Eating With Intention – Parashat Shemini

By Rabbi Ilana C. Garber
In Dvar Torah

eating with intention; MatanYou may have heard a joke that goes something like this:

God: Do not cook a kid in its mother’s milk. (first found in Exodus 23:19)

Moses: OK, God, so keep all meat food away from all dairy food?

God: Moses, do not cook a kid in its mother’s milk.

Moses: OK, God, so we need to wait several hours after meat before we can eat dairy?

God: Moses, do not cook a kid in its mother’s milk.

Moses: OK, God, now I get it! We have to have separate dishes, pots, pans, and utensils for meat and dairy?

God: Fine, have it your way!

In this modern-day midrash we see the origin for how Jews keep kosher, based on many of the laws we read in this week’s Torah portion, Shemini. We are taught that land animals that we eat must have split hooves and chew their cud, fish must have scales and fins, and we are given a list of approved birds. Keeping kosher is the most ancient-yet-accessible diet on the market! Keeping a kosher home can enhance a family’s experience of Judaism; it can become a meaningful expression of eating with intention.

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In our home, our 5 year-old son with Fragile X Syndrome does not yet understand kashrut. While he knows we have different placemats, dishes and utensils for meat and dairy, he has not grasped the nuances of these distinctions. While we define each dinner as “meat” or “dairy” and try to give him appropriate options when he doesn’t want what is being served, he cannot comprehend why there aren’t more choices being presented. And so, we do what every parent who wants to avoid a meltdown does: we compromise, we give in, and we give him whatever he wants to eat.

Kashrut should not be about compromise in my mind. Kashrut is about laws, about fit or unfit (to be eaten), about right and wrong, in and out. So compromising on something that is relatively black and white seems to go against the very concept of what kashrut is meant to be.

But when you have a child (or an adult) with disabilities, nothing is black and white. We are constantly making adjustments to accommodate our son’s special needs. We do not push him to wear a kippah (because he is hyper-sensitive) even though his older brother started at age 3. We’ve chosen not to send him to a Jewish day school so that he can get access to a wide variety of educational supports. So, too, with kashrut: if our son just cannot handle eating the chicken on his plate, we have taught him how to remove the plate, the placemat, and all accompanying utensils, and then to get a dairy set of everything to eat the cheese he just “must” have immediately. Is this how I would love to run my kitchen? No. Does it work for my son right now? Yes.

We do not know why Jews keep kosher. The Torah classifies the laws of kashrut as chukim, laws for which there is no rational explanation. But at the end of the parsha, we are told, “sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I (God) am holy” (Leviticus 11:44). I think this is the essence of kashrut: recognizing the holiness in each of us. Be holy just like God. Understand that every person has different needs, abilities to understand and capacities to engage with a very structured system. We recognize that our son is holy. We believe that his choices do not reflect a rejection of God or the Torah but rather an embracing of who he is and what he needs. Our goal is to be able to support him so that he may receive the nourishment – physical and spiritual – that he craves. And that, too, is holy.

rabbi ilana garber; MatanRabbi Ilana C. Garber has served the community of Beth El Temple, West Hartford, CT since August 2005. She graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, with a BA in Talmud, a Masters in Jewish education, and rabbinic ordination. She also received a BA in religion from Barnard College. She is a past participant in the STAR PEER: Professional Education for Excellence in Rabbis program, in a rabbinic cohort of Advancing Women Professionals, and in the Clal Rabbis Without Borders fellowship. She serves on the board of Mikveh Bess Israel, and on several committees of the Rabbinical Assembly. Her writing about raising a child with Fragile X Syndrome has been featured on The Jewish Week’s New Normal, the Ruderman Family Foundation blog, and Kveller. When not blogging (www.ilanagarber.com) or tweeting (@ilanagarber), she enjoys spending time with her husband, Adam Berkowitz, and 2 young sons.