There are two funny images I like to circulate this time every year as we approach the Passover holiday. The first is a cartoon of a truck with large text on the side reading “Morty’s Passover Cleaning.” On the driver’s side door is the word “chametz” inside a circle with line struck through it. Underneath the large “Morty’s Passover Cleaning” text on the side of the truck it reads:
Orthodox $89.95, Conservative $49.95; Reform $19.95.
The second image is of a person’s office cubicle and it’s completely covered in aluminum foil. Even the desk chair, computer, keyboard and mouse are completely covered in aluminum foil. Most likely this photo was taken of the scene of an office prank, but I like to circulate this photo with the question, “Do we go overboard when it comes to Pesach cleaning?”
Let’s look at the first photo. Is there some truth to this? I always maintain there has to be some truth to a joke for it to be funny, so let’s say that on the whole, yes, Orthodox Jews would spend more money for Passover cleaning than Conservative Jews and Conservative Jews would spend more money for Passover cleaning than Reform Jews. Perhaps, this image strikes us as offensive, but we’ll unpack that in a moment.
I remember as a kid before we got granite counter tops watching my mother cover all the counter tops in tin foil and then redoing this process each morning of the holiday because some of the tin foil had ripped the night before causing little sections of the white Formica counter to be revealed. This was done despite the fact that our house was completely spotless after having been thoroughly cleaned for the holiday. The thinking was that the counter is of a porous material and would have retained some of the chametz from the year which would contaminate our Passover food.
Do we go overboard for Passover?
We all spend exorbitant amounts of money on this 8-day holiday (only 7 days in Israel) to get special food that has been labeled kosher for Passover. We take Spring cleaning to the next level and then up a few more levels to make sure there is no chametz in our homes. We stockpile enough Kosher for Passover food to feed an army as if we’re planning to never return to a grocery store ever again or that the supply of matzah may run out. Are our intentions misguided? Most rabbis encourage congregants to fully embrace the strictures of Passover, and I certainly want everyone to observe the holiday with fervor and joy, but I question what can only be characterized as the intense OCD-like tenacity with which we tackle the minutiae of Passover observance. After all, our ancestors in Europe weren’t buying kosher for Passover bottled water!
There are certainly some core laws of Passover that we’re all familiar with. These include avoiding the consumption or possession of chametz, eating matzah, drinking four cups of wine or grape juice at the Seder, and telling the story of the exodus while imagining that we, ourselves, had left Egyptian slavery on the journey toward freedom. The most important mitzvah or commandment of Passover, however, is one that we no longer follow. The Tradition commands us to eat the Passover sacrifice, known in Hebrew as the Korban Pesah.
We are instructed to eat this Pascal sacrifice or offering in a state of ritual purity and that’s what I think we should focus our attention on as we prepare for Passover. We should spend more time trying to achieve this state of ritual purity that our ancestors strived for when eating the Pascal sacrifice, and less time stressing out with the minutiae of chametz. I hear a lot of stories of people spending days cleaning under couches and in crevices on the kitchen floor. However, it’s important to remember that dirt is not chametz. If crumbs have been hiding in the cracks under your cabinets, that’s called garbage not food.
To eat of the Pascal sacrifice we have to be spiritually pure. Our souls have to be cleaned out. The idea is that we should transcend our everyday experience of life and place ourselves on a higher spiritual plane. You see, in Judaism we have an elaborate system of purity and impurity. Think of these as order and chaos. Our world is made up of order and chaos — both are essential. We must seek out order as a way to put limits on the chaos and make the world a better place for us and for our descendants.
Each year as we’re preparing for Passover, our Christian friends are preoccupied with Lent. This time of Lent is also a spiritual cleansing time when they give something up that they love. A good friend of mine gives up drinking alcohol during Lent each year. His wife gives up all sweets — no candy, no sugary soda, no sweet desserts. Some people give up using profanity, or smoking, or video games. Lent is a time for people to clean up their act so to speak. While I’m not proposing Jews begin observing Lent, I do think that the idea of this spiritual cleansing is in line with the notion of becoming purified in order to eat of the Pascal offering — and that is precisely the focus of Passover.
