My cats should be ecstatic! I can't eat them. And I think they are teaching me lessons about kashrut.
I've done enough Nadav and Avihu to last for some time. And the wildly dancing David, whirling and exposing his genitals, well, I've said all I feel I need to say about that for a while. It was time to do it again....time to tackle that last section of parashat Sh'mini...dealing with kashrut.
I struggle so with what kashrut has evolved into as a halachic system. I strive to maintain some level of kashrut in my home. I'm no saint, I assure you. But I do try. When I started to feel a little uncomfortable about the status and use of my cookware recently, I went out and bought two new sets. I do run the dishwasher through the extra empty cycle. I did scour my house for chametz before Pesach, and used only my Pesach dishware.
Still, it's far from perfect. That's OK. It's the striving towards that's important. And I do continue to strive.
Nevertheless, there are some places I just won't go. I don't worry about the kashrut status of what I feed my cats. Some do. Some even use only kasher l'Pesach pet food during Passover, just to be absolutely certain that there is no chametz in their household. There's a certain logic to it, but I just can't go there. Yet.
My cats, like most cats, drive me crazy with their petty little behaviors. And a lot of it revolves around food. Sometimes I just get so mad and frustrated with them. I've thought of all sorts of diabolical ways to get my revenge. Still, my cats, Shiphrah and Puah, should be ecstatic! Saved by the Torah. Right here, in this weeks parasha, we learn that not only can we not eat live cats, but contact with the carcass of any animal that "walks on its palms" (or, as the JPS seamlessly transitions it, "paws" renders us impure. (Knowing how fond the Egyptians were of cats, and how fond the Torah is of distancing our practices from those of the Egyptians, I'm surprised that it doesn't say anywhere "you shouldn't suffer a cat to live. They are an abomination." Trust me, there are days I do feel that way about my cats, albeit only for milliseconds.)
So I can't eat my cats. Lucky them. Lucky me. And yet, I have learned something from feeding them. It has given me cause to think and ponder.
Let's consider that I go out of my way to buy higher quality, more expensive, healthier cat foods for them. Yes, there's a selfish component to that-I don't want the expensive vet bills, and if feeding them better food keeps them healthier, that's great. Still, just as much, I just think it's better to feed them healthier foods. I follow the advice of my vet on how and what to feed them. Now that the wheel of the dry food vs.. moist food controversy has come around another half turn, and it's no longer considered best to just leave dry food out for your cats all the time, that's what I do. Mostly moist food with only the occasional dry food. (That's gonna make those short little trips away from home for a day or two a little trickier in terms of feeding the cats, however.)
As an aside, I find a wonderful irony, having two cats named Shiphrah and Puah, that, as my vet explained it, cats are creatures of the desert. They don't habitually drink lots of water because their sense of thirst evolved to deal with the desert environment where there wasn't always a lot of water around to drink. They don't get thirsty, so they don't drink enough water, thus they need moist food for the water content. Frankly, most humans don;t drink enough water either.
Now, it's not only my cats that I try to keep healthy through the right foods. I do it for myself. while on Atkins I dutifully checked labels for carbs. I gave up caffeinated diet sodas. And now, back on trust old Weight Watchers, I carefully check labels so I can figure out point values.
I am sure there are many others out there who do the same. Including many Jews. We are thinking about what goes into our bodies. Even those who keep strictly kosher, as evidenced by more and more low-fat, high fiber, low-carb, and other types of specialty foods one can now find in the kosher groceries (and even in regular groceries - kashrut certification seems to have become somewhat of a status symbol on food these days. I can see the slogan now: "Kashrut! Not just for Jews!")
(It is also a great irony that we Jews, who have a tradition about truly thinking about what we put into our bodies as food, make some of the unhealthiest foods in the world! Next time you eat that giant pastrami sandwich, just remember that "kol cheilev l'Ad''nai." All fat belongs to G''d.)
Still, there are many Jews, myself included, who don't do so well at keeping kosher (though I'd like to think I'm a little further ahead on the curve than many liberal Jews.) Why is it that we'll be so fussy about what our pets eat, fussy about what we eat., yet when our holy texts tell us that G''d said 'this is what you should eat, and this other stuff is not fit for you, if you are to be a holy people' we don;t seem to give it much weight, much kavod, respect?
Antiquated customs. Outmoded health and sanitation codes. Crazy rabbinic extrapolations to keep that fence around the Torah secure. Marat Ayin, for the sake of how it might look to others (both Jews and Gentiles.)
We've all heard the rationalizations, the complaints. I, myself, am fond of telling that great joke when Moshe rabbeinu asks G''d what it means that we shouldn't;t boil a kid in its mother's milk. The one where Moshe asks G''d all sorts of picayune kashrut question like "does this mean I can't eat a cheeseburger?" or "does this mean I have to have two sets of dishes?' and so on. And each time G''d answers "you shouldn't boil a kid in its mother's milk" until G''d gets so frustrated with Moshe's constant questions (as he gets deeper into the nitpicky aspects of what kashrut has become) he tell Moshe "Aw, just do whatever the heck you want!"
Somehow, I don't think that then intent of the "lo bashamayim hi" (the Torah is not in heaven) concept, is "do whatever the heck you want." Still, it seems we may have been headed that way for a long time. The rabbis further expounded upon this concept in the Talmud's well-known "oven of Akhnai" story. In that story, some sages refuse to accept the ruling of one sage, even when he calls forth miracles to prove he is right. They even reject a "bat kol," the voice of G''d calling down from heaven and saying "that sage is right!" And then G''d exclaims "my children have defeated me!" That's pretty darn close to "do whatever the heck you want," although, for the rabbis of the Talmud and later periods, it really meant "do whatever we, the rabbis, think you should want."
Well, you know what? My cats again taught me something about all this. I thought about so many moments when I have seen them surprised. They didn't quite know enough to avoid the consequence that befell them. Of course, cats try to fool you by getting that "I meant to do that" look on their faces and in their posture. We humans do that a lot more than we'll admit, too.
I sure as heck don't know anywhere near enough to try "doing whatever I think G''d means for me to do." In a lifetime of study I may never know enough. Given that reality, am I really free to just "do whatever the heck I want" ? Gobble up cheeseburgers and ham steaks and lobster? Cook and eat everything from the same pots and dishes? Bake a challah without removing a small piece of the dough?
While my kashrut observance may fall far short of the mark, I'm not presuming I know enough to "do whatever the heck I want." And I have my tradition, our Torah, and my cats to thank for that. Love the things that make you think, whether they be texts, or things, people, places, or pets.
Thanks, Shiphrah and Puah, my two adorable cats, for making me think about things today, and everyday.
©2006 by Adrian A. Durlester
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