Shemini: American Jews live

By Rabbi Ellezer Finkelman


Leviticus 9:1-11:47

II Samuel 6:1-7:17

We American Jews have become very comfortable with our status as Americans. We practice American folkways so naturally that we think of them as self-explanatory. We take them for granted.

Take American food taboos. Some foods, for example, are considered breakfast foods. We eat them in the morning, usually not in the afternoon, certainly not in the evening, and we absolutely never serve them to company for an evening meal. Home alone, especially when we feel sick, we can treat ourselves to breakfast food at night. Why? It seems eccentric, as an American, to even ask this question.

A few half-baked answers come to mind.

Maybe easy recipes do not belong on a formal dinner menu. A guest has the right to expect the host to fuss over them, whereas cold breakfast cereal comes out of the box too easily. But even if the host cooked old-fashioned oatmeal, stirring carefully for a half-hour, oatmeal does not do as the first course of dinner. Likewise pancakes from scratch, with maple syrup and butter; not easy to prepare, delicious, but still inappropriate for the evening's guests.

Maybe, to qualify for breakfast, a food should consist mainly of carbohydrates, light and easily digested, and not too spicy, either. After all, people have a busy day ahead of them.

In the evening, before bedtime, then people can expect protein, and heavy foods, and spices. This sounds plausible, although some breakfast food seems nutritionally identical to other foods, emphatically not for breakfast. Buttered toast amounts to a good way for an American to start the day; but not spaghetti with an olive oil sauce, or baked potato with sour cream. Puffed rice makes sense in an American breakfast, not cooked rice. Besides, I do not know of any experiments to back up cultural assumptions about what sorts of food one needs at different times of day.

No, the answer must lie with the meaning of breakfast foods in American culture, an artifact only partially susceptible to explanation. Once you accept the context of American culture, some foods define breakfast.

I suspect my inquiry into breakfast foods must seem whimsical. Why then, does it seems reasonable to ask the parallel question of our Jewish food taboos, "What is the purpose of kashrut?"

In this week's Torah reading, we find rules for determining which animals to eat, and which fish to eat, and a long list of birds not to eat, and rules for determining which locusts to eat and which insects not to eat (Leviticus 11:1-23). As American Jews, we can talk about why the list exists and whether we ought to observe it, without having any parallel doubts about whether to serve breakfast cereal at an evening meal. We behave as strictly Orthodox Americans when it comes to food taboos. Perhaps we have become insecure with our status as Jews, while we remain placidly complacent about our status as Americans.

When we do talk about the institution of kashrut, whether to observe or to dismiss, our simple answers seem as half-baked as explanations for breakfast food. Maybe kashrut serves as health measures; probably not. Maybe kashrut keeps Jews separate from other peoples, for better or worse; but then, any other set of food taboos would keep us separate.

Why kashrut laws? Perhaps these compromise with the Torah's ideal of vegetarianism, by limiting our consumption of animal foods but not of plant. Perhaps no answer fits because kashrut expresses Jewish culture as surely as breakfast cereal expresses American culture.

Or maybe I have been unfair to us. The Torah itself invites the question, by providing a reason for kashrut.

The Torah insists that kashrut serves a function, ending its list of rules with this demand: "You shall sanctify yourselves, and you shall be holy" (Lev. 11:44). In some mysterious way, refraining from eating certain foods becomes part of the Torah's regimen to produce holiness. We, American Jews, so glib about kashrut, so obedient to American ways, need to try to keep holiness on our menu.