Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Evolution of Food - Reflections on Parashat Shemini 5776

(Leviticus 9:1 - 11:47)

I cook for a living, and perhaps because of that, I think a lot about food. I suppose that makes me a "foodie." 

So, as this week's Torah portion deals with many of the rules of keeping kosher, that is, of eating in a kosher way, it could be that I've given the subject more than a passing thought.

Down through the ages, the Sages of Israel have used different approaches for understanding the significance of keeping kosher, but the broad consensus of rabbinic opinion is that keeping kosher confers spiritual benefits only, and does not contribute to our physical well-being.

In other words, kosher eating is not necessarily synonymous with healthy eating. 

I would like to challenge that assertion. But before I do, we need to discuss one or two salient details of Darwin's Theory of Natural Selection.

OK, I know you're thinking: aside from possibly eating a Galapagos finch (and fuggedabowdit they're not kosher) what could Natural Selection possibly have to do with keeping kosher?

Let's first make sure we're clear on Natural Selection. Here's a brief mythical example: imagine an idyllic South Pacific island, with a native tribe whom we'll call the Cute Residents of the Idyllic South Pacific Island, or CRISPIs for short. 

In the beginning of our story, all the members of the CRISPI tribe share similar genetics, and are of comparable height, skin color, eye color, etc. However, over the span of many generations, hundreds or even thousands of years, certain genetic variations begin to creep in. Maybe outsiders from far-flung atolls have paddled over, taken up residence, and started families with CRISPI maidens. Maybe the genetic variations are due to naturally occurring genetic mutations (CRISPIs spend a lot of time idylling in the sun).

Whatever the reason, over time, the CRISPI tribe starts looking more diverse than it used to. Some CRISPIs are now significantly taller and leaner than others, some have different color hair or eyes. (How that changing genetic information is physically expressed is called phenotype.)

And so everything plods along idyllically - until disaster strikes. A cargo container drifts ashore, and when opened, turns out to contain a den of (by now) very hungry zoo lions. 

In the face of this sudden environmental stress, different phenotypes now confer distinct survival advantages or disadvantages over others. For example, maybe faster, leaner CRISPIs have a higher likelihood of outrunning the lions and shimmying up a tree to safety than the slower, fatter CRISPIs. They're also more likely to be able to safely scoot down, grab some food and shimmy back up to safety. Since more of them are likely to survive in this difficult new environment, they are more likely to have more offspring, who in turn are fast and lean, and better suited to making it in the new reality. And before too many generations have elapsed, the slower, fatter CRISPIs will likely die out for the converse reason.

To summarize: before the cargo container opened, the genetic diversity among the population didn't mean very much; lean or chunky, tall or short, everyone strummed ukeleles and danced on the beach all day. But when the circumstances suddenly changed, that phenotypic diversity became the difference between life and death. Nature essentially selected out the fast, skinny CRISPIs to survive, and condemned slow, fat CRISPIs to extinction.

That is the concept of Natural Selection in a nutshell (did you notice how I snuck in another food reference right there?)

Now we can get back to the business of food and kosher.

America has become a nation of fat CRISPIs. A century ago, tuberculosis, typhoid and dysentery were the leading killers in America. Today, the top killers are diseases of affluence: heart disease, diabetes, stroke, cancer.

According to the National Institutes of Health:
  • More than two-thirds (68.8%) of adults are considered to be overweight or obese.
  • More than one-third (35.7%) of adults are considered to be obese.
  • More than 1 in 20 (6.3%) have extreme obesity.
  • Almost 3 in 4 men (74%) are considered to be overweight or obese.
  • The overall prevalence of obesity is similar for both men and women (about 36%).
  • About 8% of women are considered to have extreme obesity.
  • About one-third of children and adolescents ages 6 to 19 are considered to be overweight or obese.
  • More than 1 in 6 children and adolescents ages 6 to 19 are considered to be obese.  
Being fat is the new normal; there is no longer any shame in it.

I am also told by medical professionals that the overall cancer rate 75 years ago was about 1 in 15; today it is approaching 1 in 2.

What has changed in that time?

It's the food. THE FOOD. Our food has changed.

In the past, people sat down to meals prepared from raw ingredients; fresh meats from the butcher, fresh produce from the green grocer, fresh bread from the neighborhood bakery. Milk was delivered fresh every day from the local dairy. Another mythical person, the stay-at-home-mom, cooked these meals from scratch.

Somewhere along the line, that changed. Mommies went to work, and no one had time to cook. Supermarkets gradually drove the butchers and bakers out of business. Fast food franchises proliferated. Food ceased being food, and became a 'product,' and food production became an industry.

Once food becomes a product, like an iPhone or a Chevrolet, product consistency becomes a core business value. Food preservation and color retention and spoilage reduction factors become paramount. Today, supermarket shelves are chock full of 'product': preserved, pasteurized, homogenized, hydrolyzed, stabilized, texturized, re-formed, artificially colored and flavored, all designed to protect and service the food supply chain, which takes weeks to get the food "product" from factory floor to supermarket floor. And the FDA smiles benevolently on this cacophony of plastic food because studies (paid for by the food manufacturers) prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the preservatives don't kill laboratory mice (at least not right away, anyway).

