Think about your relationship with food. Are you thrilled by trendy restaurants? Do you post food pictures on Instagram? Do you watch weight-loss competitions on TV?
Another way to pay attention to food is how we choose what we eat. Judaism teaches mindfulness about eating animals. Jewish dietary practices (kashrut) seek to raise our consciousness about holiness in our food choices – not only about animals we eat but also how our food choices impact the world.
Parshat Shemini lists animals to be eaten ("clean") and animals to be avoided ("unclean"). Torah urges us to make those choices with the explanation that “I the Lord am your God: you shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy. You shall not make yourselves unclean.” With those words, Torah teaches that our food choices are really about holiness.
Today, I find myself asking questions about holiness beyond “did this animal make the list in Parashat Shemini.” Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z”l identified a second layer of questions as "eco-kosher." Was the animal treated well while alive? Was the animal slaughtered in a “humane” way? Animals that made the list are "clean" and thus available for food, but we also must consider the ethics of how we raise and consume these animals. These, too, are questions about holiness.
Here’s another: “Can my food choices be holy if the Earth suffers as a consequence?" Americans eat eight billion chickens each year: consider the impact on fouling waterways and farmland. And don’t get me started how much methane cows release, raised by the tens of millions each year for dinner tables – a top contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. Cows and chickens make Torah's "clean" list, but Mother Earth isn't so "clean" as a result.
I haven’t given up meat and chicken yet, and I'm not advocating strict vegetarianism. But Judaism asks me to consider how my food choices impact the environment. Accordingly, I reduced the amount of meat I consume.
This quest for holy food choices requires everyone's engagement if we are to better protect the Earth through mindful eating. If we can make our choices in animal consumption a moral value across the globe, then the Earth can breathe a little easier – and so can we.
What about you? Can you occasionally substitute a veggie burger, be satisfied and take on a bit more holiness? Pass the ketchup and let’s try.
Rabbi Evan J. Krame