Wednesday, February 22, 2012

What We Eat

“He has only forbidden to you dead animals, blood, the flesh of swine, and that which has been dedicated for other than God. But whoever is forced by necessity, neither desiring [it], nor transgressing [its limit], there is no sin upon him. Indeed God is Forgiving and Merciful.”
(al-Baqarah 2:173)
Islam teaches that the body and the intellect are, amongst other things, an amana or trust. Therefore, any law regarding them is meant to preserve and protect this trust.  As a result, Islamic dietary law prohibits intoxicants, smoking and specific categories of animals. Based on other verses and the Sunnah,[1] the list of animals includes carnivores, swine, reptiles, birds of prey, pests and insects, due to the nature of their diet and metabolism.  As a confirmation that life is sacred and that the only reason the animal is being killed is to fulfill one’s need for food, all animals deemed lawful are slaughtered in a humane fashion. The phrase “In the name of God, God is greater” is recited during the process.  Consequently, a Muslim may not eat from a carcass, an animal that has died from strangulation, blow or fall, or an animal that has been sacrificed for an idol. Living by these rules nurtures my spiritual and physical well-being, and raises my awareness of the many trusts I have been given.

There are many similarities between the Muslim dietary laws and Kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws: humane slaughter accompanied by the recitation of a blessing by a trained ritual slaughterer, forbidden animals such as swine, birds of prey and carcasses of wild animals. The basic difference may be the inherent assumption that dietary laws are related to maintaining a healthy body.  While some Jews have interpreted the laws of Kashrut in this manner, I see them as part of an altogether different rubric of laws.  The lists of permitted and forbidden animals in the Torah,[2] as well as the prohibition against boiling a kid in its mother’s milk,[3] are classified by the rabbis as hukkim, statutes, for which the only explanation given is “I am the Lord your God.”  The underlying reason for observing Kashrut, then, is simply to follow God’s mitzvot, commandments.  The physical act of eating at once elevates the spirit to a state of holiness and humbles the body to a state of submission before the Holy One.

I so appreciate the fervor with which both of you observe the dietary laws of your faiths, and I can only hope that you will not be offended by my own practice, which is to “eat darn near anything.” I use this colloquial expression to acknowledge—with humor, not sacrilege—our differences. Christians interpret the creation story of Genesis 1 to mean that all plants and animals are given to us as God’s good gifts, without restriction. Yet, we also acknowledge that the body is a “temple of the Holy Spirit.” (I Cor 6:19-20) The wholesome nurture of our bodies demands that we are mindful of what we take into ourselves [4] and cautious about creating stumbling blocks for others.  Recently, I was preparing a dinner for the three of us and found myself struggling to know fully how to “keep Kosher.” I fear that I may have unintentionally violated an especially important prohibition for you, Tziporah. How deeply grateful I am, then, for the spirit of hesed (kindness) that allowed both of you to sit at the table with me.

[1] Sunnah refers to the teachings and practices of the Prophet Muhammad [Peace and Blessings be upon Him], found in the Hadith and other texts.
[2] See Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14
[3] Exodus 23:19, 34:26 and Deuteronomy 14:21
[4] Christian denominations differ in their positions on alcohol. While Catholic, Episcopal, and Lutheran churches generally permit consumption of alcoholic beverages, Mormons abstain from both caffeine and alcohol.  Seventh Day Adventists—who run excellent heart hospitals in this country—recommend adherence to a vegetarian diet, which is believed to be more easily digestible and thereby protective of the human body. For personal health reasons—not religious mandate—I eat meat, chicken and fish, limit my consumption of bread and abstain from alcohol.


  1. Another thing I believe we share is that religion encourage people to eat in moderation.
    In the quran Surah Al-Araf verse 31 & 32:
    {O children of Adam, take your adornment at every masjid, and eat and drink, but be not excessive. Indeed, He likes not those who commit excess.
    Say, "Who has forbidden the adornment of Allah which He has produced for His servants and the good [lawful] things of provision?" Say, "They are for those who believe during the worldly life [but] exclusively for them on the Day of Resurrection." Thus do We detail the verses for a people who know.}

    May God forgive us all.

    1. This is an important point, and one which I believe Christianity speaks to, in particular with regard to the sin of gluttony. The Hebrew bible (Deuteronomy 21) and rabbinic texts (including Mishnah Sanhedrin 8) also discuss the issue of excessive eating and drinking. I hope that Grace will reply, as well. Thank you for sharing these texts with us! Shalom/Salam, Tziporah

  2. Grace,
    I know that you are quite busy during this season of Lent, but I am hoping that you can find a minute to respond to the comment above, from a Muslim reader, speaking about eating/drinking in moderation.

    In addition, I cannot resist the urge to respond after reading the last sentences in your post about "struggling to keep Kosher." I know that you went to great lengths as a hostess to prepare foods that would not violate any rules of Kashrut! When I accepted your gracious dinner invitation, I made a commitment to allow the mitzvot (commandments)concerning the relationships between people--such as not embarrassing others, kindness, compassion, being a good guest--to take precedence over laws between people & God. If I unwittingly eat non-Kosher food, I believe that it's between me and God what I put into my mouth. But if I hurt your feelings, that's between us, and God cannot forgive me unless you do.

    Delicious meal & marvelous company! Let's do it again, soon! Your friend, Tziporah

    1. Oh absolutely, Christians emphasize temperance and moderation—in keeping with the concept that we are called to regard our bodies are “temples of the Holy Spirit.” Along with the indulgences of pride, sloth, lust, envy, wrath and greed, gluttony has long been considered sinful in Christian tradition. Another verse of Scripture that makes this quite clear, I think, is this one: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” (Romans 12:1) To indulge in excessive eating or drinking of any sort has not only a terrible physical consequence, but a spiritual one as well. --Grace