Parshat Shemini, Leviticus 9:1-11:47
Parshat Shemini begins with the rites for inaugurating the priesthood and Aaron as the first high priest, certainly a seminal moment in the religious life of the Jewish people. Immediately following this solemn occasion, Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, offer “strange fire” at the altar and are immolated by God for their transgression.
The traditional commentaries wrestle with the apparent severity of the punishment relative to the perceived level of offense by two inexperienced priests. Leviticus Rabbah offers the explanation that Nadav and Avihu were drunk, because immediately after their deaths God speaks directly to Aaron, instructing him and his sons not to drink any intoxicant before entering the Tent of Meeting. The emphasis here is not on the seemingly minor offense of the offering, but on Nadav and Avihu having not conducted themselves appropriately to the office entrusted to them.
The emphasis placed on this juxtaposition can also shed light on the final section of the parshah, which elaborates the types of permitted and forbidden animals. Just as there is a crucial importance placed on the proper conduct of the priests as religious leaders of the people, so too the dietary laws are given crucial significance in the religious life of the people.
Putting aside the extensive halachic development of these topics throughout Jewish history, the essential element in the Jewish approach to diet and eating is to inculcate a sense of awareness of what we eat and God’s role in providing that sustenance. Hence, the laws and customs not only around what we may put on our plates, but also on reciting appropriate blessings before and after eating.
In modern times, many Jews have drawn on this ethic of awareness to link the traditional practices of kashrut with other principles such as environmentalism and working conditions for laborers in the food industry. While some traditionalists view this linkage as “strange fire” that is incompatible with the laws as set out in the Talmud, Shulchan Aruch and other halachic sources, this opinion is limiting. Rather, we should see “eco-kashrut” as a way both to extend the reach of the traditional awareness of what we eat and to bring this awareness to other aspects of Jewish thought, such as our role as caretakers of God’s earth and of treating our laborers fairly.
Many Jews are not comfortable with the traditional approach to kashrut for a variety of reasons. These contemporary innovations can provide an entryway to engagement that ultimately will enrich the Jewish people.
This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.