Maybe we use the Passover preparation time to consider what we need to do in order to improve our lives. Maybe we should spend more quality time with our spouse and children, dedicate more volunteer time to local nonprofit organizations, set aside more money for tzedakah each year. Passover occurs about 6 months after the High Holidays so it’s really an opportune time for us to do a spiritual checkup anyway. We can do a midway audit on our Jewish New Year’s resolutions.
Pesach has become a holiday of cleaning and scrubbing and dusting and vacuuming. And that’s all fine and good — who doesn’t appreciate some heavy Spring cleaning this time of year. But the real experience that God expects of us is for us to do some spiritual Spring cleaning. To rid ourselves of the negativity — the spiritual chametz — haughtiness, arrogance, the ego.
We should be striving for renewal in our hearts, and not simply in our homes or specifically in our kitchens.
As we shop, clean, pack, unpack, set the tables, and prepare the elaborate Seder meals over the next week, we should be mindful to place the emphasis of the holiday on the correct place. Chametz isn’t dirt or dust or garbage. It’s that which we must rid ourselves of in order to be of pure souls for this significant festival. We may no longer eat of the Pascal offering and we only discuss it at the Seder, but let us remember that our ancestors took this task very seriously. Give up something this year for the Jewish Lent. Rid yourself of that which you’re not proud of and would be better off without. Discard the metaphysical chametz while you’re getting rid of the literal chametz. Kedoshim Tihiyu — And then, we shall be holy and closer to our God.
This week’s Torah portion commands us to swear off cheeseburgers. Well not exactly. It was the rabbis that created the prohibition against mixing meat and milk products, but the foundation of the matter is indeed found in the Torah. Parshat Ki Tissa contains one of three instances in which the Bible warns us not to boil a kid in its mother’s milk.
To understand the rationale behind the “cheeseburger clause,” we may have to go back to the Book of Genesis. When Jacob, upon re-entering the Land of Israel after a prolonged absence, is brought word that his brother Esau is rapidly approaching accompanied by a band of 400 armed men, he is “greatly afraid and distressed”. The Torah records his apprehension in a heart-rending prayer in which he turns to God and begs to be delivered “from the hand of Esau … lest he come and smite me, the mother with the children”. Our forefather’s greatest fear is that mother and child be killed together.
Another biblical source that highlights the same underlying sensitivity is found in the prophet Hoshea. In describing the horrors and wanton destruction brought about by war, he depicts it as a time “when the mothers were dashed to pieces with their young”.
The Bible is keenly concerned to avoid the terrible tragedy feared by Ya’acov and described by Hoshea, and its spreads forth its mercy not only upon human beings but upon animals as well. The Book of Leviticus warns “whether it be a cow or a ewe, you shall not kill it and its young both in one day”. In addition, the Book of Deuteronomy warns against plucking a mother bird from her nest together with her young. Rather we are commanded to send away the mother bird guarding her nest before one takes the eggs or the chicks. If you must take the young, then the mother bird is to be spared.
The illustrious Maimonides pinpoints the focus of the Torah’s concern in both these cases on the suffering of the mother, who is forced to witness the demise of her progeny: He explains in his Guide to the Perplexed that “the prohibition of slaughtering the mother and her offspring on the same day is a safeguard, lest one come to kill the offspring in front of its mother”. Similarly, in the case of the commandment to send away the mother bird guarding her nest before one takes the eggs or the chicks, he writes, “by doing so, her anguish is minimized when the eggs and chicks are taken away”.
However, Maimonides’ predecessor, the exegete and philosopher Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra, takes a slightly different tack. The objective, he seems to opine, is not so much to limit the emotional pain experienced by the mother bird as it is to prevent the development of moral callousness in the hearts and psyches of human beings.
