Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Dishing It Up / Shemini 2015-5775

Parshat Shemini is loaded with menu tips for your next dinner party: It famously includes the foundational laws of kashrut. The Rabbis enlarged upon them. The medievalists debated whether there was a purpose behind them. Now, in the 21st century, particularly when some see fit to expend enormous amounts of time and energy worrying about tiny and microscopic organisms (see here and here), but ignoring the imposing of pain and suffering on animals, the exploitation of human beings, and the despoliation of our planet in the pursuit of food to please the palate, it is time to ask: Are the standards of kashrut morally appropriate?

To arrive at a place where we can explore that question, we begin with Parshat Shemini, which stipulates which animals the Israelites may consume and which are forbidden. Mammals must both be ruminants[1] and have split hooves. (Torah even provides examples of species that have one attribute but not the other: the hare chews its cud but lacks split hooves; the pig has split hooves but is not a ruminantboth are forbidden.) Fish must have fins and scales. Birds go according the list in Leviticus 11:13-19. Winged insects that walk on four legs are impermissible with the exception of those with jointed legs that can leap or hop; hence locusts, crickets, and grasshoppers are permissible. Torah then provides a laundry list of forbidden species: moles, mice, lizards, crocodiles, chameleons. Even physical contact with these species imparts ritual impurity to a person, wooden utensil, and cloth or skin container. Any animal of any species that has died is also forbidden and its carcass imparts impurity.

In addition, the Rabbis developed laws of shechitah (slaughter), and expanded the prohibition against boiling a kid in its mothers milk (Exodus 23:19; 34:26; and Deuteronomy 14:21) to include cooking, eating, and deriving benefit from the combination (BT Chullin 113b and 115b), mandating a far greater separation of meat and dairy than we find in Torah.

In addition, people have long asked what the purpose of the laws of kashrut is. Traditional holds that the mitzvot concerning dietary restrictions in Parshat Shemini are chukkim, commandments promulgated without any reason we can discern, and we are meant to follow them. Nonetheless, in the eleventh century, Moses Maimonides asserted that the laws of kashrut promote health and hygiene.[2] (Rambam was a physician, so perhaps this should not surprise us.) Don Isaac Abravanel, living four centuries later, recognized the problem implicit in Rambams claim that there are cogent rational reasons behind the laws of kashrut: If they can be demonstrated not to serve the purposes people claim for them, then may we jettison them? Abravanel asserted that the laws of kashrut are about spiritual health, not physical health.[3]

Both views have value. With Abravanel, we can affirm that the dietary laws are a powerful agent of Jewish identity, causing us to stop and consider the Jewish way to carry out arguably the most basic aspects of living multiple times each day. The need to eat Jewishly, day in and day out, reinforces our sense of belonging to the Jewish community and our commitment to Jewish tradition on a continual basis.

With Rambam, we can affirm that there can, and ought to be, underlying reasons for at least some of the dietary rules. We can and should ask: Are the laws of kashrut sufficient to promote Jewish values we hold dear? The answer will make many people squirm with discomfort: probably not. If Im to be entirely honest: definitely not. Now, in the 21st century, with the advent of factory farming and its affect on animals, people, and the environment, it is time to move beyond Rambams concern for our physical health and incorporate our highest moral values into the package we call kashrut. From field to plate, our food entails a wide variety of activities that impact the lives of human beings, animals, and the environment and sadly often subvert justice, compassion, and the sustenance of our biosphere.

