When you go on vacation, be careful: Reading just one single book on your reading list can change everything.
This happened to me in 2007 when I found myself gobbling up “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan.
He includes one quote that sums up the whole book, from the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss: Food must be “not only good to eat, but also good to think.”
Shockingly (I know you can’t believe it), Lévi-Strauss was Jewish. A specialist in structural anthropology, he said that people think about the world in terms of binary opposites: high and low, inside and outside, person and animal, life and death. According to him, we understand every culture in terms of these opposites, and if you live a life without contemplating the meaning of what you are doing, then your life is not worth living. Meaning is constructed by what we do, so it was only natural for him to declare that food must be “not only good to eat, but also good to think.”
I am struck by how Lévi-Strauss’ ideology aligns with what Judaism does so beautifully in so many spheres: creating blessings for us to say, the halachah, or life path, of keeping kosher. Shemini outlines what we can eat and what we shouldn’t eat. It highlights this binary type of thinking: Stick with these categories and eat within the permitted ones.
How our meat gets to our table is inextricably linked to the Earth. How these animals are raised affects how we farm, what we farm, our air, our soil. It even affects how antibiotics taken for illness function in our own bodies.
In addition to consuming foods within these permitted categories, we must also concern ourselves with how they get to our tables in the least harmful way. Pollan tells us that there is a lost connection between what we eat and where it comes from. We live in a world where bigger is better, and where growing food has now become processing food. The Earth offers us a natural connection between what we eat, where it came from and how it grew. We can and should reclaim that connection.
He brilliantly states, “A community’s food preferences — the strikingly short list of foods and preparations it regards as good to eat and think — represent one of the strongest social glues we have … [that] is why the immigrant’s refrigerator is the very last place to look for signs of assimilation.” There really couldn’t be a better quote that summarizes the power of this parashah and answers the question, “Why keep kosher?”
I am most decidedly not vegetarian. I adopted kashrut as an adult and had been keeping kosher for almost 18 years before discovering Pollan’s book. But reading it was discomforting and awakening. I had spent so much time saying blessings before I ate meat, but what was my spiritual experience in living out how it got to my table?
He made me look beyond the kosher marking on my meat and ask questions like: Where did this come from? How was it raised? Were the people who made it possible for this food to arrive at my table fairly compensated for their labor?
When I first read the book, I was living in L.A. and began to explore the options for finding organic, grass-fed kosher meat. Almost nine years ago, I was surprised to find out how few options there were. So I became a customer of Kol Foods and have been ever since. Twice a year, once before Rosh Hashanah and once before Passover, our poultry and meat shipment arrives, and that is pretty much it until the next shipment arrives six months later.
This means that I eat a lot less meat than I did before I began to eat only kosher and organic. Yes, it is expensive, but I am so much more aware each time I eat (beef especially) what a privilege it is to have meat at all, and how great it tastes to me.
This is the lesson of Shemini: to take kashrut and elevate it by linking it even more closely to the values of the Earth. Yes, food must be “not only good to eat, but good to think.”