That being the case, he connects the prohibition in this week’s Torah reading against seething a calf in its mother’s milk to this commandment concerning the mother bird. Both, as well as the prohibition against slaughtering the mother and its young on the same day, are fences against human cruelty. What could be more symbolic of the worst sort of cruelty than to take the mother’s milk that was created to nurture and nourish the young animal, and to use it as an instrument of the youngster’s destruction? What greater perversion could there be of the beneficent ways of the merciful God? As such, this precept comes to uplift and to sensitize, serving as another bulwark against the malignant cancer of callousness that is so likely to spread in the human soul as we engage in the slaughter of animals and the preparation of their flesh for our food.
No wonder, then, that our tradition built once fence after another, mandating the complete separation of meat and milk, in an effort to keep us forever distant from the cruelty of heart that would turn life giving milk into an agent of death. Yes indeed, there is much more to the great American cheeseburger than meets the eye.
Last week, the Copenhagen Zoo in Denmark killed a healthy two year-old giraffe named Marius. Zoo staff dissected Marius’s body in front of visitors, calling it “an educational program.” They stored Marius’s meat to be fed to large carnivorous mammals.
Without a context, this story is horrifying. In fact, zoo staff members have received death threats.
But there is a context, important in the world of zoos. Zookeepers responsibly try to prevent overpopulating a zoo or inbreeding a small herd. In the U.S., zoos rely on contraceptives, rarely killing healthy animals. European zoos, however, criticize American practice as unnatural and unhealthy in the long term. Thus, in Europe, the average professionally run zoo kills five large mammals per year.
From a Jewish perspective, should this context quell your horror? Not necessarily.
Giraffes, you may be surprised to learn, are kosher animals. Giraffes meet the Torah’s criteria for kosher mammals: they have split hooves and chew their cud. Many scholars say they are listed explicitly in Deuteronomy (14:5) by the Hebrew name zemer. To be fit for eating, a kosher animal must be killed with a cut to the neck; the giraffe’s long neck makes it very easy.
However, it’s just not socially acceptable in Jewish circles to eat this beautiful, exotic animal. When the ancient Israelites built their mishkan (portable desert sanctuary), they covered it with skins of an animal called in Hebrew the tachash. The exact meaning of this rare Hebrew word has confused scholars. Some say it is a mythical animal; others say it is a dugong from the Red Sea; still others say it is an African giraffe. The Talmud describes the tachash as a large, kosher, non-domesticated animal, with beautiful skin and a horn on its head.
Kosher animals ought to be treated with great respect—though often, in our world of factory farms, they are not. Our Torah’s account of the Exodus includes explicit mention of the sheep and cows who walked to freedom. In the book of Jonah, God asks the prophet, “Shouldn’t I care about a city with 120,000 people, and also many cattle?” Anthropologist Mary Douglas points out that only kosher animals were allowed to enter the Temple precincts; thus, they were in some sense part of a covenant of holiness. From an anthropological perspective, one particular kosher animal—the sheep—seems to emerge as Judaism’s totem animal. Our ancestors were shepherds; we still blow the shofar, a ram’s horn, to announce the New Year; observant Jews wear a talit and with tzitzit—woolen fringes.
Contrary to these values, people often treat food animals horribly. With a little interspecies imagination, an industrial farm looks like an overcrowded detention camp. You know the shocked question, “How could people treat one another like this???” Some animal activists answer, “We practiced on animals, and transferred the skills.”
Perhaps you remember the animated DreamWorks movie Chicken Run. Spoiler alert: a group of chickens escapes from a factory farm. The farm looks very much like your worst nightmare of a secret maximum-security military prison. If you have not seen the movie, do try to watch it. It’s actually funny and inspirational, not gruesome at all—but it does make you think twice about human-animal relations.
So, yes, be horrified. Be very horrified.
But do not lose hope. Instead, take action. Keep in mind a famous principle from the Talmud: “Whoever saves a single [human] life, it is as if they have saved a whole world.” When you save a life, you give life to a person’s future generations. You make it possible for the living person to help others. One life is connected to other lives in a great network, and one saved life means more than you can imagine.