If we are to be Gods stewards of the earth, to protect and preserve life, and consider the pain and suffering of people and animalsall of which our tradition calls us to doit is no longer  possible to claim with integrity that the traditional standards of kashrut fulfill these sacred obligations. For example, the environmental impact of cattle is a triple-whammy: It requires inordinate amounts of grain and water to produce each ounce of protein; with so many undernourished people in the world, should we be devoting so much grain and water to livestock that feed the wealthiest? Second, cattle emit enormous amounts of greenhouse gases into the environment; shockingly, livestock emissions outstrip all the cars and trucks on the planet. Third, cattle severely damage the land they trample as they graze (70% of all agricultural land is devoted to rearing livestock). Third, factory farming is a cruel way to treat any living creature. Similarly, chickens have a miserable existence. The terms cage-free, grass fed, or free range may console us, but we need to know that they rarely translate to significantly more humane treatment nor mitigate the environmental concerns.[4] The Jewish ethical imperative of tzar baalei chaim (prohibiting inflicting suffering on a living creature) is routinely violated in the pursuit of kosher meat; the uncomfortable truth is that shekhitah (kosher slaughter) as it is practiced does not reach that ethical standard.[5] (And I havent yet mentioned genetically modified organisms (GMOs), whose long-term effects on human health are entirely unknown, yet they are increasingly pervasive in our food supply.)

There is morefar morethat needs our attention. Justice and safety for workers should be of paramount importance. When the ethical violations at Agriprocessors in Postville, Iowa that came to light in 2008, including substandard wages, inadequate safety measures, horrific accidents, routine short-changing of pay, bribe-taking by shift supervisors and more,[6] as well as egregious abuse perpetrated on animals, it became clear that the letter of the law in kashrut was sorely insufficient. Consider also the predicament of the Immokalee tomato pickers.[7] Ninety percent of the nations tomatoes are grown in Immokalee, Florida. They are harvested by immigrants and migrant workers who live in destitute poverty and are debt slaves. Senator Bernie Saunders proclaimed in a U.S. Senate hearing: “”In America today we are seeing a race to the bottom, the middle class is collapsing, poverty is increasing. What I saw in Immokalee is the bottom in the race to the bottom.[8] I have heard horrifying descriptions from two colleagues who visited Immokalee. Consider this description:

If you are very unlucky you could be one of those workers held in debt slavery in a farm camp run by contractors known as crew leaders. It starts off by having to pay a transportation fee for the ride to Florida. Workers are told they can work off their debt over time but cannot leave until their debt is paid off. Workers are then over charged for food, rent, alcohol and cigarettes. In many cases workers have been held against their will under the supervision of armed guards. Workers have been pistol whipped, raped and threatened with death if they try to leave the camp. Many camps are surround by fences topped by barbed wire. Over a thousand men and women have been freed from slave camps in the last fifteen years in Florida.[9]

TheMagen Tzedek Commission of the Conservative Movement came into being to make the standards of justice and decency cherished by our tradition normative kashrut requirements. The Commission describes their commendable and increasingly necessary work this way:

The Magen Tzedek Commission has developed a food certification program that combines the rabbinic tradition of Torah with Jewish values of social justice, assuring consumers and retailers that kosher food products have been produced in keeping with exemplary Jewish ethics in the area of labor concerns, animal welfare, environmental impact, consumer issues and corporate integrity.

The cornerstone of the program is the Magen Tzedek Standard, a proprietary set of standards that meet or exceed industry best practices for treatment of workers, animals, and the Earth; and delineates the criteria a food manufacturer must meet to achieve certification. Upon successful certification, the Magen Tzedek Commission will award its Shield of Justice seal which can be displayed on food packaging.[10]

It is time for tzedek (justice) to become a central concern of kashrut certification. We need to put a stop to disasters like Agriprocessors and Immokalee.

