Thursday, March 31, 2016

More Than Just a Nosh / Shemini 2016-5776

Is there any group of people—nation, ethnicity, religion, or social grouping—without a significant focus on food? Food is about far more than nutrition and sustenance. It is a means by which we establish and cement relationships. It is a means by which we express concern, care, and love. It is even—at least for many Jews—a signifier of identity. Keeping kosher, however one chooses to observe the traditions of kashrut, marks one as a Jew in one’s own mind and in the minds of others. 

The core laws of kashrut are found in this week’s parashah, Shemini. Leviticus chapter 11 details the criteria for determining which animals are permissible for eating according to the categories we learned in the creation story of Genesis chapter 1: animals that live on the land, in the oceans, and that fly through the skies. Since Torah holds these to be the proper and normal domains for life, outliers such as amphibians are banned. Permissible land animals must have cloven hoofs and chew the cud, which explains why pork is out.[1] Fish must have fins and scale, which explains why shellfish is forbidden.[2] Torah lists permissible and impermissible fowl; generally, domesticated birds are permitted and birds of prey are not allowed.[3] Winged insects that walk on fours are out with the exception of a certain kind of jointed leg that includes locusts, crickets, and grasshoppers—aren’t you glad to know they’re permitted?[4] From Torah’s perspective, God restricts our diet as a condition of the Covenant. No explanation is provided, no justification is offered. These are the rules.

The separation of milk and meat—a major component of kashrut today—is not actually found in the Torah; it is a rabbinic enactment against cooking, eating or deriving benefit from a mixture of milk and meat that the Rabbis derived from Torah’s prohibition against “boiling a kid in its mother’s milk.”[5]

When we think about Jews and food, far more than the traditions of kashrut jump to mind. Visions of lox and bagels, knishes, blintzes, kugel, knaidlach, borsht, latkes, cholent, tzimmes, charoset, shakshuka, felafel, sour dill pickles, burekas, rugelach, hamantaschen, and apple cake dance in our heads. Family gatherings, festive holy day meals, your grandmother’s speciality…our connection with food is deep and visceral. Is there a family that doesn’t argue about whether latkes are better with sour cream or applesauce? With Pesach around the corner, the annual debate will resume: Should knaidlach (matzah balls) sink or float? Should matzah brei be cooked into a solid frittata, or as separate pieces? (Correct answers: sour cream, float, separate pieces.)

Food, or more specifically how it is prepared and served, is also integral to our evolution as a species. Long before there were Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, or Muslims, and long before there was Italian, Chinese, Indian, Ethiopian, Thai, and Mexican cuisine, our primate ancestors spent much of their time foraging, gathering, and eating food, and when they weren’t doing that they were probably thinking about food.

Neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel, in her 2009 article in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience and in her 2013 TED Talk, explains that while brain size is not always correlated to body mass and doesn’t necessarily predict cognitive ability, the number of neurons packed into the brain does determine cognitive capacity. (For example: Chimps and cows have comparably sized brains, but chimps outstrip cows cognitively. Elephant brains weigh three times that of human brains, and whale brains six times as much as humans’, yet human brains are capable of far more cognition. Gorillas are twice or thrice our size but their brains are one-third the size of ours.) Why are people so different from other species all living, growing, and evolving on the same planet? One difference is that our brains evolved to have 86 billion neurons, far outstripping all other species. Moreover, the additional neurons don’t increase the overall size of the brain and, therefore, the weight. What is truly remarkable about the human brain is the energy it takes to function: 25% of the energy (calories) we consume is required to keep all 86 billion neurons running. Neurons are energy-expensive. This raises a question.

How did our brains evolve—and so rapidly—to the point that they sport 86 billion neurons and even more significantly a prodigious cerebral cortex that out-sizes all other primates? (The cerebral cortex is responsible for logical and abstract reasoning, pattern recognition, the development of technology, and the capacity to pass along knowledge through culture.) Given the diet of early humans, in order to support a modern brain they would have had to have spent nine hours each day foraging, gathering, and eating to sustain each brain. How much more time would have been required to support those, like children, the sick and injured, and the elderly, who could not assist in locating and gathering food? The game changer was finding a way to get more calories out of food consumed. Herculano-Houzel explains that 1.5 million years ago our ancestors, who had been eating a raw diet like other primates, discovered how to cook food over fire. Cooking food made more calories available and absorbable, dramatically decreasing the number of hours each day the owner of the brain must devote to foraging, gathering, and eating. Cooking permitted humans to evolve brains with greatly increased numbers of neurons—much of the increase packed into the cerebral cortex— whose energy requirements could be met with cooked food. The time saved could be devoted to thinking, technology, culture, and formulating ways to pass along knowledge to future generations. All because of food preparation.

