Why would God care what we eat?
Re-eh, Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17
When I was young, you were supposed to eat what was put in front of you. Now, everyone has special food requirements for reasons of health, politics, religion or an over-refined palate. Is this a step forward for civilization or a step back?
If people are violently allergic to eggs or peanuts, they have a right to know what they’re being served. For the rest of us, it comes down to a philosophical question of what’s more important: the bonding experience of sharing a meal or the personal integrity of eating by your principles.
It’s a tough decision.
This week’s Torah portion, from Deuteronomy, provides an overview of the dietary laws. The text conflates the matza and meat/dairy rules from Exodus with the forbidden species list from Leviticus into a comprehensive program. But, you may have wondered, what’s spiritual about not eating pork? Many people, even many Jews, are baffled by Judaism, and the dietary code is usually exhibit A in their case against tradition. Why would God care what we eat?
For an answer, look what else is in this Torah portion:
• “Every third year you shall bring out the full tithe … the stranger, the orphan, and the widow in your settlements shall come and eat their fill.” (Deuteronomy 14:28-29)
• “Open your hand to your poor and needy neighbor in your land.” (Deuteronomy 15:11)
• “When you release servants, do not let them go empty-handed. Furnish them out of the flock, threshing floor and vat.” (Deuteronomy 15:13-14)
It is no accident that the parsha summing up the dietary laws is precisely the one that emphasizes feeding the poor.
The “bread of poverty,” a familiar phrase from the Passover seder, also comes from this week’s reading. (Deuteronomy 16:3) The expression implies that the purpose of unleavened bread is to develop our compassion for the needy. The haggada spells it out: we hold up the matza and declare, “Let all the hungry come and eat.”
It’s the same on Yom Kippur. While fasting, we read the haftara where the people complain, “Why have we fasted and you have not seen?” (Isaiah 58:3) And God responds that fasting is futile unless you “share your bread with the hungry.” (Isaiah 58:7) The Yom Kippur fast is about compassion for the needy.
If there’s a unifying idea for the Jewish dietary rules, this is it. No other theme could possibly tie together such an unlikely grab bag of slaughtering, cooking, and eating constraints. In biblical times, pork and other forbidden items were probably expensive delicacies for the rich to feast on while the poor went hungry. In our era, there might be different foods that suggest callousness to the down-and-out.
But let’s keep it simple. Meat is almost inevitably more expensive — in financial, environmental and social terms — than vegetables. Adam and Eve were vegetarians. (Genesis 1:29) Daniel and his Hebrew companions at the Babylonian court were vegetarians. (Daniel 1:8-16) And many famous modern Jews have been vegetarians, from Franz Kafka to Isaac Bashevis Singer.
Vegetarian is not the same as kosher, but 90 percent of kosher consists of taboos on animal flesh. A person who ate no animal flesh, or only fish, would automatically avoid the more egregious violations of the dietary law. Throw in some support for your local soup kitchen or food pantry, and you’ve got a credible plan for sanctifying your meals.
So there’s my compromise. I hate to burden my host or my waiter, but vegetarian isn’t complicated. At a cousin’s recent birthday barbecue, I bravely endured vegetarian kielbasa: not bad, with enough mustard. And I’m signed up to drive Meals on Wheels a couple of times before the High Holy Days. This may not work for everyone, but no Jew can avoid reflecting on our food choices. For better or for worse, we have a food-oriented religion. What you make of that is up to you.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)