Archive for March, 2008

Shemini: Kashrut of Honey

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shemini

This week’s Torah portion is Shemini, which has rules for the ancient
priests and how they must comport themselves, and also a long chapter
detailing which animals are considered kosher- fit for eating- and
which ones are not. You probably know the basic outlines: no pork,
shellfish, creepy-crawling things, and meat only from a few permitted
species of birds and ruminants. Most people don’t realize this, but
the Torah itself does permit certain species of locusts to be eaten
(although, you will be relieved to learn, we have lost the traditions
as to exactly which ones) but not other flying insects. (See
Vayikra/Leviticus 11:21-21 and D’varim/Deuteronomy 14:19.)

In almost all cases, if we’re not supposed to eat an animal, we also
don’t use products derived from that animal. For example, food that is
certified kosher will not have certain chemicals derived from animal
fat or milk from non-kosher animals. So far, so good, but for one big
exception: bee honey. In this week’s parsha, and again in D’varim, we
are told quite specifically not to eat swarming or flying insects,
except a few locusts- so why is honey from bees kosher when milk from
horses (for example) isn’t?*

Basically, the distinction is this: a horse (an example of a
non-kosher animal) produces the milk directly from its body, or an
ostrich (a non-kosher bird) produces an egg, but a bee merely
transforms the nectar of the flower into honey. What happens, as I
understand it, is that a bee takes the nectar into its body and an
enzyme breaks down the nectar a bit, which is then released into the
beehive and the fanning action of the worker bee’s wings evaporate
some of the liquid, making the resulting honey thicker and more
viscous. Thus, there is an ancient tradition, going back to the
Talmud, of drawing a distinction between the “product” of a non-kosher
animal, like eggs or milk, and something the animal merely “carried,”
like nectar on its way to being honey.

I make no claim for deep spiritual metaphor in this distinction, but
having learned it I do have greater respect for how well the ancient
sages observed the natural world. The entire practice of kashrut
[“keeping kosher”] is based on careful distinctions based on
long-standing traditions, and without knowing the concepts it can all
seem bit arbitrary. Yet to paraphrase one source on the topic, knowing
more about where our food comes from helps us have a sense of great
awe, wonder and reverence for the infinite ways life expresses itself
upon our Earth.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

*Full Disclosure: This question was posed to me by a high school
student last night and I had to hit the books today to learn the
answer, so kudos to Craig “stumping the chump” and sparking the Torah
email this week.

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Purim and the Challenge of Remembering

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Purim

Today is Purim, but for the first time in years, I’m not going to
write Purim Torah for the occasion. (Of course, some of you may regard
what follows as Purim Torah – that is, silliness- anyway, but it’s not
deliberate Purim Torah.)

I hope I will not offend any member of this Torah study community by
referring to the recent words of an American politician. Referring to
these words must not be construed as a partisan endorsement of his
candidacy, but are merely a response to some ideas put out into the
American discourse in the past week, ideas which I believe have some
resonance in and for the Jewish experience.

Today is Purim, and so last night and this morning we read the scroll
of the Book of Esther, containing a story which will be familiar to
many readers. Esther becomes queen of Persia, but does not reveal her
true identity as a Jew until forced to by external, existential
pressures. The wicked Haman is linked to Amalek, the nation at war
with Israel since the days of the Exodus- in fact, the Torah reading
for Purim is Exodus 17, recalling Israel’s war with Amalek. The
message seems clear: in the days of Moshe and in the days of Esther
and in every generation, an Amalek arises against the people Israel,
and so Jews can never let down their guard, must always suspect the
worst, can never be fully at home when enemies may be present in any
society in which we live.

I have known many Jews who have suffered real and undeniable
anti-Semitism, either in Europe or here in North America- and yet for
many Jews, myself included, it’s almost impossible to imagine not
feeling entirely at home in America. Generations who have suffered
bigotry may not understand those who come after them who haven’t, and
vice versa. Those who have known Amalek first-hand may have a very
different sense of what it means to be a Jew than those who – not
incorrectly- see the Jewish community in America as mostly prosperous,
powerful, and integrated into civic institutions.

To me, Senator Obama’s recent speech on race relations in America
resonated deeply with my own thoughts about the Jewish experience. If
you substitute “Jim Crow” for “Amalek” in the paragraph above, I think
you get at what he was trying to say about the disconnect between
those who have suffered greatly, and whose worldview has been greatly
shaped by that suffering, and others, perhaps in a different
generation, who believe that a society can, in fact, progress and change.

This is where I find the Book of Esther and the readings about Amalek
so challenging: of course I think we must remember our encounters with
Amalek, but I also think the Jewish community and Judaism itself are
sometimes overburdened by history, which wasn’t (isn’t) always so
tragic. As I said on Shabbat Zachor, the problem with remembering what
Amalek did to us is remembering that not every critic or political
opponent is Amalek- and far too often we resort to archetypes which
make ordinary conflicts seem like existential threats.

Every community struggles with its history, but history is rarely
simple. On Purim, we let loose and have fun, but we also struggle with
challenging texts- stories which demand a thoughtful response, stories
which challenge simple notions of “remember what they did to us.”
Amalek is real, but the world changes and evolves. Both are true, and
admitting the one is not denying the other. That’s what I heard said
in Philadelphia, and that’s what I remembered last night at our Purim
celebration.