Keep using interspecies imagination: Whoever saves one animal life, it is as if they have saved an entire world. When you adopt an animal from a shelter, choose vegetarian for a single meal, or sign a petition, you are a node in a network that changes the world. You help save one animal life; you demonstrate a more respectful way of living with other species; you undercut lessons of dehumanization; you influence human behaviour. Torah teaches that animals and humans are intertwined, practically and psychologically. Think about how you can make use of that teaching.
Traditional Jewish memorial prayers say: in honor of the one I remember today, I pledge tzedakah—righteous deeds and charitable donations. If you are one of Marius’ many mourners, what action will you take?
Today’s lunch included stir-fryed Purslane. Until two weeks ago, I’d never heard of it or, to my knowledge, tasted it before. It is one of more unusual items available from the CSA (community supported agriculture) that we signed up for this Summer. I love our CSA. Unlike many programs, which provide you with a box of pre-selected items, our local farm allows you to choose your own, based on a point system, so that you can create your own weekly combinations.
I’m blessed to be living in a part of Central MA where there is an abundance of local farms. Many offer CSAs, and there are also many local farmers’ markets. Our town has a weekly market where the offerings of several local farms can be found, including meat and eggs, local wines, cheeses, and a local, small scale bakery. Farmers’ markets may not be the cheapest way to shop, but a season’s worth of fruit and vegetables from a CSA is quite economic. Both offer an opportunity to bring a different kind of mindfulness to the buying and eating of food.
Two years ago, inspired by the collection of essays edited by Rabbi Mary Zamore, ‘The Sacred Table‘, my partner and I began to have a different kind of conversation about the food we ate, and particularly about Kashrut. I’ve been talking about the concept of ‘Eco-Kashrut’ for a very long time. I taught about it when I was a Hebrew school teacher in London back in 1990, having read Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s early writings on the topic. Yet, while I had somewhat inconsistently tried to bring environmental awareness to my food shopping choices, I hadn’t really developed personal practices that I was happy with. I still haven’t – it is a work in progress.
After reading Zamore’s book and, more recently, ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma‘, I was propelled to make some different choices. I grew up in a home where we kept kosher and, until very recently, have continued to keep a fairly traditional form of kashrut in the house. Certainly, within the Reform movement, I would be in a minority in maintaining any observance of traditional kashrut laws – early Reformers often dismissed them as a ritualistic practice that had no truly ethical or rational basis, and served to separate us from the non-Jewish host population. While I’ve not necessarily found the Reform argument persuasive (it would have been more persuasive if, simultaneously, the movement had offered up a thoughtful, ethically-based alternative), the contribution of The Sacred Table, a publication of the CCAR (Central Conference of American Rabbis – the Reform rabbis), provides that very alternative.
The more that I have studied and learned, the more that I am troubled by the Kashrut industry. There are those who are doing good work to try and provide a path for observant Jews that is both traditionally kosher and ethically viable, with the Conservative movement leading the charge on providing a ‘hechsher’ (a stamp indicating kosher approval by an authorized team of rabbis) for foods that meet both kosher and ethical standards. But there is a long way to go before such an approach gains much traction among the majority of the kashrut-observant.
And so, for the first time this past year, I have started to move away from some of the kosher observances in our own home toward choices that, upon deeper consideration, offer something that feels ethically and environmentally grounded. We’ve started with the CSA and an attempt to buy more from local sources more of the time. We’ve cut down on meat consumption considerably, and will buy non-kosher meat too. Last Thanksgiving, our local, free range turkey was sourced from a small scale farm less than 50 miles from our home. And we try to buy fish that is from the ocean and of a kind that is not currently at risk but sourced sustainably. Its an imperfect system – nothing quite covers all of the bases, and we’re not yet consistent in our choices. But as I head back to the CSA tomorrow to try something new that, perhaps, I’ve never tasted or cooked before, I believe that I’m making progress, and I’m thankful to others who have been working hard to bring conversations about food, ethics, and the environment into the Jewish arena.
