical prohibitions against certain meat and fish to be for health reasons, Parashat Re’eh makes no such claim. In fact, if this were the case, the explicit permission to give the stranger and the foreigner the foods we are forbidden to eat (14:21) would be frankly immoral. Rather, Parashat Re’eh, as the Torah does elsewhere, identifies the articulation of eating prohibitions strictly as part of the Israelites’ particular path to holiness: “for you are a people consecrated to your God Adonai” 14:21). What is it about these prohibitions that can make us holy? Interestingly, the prohibited foods are identified as tamei … lachem–ritually impure “for you” (14:7, 8, 10). For this reason, it is perfectly acceptable for other people to eat them, just not for the people Israel.

A Spiritual Discipline

Traditional and modern commentators have offered various explanations as to why particular fish, poultry, and animals are considered tahor (“ritually pure”) and therefore acceptable to eat. But perhaps more important than the meaning of each of the details of the prohibitions is the simple fact that we are given a list of dos and don’ts that govern what we are to consume daily. According to the Torah, God asks that we abstain from eating certain foods, not because they are unhealthy or intrinsically problematic, but simply as an expression of our devotion. As with other chukim (laws that the rabbinic sages define as being without rational explanation), these prohibitions are like the requests of a beloved: we may not understand them, but we are, in essence, asked to follow them purely as an expression of our love. Daily, the observance of kashrut calls us back to a personal relationship with God.

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Women and the Covenant

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Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).

Is Sarah part of the b’rit (the covenant) that God establishes with Abraham? While our impulse might well be: “How can you ask such a question? Of course Sarah was part of the covenant,” the details of the text force the question upon us. From the opening words calling Abraham to leave his homeland, and throughout this parashah, God speaks directly with Abraham, not with Sarah. Most dramatically, the sign of the b’rit in Genesis 17 is circumcision, clearly a male-only ritual.
The Torah a Women's Commentary
One could argue that this ritual established a covenant only between God and Abraham, and Abraham’s male descendants, and that women stood outsidethis religious cult altogether. Perhaps Sarah and the other matriarchs had their own religious practices and traditions, their own way of relating to God. Or, perhaps, they were passive members of this covenant between God and the men, valued as child-bearers, but otherwise on the periphery.

Let us consider another way to read the text. The critical element of the b’rit is the promise that Abraham will be fruitful and become the father of nations. Women’s role as child bearers is therefore not ancillary but central to meaning of the covenant. And, while God does not address Sarah directly in Genesis 17, God refers to her and changes Sarah’s name just like Abraham’s–with the addition of the letter heh and with a parallel explanation: “she shall give rise to nations; rulers of peoples shall issue from her” (17:16).

Even when Abraham doubts Sarah’s ability to bear children and suggests that God’s covenant continue through Ishmael, God reassures him that the covenant will pass through Sarah’s son, Isaac. Thus, God makes it clear that not all of Abraham’s descendants are part of this covenant, only the ones of Sarah. This underscores Sarah’s crucial role; it makes Sarah and Abraham, physically speaking, equal partners in the covenant.

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