Reimagining How We Eat
Casper ter KIuile is one of the most interesting thinkers about contemporary religious life in America.
His day job is as the Director of Possibility of the Impact Lab at the On Being Project. His real work, though, is in noticing that the human needs and impulses that led human beings to create organized religion are still there, even as fewer people find those needs met through traditional structures of organized religion. So he notices how people read Harry Potter as a sacred text and how many people find community in SoulCycle the way some of us find community in synagogue.
Not long ago, Kluile ruminated on the Jewish practices of Kashrut and how they might be re-imagined today. He wrote:
Who we eat with has been on my mind as I read about kashrut, or Jewish dietary law. Drawn from Leviticus and Deuteronomy, it instructs us to abstain from pork and shellfish, for example, and not to mix meat and dairy. As a tool, it has proved powerful in maintaining Jewish identity through centuries of oppression and forced relocation. When food preparation and consumption are complicated enough – or at least different enough from the dominant culture – we end up eating with others observing the same halakha (religious law). Just ask a vegan. Or CrossFitters who ‘keep Paleo.’
But fewer than one in four American Jews keeps kosher these days, suggesting it has lost resonance as a spiritual technology.
In his book Integral Halachah, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi writes, “If our goal is to take responsibility for our consciousness, behavior, and covenant with God, then we have to say that not only do we have the right [to reimagine old rules], but it’s a mitzvah (commandment). In working these things out, we fulfill the mitzvah of asking, ‘Mah ha-shem Elohecha sho’el mei-imcha (What is it that God is asking of us [today]?’
Perhaps God is asking us, amidst a crisis of isolation, to reimagine our dietary laws to be less about what we eat - and more about with whom we eat – and how often we eat together?
Imagine if observing this mitzvah would become about eating with the same group of friends every Thursday night. Or having lunch with your least favorite colleague once a month. Or ensuring the whole family is home three nights a week - all the while understanding that this isn’t just wishful thinking, but divinely mandated. Or is there an opportunity to create a process like Whole30 for how we eat? Where going 'cold turkey' means becoming explicit about never 'eating on the go'. Always sitting down to eat - never at our desks, and ensuring there's no tech screens on the table?
Reb Zalman wrote that a good mitzvah reduces our resistance to God. That we must allow God to "reach into us" because self-transformation can never be done alone. We need siya'ata di-shmaya (the aid of heaven.)
I think we're seeing moves toward this in efforts like The People's Supper and dinner conversation menus, as well as cross-generational groups like North London Cares. If we're looking for spiritual technologies that help us connect and that keep us together, a reimagined kashrut might be a perfect solution.
Rabbi Brent here again - one of the most powerful and demanding aspects of Judaism is that the full and intricate system of miztvot call us to maintain consciousness of the Divine at all times.
Is that a challenge we want to accept? Do we think its possible or desirable to be always aware of the Divine? If not, why not? If we think it is possible, how do we do that - through traditional practices of kashrut? New practices like KIuile suggests above?
I look forward to hearing your thoughts.