Please enjoy a d’var Torah this week from Raphy Gendler. Raphy will be Rosh Bogrim this kayitz (summer). Originally from the Twin Cities, he’s finishing up his senior year at Cornell University, where he studies industrial and labor relations. He was a chanich (camper) for seven summers, attended Ramah Israel Seminar, and spent three summers as a madrich (counselor).
Reflections on Parashat Sh’mini
by Raphy Gendler
After an especially intense chicken-wing dinner a couple of summers ago, I told my chanichim (campers) after the meal that it was well and good that they had each eaten as many wings as they could — but that now I expected them to participate enthusiastically in Birkat HaMazon.
My intention was to remind the teenagers of the need to have respect for our food and the people who make it. The long list of rules surrounding kashrut that make up the second half of Parashat Sh’mini — here’s what we can eat, here’s what we can’t eat — seek to do the same.
Most rules surrounding kosher animals don’t come with an explanation. To not boil a kid in its mother’s milk makes sense — it’s about compassion and forbids cruelty. But that we can eat locusts and grasshoppers but not “anything that crawls on its belly, or anything that walks on fours, or anything that has many legs” requires accepting a rule whose direct point isn’t clear. It’s instead about creating a division and building intentionality about our food. Earlier in the parashah, God commands us “l’havdil bein hakodesh u’vein hakhol” (to distinguish between the sacred and the profane) and “bein hatamei u’vein hatahor” (between the impure and the pure).
When we pause to think about our food, as kashrut observance ideally forces us to do, we can reflect on Jewish values of social justice and how they pertain to what we eat. Food is a key part of life and relationships. It plays an especially central role in Jewish observance at camp and year-round: challah on Shabbat, cheesecake on Shavuot, matzah on Pesach, apples and honey on Rosh Hashanah. We use our food to create holiness — Rabbi Hayley Goldstein taught me that kiddush, the prayer over wine or grape juice for Shabbat and holidays, isn’t so much an action of blessing wine or grape juice. Instead, it’s about using the wine to sanctify the day.
Since food is such a central part of our memories, relationships, and religious practice, kashrut laws remind us to pause and think about the workers who made the food and if they are paid fairly and treated with dignity, and about the animals involved in dairy and meat products and if they are treated ethically. It’s also a chance to appreciate the history of Jews and labor activism. (In 1902, Jewish women on the Lower East Side organized a kosher meat boycott after prices rose, breaking windows and throwing meat; I’m not advocating window-breaking or meat throwing.)
At camp and year-round, we can reframe our thinking about kashrut, celebrating it not as a long and burdensome list of rules but as a reminder of our commitment to labor and environmental justice and our dedication to being a community rooted in intentionality.