Happy Purim, and Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Vayikra: Completing the Offering

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayikra

If I told you that this week’s Torah commentary was going to include
all the salty details, you might think the the topic was yet another
New York political scandal- but no, we’re merely referring to a detail
of how the religous offerings of our Biblical ancestors were placed
upon the altar of the Mishkan [portable Santuary]:

“You shall salt every one of your meal offering sacrifices with salt,
and you shall not omit the salt of your God’s covenant from [being
placed] upon your meal offerings. You shall offer salt on all your
sacrifices. ” (Vayikra/Leviticus 2:13)

What’s interesting about this text is that salt seems to be both a
positive commandment (you shall salt the meal offerings) and part of a
negative commandment (you shall NOT leave out the salt from the meal
offerings).

So at least for one kind of offering- the meal offering- salt was such
a crucial component that it was a transgression to offer the ritual
without it. Now, we don’t have a Mishkan upon which to make salted
offerings, but many commentators connect the custom of putting a
little salt on our Shabbat challah with the verse quoted above. The
Shabbat table is seen as taking the place of the ancient altar, and
salting our challah (sometimes a dip, sometimes a sprinkle, depending
on your custom) is understood to be a reminder of, if not the
equivalent of, the ancient sacrifices.

OK, so far, so good, but we’re still left with the question of why
salt is so important. The Torah itself doesn’t tell us, so the
commentators offer various theories. Two interpretations which speak
to me come from Sefer HaHinnuch ( a medieval textbook of the
commandments) and our friend Rashi. Sefer HaHinnuch points out that
food without salt is incomplete, unfinished, and we should offer only
complete, whole offerings to God- the best of what we have. For us, I
think this represents the idea that we should bring our whole selves,
our best selves, into our spiritual moments- if salt represents
completion, it can be for us a symbol of being whole, integrated, not
“compartmentalized” when we make a blessing or say a prayer or offer
thanks.

Rashi, on the other hand, connects the salt to a “covenant of salt”
dating back from Creation itself, when the Creator promised the seas
that they would be offered on the altar in the form of salt and the
fall water pouring ritual. I like this, too, because it brings an
ecological perspective to our Shabbat table- if the salt on the
challah is representative of the seas and the waters of the world, it
reminds us that we only have bread because of all the natural systems
which interact in incredibly complex ways to enable us to “bring forth
bread from the earth.”

So the next time you sprinkle a little salt on your challah, remember
this: you are standing in the Presence of God just as our ancestors
did, and linking yourself not only to Jewish history, but to all of
Creation. Salt may complete the meal, but it’s gratitude for our
blessings which nurtures wholeness in the spirit.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Pekudei: Marking our Shabbat

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Pekudei

“It came to pass in the first month, in the second year, on the first
day of the month, that the Mishkan was set up. Moshe set up the
Mishkan, placed its sockets, put up its planks, put in its bars, and
set up its pillars.. . . . . ” (Shmot/Exodus 40:17-18)

Hello again! This week we’re reading the final portion of
Shmot/Exodus, Pekudei, in which the Torah relates the building and
assembly of the Mishkan, or portable Sanctuary, as quoted above. Later
in Jewish history, the rabbis of the Talmudic period [up to about 600
C.E.] expounded many laws and teachings about even the most minute
aspect of the Mishkan and its successor, the Beit HaMikdash [Temple]
in Jerusalem. The rabbis taught that every board forming a wall or
boundary of the Mishkan had to be placed on the same side as it was
when the Mishkan was originally set up- that is, a board in a certain
spot had to be in the same place every time the Mishkan was
reassembled, in the same spot on the east or west side, for example.

OK, I can hear the fiber optic cables resonating with your puzzled
exclamation: “uh, so, what does the punctiliousness of Biblical-era
construction crews have to do with current Jewish practice?”

Glad you asked!

Some of you may remember that most of the laws of “resting” on
Shabbat, like not building, planting, sewing, cooking, etc., are
derived by the rabbis from the various sorts of labors that went into
building the Mishkan. The rabbis saw that the commandment for Shabbat
was given along with the instructions for building the Mishkan (cf.
Shmot/Exodus 31 and 35). They then reason that the “work” [melachah,
or creative, purposeful labor] which is being prohibited on Shabbat
must be conceptually related to all the positive instructions for
building the Mishkan which follow.

Thus, if you have to build structures or tie knots to make the
Mishkan, you should not do those things on Shabbat.

Getting back to our current Torah portion and the verse quoted at the
top of the page, the ancient rabbis taught that each board of the
Miskan- in order to be put in its proper, regular place- had a special
identifying mark on it. Thus, even though writing is not an obvious
part of building the Mishkan, writing or making identifiable marks is
still within the original categories of things we don’t do on Shabbat
because they were done for the Mishkan. (Cf. Mishnah Shabbat 12:3)

With me so far? OK, let’s take it one step further to clarify a common
misunderstanding. Many people who incorporate aspects of Shabbat into
their weekly practice refrain from buying and selling, which makes so
much sense in a world of 24 hour commerce and oppressive materialism.
Yet what’s interesting is that the traditional discipline of not
handling money on Shabbat is actually derived from the primary
principle of refraining from writing: the ancient rabbis were
concerned that if we handled money, we’d be tempted to buy or sell,
which would lead to writing a contract or receipt.

Not writing on Shabbat hardly seems like “work,” as we commonly
understand the term, but I remind you that the Hebrew word is
“melacha,” which does not mean “work” in the sense of bodily exertion,
but it means effecting power over the world, engaging in some
deliberate action to change something in the physical cosmos. To put
it another way, Shabbat is the day that we change our doing so that we
have a different context for being. We write to remember, we write to
make our thoughts permanent, we write to record a transaction- but on
Shabbat, there is an opportunity to experience the world as it is,
right in that moment. On Shabbat, we reencounter the world, finding it
very good, being present in it as best we can, without saving the
moment for later. That’s why we put the pencil- or computer- down, and
lift our eyes up to the Heavens, once a week, on the seventh day.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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