April 1, 2016

Is it true that ‘we are what we eat?’

Judaism says “yes!” That’s why, many commentators say, our consumption of animals of prey is prohibited (see citations below).

This week’s Torah portion Sh’mini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47) lists many of these non-kosher animals as well as other dos and don’ts of kosher eating. Though tradition acquiesces to what a number of sages acknowledge is a fundamental human weakness (i.e. the craving for meat), many of our kosher laws seek to counteract and contain our unchecked tendency towards avarice, cruelty and violence, and instead encourage us to cultivate greater sensitivity, empathy and compassion for animals.

The category of rabbinic law that concerns the suffering of animals is called Tza-ar ba'alei chayim. Many halachot (rabbinic laws) oversee our treatment of and care for animals. The kosher ideal is not for us to be omnivores. Rather, vegetarianism is the greater goal based on the standard of the first humans in paradise (the Garden of Eden) who ate only what was grown there.

Of all the kosher prohibitions listed in the book of Leviticus, one bird, however, is forbidden to eat, and it’s a curiosity given its name and the notion that we are what we eat. We read:

“The following you shall abominate among the birds – they shall not be eaten….the eagle, vulture, black vulture; kit, falcons, raven, ostrich, nighthawk, sea gull; hawks of all kinds; little owl, cormorant, great owl; white owl, pelican, bustard; stork, herons of all kinds, hoopoe, and bat.” (Leviticus 11:13-19)

These are birds of prey and are forbidden for human consumption lest, our sages teach, we absorb the animal's predatory nature. If so, what is it about this particular bird, called chasidah (the stork or “graceful swan”) that’s so heinous? Why is it included in this list along with eagles, vultures and other carnivorous flying creatures?

Rashi, citing Rabbi Judah, also asked: “…why is it called chasidah?” He answered: “Because it acts with kindness (chasidut) towards its friends, sharing its food with them.” (Bavli, Hullin 63a)

Since the swan/stork is compassionate by nature, why shouldn’t it be kasher (lit. “fit to be eaten by Jews”)? Perhaps, because though the white stork is good and generous to its friends, it isn’t generous to strangers.

The stork is a bird apart – beautiful, inspiring flights of imagination in ballet, poetry, and Disney animated features (remember the storks in Dumbo delivering babies to families?!), but such qualities can also be accompanied by arrogance and disregard for others. Though empathetic to its own, the stork lacks greater empathy and understanding for those different from itself.

Torah tradition seeks to nurture within the human heart empathy for those who are like us and not like us, friend and foe. It’s easy for most of us to relate with patience and kindness to our families, friends and communities. A far more difficult challenge is for us to be understanding and empathetic towards the stranger, those different from us, who don’t share our language, values, goals, and aspirations; those down on their luck, the poor, the single welfare mother and her children, the disabled, the unemployed and under-employed, the immigrant, people of color, LGBTQ, the uneducated, the fearful and angry, the Palestinian, the Syrian and Muslim refugee, and on and on and on.

The non-kosher classification of the swan/stork reminds us who we are not supposed to be, and that it’s our moral obligation to push ourselves beyond our comfort zones and transcend our worlds for the sake of the “other” who is very different from us.

Shabbat shalom.

See also: Genesis 9:3-4 and Leviticus 17:10-12 (prohibition against the consumption of blood), Exodus, 12:14-15 (leaven during Pesach), 23:19 (boiling the kid in the milk of its mother) , Deuteronomy 12:20-25 (permission to eat meat and prohibition against the consumption of blood), 14:3-20  and Deuteronomy 14:21 (land animals and water creatures), Leviticus 22:28 and Deuteronomy 22:6-7 (compassion towards the mother animal), Bavli Gittin 62a, Berachot 40a, Maimonides' Guide for the Perplexed Part III, Chapter 48 and Sefer HaChinuch Law 148 (rationale for keeping kosher),

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