And let's not even discuss the billions of advertising dollars spent to convince consumers that buying all this product is normal and cool and desirable, and oh! how you're missing out if you don't have Crunchberries for breakfast or a Coke with lunch.

Today, America is a country of soda guzzling, Big Mac chomping, Hot Pocketing, bacon loving, Hamburger Helpin', perambulatory heart attacks on a stick. The days of eating a home cooked meal that didn't derive from a box are in the rear view mirror.

Is it any wonder that we're obese, that we're cancer-ridden, that we have artificial knees and hips? That one in seven Americans are gluten sensitive, who can no longer tolerate the adulteration of wheat, which benefits the mega-bread factories? That food allergies that we never knew in our childhoods are exploding in frequency? 

We are committing suicide by plastic spork.

So it may well be that, up until recent times, keeping kosher only offered spiritual benefits. Maybe in the past, before this sea change in food, it was true that people who kept kosher were no more or less physically healthy than non-Jews who did not keep kosher. 

But the food environment has suddenly changed, and the difference between keeping kosher and not, differences that once didn't mean much in terms of physical health, may now mean the difference between life and death.

What does the Hebrew word "kosher" mean, anyway? It means 'fit', as in fit to eat. The food we eat should be fit for human consumption. And at its core, keeping kosher is all about paying attention, and being sensitive to, what we consume as food.

Kashrut itself has evolved. Veal and foie gras, once technically kosher, are now considered by many poskim (decisors of Jewish Law) to be not kosher, because we have become sensitized to the pain inflicted on the animal prior to slaughter.

And the mean time from factory to store is significantly shorter with kosher meat.

And because we Jews are careful to scrub our fresh produce for any evidence of bugs, we are also doing a pretty bang-up job of washing pesticides off our produce.

And of course, eating at McDonald's and Burger King and Taco Bell is (thank Gcd!) out of the question.

In the same way that our particular rules about frequent hand washing saved the Jews from the Black Death (so much so, that our non-Jewish neighbors accused us of causing it) our higher standard of what is fit to eat may well be inadvertently saving us from supermarket poison.

To be sure, it is possible, as the Ramban will remind us in a few weeks, to be a menuval b'reshut HaTorah, to fulfill the technical requirements of keeping kosher and still be a glutton, overweight and sickly. But I contend that the kiyyum, the fulfillment of the higher intent and spirit of kashrut, goes way beyond the slavish search for the kosher symbol on a package.

To really keep kosher is to think hard about the food we eat. As we approach the Passover season, I am amazed at how people lose their minds - and drain their wallets - buying exorbitantly priced Kosher for Passover cake and doughnut mixes and exotic candies and potato chips and ketchup and sodas and cookies and tortes - as if they won't survive for a week without them.

Here's a clever idea: this Passover, go native. Stick to lean kosher meats and fish, fresh fruits and vegetables, and a little matzah. Cook from scratch. Make a soup. Use fresh herbs. For that one week, avoid factory food and see how you do. 

We are the Or LaGoyim, A Light Unto the Nations; walking, talking examples of the myriad blessings of a Torah-centric life. That living example extends to every aspect of our lives, including the food on our tables and our physical health that derives from it.

Reflect on and really examine the food you eat. Really think about kosher. And you will find that keeping kosher confers both spiritual and physical benefits that only the Author of Life Himself could have foreseen when He gave us the great gift of Torah some 3,328 years ago.

Shabbat Shalom.

(To read an earlier blog post on this Torah Portion, click HERE.)


  1. After reading your blog, I couldn't help but reflect on a few of our Kosher food options in Israel.

    Our last night in Yerushalyim, Barbara and I took the kids to a Basari "Mizrachi" style restaurant in Talpiot called Avazi(Goose) which is "Jerusalem Kosher," but has an eclectic menu of "Kosher" organ meats which we did not order we took the tame items like Chicken and Beef Shislik, excellent.

    Originally we planned on taking my brother and his family (his wife is Bnai Menashe from India) there, but Charles is dairy/vegetarian and Bina eats Basari at a tame. (Her Indian style Chicken was delicious during the Purim seudah, she prepared.) We ended up taking his family to a Halavi place called Cafe Greg, also excellent.

    Another remarkable palace was a Lebanese (Kosher) Basari place in Mahane Yehuda called Manou B'Shouk, in fact it was so good that we brought the leftovers back to our apartment for Erev Shabbat (we were in the Shouk for Shushan Purim and to get ready for Shabbat)

    Of course the children wanted to go to their fist Kosher McDonald's, which we obliged them, once. Thanks

  2. Certainly, the foods brought for sacrifice in the Temple -barbeque is now known as significantly linked to carcinogens - were not considered for their healthiness. Nonetheless, it was the highest form of worship to deliver and consume those offerings! Many times we are taught to observe the laws and not rationalize their virtue based on our limited knowledge of this vast world. I think it's a mistake to do otherwise. I mean, are you really saying veal is treif!? I'd love to see which poskim say that.