Parashat Shemini

Considering Our Food Choices

This portion challenges us to express our most intimate and deeply-held values with every mouthful.

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Other classical medieval commentators, such as Seforno and Nahmanides, theorize that the point of these restrictions is to protect the spiritual (as opposed to physical) health of the people of Israel, to separate us from the other nations and to teach us gentleness toward creation. 

What all these commentaries have in common is an acknowledgement that, whatever the rationale might be behind the laws of kashrut, what we eat has an impact on how we live and reflects our values. Creating boundaries in our eating teaches us to eat mindfully and to carefully weigh the impact of our food on our bodies, our communities, and the world.

In the Global South

In the contemporary global village, the Torah's message to limit what we eat can and should include consideration of the impacts of our food choices on global social justice. The commercial coffee industry, for example, chronically underpays and mistreats workers in the Global South, and the low labor standards of the industry as a whole impact the well-being of entire economies in the world's poorest countries. Purchasing non-fair trade coffee and other forms of produce picked by underpaid workers conflicts with this parashah's message to choose foods mindfully.

This portion challenges us to express our most intimate and deeply held values with every mouthful. It asks us to speak out against the exploitation of farmers and laborers in the Global South and to insist upon foods and drinks for our homes, our synagogues, and our workplaces that are traded fairly and that promote the values of the Torah--compassion and justice for all living creatures.

As my patient John taught me, limits are not always limiting. Limits create space for both individual and world healing. Boundaries around how we live and what we eat help to create a world where there is room for that within each of us that is truly limitless to safely unfold--our human dignity and our capacity for true freedom.

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Rabbi Elliot R. Kukla

Rabbi Elliot Kukla is a rabbi at the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center in San Francisco.