Whether we think of kashrut as a mitzvah ordained by God, or as a facet of Jewish practice that developed over time for a variety of cultural reasons, or as a way to identify oneself as a Jew and bind oneself to a community and its shared history—or all three—the premium we place on what we eat, how we prepare and serve it, and the fact that we say a blessing of thanksgiving before eating is fully in keeping with human evolutionary history and what makes the human species unique in the history of earth’s primates. At one and the same time, we are part of the flow of the river of human evolution and history and also a distinctive branch in the river.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

[1] Leviticus 11:1-8.
[2] Leviticus 11:9-12.
[3] Leviticus 11:13-19.
[4] Leviticus 11:20-23.
[5] The prohibition against boiling a kid in its mother’s milk is found three times in the Torah: Exodus 23:19 and 34:26; and Deuteronomy 14:21. The Talmud discusses the separation of milk and meat in BT Hulling 113b and 115b, but does not explain the reason for the prohibition. Much later, Moses Maimonides (1135, Spain – 1204, Egypt) suggested that the biblical law is related to Torah’s widespread concern about idolatry. Ovadia b. Yaakov Sforno (1475–1550, Italy) held that the prohibition of boiling a kid in its mother’s milk referred to ancient Canaanite fertility rites intended to encourage the gods to increase their flocks and herds. A document discovered in Ugarit provides yet another perspective: it describes a ritual in which a kid is cooked in its mother’s milk and then spread on the fields to increase agricultural yields. Some have interpreted the biblical prohibition on ethical grounds, saying that the practice is barbaric and inhumane.

Monday, March 21, 2016

"Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes" / Parshat Tzav 2016-5776

It is challenging to translate the accounts in Leviticus into terms that are meaningful for modern people. Certainly the notion of seeking forgiveness for both misdeeds both intentional and inadvertent is germane to our lives day in and day out, but Leviticus also involves a lot of slaughtering animals, dashing blood against the altar, eating sacrifices, burning sacrifices, ritual purity, and animal body parts (thighs, kidneys, entrails, liver, fat), not to mention cakes of oil, wafers… So let’s compound the challenge of connecting to Leviticus by considering two rituals that both seem a world away: the ordination of the priests and the purification of the metzora[1].

Parshat Tzav's description of the ordination of the kohanim (the priests) involves a peculiar ritual: Moses dips his fingers in the ram’s blood and applies it to Aaron’s body in a manner reminiscent of the childhood game “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes.”

ויקרב את-האיל השני, איל המלאים; ויסמכו אהרן ובניו, את-ידיהם--על-ראש האיל. וישחט--ויקח משה מדמו, ויתן על-תנוך אזן-אהרן הימנית; ועל-בהן ידו הימנית, ועל-בהן רגלו הימנית.  ויקרב את-בני אהרן, ויתן משה מן-הדם על-תנוך אזנם הימנית, ועל-בהן ידם הימנית, ועל-בהן רגלם הימנית; ויזרק משה את-הדם על-המזבח, סביב.

[Moses] brought forward the second ram, the ram of ordination. Aaron and his sons laid their hands upon the ram’s head, and it was slaughtered. Moses took some of its blood and put it on the ridge of Aaron’s right ear, and on the thumb of his right hand, and on the big toe of his right food. Moses then brought forward the sons of Aaron, and put some of the blood on the ridges of their right ears, and on the thumbs of their right hands, and on the big toes of their right feet; and the rest of the blood Moses dashed against every side of the altar. (Leviticus 8:22–24)

Etz Hayim notes: “Dabbing sacrificial blood on certain extremities of the body is essentially a rite of purification. In this manner Aaron and his sons were purified as they entered into their new status.”[2] Yet already in the first century B.C.E., Philo interpreted the ritual as symbolic, not functional: “In this figure, he indicated that the fully consecrated must be pure in words and actions and in his whole life; for words are judged by hearing, the hand is the symbol of action, and the foot [is the symbol] of the pilgrimage of life.”[3] What then can we say about this strange ritual when we note that the purification of the metzora from tzara’at (any of a number of skin afflictions for which a person was quarantined outside the camp of the Israelites until a priest could certify that the condition had healed) is remarkably similar? Here, too, the priest plays a levitical game of “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes.”

