Parashat Shemini

Considering Our Food Choices

This portion challenges us to express our most intimate and deeply-held values with every mouthful.

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I currently serve as a chaplain in a locked ward in a psychiatric hospital. A patient of mine named "John" was recently discharged from the unit. As he was leaving, he told me that the time he had spent there was the first time in his life that he had felt truly free. I was dumbfounded when he said this, as John had been hospitalized on an involuntary, court-ordered, 14-day hold and had arrived kicking and screaming.

american jewish world serviceHe explained to me, however, that he had come to see that despite the locks on the doors and windows, his time on the unit was the first time in his life he had ever been in a truly safe place. "The locked doors do not just keep patients in," John told me. "They also keep violence out."

Not All Limits Are Limiting

The sense of freedom that John experienced during his stay was not just about physical containment, but was also due to some of the limits placed on his time. The unit runs a full schedule of individual and group therapy. John had never experienced being listened to so intensely. The opportunity to be listened to compassionately by staff and peers made John feel free to express himself and begin to see his own worth and dignity. The rigid schedule actually liberated him and allowed room for healing.

John taught me that not all limits are limiting. Boundaries can also allow for safe space, sanctuary where healing can happen and human dignity can flourish. This is a message that is deeply embedded in Torah. In the Book of Leviticus, we are taught to build sacred boundaries in space through the Mishkan (tabernacle). We are instructed to establish boundaries in time through the observance of Shabbat. And, in this week's parashah, we learn biblical dietary laws that set boundaries around what we eat.

Food & Values

In Parashat Shemini, we are taught to avoid eating many animals, including crawling insects, shrimp, hares, swine, bustards, storks, herons of every variety, hoopoes, and bats. We are told that sea creatures must have fins and scales, land animals must chew their cud and have true hoofs. No explanation for these apparently random biblical dietary laws is given.

Throughout Jewish history, our sages have puzzled over this mysterious parashah looking for underlying principles. Maimonides, the 12th century philosopher and physician, suggests that this mystifying list of forbidden foods is based on principles of nutrition and reflects an awareness of the importance of the health and vigor of the human body as a sacred vessel.

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Rabbi Elliot R. Kukla

Rabbi Elliot Kukla is a rabbi at the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center in San Francisco.