This week we heard news from Germany that a regional court ruled that circumcision amounts to bodily harm, even if parents agree to it. There is, as of yet, no law to make the performance of the ritual illegal, but the ruling has nevertheless caused concern. The Conference of European Rabbis are gathering in an emergency meeting to consider a response.
There is news out of Europe on a fairly regular basis that challenges the legitimacy and ethic of one of two ritual practices that impacts both the Jewish and Muslim communities – circumcision, and the practice of shechitah (ritual slaughter) as part of the process of making animals kosher to eat. When this news reaches US shores, we sometimes jump to the conclusion that there is more than a hint of antisemitism (or, increasingly, Islamophobia) behind these challenges. And there is certainly something to that. But it is also the case that these are conversations that take place within the Jewish community too. As a congregational Rabbi, often engaging with and counseling new parents on the question of circumcision, I know that there is much more involved in this conversation, and desire to have it respectfully and fully. In truth, I have a position and I will share it, and it is in favor of traditional Jewish circumcision. But, as a Reform Rabbi, while I seek to educate about this traditional practice and encourage it, I hold to the principle of ‘informed choice’ which is a hallmark of the Reform movement. Ultimately, I will engage parents and their child, performing rituals of welcome into Jewish community and covenant, both in the traditional context of brit milah (the Jewish ritual of circumcision), or as a baby naming ceremony held after a baby is circumcised in a hospital or, in rare cases, where parents are strongly opposed to circumcision at all.
Just this past weekend, at the end of the first week in my new congregation, I co-officiated with a Mohel (trained and qualified to carry out the circumcision) at a traditional brit milah. The context was one with a Jewish and non-Jewish parent, committed to involvement in Jewish community life. For the non-Jewish relatives, this was a new experience, and certainly one that caused anxiety. The mohel, with over 26 years experience, did an expert job of explaining what was happening, how babies respond to medical procedures, and contextualizing the ritual in its historic and halachic (Jewish legal) framework. For sure, everyone was relieved when the act was done, as is only natural; the baby’s only griping was prior to any procedure, in protest to having his legs held still by his grandfather, but the explanations and additional blessings also provided a great deal of comfort.
As the Mohel explained, there are good, medical reasons for waiting until the eighth day for a circumcision; something that our ancestors thousands of years ago may have learned by observation – for the little amount of bleeding that takes place, by the eighth day the natural process of blood clotting has fully developed in an infant. For those who choose to have a circumcision in a hospital, it often takes place before mother and child go home, much sooner. And it is done behind closed doors, with a doctor and nurse. Having had a congregant in my last congregation who was a specialist in this area invite me one day to watch him perform such a circumcision (for a non-Jewish infant) in the hospital, I know that great expertise is brought in both cases. But a mohel who has performed numerous circumcisions in the presence of an infant’s most intimate family certainly brings nothing less than great care and gentleness to every moment of the ritual.
For those who choose not to circumcise their son at all, wanting the child to decide for themselves when they are old enough to make an informed decision, I cannot authentically provide an argument that will conclusively deny their concerns of inflicting pain or carrying out a medically ‘unnecessary’ procedure on their child. I disagree with them – I have not witnessed an infant expressing more than very brief discomfort at a circumcision (discomfort that can be due to having their legs held still, and not necessarily from the procedure itself – most Reform-trained mohels use some kind of numbing agent prior to the procedure) – and I believe there is medical evidence to indicate greater health in this area later in life if circumcised. I also know that is a much more complex procedure later in life, with a much, much longer healing period following. But, ultimately, this is a question of belief for some parents. Jewish faith, and a heritage that commands this act of us, is also, ultimately, a belief.
I hope that the German, secular, courts, do not take further action to intervene and interfere on this matter. But I remain open to having honest and compassionate conversations about circumcision.