וטבל הכהן, את-אצבעו הימנית, מן-השמן, אשר על-כפו השמאלית; והזה מן-השמן באצבעו שבע פעמים, לפני יהוה.  יז ומיתר השמן אשר על-כפו, יתן הכהן על-תנוך אזן המטהר הימנית, ועל-בהן ידו הימנית, ועל-בהן רגלו הימנית--על, דם האשם.  יח והנותר, בשמן אשר על-כף הכהן, יתן, על-ראש המטהר; וכפר עליו הכהן, לפני יהוה.

The priest shall dip his right finger in the oil that is in the palm of his left hand and sprinkle some of the oil with his finger seven times before the Lord. Some of the oil left in his palm shall be put by the priest on the ridge of the right ear of the one being purified, on the thumb of his right hand, and on the big toe of his right foot – over the blood of the reparation offering. The rest of the oil in his palm the priest shall put on the head of the one being purified. Thus the priest shall make expiation for him before the Lord.” (Leviticus 14:16–18)

Both rituals are remarkable for their physical intimacy—Moses touches the blood of the sacrifice and the priest touches the body of the metzora. We might think that neither would be desirable to touch, but the lifeblood of the ram is the blood of an animal no longer alive, and the body of the metzora is no longer “alive with tzara’at.” Both rituals signal that the bodies of the priest and the metzora are undergoing a transformation: the metzora who was tam’ei (ritually impure) is now again tahor (restored to a state of ritual purity); the priest has risen in holiness so that he might offer sacrifices on behalf of Israel. Each has been elevated.

It’s hard to say which ritual came first. If the purification of the metzora was first, we might think that the meaning of applying oil to the extremities of the metzora was to convey that every part of him, top to bottom, is now free of tzara’at, and certified so by the priest who would not wish to become tam’ei by touching someone who is ritually impure.  Then perhaps the ordination of priests, in imitation of the purification of the metzora, conveys that the priest is wholly devoted to service of God, head to toe, just as the metzora is now deemed ritually pure, head to toe. But since a priest must apply the purifying oil to restore the metzora’s status as ritually pure, the priests needed to be ordained before the ritual of the metzora’s purification commenced. Hence, the way a metzora is purified may be an imitation of the  ritual to ordain the priests, indicating the elevation of the metzora’s status from the realm of quarantined-and-stigmatized to that of the general community of Israel. Not only is the former metzora qualified to enter the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and bring sacrifices, he is as pure as a priest.

Perhaps the underlying message, which needs to be repeated in every generation, is the enormous worth in God’s eyes of each individual—even those stigmatized and marginalized due to some irregularity of their physical being. In the ancient world, disease brought stigma and marginalization. In our time, physical and mental disability do, as well. Yet Torah calls us to take a second look at how we think about others: God’s ritual for purifying the metzora is no less impressive or detailed than God’s ritual for ordaining priests to serve at the altar. Tamar Eskenazi points out:

The most marginalized, isolated person is reintegrated with an elaborate ritual, comparable only to that of the ordination of the High Priest. what is absent in these chapters of Leviticus, and in Leviticus as a whole, is a crucial as what is in it. At no point does Leviticus suggest that a person’s illness or disease results from that person’s sin… Patients suffer cruelty in isolation and ostracism, followed by social and religious stigma.[4]

The Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” ritual helps us to see what is already apparent to God. We no longer practice the rituals of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) or Mikdash (Temple), but we can learn from them to look at the world through God’s eyes. This is a particularly important message at this time in history, and at this moment in presidential campaign.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

[1] “Metzora” is often translated “leper” but, in fact, tzara’at was a term that covered an umbrella of skin afflictions, not only leprosy which, ironically, might not be corrected categorized as tzara’at.
[2] Etz Hayim Torah Commentary, p. 623.
[3] On the Life of Moses, II:150.
[4] Tamar Eskenazi, “Reading the Bible as a Healing Text,” in William Cutter, Healing and the Jewish Imagination: Spiritual and Practical Perspectives on Judaism and Health (2007: Jewish Lights), p. 86. Unfortunately, the Rabbis attached the interpretation of moral wrong to disease when they declared that tzara’at results from lashon ha-ra (gossip and tale-bearing) in BT Arakhin 15b.