I recall my high school years as an intense time of personal growth – understanding who I was, how I saw the world, which values resonated with me and which actions best expressed those values. Some learning occurred in the classroom, but some took place at synagogue. I have vivid memories of our Torah-based debates during confirmation class – a dozen or so teens sitting in a circle, guided by a young student-rabbi, discussing the issues of the day with a Jewish lens. I didn’t realize it then, but these discussions were part of the foundation of who I am today and how I view the world.
This week’s Torah portion, Sh’Mini, lays out the dietary laws for the people of Israel. We are given boundaries for permitted and forbidden animals, and the textual foundation for kashrut, Jewish dietary practice, and law. As a set of rules alone, the restrictions may seem random and illogical, as they did for some of my fellow confirmands. After our class discussion on Kashrut rules and if, in a modern world, those rules made sense, we charged each other to spend the next week living by those rules, and to return to reflect on our experience. I recall how difficult the rules were to keep, and that I was ever-vigilant and hyper-aware for the first time ever about exactly what I was eating. What became important to me, I discovered, wasn’t so much following the rules, or worrying about possible repercussions, but was the act of conscious eating. I found a Jewish way of eating that was right for me. I understood that it was vital for me to acknowledge the sources of my sustenance, the impact on the land, the efforts of the workers, and most important, the lives sacrificed for my meal.
As Eric H. Yoffie states in his foreword to The Sacred Table, “…individual Reform Jews, yearning to embrace k’dushah (sanctity) and God, have come to realize that ritual practice is a means of giving structure to the holy”. He goes on to say that “In a movement that has proudly emphasized its ethical commitments and its quest for justice in the world, there has been a growing awareness that the realms of ritual and ethics are intimately intertwined and that it is simply impossible to embrace one without the other.”
The food-choice guidelines I chose for myself as a teenager continue to give me structure and allow me to make my own educated choices as I practice the Judaism that resonates with me. The Torah provides the boundaries, but Reform Jewish tradition challenges me to seek a food practice that is in tune with my ethics of showing gratitude to God and treating the world and animals with kindness and respect.
Deborah Radin is a member of Beth Am Women in Los Altos Hills, California. She is a member of the WRJ Executive Committee serving as a member-at-large.