Ingesting a Mitzvah: Eating Our Way to a Better World
If "you are what you eat", repairing the world may just start with what's on your plate
Images Courtesy of Ta'am - Judaism on a Plate
If you live, you eat. Food is the fuel of all life. And as time has progressed, the notion of diet has certainly become more complex and varied across the spectrum of organisms, especially humans; we have managed to turn almost anything into some sort of edible arrangement. Of course, not all food is healthy, as today’s abundance of obesity and heart disease shows. It has become clear that the diet of any life form has to align with its biology in order for it to function at its highest capacity. Now, it is not only animal life that requires sustenance; likewise, planet Earth and all of its ecological environments require healthful maintenance in order to function optimally. Simply enough, a body must ingest the best in order to thrive. As related in the Talmud, a person (and by extension, their body) is a world—“Whoever saved one life, it is as if he saved an entire world” (Sanhedrin, 37a). Each of us is a microcosm of a world—packed full of complex systems and environments that work together to maintain their host. Thus, at a micro level, the Jew, like all other living beings, requires a proper diet as well: enter the mitzvah of kashrus.
Naturally, life’s instruction manual also includes a menu. Introduced in the Torah in Parashas Kedoshim and reiterated in Parashas Re’eh, kashrus, or the notion of “keeping kosher,” is the Divinely decreed diet prescribed to the Jewish people. While its ramifications are beyond our fullest understanding, kashrus illuminates the notion that the Jewish lifestyle extends beyond rituals, prayer, and holidays; it actively imbues holiness into something as ordinary as eating. While the “basic” laws of kashrus are overtly stated in the Torah (in terms of animal yeses and nos, dos and don’ts), there is vast meaning and depth behind what otherwise seem like arbitrary gastronomical guidelines. Yet, despite its inherent complexity and the minority world population of Jews, kashrus is one of the most widespread and closely regulated tenets of Judaism. Though the percentage of Jews in the entire world is only 0.19%, the percentage of kosher food in the world forms 41% of all commercial products; at a basic level, virtually everyone knows what kosher means. On a deeper level, kashrus combines humane animal slaughter with culinary spiritual purity to promote mindful eating that is aligned with the goals of HaShem, Torah, and the Jew alike.
Similarly, Earth also requires its own form of a “diet” in order for its systems and cycles to run seamlessly. Clean air, water, and soil are the basic but vital components that affect the biological and geological nutrition of the planet. Though it’s arguable that the long term proof of environmental threat may be lacking, the evidence from the health of Earth’s inhabitants and ecosystems is overwhelming. Disease, land deterioration and erosion, diminishing water and air quality, droughts, and many other detriments occurring throughout the last century have come to show just how much of what is absorbed into an ecosystem—a body—matters. For the planet and for the Jew, the axiomatic “you are what you eat” is highlighted clearly in every sense of the phrase.
And yet, while there are reasons for keeping kosher on a physical level, eating kosher doesn’t only entail bodily health; the very nature of Judaism lies within the notion of our neshama, loosely translated as “soul.” The soul needs nourishment, just like the body. Kosher food kills two birds with one stone (or, rather, saves them). When a Jew follows a kosher diet, they are not only feeding their body but also their soul, providing a unique purity that perpetuates the health of the Jew both spiritually and physically. Kashrus is not just a set of laws—it is a mindset, a dogma. It is an embodiment of good attributes—humaneness, purity, obedience, balance, cleanliness. I think there is more of a message within kashrus than meets the eye. When it comes to mitzvos, we don’t just do them, but we become them, effectively internalizing their message and meaning. When I give charity, I become compassionate; when I keep Shabbos, I become humble. How much more so for kashrus—a mitzvah that we very literally “internalize.” Keeping kosher is a unique commandment that gives us the opportunity to combine our body with our soul in a unique way, allowing us to absorb nutrients that support our body and our spirit. So when we disengage from our ideal diet, an inevitable imbalance will occur. What we eat does not simply enter and exit; its nutrients are absorbed into our blood and bones and skin, effectively becoming part of our very anatomy. It’s not just the soul-heart that gets tainted and clogged, but our actual bodies too. We become a walking radar-jam for spirituality. The planet undergoes a similar absorption of badness when pollution in all its forms enters the ecosystem, effectively clogging and warping nature and its processes.
I believe our health and our planet’s health are deeply interlinked. Just as a kosher diet affects the heart and soul of a Jew, the earth needs a diet that purifies its “heart and soul”—the ecological elements that sustain it. And of course, while these notions are not entirely analogous on a literal level (the world has a soul?), the message is clear: the planet, too, requires its own ideal diet. The more it deviates, the more it decays. A whole is only as good as its parts, and the further one zooms out, the more parts we see working together to perpetuate the mutual existence of everything. A Jew has a purpose on this planet, as does all life. And our alignment with the natural workings of the world is more vital than we know. It appears to me that keeping kosher is more than just a meal plan and more than just a commandment meant to separate the Jew from the gentile; it is a regimen for absorbing the good and preventing the bad.
A world can be massive and complex, but also small and simple. From a Jewish perspective, we can either do our part to keep it clean through our own purity, or let it decay by letting ourselves decay, spiritually, physically, or otherwise. The ramifications are clear: the ideals surrounding kashrus may not just apply to the Jew, but to the planet, the world itself. It’s time Earth adopted a strictly kosher diet (more trees, less smog), and it’s our job to help facilitate it. Tikkun Olam could very much start on the plate.
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