My Grandfather did not smoke. When he served in the US Army during World War II, this had the potential to isolate him socially. However, instead of isolating him, it became his social outlet. He would exchange his cigarette rations with other soldiers for more food. Rather than refrain from camaraderie with those whose views on smoking differed from his, he used those differences to create social bonds. (Actually, he exchanged the cigs for chocolate!)
This week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, forbids Jews from eating certain types of meat (such as pig), as well as from mixing meat and milk (Deuteronomy 14:1-21). Food practices create identity and friendship--sharing a meal is a great act of social exchange. We see this numerous times in our tradition. The Mishna (Chullin 8:1) teaches that two lodgers--one eating meat and one eating cheese--may eat at the same table, even though we are forbidden to mix the two foods. The Rambam explains that this only applies if they are strangers, since they are less likely than friends to share food. The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 31b) bans non-Jewish beer because of “marriage,” likely meaning, more broadly, social exchange. Here, Jewish law affirms that the exchange of food is an act of friendship. Prohibiting Jews from eating foods common in non-Jewish spaces appears to discourage intense social bonds between Jews and non-Jews.
There are two places in the Torah which list the animal species that Jews are not supposed to eat. One is in this week’s parasha, and one is in parashat Sh’mini in Vayikra. Both lists are connected to our holiness as a nation (Leviticus 11:45, Deuteronomy 14:2). However, the list in Sh’mini is also connected to God raising (מעלה) us out of Egypt, while in our parasha, it is connected to our being a treasured nation from amongst all the nations.
The language of the Torah in Sh’mini is unusual and therefore noteworthy. Usually, the Torah says that God took us out of Egypt - הוצאתי or המוציא. There, it says God raised us out of Egypt - מעלה. The Talmud in Bava Metziah (61b) notices this and explains that had God only taken us out for the sake of not eating certain creatures, and insects in particular, it would have been a sufficient reason. I think this means that a single food prohibition would have been sufficient to distinguish us from the Egyptians--to make us a separate nation.
But the set of food laws in our parasha ends differently. After listing forbidden animals, we are taught not to eat animals who die a natural death; instead, we should economically exchange them with non-Jews (Deuteronomy 14:21). The Torah gives us two choices. Either we should give them to the non-Jew living amongst us (the ger), presumably as gifts, or we should sell them to non-Jews living apart from us. Here, while dietary laws distinguish us from others, they also allow--and, in fact, encourage--intercultural interaction and exchange. They continue to set us apart as a nation, but they also create camaraderie with others. This might be why, in this week’s parasha, the Torah compares us to all the nations, not just the Egyptians. In Leviticus, soon after becoming a free and separate nation, we needed to define ourselves apart from the Egyptians specifically. Now, as a developed nation soon to be in our own land, we need to maintain our uniqueness; but unique does not mean isolated. We should be distinct from all the nations, but involved with them at the same time. This should be a goal of our observance of dietary restrictions and, likely, many other areas of Jewish law: figuring out how we can use those restrictions to simultaneously set us apart and still create cultural exchange. My Grandfather--of blessed memory--kept his differences regarding smoking, but used those differences to be a part of a larger group. In the same way, we should allow our dietary laws to establish our uniqueness while also motivating us to form connections outside of our community. May we all merit to maintain our distinctions--and to create friendships and relationships beyond them.
Shabbat Shalom שבת שלום
Reb Joel Goldstein