A Sense Of Kashrut And Tragedy
Tue, 03/18/2014
Special To The Jewish Week
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 6:50 p.m.
Torah: Leviticus 9:1-11:47;
Numbers 19:1-22
Haftarah: Ezekiel 36:16-38
Havdalah: 7:50 p.m.

The two main subjects dealt with in this week’s Torah portion of Shemini seem to be totally removed from each other. First we read of the tragic death of Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, and then we read laws of kashrut, including detailed lists of forbidden animals, fowl and fish. It seems to me, however, that there is a powerful connection between these two issues as well as a crucial message — especially for our post-modern age.

Let us begin with kashrut. The Bible concludes its food prohibitions by declaring the following rationale: “Because I am the Lord your God … you shall sanctify yourselves … you shall be holy because I am holy” [Lev. 11:44]. Most of our commentaries define holiness as the ability to separate oneself from one’s physical instincts and drives, an inner discipline that enables the individual to rise above the physical and come closer to the spiritual.

This transgression by Adam and Eve was a breach of the laws of kashrut. The Almighty commanded Adam, “From every tree of the garden you are free to eat, but as for the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, you must not eat of it” [Gen. 2:16-17].  But why was that fruit forbidden? After all, the Bible itself testifies that the fruit was “good for food … a delight to the eyes … desirable as a source for wisdom” [Gen. 3:6]. So if the fruit was so desirable, why was it prohibited?

What God is setting down at the very dawn of Creation is the fundamental axiom of a religious lifestyle: the final arbiter in the realm of good and evil must be the Divine will rather than individual desire. The forbidden fruit is evil because God calls it evil. The ultimate source of morality must be a system that is higher than any individual.

Many years ago, I was told by a congregant — whose husband was a pillar of the community and whose children were studying in day schools — that her husband had established a second residence several miles away with another woman with whom he even fathered a child. When I confronted the husband, he didn’t even blink an eyelash. He confirmed the facts of the case, but insisted he was acting out of the highest standards of morality. The only way he could continue his marriage to his wife, whom he insisted could not live if she was a divorcee, was if he was simultaneously receiving satisfaction from this other woman, and that he had rescued this “second wife” from committing suicide. Not only did he not consider his adultery a transgression, he truly believed that he had rescued two women’s lives.

Sigmund Freund, in “Civilization and its Discontents,” maintains that when it comes to rationalization and self-justification, every human being is a genius. It is for this reason, that the subjective individual can never be the ultimate arbiter as to what is proper or improper. Our Bible gives the Divine imprimatur to what is right and wrong. Although many of the laws of kashrut are guided by ethical sensitivity and the basic moral ambiguity involved in eating the flesh of creatures that were once alive, these laws are basically the paradigm for our deference to God in the realm of morality. Hence, despite the fact that post-modernism questions any absolute position, our Ten Commandments are not merely options.

Religious commitment demands humility of the individual who is required to bend before a higher Divine power, both in terms of our ethical and ritual lives as well as our acceptance of tragedy that often seems absurd and illogical. Aaron the High Priest stood at the zenith of success with the consecration of the Sanctuary in the desert. Then, his two sons performed an unsolicited religious act that expressed their profound appreciation of the Divine and “fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them,” inexplicably and even absurdly [Lev. 10:2 and Rashi]. The Bible records Aaron’s response in two Hebrew words, “Vayidom Aharon,” (“And Aaron was silent”) [Lev.  10:3].

There are times we must speak out and act, such as when one individual acts unjustly towards another. But when a tragedy occurs, as in the case of Aaron’s sons, we must submit to the ultimate will of a God whom our Bible guarantees is “A God of compassion and loving kindness,” even though it may be beyond our subjective understanding.  

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat.

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