Anna Lappe, in Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork and What You Can Do about It, explains in detail and depth the food life-cycle and its connection to global climate change, which interpenetrates every sector of our economy. Lapp offers us a useful set of goals and guidelines that comport with Jewish ethical values, delineated as seven principles of a climate friendly diet. They are non-technical, easy to comprehend, and straightforward to apply:
1.         Reach for real food [avoid processed foods]
2.         Put plants on your plate [eat more vegetables; less meat and dairy]
3.         Dont panic, go organic [organic and sustainable agriculture]
4.         Lean toward local [reduce transportation-related emissions and lower pesticide and herbicide usage]
5.         Finish your peasthe ice caps are melting [reduce waste, and compost]
6.         Send packaging packing [avoid products with extensive packaging of styrofoam, plastic, cardboard; bring your own bags to the supermarket, and stop buying bottled water!]
7.         Get ourselves back to the kitchen [avoid unhealthful fast foods and processed foods; prepare real food]

We need kashrut now more than ever to remind us that there is a chain of events that brings food to our plates, and it sometimes entails injustice, abuse, suffering, and the degradation of the environment that will continue especially if we shut our eyes. We need to broaden our understanding of kashrut to include a range of Jewish moral concerns for animals, workers, human health, and the environment. Parshat Shemini provides the framework: It teaches us to think before we pick up a fork, and to consider what we should be eating and whether our actions are in concert with our understanding of Gods will.

New menu tips from a more expansive view of what makes food kosher:
    No animals were abused or suffered.
    No people were abused, enslaved, or denied justice and decent, safe working conditions.
    The needs of the global environment (which sustains us all) were given priority.
    The food is healthful and nutritious, not just delicious.

Recipes to follow.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

[1] Ruminants consume vegetable matter; they have four-chambered stomachs and chew their cud in order to digest their food entirely and extract maximum nutrition from it. This means that cattle, goats, sheep, deer, antelope, and at least hypothetically giraffes are kosher.
[2] Rambam wrote: “I maintain that food forbidden by the Torah is unwholesome. There is nothing among the forbidden foods whose injurious character is doubted except pork and fat. Yet, also in these cases, doubt is unjustified; for pork contains more moisture than necessary for human food, and too much of superfluous matter. The principle reason why the Torah forbids swine flesh is to be found in the circumstances that its habits and its foods are very dirty and loathsome…the fat of the intestines makes us full, interrupts our digestion, and produces cold and thick blood…it is more fit for fuel than for food.” (Moreh Nevuchim III:48)
[3] Commenting on this week’s parashah, Abravanel wrote: “God forbid that I should believe that the reason for forbidden foods is medicinal! For were that so, then the books of Gods Laws would be in the same class as any of the minor and brief medical books…Furthermore, our own eyes see that the people who eat pork and insects and such…are alive and healthy to this very day…moreover the more dangerous animals… are not even mentioned at all in the list of prohibited ones. And there are many poisonous herbs known to physicians which the Torah does not mention at all. All of which points to the conclusion that the Torah of God did not come to heal bodies and seek their material welfare, but to seek the health of the soul, the cure of its illness.”

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Passover Then and Now / 2015-5775

The seder plates and cups for Elijah and Miriam have been set aside, but Passover continues for a few more days. Soon, we will pack them away with the plates, pots, and utensils for another year. Hopefully, we will not also pack away out of sight the holidays message of justice, freedom, and redemption. Hopefully, the holidays clarion call for justice, freedom, and redemption will be heard until the Pesach dishes and cooking utensils come out of storage next year. We desperately need to keep Pesach in the forefront of our minds 24/7, year-round. Egypt was not only then; Egypt is now. Egypt is not only there; it is here, as well.

On the eve of Passover, Anthony Ray Hinton walked out of an Alabama jail he never should have entered. Wrongly accused and convicted of murder, Hinton spent three decades on death row,
locked in a 5 by 8 cell. He was innocent. Can you imagine what his experience must have been? As The Atlantic summarized this egregious miscarriage of justice:

The evidence used to convict Hinton, who was found guilty of killing two restaurant workers in separate incidents in 1985, was flimsy in the extreme. No eyewitness placed Hinson at the scene of the crime, and police found no evidence of his fingerprints. Instead, prosecutors linked a set of bullets recovered at the crime scene to a gun found at Hinton's mother's houseeven though they never proved that the gun fired those bullets. Hinton's defense was little help. An "expert witness," hired for his low price, had one eye and could not see through a forensic microscope. Nevertheless, a jury sentenced Hinton to death. Only the work of the Equal Justice Institute, a non-profit organization which works to exonerate falsely convicted criminals, led to his eventual exoneration.[1]

Hinton has been blunt about the reason that American justice failed him: he was poor and black.

