Parshat Shemini: What Makes a Chasid Kosher?

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What’s kosher? Literally, “acceptable” or “fit.” In Leviticus 11, which we read this week, kosher means fit to eat. With so much time spent earning, producing, preparing and ingesting food, the ritual details of “keeping kosher” loom large in Jewish life.

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But whatever our level of dietary kashrut, from strictest to loosest, let’s not lose sight of the ethical big picture. Beyond the narrow “can I eat this?” our underlying question about all consumption can and should be much broader:

What’s acceptable?

Food with ritually ingestible ingredients, but heavy on pesticides, or from companies known for mistreating workers: kosher to buy and eat? (See: Orthodox Tav HaYosher, and Conservative Magen Tzedek).

Banks that profit off predatory lending, or fund fossil fuel expansion: kosher for our deposits? (See: Dayenu.org, and Adamah.org).

Vehicles that are worst in their class for gas mileage; bills to eliminate checks and balances, or limit voting rights; permanently polluting one-time-use dishes: kosher? (See: Reconstructionist, Reform and Renewal work on “Eco-Kashrut”).

This “Big-Picture Kashrut” is a Jewishly authentic framework for thoughtful daily living. It’s how we live out our values in the quotidian details, which together make a real difference. Concerns like oshek (worker’s rights), briyah (public and personal health), and long-term l’dor vador thinking (intergenerational solidarity) must all factor into our daily decisions.

Is this the easy way? Of course not! But it’s the ethical way, the Jewish way. Digging deeper, asking tough questions, learning more, discussing it with others and ultimately making the best choices: that’s kosher.

One striking detail from Parshat Shemini suggests the broadest criteria by which we might ensure that our consumption, and our lives, are kosher. In Leviticus 11:19, among a long list of birds that are ritually unfit (trayf), one is the stork, or chasidah — whose very name connotes piety and lovingkindness (from chesed, chasid, etc).

Why is it so named? The Talmud (Hullin 63a) ornithologically offers, “for it performs chasidut (holy acts of lovingkindness) with its fellows, around food.” Apparently, if one stork sees another that’s hungry or sick, it will forage for food, bring breakfast in its beak and faithfully feed its friend. We should all be such chasidim, never letting those in our midst go hungry (See: Mazon.org).

But: if we are what we eat, and this bird is so pious, then why is it trayf? The first Gerer rebbe, Yitzchak Meir Rotenberg-Alter, a 19th-century disciple of Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, taught: “Even despite her kindness,” the chasidah is impure or unkosher “because she only performs kindness to her friends.” No sympathy or support for sparrows, swallows or spotted owls; storks only.

To be pious and loving — chasidim, like the chasidah/stork — we must take care of our own. Yet to be kosher — unlike the stork — we must take care of others.

The right ratio of universalism to particularism may ever evolve, but our religious requirement is to always keep both in mind.

Questions for Thought and Discussion
1. How have you defined “kosher,” and practiced “kashrut,” in your own life?
2. To what else might you apply “kashrut”, in its broad meaning of “acceptable” or “fit”?
3. The stork is honored among Ethiopian Jews as heralding the peace of Jerusalem and Israel. What are we doing for Israel’s peace, justice and democratic-Jewish character?

Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb serves Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, and Interfaith Power and Light.

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