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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Shemini: Rules, Rules, Rules!

"I broke Passover last week!" one of my sixth-grade students proclaims as she enters the classroom. She looks around at the other students, and one by one, they all similarly confess that they "broke Passover" too.

Listening to them retell the circumstances surrounding their transgressions, I found myself struck by the language they used. To them, Passover was some kind of spiritual line in the sand, and in breaking it, they severed their tie to the holiday for this year.

 But is that really what Passover is -- a challenge? a endurance test? a race toward a finish line? 

Rules about food abound in Jewish life, specifying how we are to celebrate holidays from Passover to Yom Kippur. But perhaps no food rules are as problematic as those we read about in this week's Torah portion, Shemini -- the rules about keeping kosher. In this portion, the Israelis are told that they can eat only animals that (1) have clefts in their hooves; and (2) chew their cud. Other types of animals -- such as swine, camels, and hares -- are labeled "unclean" and thus unfit to eat.

As for seafood, the Israelis can eat only those creatures that have fins and scales; other creatures (such as shellfish) are "an abomination." There are also restrictions on eating birds and insects.

In my experience, middle schoolers love talking about keeping kosher. I think this is because they find the subject of rules in general totally absorbing. After all, their lives are full of rules -- you can't be late to class without a pass; you can't get an A for the quarter if you haven't turned in all your homework; you can't go on the field trip if you don't return your permission slip. Middle schoolers are rule experts.

If I gave them the chance, my sixth graders would talk about the kosher laws for hours. They would question the reasons behind the laws, and try to parse the meaning of the term "unclean." They would try to come up with animals who might not fit precisely in one category or another. And they would play out imaginary scenarios in their heads: What if a kosher person were to eat something non-kosher without knowing it was non-kosher? What if he only were to eat a teeny bite of the non-kosher stuff -- would that be as bad as eating a whole meal?

As a teacher, my goal is to get them to look at kosher rules from a broader perspective. I ask them: What effect do religious food rules have on a person's life? Can a person ever really be perfect when it comes to being kosher, and is perfection even a worthy goal? How is the kosher/non-kosher dichotomy similar to other important Jewish separations -- such as evening versus morning; earth versus sky; and Shabbat versus the rest of the week?

Most important: Should the Torah's rules about food be viewed as fences that break? Or as paths from which we may occasionally choose or need to step away?

One rabbi I know likes to tell a story about a time when he was working in the Midwest, among people who were unfamiliar with Jewish ways. He was staying with a family who desperately wanted him to feel comfortable. So when they found out that he kept kosher (and they learned what that meant), the mother traveled to a city far away, where she was able to purchase a kosher chicken. She came home and proudly served it to him -- along with a scoop of mashed potatoes made with milk and butter.

Despite the fact that the chicken was kosher, if he ate the meal, he would be violating the kosher law regarding milk and meat.

So what do you think he did? Refuse the potatoes? Or eat the whole meal, potatoes and all, in the belief that mixing meat and milk was the more "kosher" way to behave in this situation?

I'll leave it for you and your middle schooler to decide.

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