His is far from a singular case. Glen Ford also spent nearly 30 years in a Louisiana prison, convicted of murder and sentenced to death. He, too, was innocent. Ford was released March 11, 2014. The lead prosecutor who sent Ford to death row, A. M. Marty Stroud III, to his credit, has written a letter of apology in which he disavows capital punishment. Even more importantly, Stroud provides a glimpse inside the system that has been the enslaving Egypt to so many innocent people: "I was arrogant, judgmental, narcissistic and very full of myself. I was not as interested in justice as I was in winning." (Can you imagine those words emerging from Pharaohs mouth?) While Stroud spoke for himself alone, his words apply to far too many in law enforcement and a frightening number of prosecutors who, like Stroud, were more than willing to used trumped up charges, conceal exculpatory evidence from defense attorneys, and pack juries with people likely to convict on insubstantial or even falsified evidence, or no evidence at all (consider, for example, the case of Adnan Syed, whose story was featured this year in the podcast Serial[2]). On March 10 of this year, Angel Gonzalez was released from an Illinois prison after serving 20 years for an abduction and rape he did not commit. Flimsy evidence and a signed confession in a language he did not speak or read at the time bespeak the deep flaws in our justice system.

The Innocence Project[3] obtained Gonzalezs release, as well as Fords. The Equal Justice Initiative[4] secured the release of Anthony Ray Hinton.

Amnesty International reports that since 1973, 151 have been released from death row after wrongful convictions.[5] The factors leading to these convictions will not surprise you:

            Inadequate legal representation
            Police and prosecutorial misconduct
            Perjured testimony and mistaken eyewitness testimony
            Racial prejudice
            Jailhouse "snitch" testimony
            Suppression and/or misinterpretation of mitigating evidence
            Community/political pressure to solve a case

A team of legal experts and statisticians from the University of Michigan, Michigan State, and the University of Pennsylvania estimate that, conservatively, 4.1% of all those sentenced to death in this country are innocent, and 200 innocent people currently in the system are likely to go unrecognized. They write:

In the past few decades a surge of hundreds of exonerations of innocent criminal defendants has drawn attention to the problem of erroneous conviction, and led to a spate of reforms in criminal investigation and adjudication. All the same, the most basic empirical question about false convictions remains unanswered: How common are these miscarriages of justice?[6]

The 4.1% figure applies only to those sentenced to death row. The number is probably higher among those sentenced to life in prison:

This is only part of a disturbing picture. Fewer than half of all defendants who are convicted of capital murder are ever sentenced to death in the first place (e.g., 49.1% in Missouri as in ref. 24, 29% in Philadelphia as in ref. 25, and 31% in New Jersey as in ref. 26). Sentencing juries, like other participants in the process, worry about the execution of innocent defendants. Interviews with jurors who participated in capital sentencing proceedings indicate that lingering doubts about the defendants guilt is the strongest available predictor of a sentence of life imprisonment rather than death (27). It follows that the rate of innocence must be higher for convicted capital defendants who are not sentenced to death than for those who are. The net result is that the great majority of innocent defendants who are convicted of capital murder in the United States are neither executed nor exonerated. They are sentenced, or resentenced to prison for life, and then forgotten.[7]

We can, and must, do better. Justice, freedom, and redemption must not be legendary values from a mythical religious story. We are obligated to make real the story of the Exodus in every generation. In the haggadah itself we read:

