Friday, March 29, 2013

Practical + Spiritual = Survival

היום שלשים ימים בעמר
Today is three days of the omer
תפארת שבחסד
A day of compassion in a week of loving kindness

I see Jewish ritual practice as fluid, a conglomerate of intersecting layers. Some layers exist in space, others in time, and still others cut through both time and space. Then there are the layers within the layers. Some divisions in space occur in one room, some across the universe. Time can be a day, a week, a month, a year, or multiple years through the millennia.

Then there is the practical vs spiritual aspect of many rituals, which can be rooted in tradition yet can change with each generation. Sometimes what seems very practical in one era would feel obsolete in another. The rituals surrounding kosher food is one example that comes to mind. I've had people explain to me how the rules of kashrut work in ancient times to keep people healthy. For example, they tell me, the clay dishes used were very porous, so not mixing milk and meat on the same plates would lessen the chance of eating spoiled food.

Giving health reasons for practicing kashrut is fine, the famous medieval Jewish commentator--and doctor--Maimonides would agree with that. But that is not the only reason to take on this practice. In the Torah, the reason for keeping kosher is so that we can approach holiness. What does that mean? Time to go to another level.

Maybe it's a way to be mindful about all aspects of what you eat--where it comes from, how it's prepared, what goes into the cooking. Eating is a very physical reminder that we are connected to other parts of the planet and need to think about the effects our intake will have on the rest of the world. And maybe we need to be reminded that nourishment includes feeding our soul as well as our body.*

My point in all this is to appreciate this multi-level Jewish practice that our ancestors have given us. Instead of kashrut, I could have written about Shabbat and the need for rest or Pesach as a way of clearing out the stale. All good ideas on a practical level. But there are always other strata in which to experience those rituals. Some work better than others for different people in different cultures in different generations.

And I think that is one reason why Judaism still exists when other peoples have not. We may be a vast, diverse tribe, but a people who can weave together the practical with the spiritual--feeding body and soul--will survive.

*For some other thoughts on the why of kosher in this era - check out this article from and this article from The National Jewish Outreach Program.

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