I have two stories to tell. The first is about my decision several years ago to wear my kippah all the time, and the second is about my decision several weeks ago to eat chicken that did not have a kosher hecksher.
One of the courses I took during my rabbinical studies was a retreat with Torah scholar Aviva Zornberg at Isabella Freeedman. Driving north from DC my traveling companion and I decided to take a break for lunch, and I suggested that the upper west side of Manhattan offered lots of choices, both kosher and not, and stopping there wouldn't take us out of the way. So that's what we did. We opted for a Sushi restaurant and settled into seats on their outdoor patio. At this time in my spiritual formation I was experimenting with wearing my kippah all the time. To not remove my kippah at a non-hekshered restaurants was the "last frontier" for this particularly persoanl test of my Jewish identity.
One reason I had been given NOT to wear a kippah was over the issue of "marit ayin", which specifically forbids even walking into a non-kosher retaurant, and, for a more rigorously halachically observant Jew than I, not even to enter in order to use the restroom. The logic? Partly because if someone (read: orthodox Jew) saw me eating at a restaurant with a kippah, his assumption might be that it was, of course, a kosher restaurant! Aha, but here's the rub. I'm a Jew, (and IMHO a pretty good representative of the tribe), and right now I was wearing a kippah in a non certified-kosher restaurant (but eating, BTW, only food that is kosher).
As I said, at this time in my life I was concerned with the issue of marit ayin, but what happened next cured me of that worry. As we sat eating on the outdoor patio, a van pulled up at the corner. Out of the van stepped a young Chasid dressed in black - jacket, shoes, hat, the whole nine yards - who walked directly to the door of our restaurant and began a conversation with the hostess. A few moments passed. The hostess shook her head "no", the young Chasid nodded a few times "yes", that he understood, and then turned around and made his way back to the van.
What had happened was clear. The van had passed our restaurant and the men had noticed me eating with a kippah on. They thought to themselves, "A new kosher Sushi restaurant? Let's check it out". And that's what they did. And what they found was a restaurant not kosher to their standards. To guess what if anything they thought about me would be pure conjecture.
To this day I wear my kippah all the time, but to be completely honest, when I eat in restaurants, I try to seat myself in such a way that my kippah is seen by as few people as possible. Perhaps I am not completely liberated from previous notions.
A few weeks ago I spent 3 days with my college roommate Izzy (formerly Bobby), who I had not seen for perhaps 25 years. He lives with his wife in Vermont on a beautiful piece of property that they renovated themselves, complete with a clear trout-filled running stream, chickens, cows, and lambs. All of the animals are bred for consumption, which he slaughters and packages with his own hands.
Izzy and I had had very little contact between college and now. Can't really explain why, but as people do, we grew apart. So it was with some distance between us that over the last few years we started communicating via e-mail. He would send me a link to an article he thought may interest me. I would send him news of my family, about my becoming a rabbi. When I realized this spring that I would not be far from his home when I made my trek to the ALEPH kallah, I asked if I could come for a visit. He said yes. He asked is I had any dietary restrictions. I told him that my only restriction was that i didn't eat non-Kosher meat. He said, "that might be a problem".
I understood why. The dining room table is a holy place where important ritual takes place, where we play host to our guests with delectables lovingly and intentionally prepared.
I knew that he would be hurt if I did not partake of the meat he had "grown" himself, but my spiritual practice is to eat intentionally, which includes eating only kosher meat (both in and out of the house, as opposed to the manner in which I grew up - sound familiar? Did you have a separate set of plates and utensils for Chinese that you kept in the basement?)
In the days leading up to visiting Izzy I discussed this with friends and colleagues. Before my contacting Izzy I had been contemplating whether or not I might start eating free-range, organic meat that was not heckshered. Rethinking my eating habits had been calling me ever since reading Postville. The entire question of what it means to "be kosher" is front and center for many Jews who have seldom given a second thought to what they consume and the manner in which both workers and animals are treated.
With that in the background I visted my old friend Izzy. Any tension that had arisen around the issue of food had dissipated. On the way to his home I had purchased up a piece of salmon and he had already planned to make an eggplant parmesan. But I was still wrestling with what I would do, what my neshama was calling me to do. In a conversation with R' Victor Gross he shared with me that Reb Zalman once said to him that sometimes you need to "test the soul" in order to see if something works or not.
I asked Izzy how he slaughtered his animals. He told me that he meditates a few days beforehand on what he about to do, later asking the animals for their permission, and ultimately thanking them for giving their lives for his consumption. I was moved by his intentionality. "How do you do the slaughtering?" I asked. He told me that with the cows he shoots them in the head, and then slits their throat. I knew immediately that I would not be eating that night's London broil. Slaughtering the chickens was different, a single thrust of a very sharp knife.
The following night I ate what was perhaps the most delicious chicken I have ever had, prepared with love and great delight by my old friend. I wondered - how would I react after eating - would I feel guilty, nauseous, satiated, something else?
It is three weeks since that night. I have nary reflected on eating my friend's home grown chicken. I wondered about that. I asked a friend why she thought I hadn't reacted with any need to talk about the experience, to parse out what had happened and what I might do in the future. She told me something amazingly simple, something that had never come to mind. That it wasn't about me. That I had eaten my friend's food out of love, and out of respect for our relationship. That hit home, and tears of joy welled up in my eyes.
The question remains, whose kosher is it anyway? What both my kippah and my friend have taught me, is that if we do what we do is out of love, it very well may be the most fitting of all impulses.
Tonight marks the beginning of Tisha B'Av, the 9th day of the month of Av. It is a day of fasting and lament, in which we recall the darkest days of Jewish history, including the destruction of both 1st
and 2nd Temples, the expulsion from Spain in 1492, and the sin of the spies, who brought fear to the wandering Israelites instead of hope and promise.
It is instructive that following Tisha B'Av we read parshat Va'etchanan, in which we chant our daily mantra - Shma Yisrael Adonai Eloheynu Adonai Echad - the very essence of hope and promise. I say the Shma twice a day, morning and night, always among my last words before drifting off to sleep. Ancient words of surrender, of connection, and of faith.
Saying the Shma does not always however have that affect on people, as I recently learned after leading a Ma'ariv service at the Jewish Renewal Kallah.
For a long time I had wanted to lead a congregation in its recitation of the Shma as I did at Kallah. I asked everyone to begin saying the words very, very quietly, attending to the words being spoken by his/her neighbor. They were to slowly get louder and louder, listening to each other, until together everyone's voices reached a crescendo, at which point their voices would subside, like an ocean's ebb and flow, until the last person's voice trailed off.
It worked beautifully, just the way I had heard it in my mind.
It devestated at least two members of the kahal.
The next day two women approached me at separate times to tell me about their experience.
Both had had the same experience, a powerful one which they never wanted to repeat again.
While chanting the Shma rthe night before, they found themselves in a death camp, slowly walking with others to the gas chamber, chanting, no shouting the words of the Shma together with everyone else. The shouts got louder and louder, until their voices were heard no more.
I lstened, and understood that I could never again lead the recitation of the Shma in that way.
Tonight and tomorrow, I will recall the unalterable destruction perpetrated throughout history on my people. It will serve for me as the starting point for the next seven weeks in preparation for Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur. And I will begin by remembering that the six words of the Shma have had power for others throughout history that is far beyond anything that I might ever contemplate.
Mark Novak is a "free-range" rabbi who lives in Washington DC and works, well, just about everywhere. In 2012 he founded Minyan Oneg Shabbat, home to MOSH (Minyan Oneg Shabbat), MindfulMOSH (Jewish mindfulness gathering), and