מַעֲשֶׂה בְּרַבִּי אֱלִיעֶזֶר וְרַבִּי יְהוֹשֻעַ וְרַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן עֲזַרְיָה וְרַבְּי עֲקִיבָא וְרַבִּי טַרְפוֹן שֶהָיוּ מְסֻבִּין בִּבְנֵי בְרַק, וְהָיוּ מְסַפְּרִים בִּיצִיאַת מִצְרַיִם כָּל אוֹתוֹ הַלַּיְלָה עַד שֶׁבָּאוּ תַלְמִידֵיהֶם וְאָמְרוּ לָהֶם: רַבּוֹתֵינוּ, הִגִּיעַ זְמַן קְרִיאַת שְׁמַע שֶׁל שַׁחֲרִית
It happened that R. Eliezer, R. Yehoshua, R. Elazar b. Azariah, R. Akiba, and R. Tarfon were reclining at a seder in Bnai Brak. They were retelling the story of the exodus from Egypt the entire night, until their students came and told them: Our Masters, the time has come for reciting the morning Shema!

Why does the haggadah recount this story of the all-night seder? It has been suggested that R. Akiba and his colleagues were planning the revolt against Rome (which was, ultimately, led by Shimon bar Kochba). Perhaps. Perhaps not. But consider it this way: If the Sages mentioned in the story were planning a revolt against Rome, it is because they heard in the story of the Exodus their own story, and found in it meaning and values that spoke to their own situation. If they were not, specifically, planning the Bar Kochba Revolt, they were nonetheless focused on the story and its meaning for their lives, in their generation.

We have another account of an all-night seder in the Tosefta to Pesachim 10:12:

מעשה ברבן גמליאל וזקנים שהיו מסובין בבית ביתוס בן זונין בלוד והיו עסוקין בהלכות הפסח כל    
הלילה עד קרות הגבר הגביהו מלפניהן ונועדו והלכו להן לבית המדרש 

It once happened that Rabban Gamliel and the elders were reclining at a seder in the home of Beithus b. Zunin in Lod, and they were engaged in the laws of the pesach that entire night, until the rooster crowed. At that time, the tables were removed from before them, and they arose to attend the synagogue.

The only Sage mentioned is Rabban Gamliel, who led the Jewish community at the time of the Destruction of the Second Temple. For Rabban Gamliel, the focus of Passover is the laws of the paschal sacrifice. His goal is to keep the memory of the rituals of the Second Temple alive in the minds and hearts of the Jewish people in the hope that a third Temple would be built. (Since Rabban Gamliels all-night seder, an entire world of halakhah has grown around the rituals of Passover.  In our day, his concern is generally understood to relate to the many and complex laws of keeping Pesach in our own time.) Where R. Akiba and his colleagues focused on the story, Rabban Gamliel focused on the ritual laws.

There is a possibility of becoming entangled in the minutiae of the laws of Passover to such an extent that one doesnt have sufficient time and energy to focus on the meaning of the holiday.
Many times, people have commented to me that it took so long to prepare their homes for Passover that they had no time or energy left to plan interesting and challenging topics of conversation and debate for the seder itself. There is a danger that the meaning of the holiday becomes the observance of the myriad laws that have evolved over the centuries, crowding out the meaning of the story of the Exodus and the values it teaches. Yet without observing Passover, without changing what we do and how we do things, without investing in the rituals, we will likely not truly invest in the meaning of the story either, nor think deeply enough to see how it relates to our world today. Observance reinforces and supports meaning, but without meaning, the holiday is a hollow shell of rituals.

Recently someone asked me what there is left to talk about at the seder table since we live in a time of freedom and opportunity, in a democratic nation. If Passover teaches us anything, it is to look beyond our table thats another meaning of opening the door at the beginning to those who are hungry, and again later to welcome Elijah to see who has not yet left Egypt.

Before Passover concludes, please learn more about The Innocence Project ( and the Equal Justice Initiative ( and consider making a contribution to further their work to bring justice, freedom, and redemption to those who, although innocent, have been sent to death row in our names.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman